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Ideology clashing with history

An Interview with Romila Thapar

by Shiraz Sidhva, 8 November 2008

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The UNESCO Courier, 2008 - Number 9

Early in the decade, a woman raised her voice against Hindu fundamentalism asserting Aryan superiority. And she was heard. Her name: Romila Thapar. The famous Indian historian explains here how spurious identities founded on pseudo-historical arguments affect human rights.

Romila Thapar is professor emeritus of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and one of the world’s foremost experts of ancient Indian history. Her seminal work, “History of India, Vol.1” has been in print ever since it was first published in 1966. Dr. Thapar, who believes in interpreting ancient Indian texts in the light of new insights, has taught at top institutions including Oxford University, Cornell, the College de France in Paris, and the University of London. She has been involved in her country’s debates about historical truth, political identity and social reform.

Interview by Shiraz Sidhva, Indian journalist.

You have strongly opposed the attempt to use history in support of an ideology of religious nationalism by the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was in power from 1998 to 2004. There was an attempt at the time to rewrite Indian textbooks. How does the rewriting of history to endorse recent political ideology affect human rights?

Let me clarify here that my fight was against the BJP- led government and the Hindutva view of Indian history, and not against other governments in India. The Hindutva lobby that insisted on the changes in Indian textbooks endorses a Hindu right-wing ultra-nationalism – often described as Hindu fundamentalism – and is trying to propagate a revisionist history in classrooms and political discourse. The parent organization in India, known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has a distinctly religious fundamentalist political agenda. The RSS and its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gained power defeating moderate secular Indians by exploiting Hindu nationalist sentiments. The RSS has been involved in several high-profile incidents of religiously motivated violence over the last twenty years.

The controversy on my work involved some textbooks I had written for middle schools, where I had talked about the lives of Aryans as we knew it from the Vedic texts. I had mentioned, for instance, that the early Indians ate beef – the references in the Vedas are clear, and there is archaeological evidence for this. The Hindu right wing extolled the Aryans as the great model society for ancient India, and were opposed to any criticism of them. When they objected to this and other statements of mine, I provided evidence from the texts as proof. But they insisted that children should not be told that beef was eaten in early times. My reaction was that it was historically more correct to explain to school children why in early times beef was eaten, and why later a prohibition was introduced.

Though the attack on me was vicious, I was not the only historian attacked. There were about six of us, who had authored the earlier textbooks, and others who spoke up against the changes in school curriculum and textbooks by the (then) government, made without consulting educational bodies that would normally have been consulted. The government then described us as being anti-Hindu, and therefore anti-Indian, and therefore anti-patriotic, and therefore, traitors.

The deletion of passages from our books and the ban on any discussion of the deleted passages raised a number of issues of various kinds pertaining to the rights of individuals and the ethics of government institutions.
There was also a virulent protest by some Indians living in the United States when the US Library of Congress appointed you as the first Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South in 2004. What became of these protests and were textbooks revised when the Congress government replaced the Bharatiya Janata Party in New Delhi?

The Library of Congress rejected without any hesitation the demand from the Hindutva lobby, particularly Indians living in the United States, to reverse my appointment, therefore the demand was slowly silenced. The abuse online and through e-mails continued unabated.

When the Congress reclaimed power in 2004, it decided to do away with all the previous textbooks, written by us as far back as the 1960s and 70s, as well as those produced by the BJP government just prior to its fall. A new set of books was commissioned, which are now in use. They are different from the ones we wrote and reflect some of the new interests in history as a discipline, and do not push a Hindutva hard line.

The worrying thing is, what will happen if the Bharatiya Janata Party returns to power in the next election, which will be held within 12 months? Will they change the textbooks again? I worry for the school children who have to be examined in the subject and depend on textbooks.

Once we accept one religious group’s agenda and beliefs to be taught in the public schools, it opens the door for every other group to do the same thing. As educators, we have to make a distinction between history on the one hand, which involves questioning existing knowledge about the past where necessary, and faith on the other hand, where even myths are acceptable. The two have to be kept separate. The first is the domain of the historian and the second that of the priest.
On a wider international level, many human rights atrocities in recent years have sought to draw legitimacy from history, using the pretext of setting right the wrongs of the past. How can this be avoided?

Political parties today draw heavily on ideology and also on history, because a lot of the current politics is determined by imagined identities – either imagined racial identities, or imagined religious identities, or whatever the identities may be, there is a construction of identities. They are projected back into the past, but in effect really arise out of concerns of the present. And these imagined identities that go into the making of political ideologies are very likely to grapple with history. The grappling also takes the form of creating the notion of what is believed to be a national culture, THE national culture. This is never questioned, because if you question it, you become a traitor to the nation. And it is usually a single, carefully selected strand from the broader culture which is drawn out and exaggerated, and this facilitates the potential exclusion of some citizens on the basis of either religion or race or language or whatever identity is conveniently within reach. This is very harmful to issues of human rights, because it gives priority to certain groups and their cultures over others.

But isn’t it a dangerous notion, for those in power to believe they can set right the wrongs of the past?

This is a commonly made claim. We have an example, in the Indian case, where a Hindu political faction led by BJP leaders destroyed the (16th century) Babri Masjid at Ayodhya (in Northern India) in 1992, and claimed that they were avenging Mahmud of Ghazni’s attack on Somnath (a Hindu temple) and thereby setting right this wrong of the past.

First of all, did it have to take a thousand years before this act (of Ghazni) was avenged if indeed the idea was to avenge it? More important, how did it set right the wrongs of the past? What was the result of the destruction of the Babri Masjid? It made not the slightest difference to our reading of the past. What it did was that it resulted in a massacre of Muslims in (the Western Indian state of) Gujarat, and since then, a continued series of bomb explosions in the major cities of the country. So what is argued as setting right the wrongs of the past cannot be set right in this fashion. And in any case, it’s a rather silly argument, because the past is that which has happened. It cannot be changed, and therefore, it’s much more important to set right the wrongs of the present, rather than harping on what might have been the wrongs of the past.