A conversation with Indian historian ROMILA THAPAR.
Romila Thapar, one of world’s most distinguished historians of India, is Professor Emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. She received the prestigious Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity, awarded by the US Library of Congress, in 2008. Her most recent book is The Past As Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History (2014). Cherian George interviewed Thapar in Delhi on 23 April 2015.
History has always been a political battlefield, but is there something different about the way it’s being contested now in India?
This is something that has existed in all societies that have traditions of representing the past. Different groups represent the past in different ways. The popular idea that history is a single narrative is not correct. It’s always been many voices talking about what had been going on. But, this gets somewhat aggravated in periods of nationalism, because one of the most important features of the building of a nationalist ideology is that its construction includes using a past. The past is used either as a contrast with the present, or to legitimize the present.
Eric Hobsbawm has this lovely phrase about how history is to nationalism what the poppy is to the heroin addict. So the contestation over what happened in the past becomes much more exaggerated where there are contestations of groups that regard themselves as nationalist groups. What this contestation often does is to force historians to think of their methods of analysis. That is part of the problem – the historians are analyzing sources of information whereas others are simply taking what is said at face value or using it to support what they are propagating.
But isn’t India past its nationalist phase?
I wouldn’t say that. What we are facing at the moment is, in a way, a continuation of some intentions that are rooted in the nationalist period. Let’s not forget that in addition to anti-colonial nationalism – which is what we usually mean when we talk about nationalism in India – there were two other nationalisms: the Muslim religious nationalism and the Hindu religious nationalism. These were the basis of the politics of particular identities. There was the politics of the Muslim League, and the politics of what was initially the Hindu Mahasabha, which developed into various groups with similar agendas and which we are now experiencing as the politics of the Sangh Parivar [the Hindu nationalist network]. These groups use religion as an identity, whereas anti-colonial nationalism claimed to be secular. People tended to treat them as sub-nationalisms, but they have since become more prominent. Muslim religious nationalism succeeded in the creation of another state: Pakistan. In the case of India, the insistence initially on a secular state kept back the nationalism that was dependent on the politics of Hindu identities, but this has now come to the forefront.
So the nationalist project wasn’t concluded at Independence.
It wasn’t. The logical trajectory of the anti-colonial national movement was the establishment of a recognizably secular democracy, which is what was intended. Both secularism and democracy are being contested, because we have continued with the identities that colonialism gave us. What emerged from colonial historical writing was the Hindu-Muslim-British periodisation of history. These identities became very forceful because they had the backing of colonial scholarship and policy. The other identity that colonial experience gave us was the concept of majority communities and minority communities based on census numbers.
What we’re facing today is groups of people who belong to the collective that is in power, the Sangh Parivar, who are arguing that there should be a Hindu Rashtra [homeland or nation] and that therefore all this talk about secularism is beside the point. Going back to the teachings of people like [Vinayak Damodar] Savarkar and the invention of Hindutva [‘Hinduness’], the argument is that the Hindu should be the primary citizen. Savarkar had a theory about ancestry and religion, and held that only those whose ancestry and religion are rooted in the territory that is called India can claim to be Indian citizens. The others, Christianity and Islam, where the religion is rooted outside of the territory of India, are therefore alien. It was initially said that Muslims and Christians are foreigners who had settled in India, but now with the reconversion attempts – called ghar wapsi [returning home] it is conceded that they were originally Hindus who had converted to Islam and Christianity. That is an attack on secularism.
The attack on democracy is precisely in the notion of the rights of bodies that are determined as the majority community and the minority communities. Democracy disallows any permanent majority. In a democracy, majority decisions are dependent on the issue, and each majority is created afresh when an issue is discussed, and it is not necessarily the same group of people of the same identity who always function as the majority. So, the notion of a predetermined majority and minority is in direct conflict with democratic principles.
How does the idea of group rights versus individual rights fit into this?
If you recognize that citizenship does not consist of individuals, but there can be group rights, then you have to make concessions to group rights, and that again becomes anti-democratic. Essentially, in a democracy, it is the individual citizen that matters.
Why is challenging history textbooks so important to the Sangh Parivar?
