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The Hindutva Movement and Reinventing of History –
by Nobel Laureate Dr. Amartya Sen (Excerpts)


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Lamont University Professor of Economics, Harvard University.

In his engaging essays from The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2005), Nobel Laureate Dr. Amartya Sen lucidly explains the strategy behind the attempts of Hindutva supporters to re-invent India’s history, an effort that has now unfortunately reached the shores of California via organizations such the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation. Those who seek a broader understanding of the sectarian motivations behind the edits submitted by these organizations may wish to read Sen’s excellent book, excerpts from which are presented here. Please note that the underlined sentences reflect our emphases and not those in the original text.

Index of Excerpts

Capacious Idea of  Hinduism
The Emergence of Hindutva
Numbers and Classification
History and Indian Culture
Inventing the Past
NCERT Social Science Textbooks in India
Indus Valley Civilization and the Aryans
The Miniaturization of India

Re: Capacious Idea of Hinduism

The elaborate presentation of alternative points of views draws attention to the plurality of perspectives and arguments, and this tradition of accom­modating heterodoxy receives…extensive support within well-established Hindu documents (for example in the fourteenth-century study Sarvadarsanasamgraha (`Collection of All Philosophies'), where sixteen contrary and competing viewpoints are sequentially presented in as many chapters). (p47)

In contrast with this large view, many Hindu political activists today seem bent on doing away with the broad and tolerant parts of the Hindu tradition in favour of a uniquely ascertained - and often fairly crude - view which, they demand, must be accepted by all. The piously belligerent army of Hindu politics would rather take us away from these engagingly thoughtful discussions and would have us embrace instead their much-repeated public proclamations... (p47-48)

It is sufficient to note here that there is a well-established capacious view of a broad and generous Hinduism, which contrasts sharply with the narrow and bellicose versions that are currently on political offer, led particularly by parts of the Hindutva movement. (p49)

Re: The Emergence of Hindutva

In the early years after independence, the broad and inclusive concept of an Indian identity which had emerged during the long struggle for freedom commanded sweeping allegiance. The determi­nation to preserve that capacious identity was strengthened by the deep sense of tragedy associated with the partitioning of the subcon­tinent, and also by considerable national pride in the fact that despite the political pressure for `an exchange of people, the bulk of the large Muslim population in independent India chose to stay in India rather than move to Pakistan. (p51)

 It is this spacious and absorptive idea of Indianness that has been severely challenged over recent decades…it can be said that the movement sees Hindutva (liter­ally, `the quality of Hinduism') as a quintessential guide to `Indianness'. (p51)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political party that represents the Hindutva movement in the Indian parliament, was in office in New Delhi between 1998 and 2004, through leading a coalition govern­ment, until its electoral defeat in May 2004…Although Hinduism is an ancient religion, Hindutva is quite a recent political movement. A political party called the `Hindu Mahasabha' did exist before India's independence, and its successor, the `Jan Sangh', commanded the loyalty of a small proportion of Hindus. But neither party was a political force to reckon with in the way the BJP and its associates have now become. (p49)

Even though the BJP is no longer dominant, in the way it was over the last few years, it remains a politically powerful force, and is work­ing hard to return to office before long. (p50)

The BJP gets political support from a modest minority of Indians, and, no less to the point, a limited minority of the Hindus….the proportion of total votes in Indian parliamentary elections that the BJP has maximally managed to get has been only about 26 per cent…in a country where more than 80 per cent of the total population happen to belong to the Hindu community. It is certainly not the party of choice of most Hindus - far from it. (p51-52)

The Hindutva movement has had a strong effect on recent political developments in India, and has added very substantially to the poli­tics of sectarianism. It is therefore important to investigate the nature of the intellectual claims it makes and the arguments it presents. Since the Hindutva movement has been accompanied by violent physical actions, including the killing and terrorizing of minorities (as happened in Bombay in 1992-3 and in Gujarat in 2002), it is difficult to have patience with its intellectual beliefs and public proclamations. (p53)

Re: Numbers and Classification

The first difficulty is that a secular democracy which gives equal room to every citizen irrespective of religious background cannot be fairly defined in terms of the majority religion of the country. There is a difference between a constitutionally secular nation with a majority Hindu population and a theocratic Hindu state that might see Hinduism as its official religion (Nepal comes closer to the latter description than does India). Furthermore, no matter what the official standing of any community as a group may be, the status of individ­ual citizens cannot be compromised by the smallness (if that is the case) of the group to which he or she belongs. (p54)

