Panel formed to establish that 'Indian culture' stretches 12,000 years into the past
India government accused of promoting prejudiced version of country's past
Historians are accusing the government of manipulating research to suit its political agenda, by constituting a panel to prove that ancient India was a recognisably Hindu nation.
The existence of the panel of 14 academics and bureaucrats was revealed by Reuters, in an investigation published last week.
Convened by the Culture Minister, Mahesh Sharma, the panel is looking for evidence that the Hindu epics are not myth but fact, and that the earliest Indian civilisations gave rise to the Hindu faith.
“I worship [the] Ramayana and I think it is a historical document,” Mr Sharma said of the Hindu epic. “People who think it is fiction are absolutely wrong.” The panel’s conclusions, he said, would eventually be added to school textbooks.
Among the panel’s ambitions are to find traces of the Saraswati, a river mentioned only in scriptures that are at least 3,000 years old; to use archaeology and DNA testing to prove that today’s Hindus are descended from the earliest residents of India; and to establish that “Indian culture” stretches 12,000 years into the past.
The prevailing theory among the majority of historians, however, is that migrants from central Asia streamed into the Indian subcontinent between 2000 and 1500 BC, bringing with them elements of modern Hinduism. These populations are thought to have mixed with older indigenous populations in India.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has always disagreed with this theory, and it puts Hinduism at the centre of its idea of India. Hinduism was not only here all along, the BJP has insisted, but it had built an advanced civilisation thousands of years ago, before outsiders came to India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi shares this view. In 2014, speaking at a hospital in Mumbai, Mr Modi referred to Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, and said: “We worship Lord Ganesha, and maybe there was a plastic surgeon at that time who kept the head of an elephant on the torso of a human. There are many areas where our ancestors made large contributions.”
The formation of the Culture Ministry’s committee would only “appropriate and promote a certain version of the past for its ideological ends,” Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-think tank, said.
“The work of professional historians is rooted in evidence, interpretation and argument,” Mr Raghavan said. “The exercise being undertaken is the antithesis of these. It's an attempt to impose a view of the past by government diktat.”
From a methodological point of view, the committee’s outlined plans present problems.
Religious texts can be studied “to understand the society, culture and politics of the time they were written in”, Aparna Balachandran, who teaches history at the University of Delhi, said. “But historians do not look for actual empirical truth value in these texts.”
These texts also “vary widely from region to region”, said Ishita Banerjee Dube, a historian of India at El Colegio de Mexico. “Hindu texts can be treated as sources only if we approach them keeping in mind their several versions and variations, interpolations and appropriations.”
Putting a committee onto the task of “proving” something also makes “a mockery of serious research”, Ms Ishita Banerjee Dube said. “If one already knows what one wants to establish, what is the purpose of the study?”
The BJP’s desire to rewrite history in this manner is a longstanding one. For decades, the Hindu right has complained that the study of history in India has been dominated by academics with leftist views.
To depict India as a composite of ethnicities and religions, these academics played down the glories of Hinduism and ignored the cruelties of invading armies, Arun Shourie, one of the BJP’s ideologues, wrote in his book Eminent Historians in 1998.
“They have blackened the Hindu period of our history, and…strained to whitewash the Islamic period,” Mr Shourie wrote.
But there was no “Hindu period” at all, Ms Banerjee Dube said – no stretch of time in which all of India was under the rule of a single Hindu power.
Ms Balachandran said any dominance of leftist historiography has now been left in the past. “For some time now…we have all kinds of perspectives which question, and even contest, [leftist] orthodoxy,” she said. India has “many fine historians today” who cannot be classified as leftists, she said.
By using its power to insert its views into the mainstream, the BJP strengthens its nationalist agenda. “In the narrative they uphold, the Hindu tradition is entirely indigenous, unlike say Islam or Christianity,” Ms Balachandran said. “It fits neatly into their paradigm of insider and outsider.”