To edit Muslims out of India’s history is to deny them a future

Other countries have made this mistake. India should avoid going down this path.

Tourists crowd the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. The Taj Mahal is a marble mausoleum built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal. (AP Photo/Pawan Sharma)
Tourists crowd the Taj Mahal, a marble mausoleum built in Agra, India, by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal [File: Pawan Sharma/AP]

Indian historians and students of the subject have long loved to mock the omissions and farcical narratives that mark history curricula in Pakistan. The Persian, Hindu and even Buddhist eras in what is present-day Pakistan are either absent or receive reluctant mentions as insignificant interruptions before the “genuine history” that begins in the eighth century with the coming of Arabs. It really is an affront to historiography.

For instance, the Indus Valley civilisation is discussed but not with the emphasis it deserves. The Aryan civilisation, so crucial to understanding the subsequent phases, is completely omitted.

Never mind that the country was once part of the Persian empire of Cyrus the Great or that during the third century BC it was part of the dominion of Asoka, who ruled from Pataliputra (modern Patna) in eastern India.

Well, the joke’s now on those Indians who jeered at Pakistan. And it’s not funny.

India’s recent textbook purges show a similar disregard of history and facts with the government seeking to alter how it was traditionally taught and cherry-pick what it wants students to learn — and what it wants to ignore.

Textbooks have been quietly edited to remove important chunks of history from India’s Mughal era, including the achievements of that Muslim dynasty, even though their legacy lives on in iconic architecture, cultural traditions and so much more. References to independent India’s first education minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad — a senior figure in the country’s struggle for freedom from British rule, a close comrade of Mahatma Gandhi and a beacon of Hindu-Muslim unity — have been eliminated.

Yet the intelligentsia in India has barely registered even a whimper of protest over this brazen bulldozing of history. This is no less than lying to students. It hurts both serious academic scholarship and access to the most basic facts for future generations.

The medieval historical period is such a crucial era of India’s past — one when the country’s economic might reached its peak, among other achievements — and excluding it from the curriculum would amount to gross intellectual dishonesty.

Historical narratives are always open to alternate views, revision, debate and healthy discussion, but omitting facts is an unacademic approach.

The present government’s interest in this historical course correction is not new. There has always been a school of thought that is ideologically averse to the conventional understanding of how medieval kings ruled. Followers of this school of thought question the sources that, for instance, suggest that medieval Muslim kings and royals often struck alliances with their Hindu counterparts.

But rather than call for objective debates and discussion, whole chapters have been done away with. History cannot be sacrificed at the altar of political convenience. Students and scholars alike should take serious umbrage at the changes.

This is an infringement on the right to education and more importantly to knowing the truth. But this isn’t just an academic exercise — it has a more serious fallout.

Perhaps more than the harm to historical academic scholarship, these deletions can be conceived as a message to Indian minorities. By obliterating important parts of India’s Muslim past from textbooks, the government seems to be giving in to those who believe that the country’s history and future belong only to Hindus.

Such steps can only polarise society; pose a challenge to the country’s inclusive growth, peace and unity; and mark a new low for India. As it is, not one of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) 301 directly elected members of parliament is Muslim. It does not have a single Muslim among its more than 1,000 state legislators in the country.

We read reports suggesting that the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen on reaching out to so-called pasmanda Muslims — a giant chunk of the community that consists of socially and economically deprived classes.

But if it is serious about those efforts, the government must discourage moves that further alienate Muslims. It should, for instance, be revering freedom fighters such as Maulana Azad — a vehement critic of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Two-Nation theory, which was the basis of the creation of Pakistan — rather than erasing their legacy.

The BJP can’t hope to realistically make inroads among any section of the community if its policies end up pushing patriotic Muslims, who take deep pride in their Indian identity, against the wall.

And the country’s rulers must be prudent enough to realise that’s India’s much touted growth cannot be achieved if a huge section of its citizens feels unwelcome and targeted.

When a community is repeatedly told that the forerunners of its faith were plunderers and were detrimental to the country, it is denied the deep historical ties of love and sacrifice that frame the identity of Muslim Indians and their place in the nation.

India is home to 200 million Muslims eager to be part of the growth and development of the country. Instead of further segregation, they must be assured of their place in India. That is only possible when the government acknowledges Muslim history as India’s own and embraces the country’s multiethnic past.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.