Well, it depends on the issue over which the challenge is taking place. For example, I wrote a textbook for middle schools and when Morarji Desai became prime minister [1977-79] he asked for it to be banned. There was a big debate. Not just over my book; there were four of us who wrote textbooks for middle schools and high schools – all our books were objected to, and more particularly by religious or semi-religious organizations. The BJP picked it up as a political issue and supported the objections, and did so again much more viciously when it came to power in 1999-2004.
In my case, the textbooks were on ancient and medieval India. There were two statements that they objected to. One was where I’d said that the ancient Aryans ate beef, and the other was a sentence in which I said that the shudras [a lower caste] were not treated well by the upper castes. They were the subordinate groups. There was strong exception made to both statements. The general tenor was that we had written books that didn’t bring out sharply enough the victimization of Hindus by Muslims in the medieval period; and that by making statements about Aryans eating beef, we were being anti-Hindu and therefore anti-national – on the assumption that being Indian was being Hindu.
Now, both these issues are historically central to the Hindutva ideology. Firstly, the Hindu-Muslim periodization is a concoction of the British. The ‘Hindu period’ and the ‘Muslim period’ – we never had that kind of periodisation in any historical writing prior to the coming of the British. And this periodisation was what, in a sense, fueled religious nationalism. Both Hindu and Muslim religious nationalism accepted these colonial interpretations of the Indian past without questioning them, and continue to do so today even though historians have shown them to be constructs in support of colonial policy.
Religious nationalism was founded on colonial history. We are saying that there is no such thing as a Hindu period or a Muslim period as projected in colonial writing. Such labels are based on the religion of the kings ruling at a particular time. And to say that there was constant antagonism between the two without investigating the reasons for either antagonism or peaceful co-existence, as the case may be, is not exactly a historical approach. It’s like dividing the history of Europe into three periods – the Pagan, the Catholic and the Protestant – according to the religion of the ruling kings, and then arguing that there was constant antagonism between them because the Pagans were converted to Catholicism, and then there was animosity between the Catholics and Protestants. If you make a proper historical analysis, then in effect both Hindu and Muslim nationalism are weakened; they don’t have a historical basis for cultivating hostile identities or making religion the prime cause of all activity.
Was this a conscious attempt on your part?
It wasn’t a conscious attempt to bring it into textbooks. Remember, the entire reading of colonial historiography, which people had taken for granted right up till Independence, came in for fresh examination by historians of my generation. We found it historically unviable without the evidence to support it. So, it is not that we were making a conscious decision to introduce it into the text books. It was simply a reflection of the fact that there were historians from the 1960s onwards who seriously questioned colonial historiography. And one of the fundamentals that were questioned was periodisation. That was reflected in the textbooks that we wrote.
The second issue that was very pertinent to Hindu nationalism was that, in the 19th century, Orientalist scholarship had gone to support the idea that the roots of Hindu identity lie in Aryanism and the Vedic period. Their argument was that this was the golden age of Indian history. Therefore, when the cow protection movement becomes politically important in modern India, it had to be said that Hindus never ate beef, despite evidence to the contrary. So if anybody says of the Vedic period – the root period from which Hinduism emerges – that they did eat beef in that period, this is almost blasphemous.
These are individual issues that were picked up. It began in the late 70s. Then at the end of the 90s, under the BJP regime, the books were actually taken off, and they brought in their own books in the last year that they were governing. Then in 2004 they lost the election, so their books were discarded and eventually replaced by a new set of books. In some ways, it is ridiculous that each time the central government changes, the textbooks also change. This is because no government wishes to give autonomy to the institution that organizes the writing and publication of text books for central schools, the NCERT [National Council Of Educational Research And Training]. Some of us have argued that such institutions should be under the supervision and control of professional social scientists rather than politicians and bureaucrats, but our arguments have fallen on deaf ears.
Is it just more of the same that you’re seeing now?
At the moment, we don’t know, they keep on threatening a change of textbooks and when this happens it will be more of the same and this time with even more gusto since the BJP is in power. We’re waiting to see. I’m quite sure they will change the textbooks, since their ideology requires a different version of history.
