Historical revisionism is alive and well in India, and has taken hold in the last ten years.

The Hindu right wing believe that Indian history has been hijacked by leftist historians who see Indian history as an interplay of power, caste and class, and not for what it actually is – which is 900 years of religious war and colonisation first by the Muslims and then by the Christians.

Therefore, India’s Muslim rulers are to be regarded as foreign rulers and colonisers, instead of being studied and written about as Indian Kings and Emperors.

They believe that when India became independent in 1947, there was an opportunity to bring Hinduism back as part of the State, since for the first time in over 900 years no foreigner was ruling India. This used to be the case when India was a set of princely states where the prince had a faith. Instead, the new government opted to separate church (or temple!) and state and deny the Hindu religion a place in government.

Under British Rule, India underwent a rapid modernisation of thought and ideas and issues of identity were hotly debated. The Hindu right wing, and its counterpart in Islam, were both alive and well during the early part of the 20th century. In the battle of ideas, the centrist, broad-church Indian National Congress won, headed by people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Sardar Patel. When India became independent, power was transferred to the Indian National Congress who proceeded to set India up as a secular state.

India suffered a violent partition in August 1947 as the British left, leaving nearly 40% of undivided India in Pakistan. Nearly five million people migrated from one country to another in one of the largest population exchanges of all time. The population movement was accompanied by horrendous violence and exact number of those killed on both sides runs into hundreds of thousands.  Despite Partition, a large number of Muslims remained in the new State of India. Prior to Partition the population of undivided India was approximately 435m consisting broadly of 100m Muslims and mostly Hindus forming the rest (Christians and Sikhs are a very small part). After Partition, the population of Pakistan was 75m (with 10m Hindus and the rest Muslim) and India’s was 360m with 35m Muslims. 

Partition is taken as evidence that India’s Muslims have always had extra-national loyalties and Pakistan is nothing more than a visible symptom of these tendencies.

When India became a Republic with our own Constitution in 1950, it embraced secularism as a founding tenet – the separation of church and state. To restore religious harmony in India immediately after Independence and focus on building a new nation, the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, consciously downplayed any visible demonstration of India’s Hindu majority to give the Muslims who remained in India the sense of belonging to the new nation.

In 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist who accused him of pandering to Muslims. The loss of the Mahatma was met with revulsion by the peaceful Hindu majority. It ensured that secularism succeeded.

Was this process of secularisation of public life taken too far? In schools, for example, the teaching of history downplayed the violence that conquest brings. As one observer put it, the Islamic conquest of India was treated as a ‘cultural exchange program’ by some historians writing school textbooks[1]. One can argue this both ways – why did Nehru not attend temple openings, for example. Or why did Nehru allow the Haj Pilgrimage to be paid for the exchequer. India’s Muslims were allowed to keep Muslim Personal Law (the right to polygamy, divorce by uttering the word ‘talaq’, no alimony on divorce). But Hindu personal law was brought in line with modern civil law.

Nehru was not anti-Hindu. He was an atheist and had no love for any religion. He frowned upon any display of religious fervour of any description by anyone in his government. He was a moderniser who regarded religion as an obstacle. His economic model was Soviet Union which had undergone the fastest industrialisation of the 20th century so far. The USSR was a strong influence, but not to the extent of making Nehru a communist. Having said that, no one could ever mistake Mr Nehru’s rationalism for lack of love for this country. He had an almost mystical and emotional fascination with India.  As long as he was alive, and his love for and childlike fascination with the people of this country remained palpable to most Indians, the secular approach to public life was tolerated.

Today, the pendulum of public opinion has swung to the other extreme and there are a good number of Hindus who feel aggrieved.  They believe minorities have been pandered to, that Muslims are multiplying in droves, that Christian missionaries have actively targeted Hindus for conversion, etc. The Mahatma is no longer revered, indeed some people celebrate his assassin as a true patriot.

Rising economic prosperity, the availability of the internet, social media and the surge of Islamic terrorism over the last 25 years has only served to amplify these fears.  Christian missionaries in Tamil Nadu have sometimes crossed the line (these are Indians by the way), and Muslims have underperformed the majority in almost all areas including size of families. Repeated border wars with Pakistan (1965, 1971, 1998) and the terrible terrorist assault on Mumbai (2008) have kept relations with Pakistan in a state of suspended enmity. Since it was carved out of India as a Muslim state, it serves as a hook on which question the loyalty of Indian Muslims to the Indian Republic. This feeling persists even today among many Indian elite.

