Turn narratives upside down and rewrite history

Turn narratives upside down and rewrite history


The palatial family home of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the freedom fighter and close confidant of Mahatma Gandhi, is now a museum where loyalists pay tribute.

But 75 years after independence, that history is being rewritten across the country as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeks to further its own Hindu nationalist agenda.

Critics accuse the BJP of adapting established narratives to its views, promoting the role of its ideological ancestors, and downplaying the contributions of Muslims to Indian history and society.

The BJP ousted Nehru’s Congress party in the 2014 election after the dynasty he founded had dominated Indian politics for decades.

His daughter Indira Gandhi, who grew up in the house, and his grandson Rajiv both later became prime ministers.

Today, whether Emperor Akbar – of the Muslim Mughal dynasty that ruled India for 300 years – won or lost a crucial battle against a revered Hindu king depends on which textbook is used.

At the launch of a book on the Hindu kings’ resistance to the Mughals, Interior Minister Amit Shah – a key ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – said: “No one can stop us from writing the truth. We are now independent. We can write our own story.”

And the town where Nehru’s house stands was renamed Prayagraj after being known for 450 years as Allahabad, a nickname bestowed by Akbar.

According to Vinod Mishra, who has worked there for 15 years, visitors to the building illustrate changing approaches to history.

“Everyone used to come here in awe and admiration, but now many look at the house, his belongings and joke that he, like others, made a lot of money [corrupt] politicians,” Mishra told AFP.

Older visitors “still enter every room and reverently touch the feet of Nehru’s portraits,” he said, but younger generations are more disrespectful.

“It’s fascinating to see that he had things like a tennis racket, a tea kettle, a razor and even went to London, which most people still can’t afford,” said 18-year-old engineering student Amar Yadav.

– ‘Imaginary Barbaric Past’ –

BJP leaders, often accused of anti-Muslim rhetoric, have branded the Mughals as Islamic invaders, adding to the fears of the country’s roughly 210 million Muslims.

But they say the writers who dominated historiography after independence from Britain in 1947 glorified conquerors over local kings and achievements.

And they say they have exaggerated the role of Congress in the struggle for independence and denied the honor due to the more revolutionary or nationalist figures whom the BJP worships.

Modi often criticizes Nehru – blaming him for the simmering dispute over Kashmir or the lost 1962 war against China – to target Congress, which is still the main opposition party and controlled by the Nehru-Gandhi family.

The BJP’s efforts to rewrite the past “is not just about history, it’s about securing its own place in the present for decades to come,” said S. Irfan Habib, a New Delhi resident historian, told AFP.

“It’s dangerous as these books shape young minds that will grow up with a very different understanding of India,” Habib said.

“The government in power has a full majority and not much can be done,” he added.

Contemporary history is also being revised, say the Indian media: a high-ranking authority shortened the content of textbooks this year.

The deletions included the Gujarat riots that killed at least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in 2002 – when Modi was the state’s prime minister.

It was one of the worst outbreaks of religious violence in India in recent memory, and a distant passage reportedly warned that such events “make us aware of the dangers of using religious sentiment for political gain.”

– “Insult to India” –

The states of Haryana and Gujarat have announced the inclusion of a Hindu holy book in the curriculum, despite the educational system being secular.

A textbook from Karnataka included a speech by right-wing founder Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological source of the BJP.

Rahul Gandhi, Nehru’s great-grandson and leader of the Congress party, criticized this as an “attempt to give children saffronized lessons…an insult to India, the cradle of diversity”.

Saffron, the sacred color of Hindu monks’ robes, is part of the BJP flag.

Another book in the same state claimed that Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a right-wing revolutionary imprisoned by the British, regularly made excursions from his prison cell on the wings of small birds.

Savarkar’s biographer Vikram Sampath condemned the “stupid insertion”.

He is one of the young historians who advocate a “decolonization” of Indian history, but want to maintain the quality of revisions.

India is “slowly maturing as a democracy,” he said, hoping for a time when “historical characters don’t get caught up in the clashes of contemporary electoral politics.”

– ‘Biggest Swindle’ –

For some, the history textbook changes fit into the ruling party’s agenda to appeal to the country’s Hindu majority.

The BJP has supported several major projects, including a grand temple corridor in Varanasi, a mega-statue for a Hindu warrior king who successfully challenged the Mughals, and a large temple at the Ayodhya site where zealots destroyed a Mughal-era mosque three decades ago .

Now emboldened right-wing groups have made fresh claims over several Muslim sites they say were built on top of temples destroyed during Islamic rule, stoking fears of violence.

Some of them question the contributions of non-Hindu rulers and the merits of secularism in a predominantly Hindu country of about 1.4 billion people.

“What have the Islamic invasions done for this country in 1,400 years of onslaught?” said Omendra Ratnu, who wrote the book launched by Home Secretary Shah.

“They have built three buildings – the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and the Qutub Minar – and all three are controversial and have Hindu claims,” ??he told AFP.

Mainstream Indian history is a “scam job… by some very smart and evil people,” he said, adding that textbook revisions are “small steps — but steps in the right direction.”

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