Many people have puzzled over why Hinduism is prone to this, when any superficial understanding of the religion will tell you that is extremely multivocal. Why this desire to streamline it, to almost fundamentalise it?
There is a change that people don’t recognize, and that change is precisely in the concept of Hindutva. The change is that this is the first time that our society is facing the issue of using religion for massive political mobilization.
Hasn’t that been a constant?
No, what has been a constant was when various people in positions of patronage used religious issues to push a political idea. That has been there. But the notion that you can build a political movement and galvanize people and recruit people into it through an appeal to religion, this is something very new.
What has not been recognized, and I’ve been emphasizing this again and again, is that the religious experiences of areas and cultures like the South Asian has been very different from Christianity in Europe or Islam in the Middle East, where there has been political mobilization in the past to a much greater degree. The religions lent themselves to it: there was a historical founder, a movement that grew around his teaching, a single sacred book of the teaching, a church, an ecclesiastical hierarchy, civil laws governed by the religion, and sects that branched off from an original teaching.
That did not happen in Hinduism. Anyone is free to teach and create his own sect. And if he has a following, he has a following. And this has been going on right through the sub-continent with its uncountable sects. And the same was true to a large degree of other religions in India. The majority of people identified themselves with gurus, pirs, babas, ashramas and so on, rather than the formal religion and its texts. I would like to know how many Muslims have read the Quran or Hindus have read the Rigveda. They would have to know Arabic or Vedic Sanskrit, since in the absence of an ecclesiastical authority there are no authorized versions of translations. This is intrinsically a different kind of religious experience to the Religions of the Book, where what is written in the single sacred book is fundamental to belief.
If this is correct, that it was a different kind of religious experience, then this was the first time that there was a need to mobilize Hindus on an all-India scale. The notion of an all-India Hinduism has been growing slowly over the last 100 or more years. The label Hinduism didn’t really exist until the colonial invention and usage of the label. That is also an indication of the direction that it is taking. The fact that the attempt is to create a form of mobilization through religion means that the religion has to be altered to accommodate its function as the factor of mobilization.
Hindutva is bringing in forms and notions from Judeo-Christian organizations. There is no historical founder of Hinduism, but Rama is often treated as such by those who worship him. Part of the reason for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement [claiming a site in Ayodhya as his birthplace] was to establish that there was a historicity to Rama. We don’t have a single sacred book, we have many sacred books, so a Minister in the present government announces that the Gita should be declared a national book. The Gita is quintessentially a Hindu book, and however much one may admire its qualities, one cannot say that this is the national book, because there are other people who may not accept it, as it is important to only one of the many religions of India.
Including Hindus, yes?
Including Hindus, because not every Hindu would be willing to accept it as the only single sacred book. There are other books that are equally sacred.
Why is it that different Hindu communities, with their own favoured deities, have been willing to accept this streamlining?
This is a question I can’t answer. There are so many good, practising Hindus whom one knows, who are either slightly or greatly unhappy with the change that is going on, because they feel this is really not the kind of religion they were brought up in. But I think it’s the fact that Hindutva lets these people continue with their own religious practices, as long as they are willing to support the label, Hindu – that’s really what matters. So it is a kind of live and let live. We won’t touch you, we won’t make you change anything, as long as you do not object to what we are doing. Who wants to get into a tangle with the kind of people that don’t hesitate to shoot dead those who disagree with them.
So it is used more as a unifying rallying cry vis-a-vis non-Hindus; there isn’t really an attempt to homogenize anything more than the external face of Hinduism.
Hinduism is a religion, Hindutva is a political ideology to be used for political mobilization. It is an attempt to change the intrinsic qualities of earlier Hinduism, its flexibility, its unconcern for rigid boundaries of belief and practice; and it is an attempt to suggest that there are certain features which are acceptable to all Hindus (whether or not there are those features); and, therefore, that the Hindu religion is as much of a unity as the Muslim religion and the Christian religion are supposed to be – forgetting that Indian Islam is very different from Middle Eastern Islam, and Christianity in India covers the range of varieties from elsewhere in the world and some of its own.
And this is another point that we’ve been making, that you cannot use the model of Middle Eastern Islam and insist that it applies to India. It’s very different. Islam in India has also been in the past a conglomeration of sects. Now of course they are going through a process of Islamization, as it’s being called. And that is a kind of parallel to Hindutva.
