Making India Great Again?

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi reacts as he speaks to members of the Australian-Indian community during a reception at the Allphones Arena located at Sydney Olympic Park in western Sydney November 17, 2014. Modi is on a three-day offcial visit to Australia following the G20 leaders summit which was held in Brisbane over the weekend. REUTERS/Rick Stevens​

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is merely the champion of a larger movement that seeks to push India in a more nationalist direction.

January-February 2018

THE COMMITMENT of the BJP and other groups to revamping the school curriculum and rewriting textbooks is a second front in the culture war. Soon after the 2014 election, Modi appointed Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, a historian active in the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (BISY, or All-India History Reform Project) as the head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the main governmental organization that funds research and scholarship in history. Rao—whose credentials have been questioned by some of India’s most eminent historians, including professors Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar—soon added three historians, all members of the BICY, to the historical research council. The motive underlying such appointments is clear. Mahesh Sharma, the minister for education, vowed to

“cleanse every area of public discourse that has been Westernized and where Indian culture and civilization and culture need to be restored—be it the history we read or our cultural heritage or our institutes [i.e., cultural and educational institutions funded by his ministry] that have been polluted over the years.”

One can be forgiven for concluding from this statement that India’s cultural heritage, thousands of years old, faces a mortal threat.

The BJP’s cultural revolution has not been limited to purging Western ideas. In BJP-ruled Rajasthan, textbooks featuring British writers and poets have been replaced with ones including (justly celebrated) authors such as Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda. But also dropped were the writings of Ismat Chughtai, a feminist who wrote in Urdu (the language of Indian Muslims), despite being part of Indian culture, as well as Hindi stories deemed to contain too many Urdu words. The revised schoolbooks on political history give short shrift to the role of Jawaharlal Nehru and even Mahatma Gandhi in India’s struggle for independence, portrays the Congress Party as initially ambivalent about the end of British rule, and elevates the role of Hindu nationalist personages such as Veer Savarkar, Gandhi’s rival. In Gujarat, which is also run by a BJP government, schools use textbooks on moral education suffused with Hindu philosophy at the expense of India’s other religions, authored by Dinanath Batra. Batra, for some of whose books Modi has written the foreword, drove the campaign that bullied Penguin India into withdrawing acclaimed University of Chicago historian Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, in 2014, on the grounds that she presented a sexualized interpretation of the religion. Similarly, Batra hasn’t shied away from redrawing maps of India to include the rest of South Asia (plus Tibet and Myanmar), in keeping with the Akhand Bharat (Undivided India) concept associated with Hindu nationalists.

No less insidious has been the outright falsification of educational materials. Some examples include the exaltation of Vedic science to the point of having children learn that it invented airplanes, with Rama’s flight from Sri Lanka to Ayodhya in the Hindu epic Ramayana constituting proof; that stem-cell research originated in ancient India; and that the Hindu monarch Maharana Pratap was not defeated by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 1576 Battle of Haldighati—in which, incidentally, Akbar’s troops were led by a Hindu warrior, Raja Man Singh of Amber—but emerged victorious. Another textbook fails to mention that Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister, or that Gandhi’s assassin was for many years a member of the RSS (as well as of the Hindu Mahasabha, another Hindu nationalist organization)—and indeed may have remained one, despite the movement’s insistence that he resigned in 1946.

Another feature of the Hindu nationalist cultural campaign has been attacks on intellectuals and students deemed to be “anti-national,” which effectively means that they dare to condemn the BJP and other Hindu nationalist organizations, or express ideas that supposedly besmirch Hinduism. What’s dangerous about the “anti-national” tag is that it verges on depicting criticism of a political party, its government, its leader and the idea of Hindutva as tantamount to treason. Figures well known in the West, such as novelist Arundhati Roy and the Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen, have been vilified. But so have those who are well known in India but not necessarily abroad, like the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. After the RSS demanded that he be arrested and that his novel Maadhorubaagan (published in English as One Part Woman) be banned, the harassment and intimidation that followed led him to announce that he would stop writing altogether, urging his publishers to cease issuing his works and his readers to burn them.