February 06, 2005

'I dont Subscribe to the Hind Sindh Theory' Romila Thapar - Intervieww

News on Sunday
6 February 2005


By Zaman Khan

Professor Romila Thapar, 73, is an authority on ancient India. She is among the founders of the Department of Modern History at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is famous for 'deconstructing' myths. Her book on Somnath led to condemnation by Hindu bigots and groups of Hindus living in the United States opposed her appointment at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington.

Thapar is a committed anti-communalist and has also authored textbooks. A Punjabi, she has childhood memories of Lahore where her grandmother used to live in a big house near the Lawrence Gardens. It was her father, a doctor in the Indian Army, who made her go through old manuscripts, thus developing in her an interest for history.

Author of a book on the epic 'Shakuntla', Thapar says: "My attempt was to demonstrate how literature can be useful to the historian.... Literature reflects a certain moment in time and the historians are after all concerned with moments in time."

This interview with Prof Thapar was conducted in New Delhi before her decision to refuse the Padma Bhushan, India's highest civil award, for a second time. In a letter to President of India, she has stated, "I decided some years ago that I would only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not accept state awards. This is the reason why I declined the Padma Bhushan in 1992..."

TNS: You are a historian by accident or by planning?

Romila Thapar: History and literature were two of my favourite subjects in school. When I was in the school in the 1940s, the nationalist movement was at its peak and the youngsters were asking: Who are we and what are we going to do? In a sense people hoped to find the answers in history.

While I was young, my father, an army doctor, suddenly got interested in classical Indian sculptures, bronzes in particular. He used to come home with thick volumes and said to me I must read those books. I got more and more interested in the subject, until I was hooked.

TNS: Where did you study history?

RT: Strangely enough, in India. I finished my BA here and in 1953, I joined the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. I worked with Professor A. R. Bashom, the author of 'Wonders that was India'. So that is where I got a lot of my formal training in history. But my feeling for history really grew out of the nationalist movement and out of my father's initiative to make me read those old manuscripts.

TNS: Some scholars claim Hind and Sindh to be different civilizations. Do you subscribe to this view?

RT: I don't subscribe to this at all. I think the Indus civilization was very widespread. It spread out to many regions that are now part of Pakistan and India. I strongly object to this view because you can't push an event that took place in the twentieth century five thousand years back in history.

TNS: Why this insistence on two civilizations?

RT: This happens when religion gets politicised. When religious organisations begin to feel that they can assert political power, they have to have an identity -- a religious identity. And the easiest thing, of course is to say "we will take it as far back as goes the religion".

There is a movement that seeks to establish Hinduism as the religion of Indus valley civilization. This is not true. One can say there are some roots of the present day Hinduism that may go back deep in history, but we cannot say for sure because we cannot read the (Indus valley) script.

TNS: Has it been the failure of secular movement that led to the rise of the religious movements in India?

RT: I think various things did. Religious nationalism -- Hindu or Muslim -- started in the 1920s. Both supported the two nation theory. Now they are trying to argue that if Pakistan is a Muslim state, why can't India be a Hindu state. They see the whole of pre-partition Indian society in terms of Hindus and Muslims. They don't see it in terms of communities with other kinds of identities. So it boils down to really a question of identity. Being defined as Hindus, the majority in India naturally wants to say that its power should be the greatest, and in order to do that it has to argue that it is the oldest community.

TNS: I was in Kurukshetra recently. Is there any historical proof that it is the site of the Mahabharata?

RT: No, there is no historical proof. Historically, a number of places start calling themselves by the names famous in the text or in the tradition. There is an Ayodhya in Thailand, which was once the capital of Thai kings. There's this tendency to appropriate geography.

TNS: On Ayodhya, how do you look at the Babri mosque issue?

RT: There is no evidence to support the claim that the mosque was built on the site of a mandir.The judgement seems to be based on the results of some excavation, though there hasn't been any official report released on this. Some of us have glanced at it (a report prepared by officials), but one has not studied it in detail. It is really a rather confused site with all kinds of structures and so on. There is no clear-cut evidence of a temple beneath the mosque.

TNS: For someone who has been demolishing myths, how much do you think can a historian rely on his or her source material?

RT: This is precisely the point I am trying to make in 'Somnath'. It is only an exercise in history, it just so happens that it ties in with the fact that there was a great theory about Hindu trauma and Muslim destruction, and it became the basis of Hindu-Muslim antagonism.