These feelings of Hindu hurt have caused a backlash against Indian historians who have traditionally treated India’s Muslim rulers as Indians first and Muslims second. The Mughals, the Khiljis, the Iltutmish, the Mamluks and myriad other Muslim dynasties may have made their way to India from Iran or Central Asia as conquerors but they settled down and ruled as domestic rulers. The new Hindu wants these rulers to be treated as colonisers, who destroyed temples, converted Hindus, raped Hindu women and stole Hindu wealth to be taken to Central Asia.

The truth is rather more complicated. The first Islamic invasions were just that – violent attacks. Once conquest was complete, society seems to have settled down into co-existence with Muslims. A ‘Persianate’ culture evolved based on imported Central Asian art, music, literature and cuisine, thoroughly indigenized, and which had a huge impact on Indian language, art, music, styles of rulership, warfare, attire – you name it[2].  This Persianate culture is under attack.  For example Urdu, the language born out of contact between Hindi and Persian, is dying out because it is strongly identified with Muslims.  Urdu was the language of class and refinement once upon a time, but no more.

As for temple destruction, it definitely happened. We could always say that one temple destroyed is a temple too many. Scholars have tried to piece together the exact number of temples destroyed by Muslim rulers over six centuries. The number is placed at around 500[3].  We could debate whether this destruction was systematic, targeted  and intentional due to Islam’s abhorrence for idol worship[4]. Or we could ask why the destruction was not more complete, as happened in the Arabian Peninsula once Islam became dominant. Was it because the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, which was the predominant school of Islamic law in India, was more conciliatory towards non-believers? That Muslim elites were vastly outnumbered by their Hindu subjects and hence adopted pacifism and symbiotic co-existence[5]? There is some evidence that temple destruction was not only a Muslim practice, but that it was also practised by Hindu kings[6].

The cultural cohesion was deeper than people believe. An American scholar has produced evidence, based on her deep scholarship in Persian and Sanskrit, that shows Muslim rulers and themes entered Sanskrit in poetry and literature[7].

Claims are made that India was a vastly wealthy nation whose riches were systematically drained by Muslim rulers in a systematic manner. This is a frequent assertion by interlocuters these days but it does not stand up to scrutiny. The fact is that the last big foreign Muslim ruler to take over the Indian empire was Babur in the 15th century. But for four centuries after the founding the Mughal dynasty, his descendants settled in India and ruled as Indian kings. It was a fabulously wealthy country, and this is what attracted the Portuguese and the English to come to India as traders. Once the English established supremacy in India, the East India Company systematically drained India of treasure, financing the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the West[8].

The most polarizing Muslim figure is the last great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who reigned from 1637 to 1707. He is routinely considered a monster who persecuted Hindus, taxed them to death[9] and destroyed some 30,000 temples and did his best to eradicate the religion[10]. Other historians contend otherwise, that he was a ruler of his times who had a complex relationship with his subjects[11][12].

The points made above are to illustrate that contact between cultures and peoples is always complex, and cannot be simplified into tweetable memes. Further, there is no such thing as definitive history given that records get lost, monuments are broken, and memories fade. When Sir William Jones and like-minded Company officers started to uncover India’s Buddhist past, they found that the memory of the faith had been completely lost, and very little trace remained other than a few monuments and inscriptions. And it was not that the invading Muslims destroyed them all[13]. The Buddhist learning centre at Ratnagiri in Odisha functioned until the 15th century before being abandoned, as the religion had died out. It was not due to violence. With so many unknowns, historians struggle to posit reasonable conjectures about the past supported by as much evidence as possible and if that is not available, they leave it as a question.

How these are presented to school children struggling to learn Math and Science and two languages will mean simplification which is sometimes astonishingly naive, as I have alluded to earlier. The lay person has no patience to piece the evidence together for herself and will rely on interpretations. And therein lies the danger, not just in India but in any country.

The new brash right wing Indian is justly proud of being a Hindu. But she believes Hindu pride and pride in our multi-cultural past are mutually exclusive. This is unfortunate. Even if Indian history was not written by Marxist historians (as is now alleged) how can one hide the complexity and the rich texture of cultural assimilation?  You can only simplify by substituting assertion for argument, volume for intellectual rigor.  For these reasons, Indian historians of the old school are under attack.