Again, a sort of purification.
Purification, and the claim to going back to tradition, a claim that cannot be upheld given that tradition is constantly being invented. This is all part of the political use of religious ideology.
How much of this can be seen in competitive terms? Perhaps there was a certain amount of jealousy among Hindu leaders that minorities were monopolizing the right to be offended, and claiming that they were being insulted. And this has served Muslim conservatives quite well. Everyone’s more careful of them, walking around them gingerly.
I don’t know. What mystifies me is why all these Sangh Parivar groups, when they go out and vandalize churches, or they try to reconvert people back to Hinduism in what they call the ghar wapsi [returning home], and so on, why are these members of the majority community behaving like victimized minorities? This is something that is mystifying. Yes, I think they are doing it partly because they think there is something to be gained from it.
Certainly the creation of terror is very important. That’s fundamental. It doesn’t matter which group you belong to or which religion you belong to. If you are associated with people who are a threat to other people’s lives, that gives you a lot of power. And this is partly a search for power. Is it a feeling that the present is a now-or-never situation for a particular ideology and therefore it has to be asserted, whether right or wrong.
It may have something to do with the fact that we’re going through such a tremendous social and economic change at the moment, with no guarantee as to who will remain dominant, that the present moment has to be put to use. We have become a highly competitive society, and for the middle class, particularly. Most of these movements are middle-class and lower-middle-class movements. That is precisely the social group that today is feeling maximally insecure. There is a huge competition for jobs, so how do you elbow people and get to those jobs. How do you create situations where you have a special status.
It’s not so much the idea that you’re being subjected to offence, as the idea that you have to assert yourself, otherwise you won’t go places. How do you assert yourself? You assert yourself by saying, all right, if you don’t give way, I’ll be violent. As long as the politics of major and minor communities overrides our democracy, they will carry on.
Taking offence has become a very convenient justification for this.
Yes, whether it is Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs or whoever it may be, when an issue comes up, it’s always said that this action has hurt our religious sentiments. But when you analyse it, what is really being hurt is more often social conservatism. Or it is something to do with the feeling that your power and authority are being undermined, or you’re not able to acquire authority.
Recently, there was the attack on the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. His novel was published ten years ago, but suddenly one morning it was said to be anti-Hindu, and an attack was mounted on the author. They threatened him to such a degree that he finally made a public statement saying he wouldn’t write any more.
I read the book. It is a very sensitively written narrative about a couple, in an ordinary peasant household, very fond of each other but with no child. So there’s the usual taunt. Then someone explains that there is an alternative, that there’s a big festival for the region, and at the end of the festival it’s understood that men and women can mix with whomever they choose to. So why don’t you participate in this festival, they say to the woman. And the novel ends with the husband looking for his wife and angry at the thought that she may have gone with some man.
The novel was described as an attack on Hinduism, as it was a Hindu ritual, and that it had been written about in an offensive fashion. And I thought to myself, the story was a kind of gentle way in which you allow the possibility of this couple bringing up a child and thus ending the taunts from relatives and the community. Given the fact that every religion has a range of rituals some of which appear to us as strange, this is just another one of those rituals. And to me it was quite evident that what was really being regarded as offensive in the novel was…
The threat to manhood?
Yes, patriarchy. That was the crux of it. But they went on and on about how it was offensive to a Hindu.
The attacks can be very unpleasant. Have you encountered such treatment in your career?
Oh yes, when the BJP was last in power, over that five-year period, it was a nightmare. I mean, the kinds of emails and letters I got, they were so abusive. And Murli Manohar Joshi and V. K. Malhotra and all these people standing up in parliament and calling us academic terrorists and perverts and anti-Indian and anti-national. I mean, they just went on. Ringing up in the middle of night and saying, if you don’t stop speaking and writing in the way you are, we’ll do away with you. So you listen to it, and when it is said for the n-th time, then you say, fine, you can do away with me, but what will you do with the other thousand people who agree with me, will you do away with all of them? You begin to treat it as a silly joke. But it’s not pleasant.
