Hating Romila Thapar
Why the Hindutva brigade has set its sights on India’s most distinguished historian

by Subhash Gatade historian who is indefatigable in the pursuit of knowledge and prolific in its publication, and who is above all a devoted partisan of the truth. ... The early history of the country has been illuminated by Professor Thapar, whom I now present, more than by almost any other scholar. An historian of that period who seriously wishes to refute accepted fictions and dispel the general darkness will need several high qualities...
- Citation presented by Oxford University to Romila Thapar while conferring on her an honorary Doctorate of Letters, 2002.

The distinguished scholar Eric Hobsbawm, author of a four-part history of the 19th and 20th centuries, recently gave a talk at Columbia University in New York City. In a speech on politics, memory and historical revisionism, he said, “The curious fact is that as we move into the 21st century, historians have become central to politics. We historians are the monopoly suppliers of the past. The only way to modify the past that does not sooner or later go through historians is by destroying the past”. “Mythology”, Hobsbawm added, “is taking over from knowledge”. He then mentioned the case of Italy, where, he said, a government commission has been ordered to revise history textbooks in an effort to discredit the Italian republic’s anti-fascist, communist roots.

On the other side of the world, in India, simultaneous with Hobsbawm’s speech, history was also being ‘rewritten’ in a disturbing manner with the unleashing of a vicious campaign against one of the Subcontinent’s most distinguished historians, Romila Thapar. 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”.

Write to editors
Printer-friendly version

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”.

The petition, accessible at, includes space for signatories to comment on their opposition to Thapar’s appointment. Entries range from the unintentionally ironic (“Thapar is a pseudointeelectual [sic]” – Ravi Kandula, #1106) to the overtly communal (“Do you know the similaries [sic] between muslims and commies? They are both anti-national (they don’t believe in nations). They believe in killing all non-believers” – V Jayaram, #2072) to expressions of injured Indian honour (“Romila is a hindu-hating marxist who would stoop to anything to denigrate her own country. I hope that New Delhi revokes her citizenship, seizes her assets and declares her and her family persona non grata” – Gautam P Ganesh, #1578) to a sense of American patriotism rooted in anti-communism (“As a proud Indian-American, I feel the US has an obligation not to appoint Communists or Extremists/Leftists to important positions in the Library of Congress” – Raj Mohanka, #490) and even to an ostensible commitment to prevent an unqualified person from receiving an appointment (“How can someone with no knowledge of history and shoddy research be nominated to this post!!!! I protest strongly as a US citizen and active voter!” – Chetan Gandhi, #762). While most signatories chose to leave the comment space blank, the presence of a large number of hostile expressions from Indian-Americans drawing on right-wing strands of both Indian and American nationalisms helps to locate the campaign’s geographic and ideological coordinates. As stated by SRIDHAR, #750, “Romila Thapar is a Indian Traitor”, a succinct statement clear enough in its meaning, notwithstanding the misused article.

History as politics
While the Internet is full of such character assassination, which in its vulgar ignorance need not be taken seriously, it does represent a particular mindset that begs questions about the radicalising of the Indian Hindu diaspora. Questions may also be raised about the increasing ‘democratising’ of a discipline that requires sophisticated tools of research, where evidence, method and theory need to be rigor-ously used by those trained to ‘write history’.

‘Do you know the similarities between Muslims and Commies? They are both anti-national... They believe in killing all non-believers’

For all the popular naysaying, Romila Thapar’s credentials in the profession are secure. She has, in the words of a reviewer writing in The Hindu in April 2003, “adapted herself decade after decade to changing trends and tendencies, and [has] continued nevertheless to produce work of a consistent quality”. Ranging from her contribution to the Penguin History of India, which has been continuously in print since 1966, to her latest work, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 (Penguin India, 2003), she is the author of numerous academic tomes, including Ancient Indian Social History (Orient Longman, 1979), Interpreting Early India (Oxford University Press, 1994), Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas (Oxford University Press, 1998), and Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History (Oxford University Press, 2003). That, of course, does not include the hundreds of articles and academic papers in which she has pioneered both the study of early Indian texts and the integration of archaeology with written sources.

Thapar’s academic work is controversial with the Hindutva lobby because it is grounded in professional methods of historical investigation, rather than in the pet historical theories of Hindu extremists relying on extrapolation from Sanskrit texts. The disagreement may appear academic in nature but the controversy around her appointment speaks to a larger cultural project being advanced under the guise of anti-communism. While it is true that Thapar makes use of some Marxist categories of historiography, unremarkable in itself given the strong Marxist tradition in professional Indian history writing, her opponents’ objections are essentially political rather than academic. Thapar’s documentation of early Indian life is at odds with the Hindutva preference, grounded in a regressive Hindu orthodoxy, of seeing India as a purely Hindu civilisation, the political implications of which for contemporary India being obvious.

A letter of protest against the baseless petition sent to the Library of Congress puts the facts straight. “Since the 1960s”, it states, “Professor Thapar has written powerfully against the colonial stereotypes that India had no past, no sense of time, and no historical consciousness. The petitioners attribute to her precisely those ideas that she has spent a lifetime battling against”. The letter also comments on the reasons why so many petitioners experience discomfort with the way Professor Thapar and many other professional scholars view Indian history. According to the correspondents:

Professor Thapar’s conception of Indian past is different from that of the petitioners. Professor Thapar has looked at a variety of cultural traditions in the making of ancient India. To the petitioners Indian past is monolithic, unified and unmistakably only Hindu. Those who disagree with this notion are accused of committing cultural genocide.

The fact is that Romila Thapar has been pointing out for more than three decades that the historical theories expounded by the Hindutva club are a jump backwards to the assumptions of 19th century colonial history. (See Thapar’s Communalism and the Writing of Ancient Indian History, Popular Prakashan, 1969.) In February 2003, in delivering the Athar Ali Memorial Lecture at Aligarh Muslim University, she elaborated on this theme again:

  The colonial interpretation was carefully developed through the nineteenth century. By 1823, the History of British India written by James Mill was available and widely read. This was the hegemonic text in which Mill periodised Indian history into three periods – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period. These were accepted largely without question and we have lived with this periodisation for almost two hundred years. ... Mill argued that the Hindu civilisation was stagnant and backward, the Muslim only marginally better and the British colonial power was an agency of progress because it could legislate change for improvement in India. In the Hindutva version this periodisation remains, only the colours have changed: the Hindu period is the golden age, the Muslim period the black, dark age of tyranny and oppression, and the colonial period is a grey age almost of marginal importance compared to the earlier two.

Hindutva McCarthyism
In a December 2001 article in Mainstream under the title ‘Communalising Education’, JNU historians Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee discuss the politics of history as seen in the ironies inherent in the ongoing history textbook controversy. “Paradoxically, the present regime is imitating Pakistan[,] which made a similar move in the 1970s of keeping history out of a particular level and then prescribing a distorted, one sided version at the senior level”, they write. “Regimes uncomfortable with history or with an agenda which is narrow, sectarian and undemocratic often seek to suppress or distort history”.

‘In the Hindutva version, the Hindu period is golden, the Muslim period black, the colonial period grey and of marginal importance’

This is not for the first time that Thapar has come under attack by the Hindutva brigade, nor is she the only scholar to suffer its abuses. With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) assumption of power at the centre in 1998 and its ongoing attempts to remake the educational curriculum in its own chauvinistic image gaining momentum, intellectuals and academic positions at odds with the Sangh Parivar’s view of history have come under attack under various pretexts. The BJP has pursued a concerted effort to malign and delegitimise scholars and intellectuals at odds with its view of India’s past. After the stalling of the Indian Council of Historical Research-sponsored ‘Towards Freedom’ project edited by professors Sumit Sarkar of University of Delhi (DU) and KN Panikkar of JNU, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) went all-out to weed out the influence of, in the words of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief KS Sudarshan, “anti-Hindu Euro-Indians” from the curriculum. In 2001, when the moves by NCERT were underway to delete passages from school textbooks that allegedly ‘hurt’ the sentiments of this religious sect or the other, a delegation of Arya Samajis met Murli Manohar Joshi, the human resource development minister, and demanded that Thapar, along with historians RS Sharma of DU and Arjun Dev of NCERT, be arrested. Not to be outdone, Joshi has also reiterated time and again his pet thesis that ‘academic terrorists’ are more dangerous than armed ones.

While the vilification campaign against Romila Thapar will have no impact on her Library of Congress appointment, it is evidence that the Hindutva campaign to falsify history has reached new heights. The letter of protest sent by scholars and intellectuals supporting Thapar rightly concludes:

  This is a not just a shocking intolerance of perceptual differences. It is a politics that seeks to silence critique, and battles for a notion of the past that is homogeneously Hindu. It is part of a wider attack that we are witnessing in India today against intellectual and artistic freedom, and against cultural plurality. In a political milieu where dissent is being regularly repressed through intimidation, this petition against Professor Thapar and the hate mails that accompany it, become particular cause of concern.

In a 13 May column on the Thapar controversy, the Indian political commentator Praful Bidwai argues that “The campaign represents the rebirth of McCarthyism…” Bidwai’s reference to McCarthyism is fitting – the Wisconsin conservative denigrated his political and ideological opponents by drawing on a deep-seated religious suspicion of left-wing ideologies, and advanced a powerful, dangerous cocktail of American nationalism grounded in so-called Christian values and unquestioning support for the nation and its political institutions.

The matrix of political conditions in 1950s America and present-day India (and the outlook of many in the Indian diaspora) is similar. Hindu nationalists, both in India and abroad, are sensitive to India’s position in the world and see themselves as fierce defenders of the Indian nation against ‘dangerous’ elements, typically constructed as Muslim and also at times as communist/Marxist. McCarthyism and the anti-Thapar campaign are both built on a populist politics of denunciation, of collecting a supposedly monolithic people against a hostile force. In 1954, in a move strikingly similar to the history book shenanigans in India today, the US Congress inserted two words into the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ recited every morning by American schoolchildren – “…one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”, so that the pledge would differ from similar statements of loyalty in the Soviet Union that express no divine connection. The insertion in the US pledge is mild in comparison to the broader ideological project of Hindutva, but it rests on a similar assumption, that religion can be used to buttress state-inspired formation of identity. Unlike many of McCarthy’s targets, Thapar will not fall victim to the ongoing assault. Tragically, though, the ambitious designs of the Hindutva brigade are already being realised in part throughout India.

Write to editors Printer-friendly version