The government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minster Narendra Modi gathered a group of scholars in January last year and gave them a mission – to rewrite India’s history.
According to a report by Reuters, Modi quietly appointed a 14-member committee of scholars which included a geologist, archaeologists, scholars of the ancient Sanskrit language and two bureaucrats.
The aim of the committee was to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and to make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact and not myth.
The Hindu nationalists want to extend their power beyond controlling politics over the diverse country and ultimately want to shape the national identity to match their ideology that India is a nation of and for Hindus.
They feel “courageous” to even question the existing history that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions which has been in place since British rule.
The committee’s chairman, K.N. Dikshit, said: “I have been asked to present a report that will help the government rewrite certain aspects of ancient history.”
The committee’s creator, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma who instigated the project, confirmed the group’s work was part of larger plans to revise India’s history.
A country with a growing Muslim population, the head of Muslim party All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Asaduddin Owaisi, said his people had “never felt so marginalized in the independent history of India. The government wants Muslims to live in India as second-class citizens”.
The nationalist Hindu group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is driving this debate and also helped Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) come to power in 2014, has time and again asserted that the ancestors of all people of Indian origin – including 172 million Muslims – were Hindu and they must accept their common ancestry as part of Bharat Mata, or Mother India.
The RSS has loyal members instilled in important positions, including Modi, who has been a member of the RSS since childhood. An official biography of Culture Minister Sharma says he too has been a “dedicated follower” of the RSS for many years.
RSS spokesman Manmohan Vaidya said “the true color of Indian history is saffron and to bring about cultural changes we have to rewrite history”. Balmukund Pandey, the head of the historical research wing of the RSS, said he meets regularly with Culture Minister Sharma.
“The time is now,” Pandey said, to restore India’s past glory by establishing that ancient Hindu texts are fact and not myth.
Sharma said he expects the conclusions of the committee to find their way into school textbooks and academic research. The panel is referred to in government documents as the committee for “holistic study of origin and evolution of Indian culture since 12,000 years before present and its interface with other cultures of the world”.
Hindu nationalists and senior figures in Modi’s party reject the idea that India was forged from mass migration. They believe that today’s Hindu population is directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants.
Historian Romila Thapar said the question of who first stood on the soil was important to nationalists because “if the Hindus are to have primacy as citizens in a Hindu Rashtra (kingdom), their foundational religion cannot be an imported one”.
To assert that primacy, nationalists need to claim descent from ancestors and a religion that were indigenous, said Thapar, 86, who taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi for decades and has authored books on ancient Indian history.
Shashi Tharoor, a prominent member of the Congress party, said right wing Hindus are “leading a political campaign over Indian history that seeks to reinvent the idea of India itself. For seven decades after independence, Indianness rested on faith in the country’s pluralism”, Tharoor said, but the rise of Hindu nationalism had brought with it a “sense of cultural superiority”.
Culture Minister Sharma said he will present the committee’s final report to parliament and lobby the nation’s Ministry of Human Resource Development to write the findings into school textbooks. That ministry, which is responsible for education and literacy programs, is also headed by an adherent of the RSS, Prakash Javadekar.
“We will take every recommendation made by the Culture Ministry seriously,” Javadekar said. “Our government is the first government to have the courage to even question the existing version of history that is being taught in schools and colleges.”
According to the minutes of the history committee’s first meeting, Dikshit, the chairman, said it was “essential to establish a correlation” between ancient Hindu scriptures and evidence that Indian civilization stretches back many thousands of years. Doing so would help bolster both conclusions the committee wants to reach: that events described in Hindu texts are real and today’s Hindus are descendants of those times.
Other projects include examining artifacts from locations in scriptures, mapping the dates of astrological events mentioned in these texts and excavating the sites of battles in another epic, the Mahabharata, according to Sharma and minutes of the committee’s meeting.
One of the Sanskrit scholars, Santosh Kumar Shukla, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said he believes India’s Hindu culture is millions of years old. Another committee member, Ramesh Chand Sharma, the former head of the linguistics department at the University of Delhi, said he would take a strictly scientific approach. “I don’t subscribe to any ideology,” he said.
With an annual budget of about $400 million – an important source of federal funding for historical research, archaeology and the arts – the Culture Ministry is an influential place to start a campaign of historical revision, which they have been wanting to align according to their Hindutva ideologies.