Since his arrival as prime minister in 2014, Narendra Modi has often exploited religion by presenting India as a "hindu rashtra", a hindu country. The great Indian historian Romila Thapar believes in this regard that, "in India, Hindu nationalists are rewriting history to legitimize the primacy of Hindus". It is also in the name of his desire to rewrite certain elements of history that Modi replaced the name “India” with “Bharat” in the invitations sent to his counterparts to the G20 in Delhi which will be held on September 9 and 10.
If the instrumentalization of history is not the prerogative of Indians – it has largely contributed to the birth and development of nationalism in Europe –, today it supplies a ideological project of cultural unification of the country.
A colonial vision of India revisited
At the origins of current debates, we often find the biased interpretation produced from the beginning of the colonial era, in the XNUMXthe century: for British colonists, India, then divided into numerous kingdoms and principalities, was "without history". In a cultural universe nourished by a rich multilingual literature, there was in fact no historiographical genre comparable to European or Chinese chronicles in this area. The Europeans deduced that the Indians, preoccupied with spiritual approaches, would not be interested in history.
The corollary of this supposed attitude is clear: India would be condemned to immobility, locked in sclerotic traditions and at the mercy of despots indifferent to the needs of their people. This is a ready-made justification for colonization: it would make it possible to rouse the Indians from their passivity, to make them “enter History”.
Those who engage in anti-colonial struggle therefore consider it essential to counter this vision and to write their own history so that all Indians become aware of the existence of an Indian Nation. To do this, you must study your past and therefore its specificity, define your identity, affirm your values. For many intellectuals of the time, the India's past is especially marked by its extraordinary diversity. Non-violence and tolerance appear to be cardinal virtues specific to India's pre-colonial past. The brutality of colonial domination was at odds with this past. Articles and works then denounce the economic subjection of India and praise its capacity to peacefully absorb influences from outside.
At independence, the Indian leaders who governed the country built a “secular” democracy, which assumed that the state protected all religious communities, especially if they were in the minority.
There was no real writing of an “official” history, but the first school textbooks intended to strengthen national sentiment and contribute to harmony. The story of the anti-colonial struggle emphasizes the unity of the fight and the role of the elites. The writing of history in India is also influenced by Marxist interpretations, by definition free from religious reading of the past, which highlight social and economic phenomena to explain the evolution of the country.
Hindu nationalism “at war” against Indian history?
This vulgate was contested in 1998, when the Bharata Janatya Party (People's Party, BJP), the party of the Hindu nationalist right, reaches central power for the first time.
At the time, he did not have an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament) and could not impose a political agenda implementing his ideology of thehindutva, defined in the 1920s to affirm that India is above all Hindu (as a reminder, some 80% of India's 1,4 billion people are Hindu today, approximately 14% Muslims, the rest shared between a plurality of minorities, including Christians). But certain initiatives are revealing: new textbooks are being developed to highlight India's ancient "Hindu" past, a golden age which would have preceded the Muslim conquests of the XNUMXth century.e century.
In textbooks recommended by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), "glorious" India is presented as that of a pre-Islamic era during which the country's inhabitants were all indigenous and of the Aryan "race", which contradicts generally accepted material, linguistic and genetic evidence.
This view clearly has its roots in British colonial interpretations of Indian history. In his work Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth (Penguin Random House India, 2017), American historian Audrey Truschke points out that "the timeless animosity between Hindus and Muslims embodies the British strategy of 'divide and rule'".
However, these rewritten manuals were not used because from 2004, the Congress party returns to power. The offensive resumed in 2014, when the BJP wins general elections again, but this time, by obtaining an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha on his own.
In his first speech to the Assembly, new Prime Minister Narendra Modi complained about “one thousand two hundred years of servitude” suffered by India: he unambiguously added the so-called "Muslim" period to the colonial period which had seen the development of Indian nationalism then mainly directed against the British Raj.
