The NDTV Dialogues With Historian Romila Thapar: Full Transcript

Romila Thapar also distinguished between good historians and bad historians while highlighting the dangers of 'fantasy narratives'.

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Historian Romila Thapar says the space for dissent in India is shrinking.


Renowned historian Romila Thapar spoke to NDTV's Sonia Singh on covert pressures in the contemporary political arena and the intersection of nationalism, secularism and democracy. Ms Thapar also discussed on nationalism in the current socio-political framework.

Here is the full transcript:

NDTV: It's interesting, you've talked about contemporary pasts. Suddenly, the past seems omnipresent in our politics whether it's about discussing whose version of culture should dominate, whether it's about whose statues still deserve to still be standing. Why do you think that is?

Dr Thapar: Well, that's why I call it the contemporary past because it's the way in which the past is being used for contemporary purposes. People would argue that the past has always been used that way. Fine historians have said that the best historians are those who understand the relationship between the past and the present and understand how the present is using the past. Therefore, in a sense, it seems to be logical to talk about the 'contemporary past' because this is the contemporary use of the past and in that there are periods. I think we really have to ask ourselves why is this great interest in the past? Partly, I suppose, it's the kind of interest that developed around the world at the time of nationalism because one of the components of the nationalism is to bring the past into the present and use it. 

NDTV: When you look at 'contemporary' nationalism perhaps this kind of tearing down of the past, whether it's about statues or challenging ideas that seem to have dominated historical thinking over the years, is natural and in a way, if a particular party or ideology has won the democratic battle, does it make sense that they then have the right to challenge the history we have studied so far?

Dr Thapar: Statements about the past have to be based on the logic of causality and the reasonableness with which you are making connections. If B comes after A you have to explain why and not assume that the two are connected, and then finally you get to a stage where you make a statement. There's one way of using an explanation to explain the data but someone may come with a better explanation and the same data is then subjected to the better explanation and the paradigm shifts. Ideally, this is what goes on in circles of scholarship. The problem arises when you need history for political purposes, then attacks become ruthless, they become abusive. The kind of attacks we turn our faces away from.

NDTV: You have in fact faced a lot of those attacks. In some ways Romila Thapar has become the face of the 'Left' historians who have somehow 'distorted' Indian history. How do you react to this?

Dr Thapar: That's an old story, it goes back a long way. It really started getting bad when the Right was in power, the Morarjee Desai government, where members of the BJP wanted our History textbooks to be banned because we were called 'anti-Indian'. Murli Manohar Joshi referred to us as 'academic terrorists' which I thought was quite a compliment, that's when the attack began and it got more abusive as it went along. Second time with the first NDA government, there was a fierce attack on textbooks. That's when it was zeroed in on a few of us and then just me. I have many explanations of why I have been picked. Well, I deal with ancient history, which is considered sacrosanct in certain political circles. I criticize earlier views which I shouldn't be doing and the ability to question knowledge. Knowledge advances when a student is able to question existing knowledge. The second reason, I suspect, I may be exaggerating over here but it's not for a woman to question the sacred text, it comes more easily if a man was to do that. A woman historian is expected to just carry on with what they have been given and not ask questions. These attitudes are understandable in terms of the political shift. As history moved into the arena of the social sciences, the issue of questioning sources became a very live issue, we are constantly questioning each other. 

NDTV: As you pointed out, the debate is now with professional politicians. We have seen in states like Rajasthan, where in fact textbooks are going to be rewritten, to actually, the facts of history. UP's Chief Minister says the Taj Mahal is not a monument of Indian culture. How do you react as an Indian historian?

Dr Thapar: As an Indian, I react very fiercely because I belong to a generation where being Indian meant being inclusive. We had to know the culture of everybody from top-down and here to there. To narrow that down to a single identity, this is unacceptable. It is unacceptable to me as an Indian. As a historian, it is not only unacceptable, but it is completely flawed. It does not stand the test of historical analysis.

