In the Battle over India’s History, Hindu Nationalists Square off Against a Respected HistorianHistorians in the News
tags: India, Hinduism, nationalism
Romila Thapar is the preeminent historian of ancient India, an octogenarian feted the world over for her scholarship excavating answers to questions at the heart of the country's past. She holds honorary doctorates from top universities including Oxford, is the recipient of the Kluge Prize — akin to the Nobel in social sciences — and has lectured at colleges across the world.
Those decades of research and accolades have turned her into a prime target.
At the age of 89, Thapar is the subject of attacks by supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, who view her as an opponent to be discredited.
“In the early days, I used to get a little upset,” she said. Accusations of ignorance about ancient Indian history quickly devolve into “pornographic and sexist” remarks. “But it’s happened so frequently and regularly that it doesn’t distress me anymore,” she said.
At stake is India’s sense of self. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pursuing an agenda that emphasizes Hindu primacy in India — a vast, multireligious democracy founded on secular ideals. History is a key part of that vision.
For Hindu nationalists, India’s past consists of a glorious Hindu civilization followed by centuries of Muslim rule that Modi has described as a thousand years of “slavery.”
Thapar considers such assertions both simplistic and incorrect. Based on extensive research of Sanskrit and Prakrit texts and drawing upon archaeological data, she presents a more complex picture of Indian history. Her research and writings undermines the ruling party’s efforts to project a unified Hindu tradition stretching back thousands of years and to paint Muslim rulers of India as nothing more than invaders or tyrants.
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