Blogs > Cliopatria > Romila Thapar

Jan 7, 2004 8:31 pm

Romila Thapar

And speaking of Indian scholars and historians under attack by Hindutva - there is also Romila Thapar. I was alerted to her situation by another Indian scholar who lives in the West and is a fan of B&W. That's one of the hugely rewarding things about B&W, as a matter of fact: that people do tell me things like this. And that B&W is considered a resource in the effort to counter such things.

Thapar is

Emeritus professor of ancient Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, author of many seminal works on the history of ancient India, recipient of honorary degrees from many leading world universities, Thapar was recently honoured by the US Library of Congress in a manner befitting her scholarly standing. The library announced that it was appointing Professor Thapar as the first holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South, and that she would spend 10 months at the John W Kluge Centre in Washington DC pursuing “historical consciousness in early India”.

But, as this story in Himal puts it

While 72-year-old Thapar’s appointment was greeted with applause by serious students of history, little did anyone realise that acolytes of the Hindutva brand of politics, primarily those in the Indian diaspora, would unleash a vitriolic campaign against her built on name-calling and the disparaging of her professional qualifications. Claiming that “her appointment is a great travesty”, an online petition calling for its cancellation has, as of the last week in May, collected over 2000 signatures. Thapar, according to the petition, “is an avowed antagonist of India’s Hindu civilization. As a well-known Marxist, she represents a completely Euro-centric world view”. Protesting that she cannot “be the correct choice to represent India’s ancient history and civilization”, it states that she “completely disavows that India ever had a history”. The petitioners also aver that by “discrediting Hindu civilization” Romila Thapar and others are engaged in a “war of cultural genocide”.

There is an article by Thapar in the Indian magazine Frontline on Hindutva misunderstanding and distortion of history.

Indian history from the perspective of the Hindutva ideology reintroduces ideas that have long been discarded and are of little relevance to an understanding of the past. The way in which information is put together, and generalisations drawn from this, do not stand the test of analyses as used in the contemporary study of history. The rewriting of history according to these ideas is not to illumine the past but to allow an easier legitimation from the past for the political requirements of the present. The Hindutva obsession with identity is not a problem related to the early history of India but arises out of an attempt to manipulate identities in contemporary politics...History as projected by Hindutva ideologues, which is being introduced to children through textbooks and is being thrust upon research institutes, precludes an open discussion of evidence and interpretation. Nor does it bear any trace of the new methods of historical analyses now being used in centres of historical research.

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Timothy Burke - 1/8/2004

Hindutva is intensely modernist, I think, in its sense of history and nation.

I think one of the things worth considering here is the extraordinary degree to which academic historical scholarship has developed in India and become highly comparable to Anglo-American work on the subcontinent. In some other "area studies" contexts, there is either a tremendous amount of anxiety about the perceived prominence or dominance of work by outsiders over scholarship about a particular region or nation or there are effectively two largely separate, minimally interacting bodies of scholarly work on a given place, one local and one Anglo-American or Western.

Historical scholarship in India and its diaspora, on the other hand, seems to me to be both intellectually innovative and technically skilled while also being deeply and dialogically connected to work on Indian history in the US, Britain and Western Europe.

And this is really what makes it a target for Hindutva. Hindutva is not proposing to create a history in the wake of some totally destructive erasure of historical representation, but instead sets itself up as a complete opposite to a formidable body of secular, scholarly, cosmopolitan, historiography, proposing instead a local, romantic, popular modernist mythography of "being Indian" that cannot coexist peacefully with the norms of a project of skeptical, empirical historical inquiry.

This is one of those junctures where the tragic confusion of some scholars in the US and England about where their sympathies should lie potentially becomes pretty dangerous if not corrected. It strikes me that Hindutva's self-representation is actually pretty fair in one respect: it is more genuinely popular, "from-below", and less obviously "Western" than scholarly history practiced in Indian academies (though in the end, I'd say it's actually quite resonantly "Western" in the same way that most forms of romantic anti-modernity modernism ultimately are). For some scholars, the mere notion that something is meaningfully "from-below" accords it instant moral legitimacy, particularly if it involves non-Westerners refusing or rejecting something that can be reasonably tagged as Western. But Hindutva is systematically repellant, and any intellectual or morally conscious person anywhere in the world ought to recognize it as such.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/8/2004

Well, the conventional description of pre-Mughal Indian historiography is "cyclical" meaning that there is a pattern of existence which is repeated (on a massive scale, more than a personal one) but that it is not progressive towards an end (except in a personal form, towards release from the cycle of birth and rebirth).

I'm not sure what impact the Mughal had on India in this regard, but the impression of cyclical history survived into the colonial era. In that sense, I'd argue that Hindutva history is, like the fascist movements, modernist in its rigid categorizations and teleology.

Ophelia Benson - 1/8/2004

Which is so extremely hard to do in India of all places - which perhaps explains the extra level of aggression.

I would like to know a lot more too. My informant was hoping to write an article on the subject for B&W, if she could find the time. I may resort to begging.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/8/2004

All of this is very frightening and destructive. Another reminder--as if we needed one--of how so many people only want the past to confirm what they desire.

I wish I knew more to help put this particular movement in perspective. In particular I would like to know more about the study of history in the Indian subcontinent, and the extent to which the British (and perhaps the Mughals before them) broke any pre-existing tradition of history while adding traditions of their own.

As described here the rise of Hindutva ideology seems similar to how some European ethic nationalisms were formed. Intellectuals consciously reshaped the past in order to create the sense of a common "race" that must have its own land.