Narendra Modi’s Government Is Falsifying Indian History

Since coming to power, the Modi government has worked to promote a phony version of history in line with its Hindu chauvinist agenda. From school textbooks to academic research, every form of historical education has become a political battleground.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 9, 2023 in New Delhi, Delhi, India. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

I am the bearer of a historic document. Last summer, I applied for membership of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in Delhi.

The NMML is one of the most well-stocked and easily accessible libraries for researchers in India. It is of particular relevance for those working on the history of postcolonial India — a period for which declassified official records are scanty if not absent — because of its rich collection of private papers and oral history interviews.

In my experience, it is also one of the most efficiently managed repositories in the country. It is an intellectual oasis in an otherwise fast drying up landscape of systematically mismanaged and chronically underfunded institutions that support serious research in the humanities.

When I paid my membership fees to the cashier of the NMML, I noticed something peculiar about the receipt I was handed in return. The words “Nehru Memorial” in English and in Hindi were struck out and the words “Prime Ministers’” were written over them.

The NMML, so-called by dint of being housed in Teen Murti Bhavan — the official residence of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru — is an institution in transition. It is now helmed by sycophants of the right-wing Hindutva nationalist regime of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Most of them do not have the necessary academic qualifications.

With their resounding support, however, the museum and library have now been renamed. Nehru’s legacy has disproportionately come under assault for his famed insistence on the secular nature of the Indian nation-state. I was reliably informed by the staff that they would soon start issuing receipts that will have the name “PMML” in print. No more palimpsestic confusion.

Righting Wrongs, Writing Wrong

This is not an isolated occurrence. Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, history has been under siege. The past has always been weaponized more often than it is studied in postcolonial India. Yet what the BJP has been doing is more sinister. It is attempting to break into a million pieces any coherent and holistic sense of how the Indian republic had come into being.

The BJP would have everyone believe that history began in 2014 with the swearing in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His professed goals are to rectify historic wrongs, address imagined majoritarian grievances, and end the “distortion” of the past by secular, “anti-national” historians. A former “pracharak” (propagandist) of India’s longest-running homegrown militant fascist movement, the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS), he feels personally about this.

So does the BJP, which has been pursuing these objectives in three major ways over the last decade. By bulldozing public institutions and higher education infrastructure crucial for conducting historical research in India in a typically neoliberal vein. By tampering with prescribed pedagogy and curriculum to plant a conformist and myopic view of Indian history among students. And by fixating popular culture on inane debates about “authenticity” — of names and narratives — thereby undermining any notion of a shared past and obvious hybridities in Indian culture.

The BJP has been liberally deploying policy, personnel, and technology in these multipronged history wars. It has vowed to escalate them even further after this year’s general elections.

Subverting Institutions, Suppressing Thought

Consider the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). It is the preeminent public agency promoting historical research in India. It disburses grants and fellowships, supports the organization of conferences and exhibitions, and publishes books and journals, thereby setting the agenda for state-funded explorations in Indian history.

The ICHR has recently undergone what is being called a “top-to-bottom” takeover by the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY), an affiliate of the RSS. It is now manned by people without suitable academic credentials. One of their declared aims is to “save Indian history from the condescendence of Muslim historians.” As allegations of corruption and malpractice have risen against the ICHR bosses regarding the recruitment of staff, funding streams have dried up, and the once-thriving institution has become a shadow of its former self.

Allegations of botched-up hiring are not restricted to the ICHR alone. Similar quid-pro-quo transactions and nepotistic connections had been uncovered last year when the University of Delhi (DU) decided to fill up vacancies against permanent academic posts after over a decade of not doing so.

As one of the largest and oldest collegiate public universities in the country, DU had relied on the widespread “Uberification” of academic work. Following practices that have now become standard across metropolitan universities in the West, it had institutionalized precarity and exploitation in the service conditions and work contracts of early-career academics. When the time came to dole out permanent faculty positions in 2023, the university bosses and their collegiate underlings displaced deserving candidates and rewarded political loyalty and caste bias.

The humanities and social science faculties have taken a particularly heavy blow in universities across India. The recently rolled out New Education Policy (NEP) has already charted its course toward minimizing public funding of education and research in the country. Meanwhile, the Union Government has bestowed the status of “Institution of Eminence” to a nonexistent private university and has frozen the release of funds for public universities located in those provinces that have not elected the BJP to power.

