In May, India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, pulled off a great photo op when he persuaded the heads of many South Asian states to attend his inauguration in New Delhi.
Many of those leaders came, presumably, because they thought that a more prosperous India would stimulate prosperity across South Asia.
The week before last, though, they would not have been amused to hear that a certain set of books will be sent to the schoolchildren of Gujarat, the western state where Modi previously served as chief minister — books that describe an “undivided India” that encompasses the nation-states of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
The controversial books — written by the 85-year-old former teacher and veteran culture warrior Dinanath Batra — are now recommended reading in more than 40,000 schools, part of the state curriculum’s “supplementary literature.” They present an extremely contentious view of Indian history rooted in the ideology of Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist political movement — and sometimes propagate pure fantasy.
Further, they feature an approving foreword by Modi (“It is hoped that this inspirational literature will inspire teachers and students”). Their widespread circulation signifies the return of the “history wars” at the levels of both historiography and pedagogy.
More worrying, they also point to a strain of dishonesty and bad faith that was always latent in Modi’s grand “India First” project. He promised to deliver growth to the Indian economy, not to Indian cartographers (anybody see a resemblance to another thundering nationalist’s idea of a “Greater Russia”?).
When asked about his views on the many minorities of the world’s most pluralistic nation-state, he has argued that such questions are themselves sectarian and that his policies would not discriminate between citizens of any caste or creed.
But if Modi’s rubber-stamping of Batra’s vision of Indian history means anything, it’s that the India he is thinking of is apparently very different from the society and polity that just elected him. By making the children of his own state early initiates into the perfervid intellectual world of Hindu nationalism, one might almost say that Modi (who has always enjoyed a reputation for being farsighted) is already thinking about what kind of adult voter might return him to power for a third term in 2024.
Those who think this an over-reaction might argue that the Gujarat textbook case is just the latest episode in a very long battle, and one in which it can’t be said that the secular or liberal side is “right.” After all, the history wars were inevitable given the Indian republic’s revolutionary vision, nailed down into a constitution between 1947 and 1950, of a new political order stressing democracy, equality and secularism.
That new orientation of a civilization with multiple pasts, and the need to build a history consistent with the demands of citizenship, generated many difficult as many questions about how history was to be written for adults as for children, with a view to the future as much as to the past.
Inevitably, the government of the day has always influenced these debates, resulting, with the rise of right-wing politics starting in the 1980s, in the gradual emergence of a school of “saffron history” — a nationalist history — to combat what was thought to be the ideological biases of a prior “secular” or “left-wing” history. (As an introduction to the contours of the debate, one might read Amartya Sen’s “History and the Enterprise of Knowledge,” Romila Thapar’s “In Defence of History” and William Dalrymple’s “India: The War Over History,” and compare their visions with that of journalist M.V. Kamath when he argues that “Hindutva is not a word, but a history.”)
It should be quite clear what my own leanings are. But I’m quite happy to consider this particular Hindu nationalist claim: that the view of India’s history that emphasizes religious synthesis and tolerance may itself be a deeply ideological or romantic view, or that Hinduism is, more than any other force (trade, kingship, war, colonialism, agriculture), the engine of Indian history.
However, I see that because I am an adult — and indeed a Hindu — who thinks that smuggling saffron history into schoolrooms where they are received as truth rather than debated and exposed to criticism reveals a terrible insecurity about the past.
Arguing that these stories inculcate “Indian values” in children, as Batra does, is especially dishonest, because it suggests not only that these Indian values are transparent and unanimous, but also that they override the constitutional values of the Indian state.
Why not leave the responsibility for instilling so-called Indian values to the (ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse) Indian family, so that children may learn the complementary values (and sometimes conflicting demands) of culture and citizenship?
One could hardly expect Batra to even acknowledge this counterargument, as befits one who thinks ancient Indian epic heroes were flying around in airplanes. What’s more, it’s his second literary triumph of the year, having succeeded in February in having the scholar Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” pulped by her own publisher. He is now a household name all over India, if not undivided India.
Chandrahas Choudhury (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a novelist and Bloomberg View contributor based in New Delhi.