According to the latest history books being ordered by the government of the Indian state of Gujarat, ancient India was home to both automobiles and stem cell research. The decision has sparked criticism by opponents of Hindu nationalism who fear the books will facilitate recruitment by far-right organizations and inflame tensions with Muslims.
The books were written by the controversial author Dinanath Batra, who derived his conclusions from a close study of ancient texts such as the Mahabharata. Batra gained notoriety earlier this year when he successfully campaigned against a book by a U.S. author that supposedly disparaged Hinduism. As a result, Penguin Random House, a large international publishing house, withdrew the book and destroyed the copies. He has even argued that the blowing out of candles on a birthday cake is a destructive Western cultural import that should be avoided by Hindus.
The recent resurgence of Hindu nationalism in recent months as a potent political force has caught many observers, both in and out of India, by surprise. The consequence of this shift could reshape the country dramatically in coming years, with significant implications across the region and around the world.
For example, Narendra Modi, the recently elected prime minister and leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, ordered bureaucrats in New Delhi to communicate solely in Hindi. Until then, both English and Hindi had served as India's official languages, on top of the other 20 languages that receive some form of official recognition.
Critics fear that the move is an attempt both to isolate the English-speaking elite in the nation's capital, many of whom have been educated in either the United States or the United Kingdom, and to further promote the concept of India as a Hindi-speaking Hindu country. Given the sizable populations within India of non-Hindi-speaking peoples, which may account for almost half the country, it would seem an administrative impossibility to force a single language on them.
In effect, no matter what one's primary language happens to be, the knowledge that all official government business can be conducted in English provides a bridge between cultures. Learning English as the first-choice second language has, of course, other tangible benefits, as well. Despite the short-term political points that Modi will score in the Hindi-speaking heartland of the country, which is his political base, by limiting the use of English, he risks undermining one of the strengths of India. English proficiency enables millions of Indians to participate in the global information-driven economy and profit accordingly.
The move against English is not simply an isolated piece of populist politicking. The BJP election manifesto, on the back of which Modi swept into office in April, outlined plans to outlaw the killing of cows, build a controversial Hindu temple on a Muslim holy site in northern India, and remove the "semiautonomous" status of the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir. The BJP was last in power in 2004.
Since its foundation, India has been a secular state. With 1.2 billion people, it is difficult to envision such a multicultural and multilingual country being driven in the direction of only one component group, no matter how large that group might be. A one-size-fits-all approach would inevitably invoke backlash from the groups on the outside of that consensus. Unfortunately, the Indian National Congress Party, led by Sonia Gandhi, was unable to deliver victory in April for the supporters of secularism and unity.
Like most political parties, the BJP is not a monolith, and divisions and fault lines exist within it. Not all BJP members support Modi, particularly in light of his autocratic leadership style. As a result, it remains to be seen how well the BJP can pursue both its plans to revitalize the Indian economy, which continues to operate below its full potential, and its aspirations to transform India into a more overtly Hinducentric country.
Until then, it is useful to continue to bear in mind that India is both a very large and a very diverse country with a long history of communal disputes. Its size and diversity clearly could be strengths that would help it in achieving economic growth and development, but the risk of internal conflicts arising from actual or perceived attacks is ever present.
To the extent that the BJP and other Hindu nationalists favor the fairy tales of rewritten history books and the polling surge that derives from fighting a cultural war that repeatedly lifts one group up at the expense of others, the day-to-day problems facing India today will continue to be pushed into an indistinct and ill-prepared future.
Modi and the other BJP members should consider fully and frankly what the highest priorities are for their government and govern with the needs of all Indians in mind.
Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.