Furthermore, the National Overseas Scholarship scheme, which supported Indian students from socially and educationally marginalized backgrounds in their studies abroad, now excludes those aiming to enroll in “courses concerning Indian [c]ulture/heritage/[h]istory/[s]ocial studies on India.” The BJP could not have made the writing on the wall any clearer: institutional support and employment opportunities will be routinely denied to those who refuse to view the past through its saffron-tinted glasses.

Saffronized and Substandard

Another public institution the BJP has instrumentalized to propagate its exclusionary view of Indian history is the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT). The NCERT is India’s most influential educational policy-making body. It is entrusted with the regular task of drafting and revising syllabi and textbooks for a majority of school-going students in the country.

This wide mandate makes the NCERT the perfect agency through which the BJP can directly meddle in pedagogical and curricular matters. And so it has, especially in the discipline of history.

Last year, on the pretext of “reducing the burden of students” who had been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCERT “rationalized” its textbooks and syllabi quite significantly. It dropped an entire theme on Mughal history and removed crucial chapters titled “Understanding Partition,” “Rise of Popular Movements,” “Dalit Poetry,” and “Democracy and Diversity.”

The NCERT also chucked out references to the 2002 Gujarat riots, which had taken place on the then chief minister Modi’s watch and all contextualizing information implicating the RSS in M. K. Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. Anything from the historical record that does not lend itself well to the BJP’s sense of a malleable Indian past has been cast aside as redundant.

Unpalatable Histories and the Idea of India

The BJP is extremely uncomfortable about the fact that its parent organization, the RSS, sat out the anti-colonial struggle against British imperial domination. The RSS had even been banned for its conspiratorial role in Gandhi’s assassination by the same politician whom the BJP has now sought to idealize and co-opt from the pantheon of Congress nationalists — Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

Modi’s party repeatedly tries to project many prominent Indian freedom fighters with a contemporary mass appeal like Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose as its political forerunners, even though they had been critical of the sectarian politics of the RSS in their time. It needs the cover of these popular figures from Indian history because one of the most favored ideologues of the RSS, V. D. Savarkar, is widely regarded as a turncoat and colonial collaborator, notwithstanding recent official attempts to politically rehabilitate his reputation.

Savarkar was of the opinion that India belongs to those for whom it is both the pitribhoomi (fatherland) and punyabhoomi (holy land). This was a roundabout way of saying that most non-Hindu minorities in the country, most prominently the Muslims, have a lesser claim to the nation. Consequently, the RSS-BJP would like to see them written out of Indian history altogether, especially from the medieval and early modern periods when Central Asians and Iranians, Turko-Mongols, Afghans, and even Ethiopians dominated northern and later peninsular Indian politics.

In this framework, the Mughals, descended from the Chagatai Turks and the Rajputs (a dominant western Indian ethnic group with whom they intermarried) are singled out as “outsiders” more often than others. This is in spite of the fact that even early Indian history is replete with instances of “foreign” influences and invasions — Hellenic and Scythian, Hephthalite and Parthian.

The BJP has now appropriated the “decolonial turn” in academic history-writing to claim an indigenous status for every cultural development worth its name in Indian history. Notwithstanding overwhelming evidence — genetic, philological, archaeological, and textual — to the contrary, it claims an unbroken umbilical continuity between India’s earliest urban bronze age civilization (which flourished in the Indus valley) and the culture that yielded the earliest sacred scriptures of the Hindus — the Vedas.

It seeks to refute the protohistoric migration of steppe pastoralists (Indo-Aryan linguistic group) to the Indian subcontinent and their consequent intermingling with the local populace. The idea that the pitribhoomi of ancient ancestral north Indians in the distant past could have been different from the punyabhoomi of their descendants today is anathema to the BJP’s monolithic idea of Indian history — where all change was endogenous until the arrival of the Muslims.

