Soon after some fifty historians made a public statement against the rising intolerance against minorities in India, the attacks on them began.[1] These ranged from calling them opportunists, minority-appeasers and pseudo-secularists, to calling into question their integrity and intellectual worth. Indeed, some went so far as to question what historians in general do.

Chetan Bhagat, the current poster-boy of pop fiction in India, tweeted: ‘What do historians do? I am genuinely curious. This happened. Then this happened. Then this. OK work done for the day’.[2] While he later partially retracted this statement, his tweet reflects a far more pervasive belief than one would like to think. In fact, in the current climate of anti-intellectualism in India, it appears that only army personnel and software engineers do any ‘productive work’ at all! The image of intellectuals nosedives further when they critique Prime Minister Modi (of the BJP) – the darling of the increasingly vocal and insulated urban middle class.[3]

All this is not new. Back in the year 2000, when I was a graduate student in Delhi, the BJP government – in power for the first time – decided to ban the ‘Towards Freedom’ series: a project that aimed to compile primary sources on the last decade or so of colonial rule. As protests against this ban snowballed, they were met with similar attacks. It was argued that historians like Sumit Sarkar were protesting only because their own works were being banned, or that they had embezzled funds while working on the project.

This line of attack has become quite familiar by now. It appears that if one is able to question the integrity of scholars, or show that all their ‘intellectualism’ is only a facade for the much deeper and baser impulse to line their pockets, one doesn’t need to engage with their ideas any more. If this is not a typically fascist strategy, what is?

Why are historians the favourite targets for such attacks? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they appear to speak up more often than others. Right from the days of the demolition of the Babri mosque, which led to massive nation-wide riots on which the BJP piggybacked to prominence, they have been making public statements against the politics of Hindu majoritarianism. Indeed, they have done this so often that Arun Shourie, a well-known face of the party back in those days, had to write an entire book in order to question their credibility.[4]

But, more importantly, History is a discipline that the ruling party has a greater stake in. It seems important for the BJP/RSS, which had little role to play in the independence movement, and whose antecedents can arguably be traced back to the man who assassinated Gandhi, to erase elements of their past.[5]

However, the struggle is not simply limited to rewriting the history of this rather recent period – nearly all periods of Indian history are being re-conceptualised from the ‘Hindutva’ perspective. It appears that the whole point of studying the past is to show the greatness of the country, barring of course the brief ‘Muslim interregnum’ when everything started going wrong. No wonder, then, that one of the first tasks of the new government was to bring in a new head of the Indian Council for Historical Research – a man who has few published works to his credit, and who chooses to see even the oppressive caste system as having some positive aspects.

As such attacks continue, there is a danger that all those versions of History that carry out a rigorous questioning of mainstream narratives will be under threat. In their place we might end up having a History that conflates myths with ‘facts’, or evidence with faith. After all, as Prime Minister Modi noted in a speech not long after he came into power:

We all read about Karna in the Mahabharata [a Hindu epic]. If we think a little more, we realise that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time.[6]

What the Prime Minister says today becomes the ‘truth’ tomorrow.

Saurabh Mishra is a lecturer in the Department of History, Sheffield. He is the author of the monograph Beastly Encounters of the Raj: Livelihoods, Livestock and Veterinary Health in Colonial India, 1790-1920 (Manchester University Press, 2015).

Cover image: Supporter of Bharatiya Janata Party at an election rally in Amethi [Wikicommons].

[1] Please click on the following link to read the statement in full:


[3] The BJP or the Bharatiya Janata Party (the People’s Party of India) is one amongst the two largest political parties in India. It was formally established in 1980, but its ‘Hinduva’ ideology has been represented by parent organisations like the Jan Sangh for much longer.

[4] Eminent Historians: their Technology, their Line, their Fraud (ASA, 1998). Sadly for Shourie (and others) there is no place for any other prominent face in the party today, apart from the Prime Minister himself.

[5] The RSS is the ‘ideological wing’ of the ruling party in India (the BJP). While a number of commentators see a huge difference between the two, there is little that separates them when it comes to their ideas of ‘Hindutva’ and Hindu majoritarianism. Indeed most leaders of the ruling party, including the current Prime Minister, started their career as members of the RSS.


Tags : BJP and historyHindutvahistory in IndiaIndian anti-intellectualismIndian Council for Historical ResearchIndian historyIrfan Habib
Saurabh Mishra

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