And nowadays, of course, you can’t assume that it is just a silly joke.
No, look at all the assassinations. I mean these two very respectable people, [activists Narendra] Dabholkar and [Govind] Pansare. Shot! And the unbelievable demand of putting up a temple to [Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Vinayak] Godse. It made my stomach turn when I read this.
In 2003-4, I had a chair in the US Library of Congress. The NRIs [non-resident Indians], many of whom are supporters of Hindutva, got together on the Internet and started a signature campaign against my appointment arguing that I had no qualifications suitable to being a historian of ancient India and that the appointment should be cancelled. The accompanying abuse was just appalling. They stopped at nothing and were as personal as they could be. But in a sense it was so bad that it made me immune.
This had to do with my historical writing – why was I taking these positions, why was I saying the Aryans came from outside, they were all indigenous – which, by the way, is a good colonial position. It’s the colonial historians who first said that the Aryans were indigenous and went from India outside; then they changed their minds. But these people haven’t changed their minds.
I am sometimes asked why the supporters of the Sangh Parivar – the Hindu Right wing – have picked on me more than others as a target for attack among historians. Ostensibly it is because they maintain that I am an incompetent historian with no training for the job. I suspect that the real reasons are other. Firstly, I am a woman and however much Gargi of the Upanishads [philosophical texts of the mid-first millennium BC], may be eulogized, in real life today the Sangh Parivar has no place for woman scholars. A woman’s place is in the home caring for husband and children, cooking and cleaning. That a woman should analyze even the context of respected texts from ancient times, is unthinkable.
Secondly, for them any analytical argument based on critical thinking, reasoning and logic, is problematic and these are the kinds of arguments that we use in our historical writing. They firmly believe that the ancient Sanskrit epics, Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the Vedic corpus, in narrating myths were actually describing twentieth century technologies, such as aeroplanes, stem-cell research, plastic surgery and such like, and that such technologies had existed in ancient India. There is a complete lack in understanding of the scientific method. No distinction is made between myth and historical fact.
Thirdly, historians like us are said to be the intellectual progeny of western colonial scholarship, and these days the lineage culminates in all of us being called Marxists! The irony is that it is their ‘history’ that remains closely linked to colonial ideas, whereas we had critiqued the colonial and sought to replace it with a different kind of history. Here the problem is that since they do not follow the social sciences, they see our analyses merely as distractions, deviations and even distortions of the history they project. Given this, attempts at dialogue or debate are utterly futile.
This is no longer an academic debate, yes? There’s no dispute within the field of history?
Within the field of historical research, they are generally ignored except by their public supporters. There are some archaeologists and some historians who do support the idea that the Aryans were indigenous. With them, one is willing to say, what’s your evidence, this is my evidence, and this is why I don’t accept your evidence. And you leave it at that. We agree to disagree, which is perfectly OK. But those that are arguing thus to support a Hindutva theory are generally not academics. They really don’t understand what any of these disciplines are about. A few of them may know a little bit of Sanskrit and therefore they assume that they can claim to be Vedic scholars, without realizing that Vedic Sanskrit is very different from classical Sanskrit, and they don’t really know too much else. But it’s they who keep on being abusive.
At least there is a pushback from a sizeable community of professional historians.
But the people who are changing the textbooks do not pay any attention to the historical community. The Indian Council for Historical Research, for example, was reconstituted in the last couple of months and there such views are rampant, and they would not agree with what we say. They are now going to be financing and patronizing research of a very different kind, which will support these interests. It is not that one is wanting only one’s own views to be represented in the textbooks, but as professional historians we want students to understand what is meant by the use of a historical method and the implications of critical enquiry.
So the communication of history is taking place in multiple spaces. There is academic peer-reviewed history, there is a textbook industry – which one would hope is fertilized by the academic historians, but isn’t necessarily – and then there’s popular history, which I suppose is totally outside the discipline of history. Some of those spaces, but not all, are being lost to the Hindutva movement.
Well, the danger is of course that the academic peer-reviewed history is going to get more and more isolated. It’s going to become a handful of people who will be researching and writing and talking to each other.
And the irony is that after a while the academic history will be dismissed as revisionist.
