How the Mughals are Being Erased from Indian Textbooks
Ashaz Mohammed 28 March 2024

The 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, upon which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Ram temple was built, is seen by Hindu nationalists as a “historical retaliation” against India’s so-called “dark ages”. Several right-wing news outlets, such as Republic TV, have celebrated the inauguration of the new temple as a “500-year wait coming to an end.” This “dark” period, which lies 500 years in India’s past, is popularly characterized by the rise of the Mughals, an empire of Muslim rulers from what is now Uzbekistan. According to Hindu nationalists, the Babri Masjid is believed to have been built by the first Mughal emperor, Babur, as a result of the destruction of the “original” Ram temple that once stood on the site. Although there is no concrete historical and archaeological evidence of the destruction of this temple, there have been attempts by archaeologists and historians leaning towards the ideology of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) to suggest otherwise.


Revisionism in Archeology Thought to Villainize Muslims

One such person is archaeologist Braj Basi Lal, the former Director General of India’s top archaeological institution, the Archeological Survey of India, who in 1990 published an unverified, non-peer-reviewed article claiming evidence of the destruction of the temple under the Babri Masjid site, allegedly by Babur. Lal’s article was published in a journal associated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s largest Hindu nationalist organization, whose political wing is the current ruling government, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Lal’s contribution is just one instance of the major push toward historical revisionism that the Hindutva ideology has been creating since its inception. Its weaponization of history has reached its worst form under the current Modi government, where historical revisionism villainizing Muslims has seeped into formal institutions.


School History Textbooks Deleting Mughal History

In April 2023, the National Committee of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), which is responsible for publishing textbooks for all schools in India under the authority of the national level board of education, removed the only chapter devoted to Mughal history in high school education from its curriculum. This omission is a clear attempt to derecognize religious plurality in Indian history at the national level of formal education. There have been several previous attempts by Hindu nationalists to omit religious diversity in Indian history, both in universities and schools.

In 2011, the University of Delhi dropped A.K. Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations” from its undergraduate history curriculum. This was in response to a protest by the student wing of the RSS, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), against the “blasphemy” of the supposedly monolithic sacred text of the Ramayana being told in multiple forms and interpretations throughout Indian history – the Ram temple, as it stands today, is also believed to be the exact site where Ramayana’s God Rama was born.

Eminent historian Romila Thapar has also been criticized by Hindu nationalists for “anti-Hindu” school education. She was denounced by religious-political organizations Hindu Mahasabha and Arya Samaj for mentioning cattle slaughter and consumption in ancient India in the first set of NCERT history textbooks in the 1960s and 70s. It is not surprising that for proponents of Hindutva, the mention of beef consumption (considered taboo by several Hindus in India, especially upper caste Hindus) in ancient times would jeopardize the perfectly consistent and sacrosanct Hindu past they wish to construct in the current social consciousness.

These examples of advocating historical revision in the past to protect “Hindu histories” show the fragility of Hindu nationalist sentiments. But they are markedly different from the recent deletion of Mughal history from school textbooks altogether. What makes the omission of Mughal history so peculiar is how Hindu nationalists want to treat so-called “Hindu histories” and “Muslim histories”. For Hindutva, the former must be made into a monolithic institution of thought that fits into the narrative of a Hindu nation, and the latter must be completely vilified to push their contemporaries outside their nationalist project. The question then arises about the omission of Mughal history: how does the RSS-BJP intend to villainize the Mughals in order to construct a narrative to “avenge” them in the name of historical justice today, if it omits them altogether from an educational-historical consciousness?

The answer lies in two parts. One, the peculiar mode of historiography essential to Hindutva, and the second, the popular cultural space that the BJP-RSS occupies outside formal education.


A Hindu-centric Narrative Passed off as “Eternal Faith”  

Veer Savarkar, now considered the pioneer of the Hindutva ideology, defines the doctrine not in terms of the Hindu religion, but in terms of a collective history. In his seminal book, Essentials of Hindutva, he stresses that “Hindutva is not a word but a history” and dedicates a large part of his monograph to the construction of a Hindu past. He argues that the Hindu nation was founded by the “Prince of Ayodhya” and then mortally threatened by the invasions of Muslim rulers like Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century. Savarkar then emphasizes the conflict and loss of a “glorious” Hindu past, and puts forward the idea of a restoration of the “original” Hindu nation.

Within his mode of narrating history, Savarkar repeatedly demonstrates that only Hindu thought is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, and thus contemporary Hindus should be the sole bearers of its nationalized identity. Thus, Hindutva views not only Muslim invaders but even Indian Muslims in general as foreign elements who have no right to a national identity in the Indian subcontinent. Savarkar willfully ignores the rich history of interactions between Hindus and Muslims, who did not necessarily see each other solely in terms of strict religious identities. To cite one example among many, the history of temple desecration and destruction in India cannot be attributed solely to religious despotism. Both Hindu and Muslim rulers have destroyed religious centers for economic purposes, such as looting, and for political purposes, such as seizing important sites of power. Thus, the practice of temple desecration by rulers and invaders cannot be seen solely as an act of religious despotism. What the Hindutva ideology does is that it short-circuits this history by focusing on “Muslim tyranny” without any reflection on nuance, and solely attributes every act of despotism as religious in order to justify a “return to the past.”

Savarkar made it possible for anyone to turn Indian history into a fantastical, Hindu-centric narrative. Now that the bearers of his legacy – the RSS-BJP – have taken office in the Modi government, India’s socio-historical consciousness is being further annexed by what historians now call “saffronized history” (named after the color of the RSS flag). The educational void left by the erasure of Mughal history is to be filled with Islamophobic saffronized history. The RSS has a large, nationwide network of schools that operate outside the “formal” educational sphere and are tasked with inculcating what historian Tanika Sarkar calls “unending hatred” against Muslims. This, along with the fact that the RSS has no formal membership and is run almost entirely by volunteers in more than 50,000 local branches or shakhas, puts into perspective just how entrenched the Hindutva ideology is. The Hindutva ideologue only finds a louder voice in the age of digital media, where blind adherence to fake news and exaggerated claims has hooked Hindus on the BJP-RSS’s model of hatred and violence. Content creators opened accounts on social medias to spread fake historical conspiracies in the name of uncovering the “forgotten history”. With videos titled “The history you WISH you were taught in school,” it becomes clear that this “forgotten history” is entirely a polarizing mission to create hatred by appropriating the historical source.

The corruption of history by the RSS-BJP idealogue is attributed to the allure of Indian history in generating nationalist sentiments. Its appeal lies in exoticizing and mythicizing the distant past, and then convincing the present subject that this past is owed to them, a natural right. In fact, the term popularly used by Hindu nationalists to describe their faith, Sanatana Dharma, translates as “Eternal Faith,” as if the course of the Hindu faith has been and will always be consistent throughout history. Mass events such as the celebration of the new Ram temple take place in a social space where religion, mythology, history, and politics are all conflated, linked by a narrative of hatred, and ultimately resigned to losing their meaning. In an increasingly triumphant Hindu nation, it is all the more important for future generations to remember the current injustice faced by Muslims in India. This cannot be justified as retaliation for a mutilated and disfigured past but has to be understood through the antics of the rogue forensic who runs the morgue.  If this process is delayed, then history — as a discipline, as a record, as an education — will inevitably find itself in the hands of Hindutva.



Cover photo: Tourists are visiting the Red Fort in Old Delhi, India, on December 10, 2023.  (Photo by Nasir Kachroo / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP.)

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn to see and interact with our latest contents.

If you like our stories, events, publications and dossiers, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month).  




Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)