NDTV: For instance, Aurangzeb Road being renamed, why do you think it won't stand the test of history?

Dr Thapar: Because the kind of history they are trying to bring in and replace existing history with, it is not based on evidence. It is based on fantasy. If now tomorrow the history textbooks are going to talk about Rana Pratap winning the battle, what does an Historian do? As a historian you cannot accept this, you can't teach it. But are you going to be forced to teach it? That's a simple issue and it moves to bigger issues. This kind of history is so politicized that they even forget that there are very provocative, interesting and in some ways analytically challenging questions that we are dealing with in our studies of history. All that is pushed aside and all they are concerned with is, were the Hindus indigenous? Are the Aryans indigenous? These issues were important to some people but for most Historians we have moved on from that, we are asking a lot of different questions. Your professions is being reducing to something it shouldn't be reduced to. It's an intellectual profession. This attack on the intellectual side of history, reducing it to muttering slogans, this is unacceptable.

NDTV: The Government has announced a committee to rewrite textbooks and also to look at mythology and how in a sense that mythology can also be looked at as history, the Ram Setu Bridge for example. Do you think in a democracy, they are saying they are correcting the wrongs of the past not just historically, they have been voted in on a mandate that gives them the right to relook at Indian culture, how do you react to this?

Dr Thapar: I think you have to separate the fact they have been brought here on a political mandate, it's an election. This mandate doesn't give them the right to interfere with the findings of professional groups. Those finding will continue. No matter what they do to text books, there will always be historians, anthropologists, sociologists and economists who will carry on researching and writing what they have been doing. For purposes of the political ideology, history becomes very important because you are basing yourself on it. Look at the writings of the Hindutva ideologues in the 1930s and the whole issue of the 'Hindu Rashtra' for example, the argument is that the Hindus were the original indigenous inhabits of the country, Hinduism is the religion of this country and every other person is alien. But history doesn't support this. Yes, History supports the fact that various groups of religious thinkers contributed to the making of Hinduism and it has become a very major religion, but the question of the Hindus today being descents of the original population, this makes no sense, because there is no way to confirm this. Even the DNA reports of this talk about a very mixed population.

NDTV: The current RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, has made the same point that everyone born in India is necessarily Hindu. Do you accept the view that there was perhaps a hegemony of historians and there was a 'Left' version of history and now this is a 'Right' version of history and that's just part of this current process of social and political churning?

Dr Thapar: We recognise that there are a variety of theories. These explanations will be in debate. What you had was a dominance of a particular type of explanation, which, in terms of history was not supportive of a political ideology, but a certain way of looking at the past. Then you have other people coming along and saying we don't accept this explanation. Please provide a different explanation, not a fantasy narrative. This is what we are battling against. The tragedy today is that it is not Left historians versus Right historians. It is generally good historians versus non-historians.

NDTV: Is that a problem? Do you feel the right wing needs to develop their own public intellectual? Is that a condescending way of looking at it?

Dr Thapar: It's not a condescending way to look at it. The point is that there has never been an intellectually investigative, analytical history from the right wing. There has been in the past, the colonial history was very much there. Now, what has happened is, the ideology of the right today, certainly of the religious right, is based very much on colonial interpretations. Now they have to work out an analysis and explanation which is not colonial and is also questioning the kind of history written in the last 50 years. I don't see anybody doing that at the moment. At the moment, there is this disjuncture of trained historian versus other people for whom history is still a 19th century concept.

NDTV: Statues have been vandalised, there's of course again a sharp divide and some say it's a 'battle of ideologies'. When it comes to bulldozing a statue of Lenin, defacing statues of Periyar or Shyama Prasad Mukherjee in Kolkata, what do you think the larger message being sent out here is?