The struggle to understand and accept the past is a huge step in the evolution of a nation. When the Normans landed on the coast of England in 1066, they brought with them a new language and new practices. The process of conquest was violent. Norman landowners displaced their Saxon predecessors. The practice of droit du siegneur or jus primae noctis  was commonplace.  Yet no one remembers that today. Germany and France fought three wars over a hundred years (1870, 1914-18, 1939-45). Yet they made the European Union a reality. The transition from apartheid to majority rule in South Africa has not been perfect but has gone better than expected, and the role that the Truth And Reconciliation Commission played in that process should not be underestimated. 

We have to understand and accept the past because there is nothing we can do about it other than learn from it. Revising the past is not the answer; understanding and appreciating it is what is needed. Sadly, India seems to be headed the other way.

[1] Kapil Komireddy. “Malevolent Republic”, 2014

[2] Richard Eaton: “India In The Persianate Age”, 2019

[3] Richard Eaton in “Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identity in Islamicate India” (ed. Gilmartin and Lawrence), 2000.

[4] Andre Wink: “Al-Hind: The Slavic Kings and the Islamic conquest”, 2002

[5] Richard Eaton in “Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identity in Islamicate India” (ed. Gilmartin and Lawrence), 2000.

[6] Romila Thapar, “Somanatha: The Many Voices Of A History”, 2003

[7] Audrey Truschke, “The Language Of History” 2021

[8] Several: Jon Wilson ʼIndia Conquered, 2016; Shashi Tharoor ‘Inglorious Empire’, 2017; and William Dalrymple ‘The Anarchy’ 2018.

[9] Sir Jadunath Sarkar, ‘A History of Aurangzeb’, 1912.

[10] See the writings of Francois Gautier, a French historian living in India.

[11] Audrey Truschke, “Aurangzeb”, 2014.

[12] Romila Thapar and Percival Spears: A History Of India.

[13] Charles Allen ʼThe Buddha And The Sahebs’  2003 has a great account of how the Buddha was ‘rediscovered’!

7 thoughts on “India’s Marxist Historians

  1. You have ventured into an area which will elicit strong emotions. I commend you for the bravery to venture here, and attempting to present a balanced picture.

    Yes, the picture is complex and there are no tweetable memes. As with anything in history no “one side” is going to come out smelling sweet as a rose. We are all humans with huge strengths and big weaknesses. We will do great things, we will make mistakes. The overall picture will be a mix of the good and the bad and the problem is always being selective when reading history. Time tends to push opinions to the extreme and nuances are lost.

    The reason why there is a hardening of the Hindu opinion is a perception that the concept of secularism is one way. That needs some serious introspection amongst those who stand for secularism. Perceptions don’t arise in a vacuum. There is often a grain of truth which then gets blown up. And therein lies the problem.

    The true test of a secular position is that religion has no place in public life and government policy. It is a private matter and it is the absolute freedom of an individual to adopt any faith, or no faith for that matter, as long as it is kept in the private domain. By that standard, very little in India is truly secular.

    On the larger issue of cultural assimilation, human instinct is tribal. That is why you see the rise of tribalism everywhere, facilitated by social media where it is easier to band together and reinforce and harden beliefs. You see this in China, with Han domination . The Yuan dynasty of Khubilai Khan, which was really the first unifier of China as a nation, is still considered an interloper and comprised of foreign barbarians. You see this in the UK and the US with immigrants. In India, the dimension often tends to be religious because of our history that cultural outsiders tended to be religiously different.

    I recognise this is not a very cogent comment and is all over the place. But then, that is the nature of this area.


    1. Rather than right the excesses of secularism, we are going the other way. I am very sure no situation is perfect and as I have alluded to in my article, there were “secular excesses” if that’s the term. Instead, there seems to be a false sense of ‘manifest destiny towards a Hindu state’ that is driving the current dispensation – and combined with an authoritarian streak and an unwillingness to listen, it is leading us into uncharted culture wars instead of focusing on the essentials.

      Trying to change history books is not the answer. What are we trying to do here? Show that Akbar lost every battle he fought in, for example? Or that the Battle of Haldighati was actually won by the Hindu kings?

      Focus on the present and concentrate on the future. Make India a truly secular state if you wish, or make it one in which there is a state faith but it is extremely tolerant towards all other faiths. I leave it to politicians and thinkers – not my pay grade.