It will be dismissed as revisionist, yes. For example, if you have a Council of Historical Research where it is important to follow the line of Hindutva thinking about history, then automatically the college teacher looking for a research grant will write up a proposal that will be in accordance with that kind of thinking. So at that level of academia, it will become the right thing to do. It is a way of isolating those who are thinking analytically about the discipline.
The frightening thing about this is that the campaign could actually work.
Yes, it could work.
How much faith can we put, then, in the self-correcting capacity of democracy? We would like to think, as academics, that over time the free competition of ideas will lead us to more enlightenment. But when you look at what’s going on, not just in India but elsewhere, sometimes it looks like it’s not going to happen; we may actually be moving away from the truth – and that it is ultimately about power. Are you optimistic at all?
At the moment I’m not. Because I think that those who have the patronage and the power will tend to call the shots, literally and metaphorically. The statement is often made that for 30 or 40 years, the field of history was influenced by, if not controlled, by leftist historians; so it is now time for the rightist historians to come in and assert themselves. This is of course untenable because most good historians did not make sharp distinctions between leftists and rightists, and there were many historians of neither extreme. The change was that good historians did emphasize the need for a reasoned, logical analysis.
But even if one says that there was a left-wing slant in the institutions earlier, there was still enough liberal space. In some ways, the left-of-centre is more ready to give liberals a space, whereas the right-of-centre, particularly when dominated by religious ideologies, is very niggardly about giving liberals a space, and more often deny it. And that is a worry.
The left-of-centre was politically left of centre. The right-of-centre is right of centre politically, and also from the religious point of view. It’s going to assist religious mobilization as well. If it was just a conservative political right-of-centre, I would say, fair game, we’ll fight it out, you write your history and I’ll write my history, and we’ll see how it goes. But they will associate with religious groups that will give them the extra edge in public evaluation. So the Left liberals today are really facing two kinds of opposition. One is from the political right and the other is from the religious right.
So what are the sources for any kind of resistance? Are institutions strong?
No, institutions are not. Institutions are still heavily dependent on patronage. And even the patronage coming from private sources will be patronage supporting the right. And it will be this combination of the religious right and the political right.
But the Supreme Court of India has come up with some decent rulings defending publishers and authors.
Yes, there are institutions that occasionally come up with very decent rulings and one’s impressed with that. The question is, will it be consistently like that. One doesn’t know. If the Supreme Court does maintain its independence and come up with independent rulings, then that’s a great boon. That really would be a tremendous help. Otherwise, it means that one must go on fighting for the liberal space to express an opinion. The media should play a very important role. Whether it will or not, one doesn’t know.
In prominent cases like the James Laine book, Shivaji, or the Wendy Doniger book, The Hindus, even if the court did or would have come up with the right answer, publishers may be willing to self-censor, because the pressure is tremendous.
The pressure is tremendous. I was really quite upset that they didn’t take it to court and fight it out.
But then when I discussed it with a couple of publishers they said, “you don’t know the pressures that are put on us”. When there are threats of vandalizing the office and manhandling the women employees, and with a police force that’s just sitting there and doing nothing – what do you do? It’s true that that’s an excuse, but it’s an excuse that is not totally without justification.
And if you are a chief executive of a publishing firm, you do have a responsibility to your staff.
It’s a difficult decision to take. And one knows what they can do. In Delhi University, when the Ramanujan case came up [concerning A. K. Ramanujan’s essay on the Hindu epic, Ramayana], they really vandalized the history department, using violence against the people there. The head of department was assaulted, and chairs and tables were thrown around, and so on. And according to one of the faculty it was a horrendous experience. Now if they can do that in a department in a university in order to get an essay removed from a syllabus, can you imagine what they would do in the office of a publishing house? I am not for a moment justifying the publishing house giving in, because I think there should have been a collective position taken by publishers saying we won’t allow it. Physical threats in a situation where protection from the law is dubious
can be disarming.
The problem is that liberals are often too wishy-washy to unite in the way the way the right wing can. They seem to lose out in that sense.
And there is always the feeling that, let them have their say, and we’ll discuss it and we’ll debate it. That is the more civilized way. But there is a point at which you have to say, how do we take a stand.