Dr Thapar: Vandalism, something people happily indulge in today and nothing happens to them. One of the crises we face today is that we seem to have no ethical values anymore. Ethics is in for bad times. It's time ethics was revived. Lynching and vandalism is something that is not and should into be acceptable. You may get a thrill of knocking down statues, but at the end of the day, what does this achieve? It achieves nothing. Knocking them down is absolutely of no use. The main point is that these are like getting up, like shouting slogans and saying, 'this is nationalism'. It is not. These are things we have to think of much more deeply. If we were going to talk about being nationalists, what do we mean by this? What is it to say that we are not subjects of the king but now citizens of the state? We pay no attention to that.

NDTV: Nationalism is such a hotly debated word today without looking at the meaning, especially in the context of JNU which almost became a symbol of 'anti-nationalism' and yet it's been chosen as the best university in terms of academics, the contradiction seems bizarre.

Dr Thapar: This is a clear indication of where we are going. They chose the best university by general reckoning, largely they focused on the Department of Social Science because social sciences are the methods of analysing social activities. If anybody is going to question the politics of the government, it is going to be the social scientists. So, you pick the best university and you pick the social sciences department and you try and create havoc, so much so, that every week practically there's a crisis between the teachers and the students and the administration. One thing is to say it's a 'left-wing bastion' that's why we are setting things right, but they are doing nothing of the kind. They are not bringing an alternate ideology. They are simply and slowly ensuring that JNU will integrate. This attitude is that of desperation almost, that you know, we really want to plant our flag in such a way that no one will have the opportunity to pick it up again and take it out and plant another flag in its place.

NDTV: Does anyone who asks a question or challenge the Indian flag, the national anthem, become an 'anti-national'?

Dr Thapar: I distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. I think 'nationalism' is a very serious thing in terms of the kind of society you want, the kind of rights and obligations citizens have. This is something we don't pay attention to. All this talk of development for example, where is the development? Unemployment is still there. farmers are still in a mess. Corruption is still rampant. One says, every Indian citizen should have the right to food, water, education, healthcare, social justice, where are we paying attention to that? It shouldn't be bullet trains, it should be about improving the railway system so that the ordinary person is assured of a decent journey. That's where the emphasis should be. Education is absolutely crying out to be redone in a proper fashion. Instead there are worries about textbooks and who is shouting slogans and so on. Nationalism is something we haven't understood how serious it is. My argument is that nationalism, secularism, democracy are all integrated. You cannot give emphasis to one and not the other. This is not what we are doing. Patriotism is the importance of the national anthem, the flag, which has its own place in giving an identity, but if you are giving an identity you have to be sure that the identity is that of the 'Indian' and the label of being 'Indian' is not equated with a single community. I don't see this emerging at the moment. We had it at the time of the national movement but that's not the case now.

NDTV: Who do you think is the real secular?

Dr Thapar: I would say, one of the definitions of secularism that I would hold to is the civil laws must be secular; Not a uniform civil code that begins with the Hindu civil code and then moves on to say that all the minorities must conform. One has to scrap the religious codes and we will devise a completely new code which is secular. This is difficult to do because these religious identities are very strong identities. Governments should really bring in, in schools, in teachings and in legal systems, the question of gradually moving away from religious codes to introducing secular codes and making people think in terms of secular codes. I mean, why is it that marriage rituals have become so complex and expensive, when in fact what should be happening is a simple civil marriage, with whatever celebration you want to have on the side, without going through a hundred ceremonies lasting 10 days. If you want to do that, you can do so quietly on your own.

NDTV: We tend to get worked up about issues that seem irrelevant, instead of worrying about unemployment and crime issues. Take for instance, the release of' Padmavat' in Rajasthan. How do you perceive this through a vandalism aspect, because in the end this seemed to be hoodlums getting a certificate to do this in the name of culture?