While the statistics of Hindu majority are indeed correct, the use of the statistical argument for seeing India as a pre-eminently Hindu country is based on a conceptual confusion: our religion is not our only identity, nor necessarily the identity to which we attach the greatest importance. (p56)

Re: History and Indian Culture

Certainly, the ancientness of the Hindu tradition cannot be disputed. However, other religions, too, have had a long history in India, which has been, for a very long time indeed, a multi-religious country, making room for many different faiths and beliefs. Aside from the obvious and prominent presence of Muslims in India for well over a millennium (Muslim Arab traders settled in India from the eighth century), India was not a `Hindu country' even before the arrival of Islam. Buddhism was the dominant religion in India for nearly a millennium. Indeed, Chinese scholars regularly described India as `the Buddhist kingdom'. (p56)

Re: Inventing the Past

History is an active field of intellectual engagement for the Hindutva movement, and parts of that movement have been very involved in the rewriting of history…What is its specific relevance in contemporary Indian politics, and why is Hindutva poli­tics so keen on redescribing the past? (p62)

The rewriting of India's history serves the dual purpose of playing a role in providing a common basis for the diverse membership of the Sangh Parivar, and of helping to get fresh recruits to Hindu political activism, especially from the diaspora. It has thus become a major priority in the politics of Hindutva in contemporary India. Following the electoral victory of coalitions led by the BJP in 1998 and 1999, various arms of the government of India were mobilized in the task of arranging `appropriate' rewritings of Indian history. Even though this adventure of inventing a past is no longer `official' (because of the defeat of the BJP-led coalition in the general elections in the spring of 2004), that highly charged episode is worth recollecting both because of what it tells us about the abuse of temporal power and also because of the light it throws on the intellectual underpinning of the Hindutva movement. (p63)

Re: NCERT Social Science Text Books in India

The rapidly reorganized National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) became busy, from shortly after the BJP's assumption of office, not only in producing fresh textbooks for Indian school children, but also in deleting sections from books produced earlier by NCERT itself (under pre-BJP management), written by reputed Indian historians. The `reorganization' of NCERT was accompanied by an `overhaul' of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), with new officers being appointed and a new agenda chosen for both, mainly in line with the priorities of the Hindutva movement. (p63)

The speed of the attempted textbook revision had to be so fast that the newly reconstituted NCERT evidently had some difficulty in find­ing historians to do this task who would be both reasonably distin­guished and adequately compliant. In the early school textbooks that emanated from the NCERT, there was not only the predictable sectarian bias in the direction of the politics of `Hindutva', but also numerous factual mistakes of a fairly straightforward kind. School children were to be taught, in one of the textbooks, that Madagascar was `an island in the Arabian sea and that Lancashire had been `a fast-growing industrial town'. (p64)

Indeed, in addition to the plethora of innocuous confusions and silly mistakes, there were also serious omissions and lapses in the government-sponsored Indian history. For example, one of the text­books that was meant to teach Indian school children about the events surrounding India's independence failed to mention the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, the Hindu political fanatic who had links with the activist RSS (the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh) - an omission of very considerable moment. More generally, the accounts given in these textbooks of the fight for India's inde­pendence were powerfully prejudiced in the direction of the politics of Hindutva. (p64)

Despite the understandable panic, it was never easy to see how the Hindutva movement could succeed in making Indians accept a `re­invented past', no matter how much control they might have had over educational policies in New Delhi. The redrawing of India's history using the Hindutva lens suffers from some deep empirical problems as well as conceptual tensions. (p65)

Re: Indus Valley Civilization and the Aryans

Given the priorities of Hindutva, the rewriting of India's history tends to favour internal and external isolation, in the form of separ­ating out the celebration of Hindu achievements from the non-Hindu parts of its past and also from intellectual and cultural developments outside India. (p65)

The problem starts with the account of the very beginning of India's history. The `Indus valley civilization', dating from the third millen­nium BCE, flourished well before the timing of the earliest Hindu liter­ature, the Vedas, which are typically dated in the middle of the second millennium BCE. The Indus civilization, or the Harappa civilization as it is sometimes called (in honour of its most famous site), covered much of the north-west of the undivided subcontinent (including what are today Punjab, Haryana, Sindh, Baluchistan, western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat) - a much larger area than Mesopo­tamia and Egypt, which flourished at about the same time. It had many special achievements, including remarkable town planning, organized storage (of grain in particular), and extraordinary drainage systems (unequalled, if I am any judge, in the subcontinent in the following four thousand years). (p65)

