How Hindu nationalism is threatening to erase India's history of coexistence

India Hindu nationalism
13 min read
10 June, 2022
India's diverse history is being targeted by Hindu nationalists, who are peddling false claims and conspiracy theories to disown the country's 800-year-old Muslim heritage.

Millions of visitors each year visit the famous Taj Mahal, the gleaming white tomb that is the eternal symbol of love. Built by the Mughal king Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, it is regarded as one of the world’s most stunning buildings, a pinnacle of Islamic architecture, and India’s best-known landmark.

Many, however, are challenging this time-worn story with falsehoods and misinformation. They have twisted its history into one of ‘Muslim domination’, claiming – without evidence – that the Taj Mahal was in fact a Hindu temple, and that a Muslim king built his own structure atop to assert Islamic supremacy.

"To Hindu nationalists, Indian history is essentially black and white; that Muslims were invaders who destroyed the country, and Hindus and their religion were the victims"

This sort of pseudo-history is becoming more and more familiar in India.

Increasingly, India’s heritage is being dragged through the mud by India’s Hindu nationalists, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and has become a key battleground between Hindu nationalists and secular Indians.

Hindu nationalism is a majoritarian worldview based on Hindu supremacist ideology that is against India’s secular principles and defines the country as a ‘Hindu homeland,’ not too unlike Zionist claims about the state of Israel. Everyone else – including and especially Muslims – are outsiders. This once-fringe worldview has become the dominant ideology today.

Proponents of this ideology have attacked India’s diverse history, claiming that all Muslims were invaders who destroyed indigenous culture and religions and subjugated Hindus for hundreds of years.

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Viewed in that light, every monument built by a Muslim dynasty – and there are many of those, as Muslim kings ruled parts of India on and off for the past 800 years – is suspected of being built on a Hindu site.

A combination of conspiracy theories, misleading claims and complete fabrications are peddled as historical certainties by Hindu nationalists in India. To Hindu nationalists, Indian history is essentially black and white; that Muslims were invaders who destroyed the country, and Hindus and their religion were the victims.

In reality, the past is intricate and complex, woven together through the stories of different peoples, languages, and religions, and is far from the black and white portrayal presented by Hindu nationalists.

India’s cosmopolitan history has important lessons for the modern society and could point the way out of the dark tunnel of division, distrust and violence.  

Hindu nationalism and history

Indian history, like any history, is filled with nuances. Modern religious divides that have been thrust upon the population did not exist in the same way in the past, but Hindu nationalists in today’s India appear insistent on erasing centuries of history, architecture, culture and advancement made under Muslim and secular rulers.

“All that these guys rely upon are stories – the same stories where they say that for hundreds of years, all Muslims have done is broken temples,” says Yunus Lasania, a journalist and oral historian who organises heritage walks around Hyderabad in India.

“They don’t want to accept that India’s confluence of cultures exists. It’s very conveniently erasing history to fit their narrative. And the damage will last for a very, very long time.”

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At its heart lies the overarching belief that ancient Indian Hindu civilizations were far more advanced in technological and societal terms than we think of them, in some ways far more advanced than we are today. They claim that Hindus controlled a massive chunk of land called Akhand Bharat or Greater India, which is believed to include Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and parts of southeast Asia as part of this dominion.

All of those advancements were wiped out by marauding Muslim conquerors who came from abroad and dragged the people of this subcontinent back to the stone age, they claim, and the few Hindu rulers or kingdoms that managed to hold off the invaders deserve to be seen as heroes.

“They don’t want to accept that India’s confluence of cultures exists. It’s very conveniently erasing history to fit their narrative. And the damage will last for a very, very long time”

Like all pernicious misinformation, there is a kernel of truth within these claims that have been wrapped in layers of falsehoods and misconceptions.

The civilizations that grew in the Indian subcontinent were indeed surprisingly advanced. Right from the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, known for their urban planning during the Bronze Age, to the cultures built by the Mauryas, the Guptas, and later on the kings of Vijayanagar, Hindu kingdoms played an essential role in advancing the knowledge of mathematics and the sciences and attracted merchants, scholars, and travellers from around the globe.

