Moulding the Past

Writing history for children in the times of historical revisionism

Students in a classroom at a government primary school in Bengal, in September 2022. Sudipta Das / Pacific Press / Alamy
Students in a classroom at a government primary school in Bengal, in September 2022. Sudipta Das / Pacific Press / Alamy
31 July, 2023

ON A HOT MONDAY morning in April, a dozen of us were sitting in a classroom at Kolkata’s Institute of Development Studies, watching the pata artist and illustrator Siraj Chitrakar sketch on a blackboard. We were there to attend a workshop for the second instalment of the Itihase Hatekhari—First History Lessons—book series. Chitrakar was sharing an idea for a page layout. First published in 2022, the series consists of short, illustrated and easy-to-read history books for middle-school students. Written in Bengali, all three of the initial books were later translated into Assamese, by the writer Arup Kalita, and English, by the translator Arunava Sinha. The books’ authors and co-editors, Anwesha Sengupta and Debarati Bagchi, told me that the second leg of the series, scheduled to be released by September this year, would follow suit.

In 2019, when they first began discussing writing the books with their third collaborator, Tista Das, an assistant professor of history at Bankura University, the country was in a furore. Just months away from the paralysing effects of the pandemic, the nation’s streets were ablaze with protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which could, along with the National Register of Citizens, pave the way to religion-based access to citizenship and the disenfranchisement of Muslims.

The perils these schemes posed for India’s Muslims were repeatedly denied in and outside parliament. In speeches delivered during the Bhartiya Janata Party’s election campaign in West Bengal, however, the union home minister, Amit Shah, described the CAA and NRC as a two-pronged technique to “detect and deport every infiltrator from our motherland.” He also emphasised how poorly Hindu refugees were treated under the 1950 Liaquat-Nehru Pact. The CAA and NRC would right these “wrongs” of the Partition, he suggested repeatedly. Such ideas spread across WhatsApp networks run directly or indirectly by the BJP and its associates. Messages celebrated the CAA as a major step towards building a Hindu Rashtra and ridding India of Muslims. The justification for such actions drew from the BJP’s Hindutva ideology, premised on Hindu victimhood.

These distorted, communal retellings of the past rode high on the wave of misinformation and false claims the BJP had been propagating since its rise to power. These include audacious declarations about well-chronicled scientific inventions—that the Hindu god Ganesh’s elephant head proves that plastic surgery was practised in India two thousand years ago, that Hindu sages provided guidelines for making aircraft and ancient Hindus pioneered stem-cell research. Then there are the insistent theories about all of India’s Islamic monuments—world heritage sites such as the Qutub Minar and the Taj Mahal—being Hindu temples appropriated by Muslim invaders. All these conspiracy theories, misleading claims and fabrications, peddled as history and pushed on formal and informal platforms, have one thing in common: at their core, they are all informed by the Hindu Right’s idea about the supposed superiority of the Aryan race and a denial of an Aryan invasion into South Asia. According to this narrative, the Aryans were indigenous to India and the Indus Valley Civilisation was a part of their Hindu culture. This tallies with the Hindutva line of argument about Muslims being outsiders to the country, the original “invaders” responsible for the fall of India’s Hindu golden age.