This vision of Indian history was already present within the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – “Association of National Volunteers”, a Hindu association created in 1925 and ideological matrix for many BJP executives – and widespread in the schools of the organization since the 1960s. Since 2014, it has gradually established itself in the states ruled by the BJP, with the drafting of new manuals, but also by ad hominem attacks against Indian or foreign academics who defend a nuanced interpretation of past relations between Hindus and Muslims.
The media have echoed this new nationalism which leads to considering an entire part of Indian history and culture as foreign. “The Sangh Parivar [nebula of professional organizations hindutva] is at war with Indian history" wrote AG Noorani, former lawyer at the Supreme Court, in 2018 in a magazine article Frontline.
After reappointment of the BJP and Modi in 2019, this war intensified, taking multiple forms: cities renamed to Hinduize their names (like Allahabad, now Prayagraj), construction of a temple on the site of the ancient Babri mosque destroyed by Hindu militants in 1992, transformation of museums.
This rewriting of the past no longer concerns only the history of the so-called Muslim period, but also what precedes it and what succeeds it. Thus, the events mentioned in the famous epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana are more and more often presented as historical facts. Furthermore, the history of the fight for the independence of India is the subject of a rereading which aims to minimize, or even erase, the action of political men and women favorable to a secularist and tolerant vision of the country. If Gandhi retains a place of choice in the imagination and the speeches of leaders, Nehru, who ruled India for 17 years after its independence acquired in 1947, sees his place in the fight for the independence of India diminished, or even hidden.
The consequences of this cultural offensive can be serious: assassinations of intellectuals who claim to be "rationalists", attack against a research institute accused of helping American historian... At school, propaganda threatens to permanently imprint the minds of young Indians: very often, textbooks are the only materials available to teachers. The emphasis on rote learning results in children repeating what is written there over and over again.
Regional variations: the impossible unification of Indian history?
There are few mass protests against the new interpretations of history promoted by the BJP and the RSS. However, we should not conclude that perceptions have become uniform and conform to a doxa common to all of India.
First, India is a federal state and education is a prerogative of the states. Textbooks are only effectively revised in BJP-ruled regions, which concerns half of Indians, even though the NCERT recommended in 2020 a reduction in syllabi for social science textbooks in all states in the country by eliminating chapters on the anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002, Mughal history or recent social mobilizations.
There are also, in the different regions of India, regional versions of history which can deviate, sometimes significantly, from the positions of the BJP. This is particularly the case in South India which claims a Dravidian and non-Aryan past. In Tamil Nadu, some assert that a Tamil civilization, as glorious as the Sanskrit and Brahmanical civilizations, carried by the Indo-Aryans, was deployed for several millennia preceding the Christian era on a continent that is now submerged, Kumari Kandam. This fabrication, based on a hypothesis, put forward during the colonial era by the British zoologist Philip Sclater, is taken very seriously by the most militant.
The rewriting of history also involves the glorification of certain heroic, almost deified historical figures, to whom statues are erected, such as that of the Tamil poet and philosopher Tiruvalluvar completed in 1999 on a rock located at the southern tip of India, or the Statue of Unity, with the likeness of Vallabhabhai Patel, Minister of the Interior at independence, inaugurated in 2018 at the mouth of Narmada, in Gujarat: it is the largest in the world (182 m high, 240 m with its base). It highlights a character presented by the BJP as a defender of Hindus facing a secular Nehru. In Bombay Bay, a statue to the glory of Shivaji, a regional hero of the XNUMXthe century who fought against the Mughals, is under construction. It should reach 212 meters.
At the same time, a proliferation of non-professional approaches through historical novels, plays and films uses characters from folklore often transmitted orally and locally to evoke the glorious past of different regions. It is therefore a safe bet that the multiplicity of India's pasts will have difficulty being absorbed into a unified vision consistent with the ideology ofhindutva.
Anne Viguier, Director of the South Asia and Himalayas department, National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (Inalco)