The falsehood, however, is that Muslims arrived and destroyed India’s Hindu legacy. In reality, the Muslims that arrived in India influenced and built upon the existing civilizations for the most part, and Islam in turn was hugely impacted by local traditions and beliefs.

“India’s Muslim history is rich; it’s not like you had ten Muslims who came and became barbarians,” says Lasania. “You have a history of around 800 years.”

The Hindu nationalist revision of history is having tangible, violent consequences on the ground. In 1992, a mob of Hindu extremists, including senior members of the BJP, destroyed the Babri Masjid, a nearly 500-year-old mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.

They claimed the mosque had been built on the site of the birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Ram. Its destruction led to countrywide riots that killed more than 2000 people, mostly Muslims. In 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation for a new temple on that site.

"In 1992, a mob of Hindu extremists, including senior members of the BJP, destroyed the Babri Masjid, a nearly 500-year-old mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh"

India’s history since Modi took power in 2014 has become even more up for debate, with accepted facts and archaeological evidence discounted for religious fervour.

School textbooks have been changed to downplay Muslim contributions to India and the names of places such as Allahabad and Mughalsarai have been changed to Prayagraj and Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Nagar (named after a right-wing Hindu ideologue). The names of several others, such as Hyderabad, are now in their crosshairs.

Nationalists are also clamouring for more mosques to be replaced temples under the pretext that they were built on holy sites or house Hindu relics. The current furore in India is around the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city, as right-wing groups claim a fountain in the ablution pool of the mosque is actually a sacred Hindu object. The Shahi Eidgah in Mathura is also being targeted by these groups, who claim that the land it was built on belongs to the Hindu deity Lord Krishna.

These actions have come in spite of an Indian law called the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 that prohibits the conversion of any place of worship from the way it existed on the day India gained Independence on 15 August 1947.

Hindu nationalists have created a pervading feeling of fear and violence among the minority communities, especially the Muslims, in India, and their attempts to alienate Muslims and reject their history are being increasingly and dangerously successful.

Muslims in India

Islam arrived in India from its heartland on the Arabian peninsula in a variety of ways. The religion first arrived along the western coast through traders in the 600s, through Sufi mystics who travelled through the region, and through conquest.

The Sufis played arguably the most important role in spreading Islam in the subcontinent, bringing their Islamic mysticism to India and making their religion incredibly accessible to the local population.

"Islam first arrived along the western coast through traders in the 600s, through Sufi mystics who travelled through the region, and through conquest"

Their success in spreading the religion lay in emphasizing the syncretic values between themselves and the local Hindus, refusing to impose their beliefs on others, and their places of worship provided shelter to people from all backgrounds and beliefs. Sufi shrines are revered by both Muslims and Hindus today, and several major cities such as Delhi and Hyderabad have a renowned Sufi tradition.

Some of the early warlords that arrived in India, like Mahmud of Ghazni, did plunder India for its wealth. Many others, however, including the kingdoms of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals, the Bahmanis and the Qutub Shahis, were all founded by people who intended to make India their home.

Hindu nationalists make no distinction between the Sufis, the Muslims that lived in India, and those that looted the country. They overemphasize the role of religion, claiming it was far more influential than was actually the case. 

Effect of the Partition

The Partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1948 changed everything.

Millions of people across the Indian subcontinent all of a sudden found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country and were forced to traverse across miles, often on foot, to get to the ‘right’ one. It was the single biggest mass migration in human history and killed at least four million people.

This incredibly traumatic split also gave an opening to religious nationalist movements on both sides of the new border to rewrite history and remake culture as they saw fit. New violent movements sprang up in nascent India and Pakistan, championing religion over centuries of shared history.

Those nationalist sentiments have strengthened over the years in India, and have reached a zenith under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Versions of the past that were once fringe beliefs have become more widely accepted in India, and Hindu nationalists have over the years successfully turned Muslims into jihadist villains for their own purposes.

Coexistence over conflict

Throughout India’s history, traders, craftsmen, businessmen, mercenaries, and others from all walks of life travelled to India to find peace and prosperity. They did so for the same reasons that many Indians today leave for the Gulf states or Europe – they were looking for a better life, and were not concerned with furthering their religious ambitions.

