The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appointed a committee of scholars to prove that Hindus are descended from India’s first inhabitants. Members of the country’s Muslim minority worry the government wants to make them second-class citizens.
During the first week of January last year, a group of Indian scholars gathered in a white bungalow on a leafy boulevard in central New Delhi. The focus of their discussion: how to rewrite the history of the nation.
The government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi had quietly appointed the committee of scholars about six months earlier. Details of its existence are reported here for the first time.
Minutes of the meeting, reviewed by Reuters, and interviews with committee members set out its aims: to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.
Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi’s government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people – a kaleidoscope of religions. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.
In doing so, they are challenging a more multicultural narrative that has dominated since the time of British rule, that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions. That view is rooted in demographic fact. While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace.
The committee’s chairman, K.N. Dikshit, told Reuters, “I have been asked to present a report that will help the government rewrite certain aspects of ancient history.” The committee’s creator, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, confirmed in an interview that the group’s work was part of larger plans to revise India’s history.
For India’s Muslims, who have pointed to incidents of religious violence and discrimination since Modi took office in 2014, the development is ominous. The head of Muslim party All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Asaduddin Owaisi, said his people had “never felt so marginalised in the independent history of India.”
“The government,” he said, “wants Muslims to live in India as second-class citizens.”
Modi did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Helping to drive the debate over Indian history is an ideological, nationalist Hindu group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It helped sweep Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to power in 2014 and now counts among its members the ministers in charge of agriculture, highways and internal security.
The RSS asserts that ancestors of all people of Indian origin – including 172 million Muslims – were Hindu and that they must accept their common ancestry as part of Bharat Mata, or Mother India. Modi has been a member of the RSS since childhood. An official biography of Culture Minister Sharma says he too has been a “dedicated follower” of the RSS for many years.
Referring to the emblematic colour of the Hindu nationalist movement, RSS spokesman Manmohan Vaidya told Reuters that “the true colour of Indian history is saffron and to bring about cultural changes we have to rewrite history.”