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Defining Religion in a National Framework:
The Post-Colonial Context of the Indian
History Textbook Controversies

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The rise of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in India has challenged the national historical narrative that served the world’s largest democracy from independence to the 1990s. This earlier official narrative centered on India as a multicultural society governed by a secular constitution which privileged no particular religion politically. Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian National Congress (INC) Party’s secular stance stood in stark contrast to the raison d’être of neighboring Pakistan, whose leadership defined it initially as a homeland for Indian Muslims and later as an Islamic State. In keeping with India’s secular constitution, high school textbooks portrayed an Indian national identity originating in the struggle for independence from Britain. To the extent that these textbooks recognized nascent Indian national identity preceding British rule, they focused on religious tolerance, not only within Hinduism, but also among Muslim rulers, most notably the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor, Akbar. However, a rival narrative has portrayed India’s identity as inextricably interwoven with Hinduism. Under Hindutva interpretations of history, the Indian nation has existed since time immemorial, and Hinduism is the fullest expression of Indian national identity. In this historical framework, foreign occupation of India began not with the British East India Company in the eighteenth century but with the Turko-Islamic rulers of the eleventh century. From this perspective the twentieth-century freedom struggle involved, and continues to involve, the struggle of Hindu culture to shake off both Islamic and Western influence. This approach to Indian history existed on the margins of Indian society as long as secular political parties dominated the country’s state and national legislatures. However in the 1990s, as the BJP gained control of several state legislatures and, from 1998 to 2004, the national government, it pressed for the adoption of textbooks reflecting Hindutva historical world views. The recent landslide victory of the BJP in the 2014 national elections promises to renew attempts to introduce a Hindu nationalist agenda into the history curriculum. My paper will focus on the controversy between the community of scholars of India (including Indologists overseas) and the BJP from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Tapping on BJP approved textbooks and accompanying published scholarly reactions and political debates, it will examine arguments over the portrayal of two major historical developments: the origins of Hinduism and the interactions of Hinduism and Islam. The paper’s central arguments will be:
1. Hindu nationalists sought to change the high school history curriculum to instill in future generations a narrow Indian identity, that excludes the country’s substantial Muslim minority and diminishes the influence of Western Enlightenment thought.
2. Although Hindu nationalists argue that the new curriculum reclaims India’s past from pernicious foreign influence, the very assumptions on which they base these curricular reforms arise from earlier colonial, orientalist narratives of India’s past and therefore themselves represent foreign influence.
Although this paper focuses on an area outside the Mediterranean and Middle East, it should serve as a valuable presentation for comparative purposes at the conference. India has long been a contact zone between Islam and Hindu cultural traditions, one which has generated much religious syncretism and hybridism. Moreover India is a culturally diverse democracy. The debate over the religious elements of its national identity should therefore serve as an interesting comparison to developments further west.