Romila Thapar
Historian and author Romila Thapar | Commons
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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.


Also read: Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Romila Thapar among 200 writers who want to vote out hate politics


‘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.


Also read: Why is Karan Thapar complaining? His dynasty holds a key to Lutyens’ Delhi


 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”.


Also read: Archeologist who found 4,500-yr-old skeletons in Haryana doesn’t buy Aryan invasion theory


A nationalist

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.

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17 Comments Share Your Views

17 COMMENTS

  1. So far I have gone through her works, from ancient history to modern day India, she has proved her objectivity and a subjective approach in comprehending facts and discerning truths out of a heap of trash. Her contribution how to write history is a turning point for those who assumes truths first, then starts proving them evidencialy.

  2. The doyen of Indian history is Sir Jadunath Sircar. And the “dean” of Indian history is Prof. R C Majumdar.
    Ms. Thapar is neither the “father” nor the “mother” of Indian history. She undoubtedly is an eminent historian but to paint her as the only quality historian this nation has ever produced is a gross distortion of Indian history. But then Indian Marxists are known for twisting history to suit their ideological aims and ends.
    No one hates Ms. Thapar. But a huge majority of Indians do not agree with her opinions and theories regarding Indian history, culture and society. Is disagreeing the equivalent of hatred? I don’t think so.
    Prof. Thapar along with Prof. Bipan Chandra, Prof. D N Jha and Prof. Irfan Habib are the acme of the Marxist school of history in India.

  3. Romila Thapar is a colonial collaborator and a congressi darbar historian who did an admirable job of propagating the distorted nehruvian version of the modern Indian history. But in the end, truth will always win. A new India is rising, which will decimate the concocted history of Thapar and her ilk. In 50 years from now, history will judge Romila Thapar very harshly, for being a professionally and intellectually dishonest academic and for serving as a propagandist of her political masters.

  4. The upper caste mother of upper caste Indian history is both amusing and infuriating. She almost suggests that untouchables/outcastes are born out of bastardization in her vol The Aryan… highly offensive speculation on the character of the upper caste woman. Mommy does not read any languages ancient nor Phule nor Ambedkar. And what is this difference between Hindutva and Hinduism …well, very upper caste amusements here.

  5. I challenge her based upon her own statements & on basis of other Academic sources –

    https://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/i-write-what-i-think-is-right-give-my-evidence-take-it-or-leave-it-historian-romila-thapar-ians-interview-118030500324_1.html

    I read a lot of academic stuff which challenges her claims esp. with regards to caste & not only that she herself has asked for a local caste histories rather than grand caste narratives about India but does her change gets reflected or mentioned clearly in any news or media articles ?

    For example note her changing stance regarding Aryan debate –
    https://scroll.in/article/912945/romila-thapar-who-were-the-aryans-is-a-less-important-question-than-what-it-meant-to-be-aryan
    https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/gEiq0KunnBtBMBHoQsGJrN/The-many-worlds-and-wonders-of-Indian-history.html

    She is introducing her readers to her methodology & it’s evolution because she wants to come off as a transparent & honest scholar as she did created ideologically biased history in early part of her carrier but in case of contrary evidences like the powers artisans enjoyed which varied from kingdom to kingdom which she has mentioned in one of her talks, so she can change her stance without being accused of ideological bias.

  6. I hope ThePrint also publishes a similar sized article on historians such as R C Majumdar to highlight the other side of the story.

  7. Oh yes, she is the mother of history because she created indian history based on her ideology and not based on facts, whatever the European masters and left propagated to justify colonialism of india.
    She fabricated such a marvelous story that people started believing it to be indian history.

  8. Romilla Thappar has not shown professional honesty ion writing history. There is no reason to hate her as an individual, but there is a lot of her work that needs to be undone. Scientific evidences have to to considered in the writing of history. There has to be more of objectivity and less of subjectivity. How can she be mother of Indian history? That is eulogising her too much. Let there be calm moderation with maximum leverage on scientific evidence. There is no place for a fight.

  9. Kaveree, who can be the “mother” of history except history itself! Are you trying to say Romila Thapar is already history? Just kidding

  10. Author of this article lives in oblivion. Who writes “The breaker of chains, the first of her name, and indeed the mother of history in India ” other than someone lives and beleives in fantasy except G R R Martin. We are talking about Indian History and not some winterfall where fantasy is more important than actual facts. History is what historian told us. So, they had a responsiblity to fulfill which clearly she wasnot able to fulfill. Her emphasise was only on last 400-500 years but this country is standing tall from way more than 3000 years. People without without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. So, people need to know their history and if they are reading it now from some other sources than why she is worried. Nobody hates her. People just realised that there is much more to our history then what we are reading from her books. But she had her own political connections for whom she worked and now crying foul.

    • How many books have you read by Professor Thapar? Just curious since, she is regarded as one of our more eminent historians of ancient history? She is well regarded by some of the more eminent scholars in the field across the world and not just by a fringe of ignoramuses without credentials. Her doctoral thesis was on Ashoka and she has written most eloquently on Vedic cultures as well, so that your comment on her “ignorance” of India’s ancient past, is at best ignorant and at worst, typical of the ideology you represent.

  11. She reads and is a scholar. She stands for democratic values and had posed emergency. A country that is run on policies against people who think question and debate cannot prosper.

  12. Answer to the caption is very simple.She has her head and heart filled with hate and poion for Hindu religion and culture, since it is the main obstacle to the commies plan to convert India to communist country. Hence we hindus hate her,it is that simple . The article is nothing but idiotory.

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