Hindutva’s Dangerous Rewriting of History by Audrey Truschke

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I thank Supriya Gandhi, Taymiya Zaman, and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

1In January 2019, the Indian Science Congress convened for its 106th annual meeting, which turned out to feature not science so much as science fiction. Presenters told attendees that ancient Indians were proficient in stem cell technology and built aircrafts, among other fantasies (Kumar 2019; Thiagarajan 2019). This was hardly the first time this forum had suffered from such antics. The 2015 Indian Science Congress meeting included a presentation on how ancient Indians had planes capable of interplanetary travel (Shrivastav 2015). Claims abound more broadly among Hindutva supporters about ancient India boasting everything from the internet to modern medicine. The idea that modern science and aeronautics flourished in India thousands of years ago is anachronistic and ridiculous to degrees so absurd it seems odd to even bother to contradict such nonsense. After all, no sane person could actually think that ancient Indians surfed the web while they waited to board a flight to Mars, right? Certainly, no historically-minded person could endorse such lunacy, but Hindu nationalists, who are often willing to sacrifice reason in pursuit of political objectives, are another matter.

2Hindu nationalism or Hindutva—a fascist ideology that advocates Hindu supremacy, especially over Muslims—champions an outlandish vision of how scientific modernity flourished in early India; this is part of a larger agenda to rewrite the Indian past to serve present-day political interests. The overarching aim of Hindutva is to transform India from a secular into an ethno-nationalist state, dubbed the Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). As I explore in further detail below, Hindutva ideologues chart their path to this fascist future, in part, by making a series of wrong assertions, to varying degrees of unbelievability, about the past. Hindutva has a fact problem in that the vast majority of their claims about premodern India are incorrect. But their falsehoods about history—many of which center around an imagined Hindu golden age of scientific progress interrupted by Muslim invaders who sought to crush Hindu culture and peoples—serve clear political goals of projecting a modern Hindutva identity as an ancient bulwark of Indian culture and maligning Muslims as the ultimate Other. In short, making outrageous claims about the Indian past makes no sense historically, but it makes good sense politically.

  • 1 See the introduction on the Indian Science Congress Association website, available at http://scienc (…)

3Hindutva ahistoricity has accelerated since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—which embraces Hindutva as part of its platform—took over India’s central government in 2014. The championing of Hindutva myths about the past has also expanded out from social media and political environments, two contexts hardly known for their devotion to accuracy, into academic circles. Hindu nationalists have become more brazen in introducing ahistorical claims into school textbooks, as discussed at the end of this article. They have also targeted traditionally academic spaces, a prime example being the Indian Science Congress, discussed above. The Indian Science Congress was founded in 1914 and today boasts a robust membership of tens of thousands of scientists. But the group’s mission to “advance and promote the cause of science in India” is being undermined by the introduction of Hindu nationalist ideas at its meetings.1 As Hindutva ideology exerts increasing influence within both popular and academic spheres, it becomes more pressing for academics to describe, document, and analyze harmful Hindutva approaches to remolding Indian history and distinguish these political uses of the past from academic approaches to history. In this article, I outline some of the patterns in how Hindutva ideologues construct a fanciful past and, now that they enjoy broad political power in India, how they disseminate their mythology, which often supplants scholarly inquiry. I argue that outlandish Hindutva claims regarding the past are most fruitfully understood to be, in the end, about present-day goals and anxieties. Nonetheless, Hindutva interventions have deep implications for both popular and academic understandings of Indian history.

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