There is obvious material here for national or civilizational pride of Indians. But this poses an immediate problem for the Hindutva view of India's history, since an ancient civilization-that is clearly pre-­Sanskritic and pre-Hindu deeply weakens the possibility of seeing Indian history in pre-eminently and constitutively Hindu terms. (p66)

Furthermore, there is a second challenge associated with India's ancient past, which relates to the arrival of the Indo-Europeans (some­times called Aryans) from the West, most likely in the second millen­nium BCE, riding horses (unknown in the Indus valley civilization), and speaking a variant of early Sanskrit (the Vedic Sanskrit, as it is now called). The Hindutva view of history, which traces the origin of Indian civilization to the Vedas has, therefore, the double `difficulty' of (1) having to accept that the foundational basis of Hindu culture came originally from outside India, and (2) being unable to place Hinduism at the beginning of Indian cultural history and its urban heritage. (p66)

Thus, in the Hindutva theory, much hangs on the genesis of the Vedas. In particular: who composed them (it would be best for Hindutva theory if they were native Indians, settled in India for thou­sands of years, rather than Indo-Europeans coming from abroad)? Were they composed later than the Indus valley civilization (it would be best if they were not later, in sharp contrast with the accepted knowledge)?...There were, therefore, attempts by the Hindutva champions to rewrite Indian history in such a way that these disparate difficulties are simultaneously removed through the simple device of `making' the Sanskrit-speaking com­posers of the Vedas also the very same people who created the Indus valley civilization! (p67)

The Indus valley civilization was accordingly renamed `the Indus-Saraswati civilization', in honour of a non-observable river called the Sarasvati which is referred to in the Vedas. The intellectual origins of Hindu philosophy as well as of the concocted Vedic science and Vedic mathematics are thus put solidly into the third millennium BCE, if not earlier. Indian school children were then made to read about this highly theoretical `Indus-Saraswati civilization' in their new history textbooks, making Hindu culture - and Hindu science - more ancient, more urban, more indigenous, and comfortably omnipresent throughout India's civilizational history. (p67)

The problem with this account is, of course, its obvious falsity, going against all the available evidence based on archaeology and lit­erature. To meet that difficulty, `new' archaeological evidence had to be marshalled. This was done - or claimed to be done - in a much­ publicized book by Natwar Jha and N. S. Rajaram called The Deciphered Indus Script, published in 2000. The authors claim that they have deciphered the as-yet-undeciphered script used in the Indus valley, which they attribute to the mid-fourth millennium BCE - stretching the `history' unilaterally back by a further thousand years or so. They also claim that the tablets found there refer to Rigveda's Sarasvati river (in the indirect form of `Ila surrounds the blessed land'). Further, they produced a picture of a terracotta seal with a horse on it, which was meant to be further proof of the Vedic - and Aryan - identity of the Indus civilization. The Vedas are full of refer­ences to horses, whereas the Indus remains have plenty of bulls but - so it was hitherto thought - no horses. (p67-68)

The alleged discovery and decipherment led to a vigorous debate about the claims, and the upshot was the demonstration that there was, in fact, no decipherment whatever, and that the horse seal is the result of a simple fraud based on a computerized distortion of a broken seal of a unicorn bull, which was known earlier. The alleged horse seal was a distinct product of the late twentieth century, the credit for the creation of which has to go to the Hindutva activists. The definitive demonstration of the fraud came from Michael Witzel, Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, in a joint essay with Steve Farmer. The demonstration did not, however, end references in offi­cial school textbooks (produced by the NCERT during the BJP-led rule, ending only in May 2004) to `terracotta figurines' of horses in the `Indus-Saraswati civilization'. (p68)

It is difficult to understand fully why a movement that began with pride in Hindu values, in which the pursuit of truth plays such a big part, should produce activists who would try to have their way not only through falsity but through carefully crafted fraud. (p68)

In trying to invent Indian history to suit the prejudices of Hindutva, the movement took on a profoundly contrary task. The task is particu­larly hard to achieve given what is known about India's long history. The unadorned truth does not favour the Hindutva view, and the adorned falsity does not survive critical scrutiny. (p69)

Re: The Miniaturization of India

Through their attempts to encourage and exploit separatism, the Hindutva movement has entered into a con­frontation with the idea of India itself. This is nothing short of a sus­tained effort to miniaturize the broad idea of a large India - proud of its heterodox past and its pluralist present - and to replace it by the stamp of a small India, bundled around a drastically downsized version of Hinduism. In the confrontation between a large and a small India, the broader understanding can certainly win. But….Cognizance of India's past is important for an adequate understanding of the capa­cious idea of India. (p72)

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