The Banality of Untruth

Public assertions by Modi and prominent BJP leaders regarding ancient Indian supremacy in science, medicine, and technology are another way in which the idea of an autarkic and glorious pre-Islamic Indian civilization is pushed. Instead of referring to actual mathematical and philosophical treatises of early Indian thinkers, the BJP fixates on “authentic” advances in “Indian knowledge systems” in the Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

By reading these texts and other aspects of early Indian mythology literally and selectively, a range of ridiculous claims are put forward. These include, for example, the suggestions that Indian flying chariots were precursors of modern aeroplanes, that Indians were practicing stem cell and advanced atomic research thousands of years ago, and that plastic surgery was prevalent in ancient India.

These inanities are widely and routinely disseminated through public speeches and forwarded messages on WhatsApp. The BJP’s in-house digital media team called the “IT Cell” has successfully weaponized this instant-messaging platform to maintain a steady stream of low-intensity but perpetual propaganda. It specializes in curating and spreading disinformation, hate speech, and conspiracy theories on a massive scale.

Indian history is a favorite peg to hang its falsities on. Messages usually begin with the clickbait “Historians/textbooks will not tell you this . . .” and end with some incendiary call to action or the other.

The most oft-repeated tropes are those of the “tyrant Muslim ruler,” “forced religious conversions,” “building of mosques by razing temples,” “violation of Hindu women,” and “forgotten Hindu kings who either fought back or presided over even larger empires.” Ironically, most of these tropes had germinated in the writings of British scholar-administrators in the colonial period.

In spite of its decolonial posturing, the BJP borrows from these dated works liberally and uncritically. Bollywood, India’s most popular Hindi film industry based out of Mumbai, has now joined the fray too, having found common purpose in popularizing these reductive tropes in recent productions.

Indian history is peppered with examples of “Hindu tyrants and Muslim rebels,” “Hindu commanders of Muslim rulers,” and “Muslim confidants of Hindu kings.” Islam did not only grow in the subcontinent as a result of military conquest but also spread through sinews of trade and cultural exchange, especially among historically dispossessed agrarian communities in the east.

Religious structures as symbols of state authority and proxy-treasuries were particularly vulnerable during invasions and regime changes. Wars did not cause misery along sectarian lines. These insights borne out by evidence from Indian history unsettle the BJP’s fabricated narrative of the past. Those who have attempted to point this out have been threatened and persecuted, and in some instances, even killed.

What’s In a Name?

India’s history wars have been continuing apace in yet another way. In the provinces where the BJP is running the government, names of entire towns, districts, and even railway stations are being changed. Allahabad has become Prayagraj, Aurangabad has become Chatrapati Shambhajinagar, Osmanabad has become Dharashiv, and Mughalsarai Junction has been renamed the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Junction. Aligarh is slated to become Harigarh and Ahmedabad might be renamed Karnavati soon.

The purpose behind such a move appears to be the pruning of visible “Islamic influence” from public signage and civic spaces. It is also an erasure of local history.

Last year, during the G20 summit held in New Delhi, another controversy over a historic name erupted. It all started with a gala dinner hosted in honor of the visiting state dignitaries who received invitations from the “president of Bharat.” BJP spokespersons took to the television, Twitter/X, and WhatsApp to argue that the name “India” itself was a British colonial ascription.

While it is true that “India” is an exonym (and many countries and continents across the world today are known by what foreigners once called them), it is more than twenty-five hundred years old at least. Persians and Greeks came up with that name for the land to the east of the river Indus.

In the early modern world, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Danes, and the French used the name for their joint-stock companies and trading outposts in the subcontinent well before the British arrived. Even the first article in the Constitution of India, which came into effect in 1950, declares “India, that is Bharat, shall be a union of states.”


The BJP does not have a leg to stand on in the history wars it has ignited in India. It knows too well that the weight of evidence is not in its favor. However, the party is not interested in mere academic debate. It wants to win the upcoming elections and the history wars are only a means for it to appeal to the electorate’s emotions and instincts, fears and prejudices.

It knows how to create a mob and a mob does not need to know history. It is best if the mob forgets it all and becomes disdainful of questions. A mob that spits on questions, especially about its own origins, is one that hounds and demolishes.

We have seen this script being played out before, in interwar Europe. With the noose tightening on democracy and pluralism, the question is not what else India will witness during these ongoing history wars but whether the country as we know it will survive at all.