Dr Thapar: What I'm worried about is the separation of political ideology and political actions from patterns of living, because that's how I define culture. I don't define it as the pattern of the elite or upper class. The point is, this separation is something we are deliberately not making, that there is a political advantage to exploiting cultural identities and cultural forms and referring to them as 'culture'. This is an old game that has been played by various organizations in this country. Like the RSS for example, you cannot also make a clear separation because public activities tend to become political. You can't say I'm totally free of any politics, but you can say you are aware of the fact that you are using culture in a political way. When people are agitated about a film being played, people should be aware that there is a political message. It is immediate, contemporary and political. That awareness is essential. People who are involved in writing and speaking about it shouldn't be abused but allowed to openly discuss.

NDTV: When we talk about culture, do we also look at silencing other voices? The other end of the spectrum seems more dangerous. There are lynchings, fringe groups are increasingly coming centre stage. By calling them 'fringe groups' we seem to be diminishing how powerful they are becoming. Do you agree?

Dr Thapar: They shouldn't be called 'fringe groups' because they are calling the shots in many places. This is a form of terrorism. It is creating fear and it has succeeded. It has succeeded because people are fearful now. In the name of politics, culture, religion you cannot accept lawlessness.

NDTV: It's interesting that you brought this up because one of the most closely watched cases is going to be on the Ayodhya issue. We are already hearing out of court settlements. A spiritual guru has said that the Supreme Court can rule one way, but if it goes against what the majority wants, there can be "bloodshed". In that sense, issues of the past are so contemporary and are at the heart of our political faultiness today.  How do you look at the issue that is coming up now?

Dr Thapar: This issue has been deliberately made. We are seeing the consequences of something that started 40 years ago. The breaking of the locks, the bringing in of the idols, the rath yatra, and the destruction of the mosque. This is not incidental. This had a political purpose. this happened across governments, some perhaps less involved than the others. One is sitting over there and saying do the people who are taking these decisions, are they going to act in a way they are going to annul those politics? Now, I'm very worried that a "spiritual" man should say there would be bloodshed and yet we go around saying we are the most non-violent civilisation in the world. How can you marry these two? You cannot. On one hand, you're talking about violence as a solution to a problem that doesn't require a violent solution; and on the other hand, you are claiming that your values are nonviolent? I find this too ironic.

NDTV: Can the Supreme Court decide? When it comes to history and faith who decides?

Dr Thapar: Faith is a difficult issue and it complicates history, like the Ram Setu thing. With regards to Ram Setu, why isn't there a proper scientific geological investigation, which in a sense would not put an end to faith, but would give certain strength to those saying this is a natural formation? It's the confusion that this kind of thinking brings, everything gets merged and you can't stand up and say there's a historical, demographical, sociological explanation. You can go on saying these are complex issues that cannot be reduced to just faith or history, but it's a case of who do you convince? 

NDTV: Do you think when we look ahead, how will we see India in the future?

Dr Thapar: I've always been of the opinion that Historians don't predict and should not predict but I am struck by the present situation. We have had examples of this kind of combination of very strong ideology with religion or with a cultural idiom. One that comes to my mind frequently these days is the Chinese cultural revolution. They were facing the same problems; the problem of development and the problem of identity. The intention was of course, we go back to Chinese roots because that's what 'really matters', everything we have inherited from the West is to be expunged and then we will have a 'pure' Chinese society and 'pure' Chinese culture and so on. Married into it were some problems like the battle against the capitalist world which was getting stronger, not quite unlike what we are facing today. This lasted 20 years and they were desperate to come back, to come back to pre-culture revolution. I was invited in 1992 by Beijing University to give lectures on bringing people up to date with discoveries in Indian history that they had lost touch with in the last 20 years. My fear is that this kind of movement of directing yourself to just one ideology and one ambition means two things; it means that you damage the existing institutions, as we see happening so clearly in JNU, and you have a new agenda that is so damaging that it takes a long time to get back to normality again. If we are going to have a similar situation, it will take a downturn. It will cause damage and then we will have to come back to seeing India as the all-inclusive cultures and seeing Indians as people who accept the all-inclusiveness of the cultures that have gone into our making.

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