OPINION: Religious fanaticism and the manipulation of Indian History

4 mins read

by Amit Singh

Changing the names of places and manipulating historical monuments to demonize religious minorities is a form of internal colonial violence which must be resisted…

The World watched with dismay when the magnificent statues of Buddhas of Bamyan were blown up in March 2001 by the Taliban militants in Afghanistan. A cultural heritage was targeted because it contradicted Taliban’s fanatic ideology. If not exactly, but on similar lines, recent event in Istanbul followed; where Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia converted back into a mosque. This was not surprising, given well-known, extreme right wing tendencies of Turkish leadership.

So, it wouldn’t be surprising if seventh wonder of the World, Taj Mahal, an ivory-white marble mausoleum suddenly converted into a Hindu temple by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Taj Mahal was built by Muslim emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal in 1632. Many Hindu nationalist leaders strongly believe that Taj Mahal originally was a temple called Tejo Mahalaya.

Fanatic Hindu leaders long been demanding to declare Taj Mahal into a Hindu temple. However, Hindu nationalist leader Sangeet Some thinks ‘Taj Mahal’ a blot on Indian culture and should get no place in history. Even, more shocking is a demand to amend the Indian Constitution to replace the word ‘India’ with ‘Bharat’ since India is an English term.  

Hindu cultural chauvinism has been on rise since Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014. Modi is changing the foundational faith of India by replacing religious pluralism with Hindu uniformity-under the banner of Hindutva. Hinduism is what most Indians still live by. Hindutva is an aggressive response to tolerant Hinduism. Hindutva is not only the means of Hinduizing the polity, and demonizing religious minorities, but also erasing the multicultural past of Indian heritage — by changing the names of places and historical monuments into Hindu symbols — where it does not exist.  

Over the past six years of Modi’s term as prime minister, Hindu nationalist party, Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), have renamed Indian towns, streets, airports and one of the country’s biggest train stations, swapping names that reflect Muslim heritage for Hinducentric ones. In doing so, they are revising the map of India and trying to rewrite its history.

In 2018, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party changed the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj — a word that references the Hindu pilgrimage site there. The name Allahabad dated to the 16th century, a legacy of a Muslim ruler, the Mughal Emperor Akbar.

In 2018, within hours of BJP ruled Uttar Pradesh announcing the renaming of Faizabad (a Muslim name) as Ayodhya, another BJP ruled state, Gujarat said it was keen on renaming Ahmedabad as Karnavati. It was Muslim ruler Sultan Ahmed Shah who laid the foundation of the walled city in Karnavati in 1411 A. D. and named it Ahmedabad. Also, in line with the Hindutva ideology of erasing the India’s secular past, in 1992, Babari Masjid (Muslim mosque) was demolished by Hindutva fanatics and nearly 2000 people were killed in ensuing riots between Hindu-Muslims.

Religious pluralism and tolerance are a hall mark of multicultural India — this spirit have been accommodated in an India’s secular constitution which empowers religious minorities to preserve and promote their ethnic culture. However, the ideological parent of the BJP, RSS (Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh) — which controls BJP — neither believe in secularism nor Indian Constitution. This is reflected recently, in removal of chapters on secularism, citizenship, democracy, popular struggles and movements from the curriculum of class 9th to 12th. An essential part of Indian history was erased silently — under the pretext of reducing the academic burden due to COVID—19 pandemic.  Nevertheless, it shall be noted RSS ideaologues were inspired by Mussolini and Hitter.  RSS considers Muslims and Christians as outsiders, and has been at the forefront of the campaign to rewrite history textbooks.

However, it seems under the right-wing Hindu government, non-Hindu cultural heritage is not safe or free from manipulation, who is hell bent to Hinduizing the multicultural symbols of past era. It would not be surprising if they start reshaping Portuguese architectural heritage into Hindu symbols in Goa. After all, their efforts have a symbolic and political purpose — to make India a complete Hindu nation. For such purposes, memories of past trauma are invoked. A chosen trauma is often used to interpret new traumas. In this context, Muslims are seen as invaders and responsible for the population growth, communal riots and poverty in India. Religious and cultural rituals including renaming the historical monuments with Hindu names, can serve to sustain the trauma and feed into the continued demonization of the other, while sacralising the self. This is how feelings of ‘ancient hatred’ are constructed and maintained.

Changing the name itself is not an issue. Names have been changed in the past also. Bombay became Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata but these changes are being done to demonize the Muslims. The picture is being created that Muslims are foreigners, they invaded India, and they are unwanted in India. One of the essential features of fascism is that it creates the enemy from within. What the BJP is doing is that they are creating an enemy out of Muslims, Christians, Dalits and other minorities. Changing the names of places and manipulating historical monuments to demonize religious minorities is a form of internal colonial violence which must be resisted, not only by a citizen of a particular country, but by the citizens of the World.

BJP government may not have been successful in flattening the COVID—19 pandemic curve, but, it did able, to certain extent, to flatten the diversity curve into uniformity in its pursuit in making India a hegemonic Hindu nation. Thus, it would be interesting to see how would a Hindu India would look like after a religion-based transformation is completed. In that case, Hindutva will be the end of Hinduism.

Amit Singh is a Human Rights Researcher. He is a PhD. candidate at Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal.