Who Needs Romila Thapar’s CV? — Subhash Gatade

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Eminent historian Romila Thapar. — File photo

SUBHASH GATADE | Caravan Daily

… A 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. A historian of that period who seriously wishes to refute accepted fictions and dispel the general darkness will need several high qualities…
— The citation presented by Oxford University to Romila Thapar while conferring on her an honorary Doctorate of Letters, 2002.

It was the year 1960 when (then) a young historian’s four hundred plus paged monograph on Asoka (Asoka and the decline of the Mauryas) had appeared wherein she had tried to ‘trace virtually the entire span of Indian history’. (Page XV, OUP, 2017)

Considered a classic today Prof Romila Thapar’s scholarly journey continues unabated at the age of 88 – who is known ‘[a]mong intellectuals of the world for her path-breaking work on Indian ancient history’ (http://sacw.net/article10455.html), who has inspired generations of history students.

Recipients of many prestigious prizes, author of many books and scores of research papers, Prof Thapar who has twice refused Padma Bhushan awarded to her by the government, is again in the news, because of a strange query from JNU ( Jawaharlal Nehru University, the same institution where she has worked for around three decades and where she has been instrumental in laying the foundations of Department of Modern History and with which she is still associated as Emeritus Professor since her retirement (1993).

Fact of the matter is that the JNU administration wants her CV for reviewing her honorary emeritus professorship.

There has been an uproar among academic circles over this strange query which is being construed as a latest effort “to denigrate the teaching and learning traditions of JNU’. Few scholars have even called this part of ‘witch hunt’. As everybody knows the position of emeritus professorship is simply honorary and as a press release by JNUTA tells ‘ [h]onour is unquestionably the university’s that such scholars continue to lend their scholarship, guidance and prestige to it.’ (https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/jnu-babus-smarter-than-benjamin-franklin/cid/1701962? ref=top-stories_home-template)

It is clear that in asking her CV the University administration was not keen to know that when the American Philosophical Society, considered to be the oldest learned society in the US which was founded by Benjamin Franklin 276 years ago, recently selected her its member in June, they did not ask the renowned academic to submit her curriculum vitae (-do-) they just made their own enquiries.

For them it was rather immaterial that the year 2008 witnessed her being awarded 1 million dollar Kluge Prize for study of humanity along with historian Peter Brown. (https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-08-225/) which is regarded as an equivalent of the Nobel and is given specifically in disciplines not covered by the Nobel Prize.

Definitely it did not bother them that any such move on their part would further expose their anti-intellectual credentials but as everybody knows the custodians of the University wanted to convey a message to her for her work beyond academics as well, her role as a public intellectual of impeccable integrity, who has never shied away from speaking truth to power. e.g. One can see how in her interview just before elections to the Parliament she had boldly stated how ‘Minorities feel alienated in the country under Modi rule.’ (http://en.maktoobmedia. com/india/2019/04/21/modi-concentrated-on-what-brings-him-publicity-romila-thapar/) or how India’s governing party rewrites the country’s history to justify its Hindu nationalist ideology.(https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/17/opinion/india-elections-modi-history.html)

We should not forget that Thapar’s academic work has always remained 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. 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.

For decades Romila Thapar has been underlining that the historical theories expounded by the Hindutva brigade could be seen as a reverse journey grounded in the assumptions of 19th-century colonial history. (See Thapar’s Communalism and the Writing of Ancient Indian History, Popular Prakashan, 1969.)

According to her, 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.
(Athar Ali Memorial Lecture, Aligarh Muslim University, February 2003) 

This is not for the first time that Romila Thapar has come under scrutiny by the Hindutva brigade, nor is she the only scholar to suffer its abuses. It has been more than two decades but one remembers very well how with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) assumption of power at the centre in 1998 we were witness to 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 had come under attack under various pretexts.

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 then, 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 then 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 then 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 had also reiterated time and again his pet thesis that ‘academic terrorists’ are more dangerous than armed ones.

This manufactured controversy around seeking her CV reminds one of the malicious campaign organised by acolytes of the Hindutva brand of politics, primarily those in the Indian diaspora, when she was honoured by the US Library of Congress in the year 2002. The library announced that it was appointing Professor Thapar as the first holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South.

One can recall while Thapar’s appointment was greeted with applause by serious students of history, the vitriolic campaign organised by the right-wingers called “her appointment is a great travesty”. The online petition calling for its cancellation had collected over 2000 signatures. (www.petitiononline.com/108india/petition.html)

In a 13 May Rediff.com column on the Thapar controversy, the Indian political commentator Praful Bidwai had then argued that “The campaign represents the rebirth of McCarthyism…” Bidwai’s reference to McCarthyism had appeared 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.”
Words which appear still relevant!

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Subhash Gatade is an eminent author, activist and the Convener of New Socialist Initiative. He is the author of Pahad Se Uncha Aadmi (2010), Godse’s Children: Hindutva Terror in India,(2011) and The Saffron Condition: The Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India (2011). The article first appeared in newsclick.in.

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