There are few academics in India more hated by the Right-wing and more admired by those who value scholarship than Romila Thapar. The breaker of chains, the first of her name, and indeed the mother of history in India, Thapar has had a distinguished career in writing, teaching and speaking about India’s past, and as the social media reaction to her recent article in The New York Times shows, it continues to enrage Right-wingers, such as columnist Tarek Fatah.
There are several reasons for the rampant dislike of Romila Thapar among Right-wingers and lapsed liberals. One, she makes a distinction between Hinduism, a religion and a way of life, and Hindutva, the politics of Hindu majoritarianism. Two, she is a fierce critic, as are most serious historians now, of the colonial segmentation of the study of Indian history into Hindu, Islamic and British periods. Three, she disagrees with the view, popular with the Sangh, that the origin of Hindus can be traced back to the Aryans and the Indus Valley Civilisation, which Haryana minister Anil Vij wanted to rename as the Saraswati Valley Civilisation. This presumes, as she writes in The New York Times, that a “single uniform culture of the Aryans” prevailed in the subcontinent, subsuming all others and was determined by a single religious Hindu identity. Four, she also indicates that brutality, destruction and violence cannot be ascribed merely to “the other” ethnic groups that came to India later. And five, her immense scholarship of India’s past, which is precisely the realm proponents of WhatsApp University want to control. As she wrote so prophetically in her 2014 book, The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History: “If the past is to be called upon to legitimise the present, then the veracity of such a past is to be continually vetted.”
The dislike for Thapar among the Right-wing goes deeper, embedded in the belief, widely popularised on social media, that a Left-liberal monopoly on scholarship in India, an outcome of Nehruvian democracy, has denied Hindus their rightful place in history.
‘Enemy of the people’
This is clear from the fact that Thapar was virtually declared an enemy of the people by the RSS and its sympathisers during the “cultural correction” of the first NDA government. In 2003, Thapar’s appointment to the Library of Congress‘ Kluge Chair was opposed to through an online petition with more than 2,000 signatures. It said she was a “Marxist and anti-Hindu”. The petition, addressed to the Library of Congress, went on to add: “She completely disavows that India ever had a history. The ongoing campaign by Romila Thapar and others to discredit Hindu civilisation is a war of cultural genocide. By your unfortunate selection of Thapar, America is now aiding and abetting this effort.”
The petition had no effect, but its genesis lay in the NDA government’s revision of NCERT history textbooks on the ground that certain paragraphs such as those on eating beef and the formulation of the caste system in ancient India were deleted. Thapar, who wrote the textbooks on Ancient India for Class VI, objected to the changes made without her permission and said it was part of propaganda to win forthcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. As she wrote at that time, and which remains true, the confrontation is not one between Leftist and Rightist historians but between “professional historians and politicians sympathetic to the Hindutva persuasion”.
That was in 2001. Politicians, she added, can go on denigrating the authors of the textbooks as progeny of “Macaulay, Marx and madrassas,” but the impact of this ranting remains marginal on the profession.
How little has changed since then.
A public intellectual
Romila Thapar is not merely a historian and teacher of eminence, professor emerita in the RSS’ favourite academic bugbear, Jawaharlal Nehru University, where she taught between 1971 and 1990, but also one of India’s foremost public intellectuals.
She has stayed away from state honours, even when given by supposedly favourable governments, as in the award of Padma Bhushan in 1992 and then again in 2005, writing to the President on both occasions. In 2005, she had written: “I only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not state awards”.
But she has never shied away from a fight – whether it is speaking on the absolute necessity of the public intellectual in India to question the state in 2014, or moving the Supreme Court last year, for instance, against the arrest of five activists –Gautam Navalakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves – for their alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon violence. Along with Devaki Jain, Maja Daruwala, Prabhat Patnaik, and Satish Deshpande, she filed a public interest litigation to ”prevent stifling of honest dissent so as to protect democratic values and the democracy”.
A student of English historian A.L. Basham at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, her doctorate was on Ashoka and the decline of the Mauryan empire. She was one of the first accessible historians of her time, commissioned by Penguin to write the first part of the ever-popular History Of Early India From The Origins To AD 1300. Ramin Jahanbegloo, historian and director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace, O.P. Jindal University, calls her the moral conscience of Indian history and its “most prestigious and truthful representative”. We owe her a view of ancient and modern Indian history, he says, “which teaches us how to make the distinction between historical events and the ideological interpretations of these events”.
Daughter of an Army doctor, Thapar comes from one of Delhi’s most privileged families. Romesh Thapar, once part of Indira Gandhi’s ‘inner’ cabinet, before he and wife Raj fell out with her over the Emergency, was her brother. And General Pran Nath Thapar, fourth Chief of Army Staff during the disastrous 1962 Indo-China war, was her uncle. She is the aunt, among others, of the well-connected socialite Malavika Singh, wildlife activist Valmik Thapar and cousin to star anchor Karan Thapar. At 87, she remains active, writing, reading, protesting, and living a fabulously solitary and singular life in her two-storey Maharani Bagh home, whose every flat surface is covered with books.
A nationalist to the core, she still recalls meeting Mahatma Gandhi when she was in school in Pune, and he was briefly set free while under house arrest at Aga Khan’s palace. She paid the mandatory Rs 5 and asked for the Mahatma’s autograph upon which he admonished her for wearing a silk kurta, telling her to wear khadi, which she immediately did.
That spirit of independence burns brightly in her still, even as she laments the absence of contemporary debate on the kind of India we live in. As she said in the lecture on The Public Intellectual in India: “The majority of current politicians are characterised by little, if any, vision of the kind of society they wish to construct, barring those that come with the limited concept of extreme religious nationalism.”
And she has never hesitated to call out the RSS ideology of establishing a Hindu Rashtra. As she said in an interview in 2016: “Intolerance of the views of others and anti-intellectualism are on the rise. In this confrontation, universities and the educational system are, and will continue to be, obvious targets. Education can easily be converted into indoctrination.”
Three years on, it remains frighteningly true.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
This article has been updated to reflect changes.