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Romila Thapar: Don’t impose religious beliefs onto history

by, 4 January 2009

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Deccan Herald

Eminent historian Romila Thapar recently received the prestigious Kluge Prize 2008 of the United States Library of Congress, for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity. Well known for her contribution to creating a new pluralistic view of Indian civilization, she speaks to Shruba Mukherjee of Deccan Herald.


Does study of history have a future?

History as practised at the professional level has a good future. But what passes for history at the popular level often does not reflect the work of serious professional historians. This is partly because historians have distinctive methods of subjecting data to critical analyses. This helps explain what happened in the past and why in a more factual manner and the analyses can change with advances in knowledge. Popular notions of history seldom apply rigorous methods of examining data from the past.

Faith is based on belief which means anything can be believed without having to be proved correct. This is the opposite of history. So when people of faith want to impose their beliefs onto history, there is a conflict with historians.

What are the new terrains being explored by the present generation of historians?

The younger historians today are working on aspects of society, economy and religion and how they changed over time. There have been studies of the ways in which some castes became dominant and others were subordinated and the interaction of these. Gender studies have challenged some of our earlier theories about the status of women in ancient India.

How states are formed is another theme that includes issues of agrarian relations and commerce as well as the nature of different polities.

The socio-economic role of religious institutions – monasteries and temples – is being widely researched. Here the attempt is to see their function in society and the economy, apart from their being centres of religion. The
kind of questions that are asked of the data is how and why they came to be formed, who were their patrons and what was their impact on social change.

What is your take on use of history for political gains as in the recent Sethusamudram controversy?

The use of history for political agendas to give legitimacy to the present is well-known. Historians today are sensitive to this and are trying to expose it. Colonial historians for instance argued that the units of Indian society were monolithic religions and that Hindus and Muslims were almost innately hostile to each other. This is now being questioned. Enquiring into why an event occurred includes a much larger range of causes than were suggested by earlier historians. Assessing the priority of these causes gives us a better idea of the event.

As regards the Sethusamudaram project, the assertion that there is a bridge built by Rama, lacks evidence at many levels. This is an example of the contradiction between faith and history. It is a matter of faith and should not be described as history.

Such politics has also encroached into university campuses. Comments?

The fact that the university is intended precisely to be a place for free discussions of ideas makes it vulnerable to those who want to prevent free discussion, such as the people who attacked the Fine Arts Department at the MS University in Vadodara and destroyed its contents. The intention was to stamp out independent thinking. The attackers tried to justify their actions by claiming they were defending Hinduism. Such self-appointed defenders of religion use crude terror tactics and violence so as to silence those that demand independent thought.

Nevertheless, there was an objection to this attack from faculty and students within the university and from other universities who were disgusted by this attack. They also realised that it could happen to them if they did not defend their rights as a university.

But I would agree that on the whole there is not enough consciousness of the importance of these rights in our universities which buckle under political pressure too easily. Combating this attitude involves teaching the young to think independently and responsibly which is not done. The media is also a major influence among the middle classes, but it generally discourages asking pertinent questions and focuses on chasing after the sensational.

Do you think the academia is united against such tendencies?

In as much as academia is aware of such threats, it is concerned about these tendencies, but taken as a whole it is passive. It needs to be more outspoken especially where the fundamentals of citizenship are being denied. Thinking about and questioning what is going on around us in cities and rural areas is more limited than it should be. Our patrons should not be the politicians but should be other thinking members of our profession.