Last November, in a speech in New Delhi, the Union home minister, Amit Shah, asked scholars to make sure “to present history properly and in a glorious manner.” He called for “research on 30 dynasties who ruled over 150 years anywhere in [the] country and 300 eminent personalities who struggled for freedom.”

The quickest to respond to the home minister’s appeal was the Indian Council of Historical Research, a body funded and directed by the Central government. A report that appeared in The Print in late February tells us that in “a record three weeks’ time,” the ICHR put together an exhibition in New Delhi titled “Glory of Medieval India: Manifestation ofThe Unexplored Indian Dynasties, 8th-18th centuries”. The dynasties showcased in the exhibition included the Cholas, the Kakatiyas, the Marathas, and the rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire. Unsurprisingly, no ruler or dynasty with a Muslim name was featured.

As a sarkari body, the ICHR has always reflected the political priorities of the State and the ruling party. When the Congress was in power, it was run by a cabal of Left-nationalists who upheld a Marxist-inflected version of history. This past tendency has been used by supporters of the regime to justify the present biases of the organisation.

The criticism is not without merit – though there was a certain analytical rigour that the best Marxist historians brought to their task as well as a deep immersion in primary sources, both largely lacking in the current wave of history-writing (or rewriting) from the Hindu Right. However, the more important thing to remember is that our finest historians rarely sought cover under the umbrella of the ICHR. They worked in the university system, where they mentored doctoral students and wrote their own books and essays. These ranged over a wide range of subjects, utilised a wide range of primary sources, and rarely served a party-political agenda. The writers of these histories were scholars, not hacks. A few of them were Marxists, but most were not.

I shall return later to this flowering of historical research in the decades following Indian Independence. For the moment, let me stay with the rewriting of history so eagerly promoted by the rulers of today. What do Bharatiya Janata Party ideologues and their supporters expect from those who study or write about the past? Based on what is said by them in print, in public, and on social media, it seems that what we may term “Hindutva history” has three central tenets as explained below:

When it comes to the ancient period, Hindutva asks historians to portray India as being ahead of the world (and especially Europe and America) in philosophy, language, literature, statecraft, medicine, astronomy and so on. This presumed pre-eminence in the distant past is in part an attempt to bolster cultural pride; in part a justification for the claim that India shall soon be leading the rest of the world again;

When it comes to the medieval period, Hindutva asks historians to portray warriors and rulers with Muslim names as evil and perfidious, but warriors and rulers with Hindu names as noble and virtuous. When it comes to the modern period, Hindutva asks historians to diminish the role of the Indian National Congress in the freedom struggle by valorising trends that acted wholly or partially outside the fold of the Congress. In terms of individuals, this tenet demands that Gandhi and Nehru, in particular, be presented as weak and vacillating but Savarkar and Bose as heroic and unyielding.

Ridden with errors

Hindutva history is ridden with inconsistency and factual errors. One cannot claim India to be the “mother of democracy” and, at the same time, glorify medieval or ancient states that upheld the divine right of kings. One cannot celebrate dynasties that “ruled for over 150 years anywhere in the country” and, at the same time, attack the Congress for practising dynastic politics today. Likewise, to portray Bose and Gandhi as implacable rivals is to deny that, for long periods, they worked together and that even after they parted ways politically, Bose continued to enormously admire Gandhi, hailing him as the “Father of the Nation” and leading an army with brigades named after his Congress comrades – Gandhi, Nehru, and Maulana Azad.

Finally, presenting Hindus as intrinsically virtuous and subject to discrimination by foreigners or invaders obscures the fact that, via the operations of patriarchy and the caste system, far more cruelty and injustice have been meted out to Hindus by other Hindus than by Muslims or Christians.

A more substantive criticism of Hindutva history is its deeply impoverished understanding of the craft of history itself. Hindutva historians focus largely on the deeds of famous, powerful, and influential men, presenting them as either good or evil, without attention to nuance or context. We learn little about the human relationships these men engaged in, the social or cultural influences on them, the psychological motivations behind their actions, the compromises they may have made and the complicated (and rarely black-and-white) legacies they leave behind.

In any case, history is about much more than just the lives and deeds of famous or powerful men. In recent decades, historians in India – and elsewhere – have excavated the past in its many sidedness by dealing with people other than the elite, and with events other than wars lost or won. Hence the flourishing of what is called “history from below”, the study of the lives and struggles of peasants, workers, artisans, tribals and other subaltern groups. Hence the growth of women’s history, which brings to centrestage the story of the (often discriminated) half of humankind that traditional, male-dominated perspectives have rendered invisible. Or consider the dynamic field of environmental history, the study of how humans are shaped and reshaped by nature and natural constraints. Or the field of cultural history, which explores the dimensions of human creativity down the ages in literature, music, art, science, and architecture. Or the history of recreation and entertainment, of (for example) the cultural roots and the social consequences of the obsession of modern Indians with film and cricket.

This list of exciting fields of historical study is illustrative, not exhaustive. Yet it should give the reader some sense of the vast domains of human life and experience that Hindutva historians ignore, but which educated Indians with a genuine curiosity about the past might wish to learn about. Fortunately, professional historians with no ideological axe to grind have written insightfully about these subjects. Much of their work has been published in the Indian Economic and Social History Review, a journal which owes its reputation and standing to the late Professor Dharma Kumar, who edited it for almost three decades.

Professor Kumar was a principled liberal who abhorred ideologues of Left and Right (the Marxists hated her), who was deeply interested in broadening the scope of historical enquiry, who had a keen interest in social and cultural as well as economic and political history, and who had a particular talent for encouraging younger scholars. Apart from research papers in journals such as IESHR, the best Indian historians have also published books aimed at both a specialist as well as non-specialist audience, many of which are still in print.

An argument without end

Historians study all dimensions of the human experience: what materials the homes of past generations were made of, what crops they grew and what food they ate, what clothes they wore and what songs they sang, what the major axes of social hierarchy and social conflict were, which new technologies were adopted and what old ones discarded, what political systems came into being and what legal and administrative frameworks supported them, what role forests, water, climate and landscape play in economic and cultural life. There is a vast and growing library of works by Indian and foreign scholars on these subjects, from prehistory to the present.

These historical themes, endlessly fascinating to others, are of little interest to the practitioner or consumer of Hindutva history who wishes only to have his ideological biases confirmed by the exaltation of Hindu “heroes” and Hindu “civilisation” and the corresponding characterisation of Muslims (and, occasionally, Chris­tians) as villains.

History, the great Dutch scholar, Pieter Geyl, once remarked is an argument without end. The study of India’s past can only be enriched by being open to scholars with different frameworks, different methodologies, different narrative strategies. However, that cannot happen if an ideological straitjacket is laid on the prospective historian, if a politician in power commands scholars what and what not to suppress or to highlight. Scholars once spoke of the “Stalinist falsification of history”; that particular problem, fortunately, no longer exists. What we now have to contend with is the Hindutva distortion of history, the tendentious misrepresentation of the past to serve a nakedly majoritarian and chauvinist agenda.

The updated edition of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is now in stores. His email address is

This article first appeared on The Telegraph.