Pillars and stone for a new Hindu temple to be built on a contested religious site in Ayodhya, India, September 2010
Kuni Takahashi / The New York Times / Redux

As the coronavirus pandemic rages, workers in the north Indian town of Ayodhya toil to build a new Hindu temple where a mosque called the Babri Masjid once stood. An unassuming structure of brick and plaster, the mosque was built in the sixteenth century on the orders of Babur, the Muslim conqueror from Central Asia who established the Mughal dynasty in India. For centuries, the mosque adjoined temples and monasteries associated with the legendary Hindu divine king Rama. But in 1992, Hindu nationalist politicians organized a mob to storm the mosque and hack it to rubble, claiming that it had been built on the site of Rama’s birthplace. This episode of iconoclasm signaled the rise of Hindu nationalism as a powerful force in modern Indian politics, culminating in the election in 2014—and reelection in 2019—of one of its most fervent proponents, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Supreme Court of India ruled last year that the demolition of Babri Masjid was illegal, but it still awarded the site to a government-appointed trust that would build a temple there. The decision amounted to a victory for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the larger Hindu nationalist project that seeks to define India as a Hindu nation with a principally Hindu past. Muslims, who make up around 14 percent of the population, have lived in South Asia for more than a millennium, but the BJP and its allies seek to deny their belonging to the nation’s present or past.

A recent bout of iconoclasm in Europe and North America has reopened conversations in the West that are in many respects familiar to Indian historians. Statues of figures associated with slavery, genocide, and white supremacy seem to be falling every day. Some scholars of Indian history were perturbed when protesters flung the statue of the seventeenth-century British slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbor in June. Whatever Colston’s sins, the anarchic removal of the monument recalled the destruction of the Babri Masjid and other Hindu nationalist attacks on mosques and statues to avenge perceived historical wrongs.

But how a society chooses to remember its past is a reflection of how it sees its present. Both supporters and detractors of these monuments and historical structures seek to shape how the story of their countries is told. Modi’s government is erecting the very triumphalist and exclusive vision of history that activists in the West are now trying to topple. Recent acts of iconoclasm in the United States and in Europe grow out of—and continue to fuel—a conversation about structural racism and the history of slavery and colonization. By contrast, in India, the authoritarian state steadily works to reshape public space by claiming the right to destroy, preserve, and build. It uses this power to extend its reach and suppress critics and beleaguered minorities.

After Modi won his first term in 2014, he infused the Hindu nationalist project with his own grandiose aspirations and autocratic aesthetics. These efforts include the construction of a mammoth statue—the world’s tallest—of an independence leader whom the Hindu right now claim as their own; the leveling of hundreds of buildings, including historic ones, in the holy city of Varanasi to facilitate pilgrim access to the sacred Vishwanath temple and, perhaps, precipitate another mosque demolition; and, now, the total redevelopment of New Delhi’s iconic Central Vista, which is akin to the National Mall in Washington. This last project in the capital will include, among many other structures, a new prime ministerial mansion and a fresh Parliament building, all meant to last at least 150 to 200 years. The plan is imperial in scope; it evokes past monarchs, who each sought to build Delhi anew. It also signals that Modi’s government has a vision for itself that is not confined by the term limits of elections but seeks to shape the nation for the foreseeable future.

That vision of the future rests largely on a particular view of the past. Vinayak Savarkar, a key early ideologue of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, declared in 1923 that India was both a fatherland and a holy land, whose history and civilization were essentially Hindu. This notion ran counter to the broadly pluralist and secular nationalism of India’s founders, such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister. Muslims and Christians, Savarkar concluded, even those descended from Hindu converts, were not real Indians.

The Hindu nationalist vision of the future rests largely on a particular view of the past.

Hindutva puts religious minorities in India in an impossible double bind. They can never be allowed to completely belong, yet they are still in some sense necessary, for their existence allows true Indians—Hindus—to be identified by contrast. Savarkar drew inspiration from the treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow era. In 1944, he told an American journalist that he would treat Muslims as “a minority, in the position of your Negroes.” Savarkar’s ideas still animate the rhetoric and actions of his successors, who have set about elevating his public image.

There are no “culture wars” in India like those that rage in the United States, because Hindu nationalists have in large part already won. The print and television media, with only a few exceptions, have found that their best interests lie in amplifying the government line. Hindutva visions of Indian history and identity, incoherent and evolving as they often are, have become the new consensus. With the rise of the BJP, the notion that Muslims came to India as foreign colonizers, like the British—along with the false claim that they even perpetrated a “Hindu Holocaust”—has gained strength and popularity.

Hindu nationalism centers around grievance and the desire to correct—or avenge—past wrongs. Its adherents have accused left-leaning, secular scholars of whitewashing the historical record and minimizing the violence of Muslim rulers in previous centuries. And Muslim conquerors and leaders certainly engaged in violence, as monarchs and would-be kings tended to do everywhere. Some of them, incontrovertibly, attacked temples—desecrations that remain a particular source of contention for Hindu nationalists. For instance, the eleventh-century warlord Mahmud of Ghazna smashed and looted temples during his raids of India, including Somnath in Gujarat. The seventeenth-century Mughal emperor Jahangir vandalized temples near Pushkar Lake to intimidate a rebellious ruler nearby. His son Shah Jahan acceded to the throne in 1628 and soon razed 76 unfinished temples in Varanasi. Shah Jahan’s successor, Aurangzeb, presided over several more incidents of temple desecration and destruction. Hindu nationalists exaggerate these instances of iconoclasm and identify contemporary Muslims, who are an economically weak and socially disadvantaged minority, with rulers from the distant past, portraying them as oppressors and deserving of retribution.

An artist dressed as the Mughal emperor Akbar sits in Mumbai, India, February 2012
An artist dressed as the Mughal emperor Akbar sits in Mumbai, India, February 2012
Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

Scholars have tried to place the centuries-old acts of iconoclasm in a broader context. Temple raiding, far from being unique to Islam, was an expression of political domination that finds echoes as far back as Roman imperial rule and ancient Mesopotamia. But Muslim rulers on the subcontinent didn’t oppress non-Muslims in the manner that such acts might suggest. Mughal royals, for example, lavished support on many temples and Hindu ascetic orders. The Muslim sovereigns who attacked temples for political clout also often paid for others to be built or renovated; and Muslim rulers cast themselves in the genealogies of Hindu deities or sought wisdom in Sanskrit texts. Tellingly, Sanskrit writings provide little evidence of any sustained history of Hindu trauma stemming from these temple attacks. Moreover, the very notion of a pan-Indian, primordial Hindu identity crystallized only in the nineteenth century during colonial British rule.

In a post-truth world, pugilists and zealots dismiss such scholarly arguments as apologia for Muslim violence or as a weak case for pluralism that divests Hindus of their rights as the majority. Those who question Hindutva narratives risk being smeared as “Hinduphobes” or as sepoys—the Indian foot soldiers of Britain’s East India Company—who speak in the foreign voice of the colonial master. The patient labor of historians, in laying out nuance, is no match for an onslaught of misinformation backed by brute force and capital. The state and its allies have generated a flood of Hindu supremacist propaganda, including viral WhatsApp messages, videos, Facebook posts, tweets, and news stories that television anchors then echo and broadcast.

There is little scope for public debate and discussion where freedom of expression is under threat. Recourse to history––even more sophisticated histories––can take a society only so far. The problem is not, as the German philosopher Georg Hegel once suggested, that Indians have no history. History is everywhere, deployed to enrage and incite. Today, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party seeks to create an ethnostate on the bedrock of an imagined history.