“Religious affiliations [in pre-colonial India] were secondary. Religion was used by everyone - Hindus, Muslims, whoever it was - just as a means of achieving a goal”

“Religious affiliations [in pre-colonial India] were secondary,” said Sajjad Shahid, a historian, architecture conservator, columnist and Professor at the University of Hyderabad in India. “Religion was used by everyone - Hindus, Muslims, whoever it was - just as a means of achieving a goal.”

Kingdoms in the past went to great lengths to promote coexistence and harmony among their people, he says.  

“The official way of greeting the Hindu Vijayanagar emperor was called the ‘salaama’, from the word salaam [the Arabic word for peace],” says Shahid. “And the emperor of the Vijayanagar placed a Quran beside him on a high position so that Muslim mercenaries or Arabs would not be offended when they went to the King,” he adds.  

“They went to all sorts of lengths to make sure these niceties were maintained so that everyone would be happy.”

In contrast, Hindu nationalists have a very specific set of heroes and villains, all of whom were very different from what they claim. The Mughals – who built the likes of the Taj Mahal and Delhi’s Red Fort – are often the enemies in their worldview, and are repeatedly lambasted for being foreigners and imposing their religion on the local Hindus.

In reality, many Mughal rulers patronised Hindu culture and placed Hindus in prominent positions, and ruled over India for so long that they became Indian.

The reign of the third Mughal ruler Akbar is a strong example of coexistence. He is regarded as one of the greatest emperors in Indian history and attempted to reform religious divides by creating the Diin-e-Ilahi or the ‘religion of God’, a syncretic religion that drew on elements from Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism.

Chhatrapati Shivaji, the king of the Maratha empire that opposed the sixth Mughal king Aurangzeb and his Mughal dynasty, is touted as one of the great Hindu nationalist heroes.

They suggest that his Marathas resistance against Mughal rule thought of themselves as ‘Hindus’ fighting against ‘Muslim tyranny’, for which there is little evidence. Many of Shivaji’s ablest commanders were Muslim, and he allied with many Muslim kingdoms in the region to resist the advance of the Mughals.

Shivaji has become a symbol for Hindutva today,” said Lasania. “But he was anti-Mughal, not anti-Muslim. He had an inter-regional conflict with the Mughals. At the end of the day, he had an alliance with Golconda, ruled by the Muslim Qutb Shahis."

Sajjad Shahid agrees with this sentiment, arguing that Muslims were rewarded by the Marathas for their services. “I know Muslim families who have been given grants by Shivaji for their service to him and the state,” said Shahid. “Based on what the families told me, even the present-day champions of Maratha identity honour that when they know that your forefathers were with Shivaji even if you are a Muslim.”

Reclaiming our past

Like many previous rulers, Hindu nationalists are using religion to achieve a goal – to remain in power indefinitely, alienate Muslims, Christians, and everyone who does not subscribe to their militant brand of Hinduism, and alter India’s culture of coexistence forever.

To counter this, Indians must relearn the lessons they have forgotten about their history.

“Our past shows us that people from different places can coexist together. If they want to exchange culture or values or ideas, it’s not uncommon – it’s basic human nature to learn and understand as much as you can from the other side,” says Yunus Lasania.

“How are they going to erase the history? They cannot erase it. They can rewrite the official version they want to promote. But they will not be able to erase it – what is history is there"

Sajjad Shahid says the biggest blow to our history has been the decline of India’s mystic movements, including Sufism.

“Unfortunately what has been happening is that due to this polarization, the mystic movements – the vehicles of coexistence that had been forged in India over centuries are under threat,” says Shahid. “They are attacking the source promoting unity, promoting coexistence, promoting harmony in society.”

He argues that we must bring back the old traditions of universal participation during both Hindu and Muslim rituals, and must revive the syncretic poetry that has always played an important role in society.

Dozens of poets such as Nazeer Akbarabadi and Maharaja Kishen Pershad used to compose poetry in praise of both the Prophet Muhammad and Hindu deities like Lords Krishna and Ram.

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While the erosion of India’s cosmopolitan culture is incredibly damaging, Shahid is hopeful that this revisionist history will not be permanent. Attempts to change the past are just that – attempts.

“How are they going to erase the history?” he asks. “They cannot erase it. They can rewrite the official version they want to promote. But they will not be able to erase it – what is history is there.”