It is very interesting that the whole reading of Somnath was based on Persian chronicles. Until recently historians assumed that the sources in the court or among the rulers were reliable. Now we know that court chronicles can be as twisted as any other source. When you start questioning court chronicles, as I have done in my book, you realise the chronicles from one century to the next contradict each other. There isn't a sustained story and the 'facts' vary from chronicle to chronicle. One gets very suspicious of these Turko-Persian chronicles about Somnath.

Then you look at the other sources -- Sanskritian, Jain and so on. They give you a different story. So it isn't that every time the Sultan comes, he destroys the temple and converts it into a mosque. The second time he comes, he actually destroys the mosque.

One of my colleagues referred me to British sources. I found that the earliest reference to Somnath was a debate in the House of Commons over the issue of Governor-General Lord Eden having ordered his General to bring back what they called 'bricks of Somnat'. In the course of the debate the members of the House talk about this terrible Hindu trauma and how they had this terrible memory of a Mohammedan conquest they had been harbouring for eight hundred years. You then suddenly realise that this whole notion of how Somnath was key to the hostility between Muslims and the Hindus is fabricated by the colonial power. So I have been arguing that you really have to see it not in the Hindu-Muslim terms, but in terms of the politics of that time.

TNS: Modernism divided the people on the basis of religion and caste. How do you look at it as a historian?

R.T: Modernism and nationalism are linked together. Now you can have a situation in which nationalism realises the dangers of narrow nationalism and therefore expands itself to include everybody. In the Indian case you had Hindu and Muslim nationalism. There is trouble the moment you start to have sub-nationalisms within a national movement.

TNS: What do you think was the material basis of the rise of the RSS and religious bigotry in India?

RT: The political rise of RSS coincided with globalization. By 1980s, there was a change in the middle class, and the new middle class came from a different caste structure and was ambitious for power. It was then that the major recruitment of the RSS and BJP took place. What none of us fully appreciated was how well organised the RSS was. They started off the right way by setting up schools and training children. It was a huge mind control programme.

Interestingly, the top leaders of RSS in the early period were very close to the German and Italian fascists and were influenced by the fascist movement. To go with a rise of this ambitious new middle class which had RSS's organisation, you had globalization. Globalization changes society. It creates new communities. And you have this tension between wanting to be international and at the same time seeking to save your traditional culture. You draw at something which you define as tradition. No orthodox Hindu would accept Hindutva as Hinduism. They make a distinction. But the whole notion of Hindutva is not religious change, it is the use of religion for politics.

TNS: They opposed your appointment to Smithsonian Institute...

RT: The attack on me has gone on since the 1960s... Somebody who is not a Brahmin, is a woman, is writing about ancient India and writing in a way that reflects analytical thinking... If I were writing in an orthodox way, they would do nothing about it. But since I was saying let us look analytically at these texts, they feel that the image of the past is being badly shaken.

History in the last 50 years is one field India can be very proud of. We have produced some absolutely superb historians, a fact which is recognised all over the world, but by the strong Hindutva lobby in the United Sates. It is a typical complex where migrant communities who feel alienated in the host country constantly think of their home culture and country. The Indian community is possibly the richest minority community in America. They are financing the BJP, VHP, RSS. They are financing this make-believe nationalism which they think should exist in India.

TNS: Will it be fair to say the basis of your analysis has been historical materialism?

RT: Well I would not put it as simply as that. I think anyone who wrote history in the twentieth century had to take historical materialism seriously. Whether you accept it or not is another matter. If you reject it, then you have to know why. My influence has been partly historical materialism, partly the French Annales school, interdisciplinary work and one's own ideas. The nice thing is that the debate in India between Marxists and others and among liberal historians has generated a lot of ideas. History has therefore changed.

TNS: How do you look at the peace process between India and Pakistan and the Kashmir issue?

RT: The peace process needs to be encouraged. From the economic point of view it will be very good. Culturally and emotionally, it is very important and not just for Punjabis, for everybody in terms of how these relationship, identities are balanced.

What I am curious about is that lot of new writings look at partition in terms of what the women at the time went through. This is very significant because it is not just an abstract process. You can bring it down to human terms -- and in many ways women did suffer much worse. If those sufferings could be brought to the surface, irrespective of whether it was on this side or that.

Kashmir issue, too, is very important. It will sort itself out once the various terrorist groups realise that sorting out the Kashmir issue is part of the peace process. Until the insurgency settles down, you can't have people going to Kashmir. It is very necessary that Indians go to Kashmir and mix and settle, not necessarily buy property, and it is treated like a normal part of the country. At the moment there is a big scare. The only way insurgency will reduce is if it becomes completely irrelevant and it will become irrelevant if India and Pakistan begin to open up the borders to the other side.