Inter Press Service
July 9, 1998

INDIA: History Writing Takes a Strong Hindu Turn
by Ann Ninan

NEW DELHI, Jul 9 (IPS) - For two hours on Monday, the serene Lodi Garden, a lush, landscaped park around medieval tombs here, was taken over by boisterous supporters of a right-wing Hindu organisation campaigning for a ''unified India''.

Some 1,000 invited guests were treated to mangoes and ice- cream, while the hosts, a branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), distributed maps of ''akhand Bharat'' (unified India), incorporating ''62 Hindu districts'' in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The raucous party -- loudspeakers blared patriotic songs set to pop tunes, a newspaper reported -- was held to celebrate the launch of plans to set up a 100-crore rupee (250,000 dollars) memorial to countless unsung martyrs in the ''Hindu districts''.

The earliest to lay down their lives, the group claims, were two sisters during an attack by Muslim invader Mohammed Bin Qasim in 712 A.D. The memorial will ensure Hindus remember their ''history and roots'', thinks Prem Sharma, former member of Parliament from Delhi of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Once again, history writing is the target of pro-Hindu groups like the VHP, BJP and the neo-fascist, cadre-based Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which counts Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Home Minister Lal Kishan Advani among members.

Since last April when the BJP, the political face of the rabidly Hindu RSS, took over power to lead a 23-party coalition government, it has moved with lightening speed to propagate Hindu culture and nationalism.

The first step in promoting its brand of history has been the reconstitution of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) with the induction of 19 new right-wing historians, most of them retired and specialists in ancient India history.

''The boot is on the other leg,'' Human Resource Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, who is incharge, was quoted saying in the 'Frontline' newsmagazine, following criticism that the government's nominees represented only one viewpoint.

Until now, the ICHR, which directs academic research, has had a mixed representation. For instance the last Council was chaired by a liberal historian and was composed of liberals, conservatives, Marxists and right-wing historians.

Not only has the government ignored past convention of ensuring a degree of continuity by renominating some members for a second term, but it has also changed the aims of the ICHR by replacing key words of its Memorandum of Association, 1972.

While the original states that ICHR aims to give ''rational'' direction to historical research and encourage ''an objective and scientific writing of history'', the new resolution states that the Council now seeks to give ''national'' direction to ''an objective and national presentation of history''.

For right-wing Hindu parties, ''ancient India was a Hindu rashtra (state), medieval India, Muslim rule'' when Hindus were forcibly converted and temples vandalised -- a viewpoint which is only partly true, say rational historians.

''It is very clear that marauding medieval armies of both Hindu and Muslim rulers pillaged villages and temples as an assertion of political power,'' says historian Shashi Upadhyay of the Indira Gandhi Open University here.

Yet, Hindu fundamentalists remain obsessed with the supposed historical injuries suffered by Hindus. ''Hindus had to give away their daughters in marriage very early for fear of the Muslims,'' according to one view, justifying child marriage practices.

One of the most contentious issues has been the controversy over a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh state, that extremist Hindus claim was built over the birthplace of the mythical god-king Rama, revered in north India.

In December 1992, mobs armed with pickaxes and shovels razed the Babri mosque in the presence of political leaders like Home Minister Advani, even though the Supreme Court had ordered the state's BJP government to protect the disputed monument.

All the new ICHR appointments made by the Human Resources Ministry have, in some form or the other, lent public support to the existence of a temple that predates the mosque at Ayodhya.

''At last,'' says new member B.P. Sinha, former head of archaeology at Patna University, ''the opposite side has got a chance.''

The Hindu right-wing has waged a long campaign to dominate history writing in India. In 1977, Nanaji Deshmukh, ideologue of the BJP's earlier incarnation, sought to ban ''undesirable'' textbooks, including a book by Prof. R.S. Sharma, first chairman

of the ICHR, which provided evidence that certain ancient Indian communities may have been beef-eaters, anathema to rabid Hindus.

In Hoshangabad and Dewas, in central Madhya Pradesh state, more recently, the offices of the independent non-governmental group, 'Eklavya' have been repeatedly attacked by pro-Hindu groups for publishing textbooks that scientifically demolish myths.

''History is the main ideology of the Sangh parivar (BJP/RSS/Vishwa Hindu Parishad family) ... The right-wing are prepared to go to any lengths to control and manipulate the writing of history,'' says liberal historian Radhika Singha of Delhi University.