      But don’t change the past.


  2. Excellent piece of writing Ravi. I commend you for tackling a controversial topic.

    Contact between cultures and peoples is complex indeed. However anodyne terms like cultural assimilation hide the sharp edges that attend such assimilation, especially at the onset of the process. This process is not voluntary, happens over centuries and there is an element of serendipity to it not agency. So while we celebrate this cultural assimilation today, there should be an acknowledgement of trauma that set the process in motion.

    Centuries have passed since the pillage, plunder and desecration; so in the spirit of truth and reconciliation there should be no difficulty in a fulsome accounting and acknowledgement of those events . Attempts to gloss over the unsavory parts of history in the name of promoting interfaith amity, while well intentioned, are ahistorical. And one can argue that they have not achieved their desired end. It is this attempt by the historians commissioned by the government that lends weight to the perception that history as taught in the schools does not quite tell the whole truth.

    This is further reinforced when calls for course correction are immediately tarred as historical revisionism and given a short shrift. From the  point of view of Hindu right, the example of historical revisionism is the attempt to draw equivalency between temple destruction by Muslims by citing temple destructions by Hindu kings in the pre-Islamic period. Setting aside the difference in degree between the two, one wonders how well the argument that destruction of Babri Masjid was not that bad after all will go by citing destruction of each other’s mosques by Shias and Sunnis in Iraq.

    I don’t think serious thinkers on the right believe that Hindu pride and pride in a multicultural past are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they proclaim the Hindu tradition of tolerance and pluralism loudly . The issue is why should Hindu pride be subordinated to multicultural pride “to give the Muslims who stayed behind in India a sense of belonging”. Is it not reasonable to expect that after 900 years they should have a sense of belonging without needing any other crutches?

    I agree that revising the past is not the answer but to move beyond it and learn from it, it should be recounted fully, warts and all.


    1. Thank you for a detailed and thoughtful reply, Uday. I appreciate that very much indeed.

      This was always going to be a controversial topic because it is so current and so sensitive, and at the same time, a single blog post is never going to capture every nuance. My point was this. Do not hide or misrepresent history. Do not pander to anyone – majority or minority. Debate how many temples were destroyed.

      But do not distort the past. The Mughals WERE Indian rulers. Muslim rulers were Indian rulers. You do not have to paint them in a good light because we have Muslim citizens, nor do we have to show them as foreign monsters just to keep the fringe Hindus happy.


  3. Thoughtful and erudite as always Ravi. And that is expected.

    If we believe that history is the story of the victors by the victorious, we need to create a space for the non-victors. I urge you to read a book called “Crusades through Arab eyes.” Not very publicized and popular in the west – obviously. Another thread in my mind to re-read Edward Said and his thoughts on “Orientalism”.

    I to do think that we should not change the past but rather have the old narrative and the newer narratives. Supply the intelligent reader and student with rationale and let her choose what is plausible.

    We are not doing that and unfortunately rewriting history. Sad but inevitable. When the pendulum swings it does not swing to the balanced center. It swings to the other extreme and slowly achieves balance. But sane rational voices are what slowly brings balance…


    1. Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment, Sudip.

      I will read the ‘Crusades’ book, and I had ‘speedread’ Orientalism nearly 30 years ago – it calls for refresh. It is important that both sides are heard.

      But the modern historian tries to leave personal bias out and instead tries to look at events objectively, and draw conclusions from them with a certain degree of probability attached to each event. In India’s case, the Islamic conquest was not so complete that it led to the obliteration of India’s pre-Islamic past. This happened to a large degree in Iran, for example, but not completely. Even in Saudi Arabia, this has been impossible (if you caught the “Roads Of Arabia” exhibition organized by the Saudi Ministry of Culture in London/Paris/San Francisco/Barcelona/New York) until 2014, you will know what I mean.

      The point is that even though the Muslims ‘won’ and they ruled, they wrote their histories (Babarnama and Padshahnama, for example) but they were unable to reduce Hinduism to a fringe. Even though they destroyed some 500 temples – even make it 50,000 if you want – how many more monuments are left standing. And what is the religious composition of the country today? Last time I looked it was 83% Hindu.

      Therefore the ‘Orientalism’ thesis does not apply.

      Your view that we should try and present a balanced picture at all times makes a lot of sense to me.


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