Romila Thapar (30 Nov 1931-) is an eminent historian with a particular expertise on ancient India. A long-time professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India, Thapar has an interest in the social and cultural history of ancient India. Her focus on the historiography of the early period draws attention to the role of ideology in historical interpretation. She has also used the comparative method to study similar societies with the evidence of both literary and archaeological sources.
Thapar is known particularly for establishing a more scientific method for the study of historical India, moving the field beyond simple nostalgia for a ‘lost idyllic India’, or the more Western notion that India was a ‘warehouse of historical facts that Europe had already lost.’ As such she has significantly transformed the global understanding of the Indian subcontinent. Thapar succeeded in presenting Indian history not only as the chronicles of Indian matters, but also as a regional history in the context of human history. Using methodologies from the fields of cultural anthropology and sociology, in addition to historical theories, she successfully rebuilt the historical study of India in the context of world history. Thapar is a vocal advocate for education through rational, evidence-based inquiry and research-oriented approaches.
“The Mughal army bearing down on Rana Pratap was led by the much respected Rajput Raja Man Singh, the most trusted general of Akbar. Neither side saw it as a Hindu resistance to Muslim rule. The projection of Rana Pratap as the Hindu “national” hero who resisted Muslim rule is a modern construction of Hindutva “history”. The politics of the event are not focused on a simple Hindu-versus-Muslim conflict but have to take account of Rajput–Mughal relations that were both political and matrimonial, as well as the politics among various Rajputs who supported two different contenders. Can we, therefore, describe the Battle at Haldighati as that of Hindu resistance against Islam? In realistic terms the politics of the contenders have to be investigated.” – A Conversation with Romila Thapar on Secular India
Thapar is known not only for her significant contributions to the study of the history of India, but also for her courage in speaking out against the anti-intellectualism of the establishment. A key part of her work on this has been Thapar’s insistence on bringing academic history to the public, and of the responsibility of public intellectuals to help make citizens aware of governmental policies. Thapar believes that public intellectuals play a critical role in society today as the objective, fearless, constructive voice that asks the awkward questions of government, industry, religious leaders and other members of the establishment.
In her lecture, The Public Intellectual in India, she argued fiercely for the need to have independent voices to protect the underprivileged and the marginalised, and to ensure human rights and social justice, and watch over the smooth functioning of secular democracy. A key focus of her argument is that education can become indoctrination, and therefore, the university and the local schooling systems must be protected and defended by those pedagogues and producers of knowledge.
“The ideological battle today is at two fronts. One is to establish a Hindu rashtra irrespective of the aggression between religious communities needed to do so. There are incidents of aggression involving what is described as “majority communalism and minority communalism,” especially in the predictable rise of riots prior to elections. The needling of the latter by the former, sometimes followed by a retort, is a common occurrence both in speeches and actions, as we have experienced in recent times. The second is the confrontation between communalism and secularism—specifically a choice between a Hindu rashtra or a secular democracy. To support the former, communalism is being revived, presumably as a strategy. The attempt is to change the mindset of Indians to support that ideology. Intolerance of the views of others and anti-intellectualism are on the rise.” – An Interview with Romila Thapar
Thapar’s approach to using evidence-based inquiry, public education and ‘rebuilding’ history has made her a target of particular anger from Hindu nationalists as her work makes a distinction between Hinduism, a religion and a way of life, and Hindutva, which is best defined as the politics of Hindu majoritarianism. Most recently, her status as a Professor Emerita at Jawarhalal Nehru University was placed under scrutiny by the political establishment. Nevertheless, she persists. She is also a strong critic of the colonial segmentation of the study of Indian history into Hindu, Islamic and British periods. She disagrees with the Hindu nationalistic view that the origin of Hindus can be traced back to the Aryans and the Indus Valley civilisation. In 1999, she was removed from the Indian Council for Historical Research by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Her History of India was a particular target of Hindutva forces as it concluded that the ‘Aryans’, venerated by the Hindu right as indigenous geniuses who created the Indus Valley civilisation, were nomadic tribes who spread from the Middle East. She remains a significant and courageous critic of RSS ideology:
“Yes, I think there is an ideological, historical background to this that we have to understand. The ideology of the party in power today is that of the RSS. What is the RSS ideology? There are two things that I think they regard as central. One is to convert India into a Hindu rashtra [nation]. This goes back to our experience of the varieties of nationalisms that we have had. Our major nationalism was anti-colonial nationalism, which was an inclusive nationalism. Everybody was brought in and the intention was to throw out the colonial power and to be an independent nation. But in addition to that, in a relatively lesser role at that time, in the early twentieth century, there were organisations such as the Muslim League that was arguing for an Islamic state, and the Hindu Mahasabha that was arguing for a Hindu equivalent. Some label these two as religious nationalisms, some call them communalism, and some describe them as being influenced by fascism. Whereas the anti-colonial nationalism had a nationalist agenda in that it was opposed to colonial rule, and worked towards a secular democracy, the other two communal organisations were not essentially anti-colonial, and their aim was to inherit a Muslim and a Hindu oriented state, after the departure of the British. Their role in the anti-colonial movement was therefore minimal. Secular democracy was not how they envisaged the future.” – An Interview with Romila Thapar, See also Communalism and History
Thapar, Romila 2018. The Historian and her Craft OUP
Thapar, Romila 1961. Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas OUP
Thapar, Romila 1990. A History of India Volume One, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 Penguin
Thapar, Romila 1996. Time as a Metaphor of History: Early India OUP
Thapar, Romila 2010. Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations Orient Blackswan Pvt
Thapar, Romila, A. G. Noorani and Sadanand Menon 2016. On Nationalism Aleph Book Company
Further Reading and Resources:
2010. How History Informs Contemporary Narrative
2012. Romila Thapar speaks with the Nehru Trust
2016. A Conversation with Romila Thapar and P. J. Cherian
2017. Conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan for The Wire: Romila Thapar on Nationalism and Public Intellectuals in India
Sur, Byapti and Kanad Sinha 2016. An Interview with Romila Thapar
Thapar, Romila 2019. They Peddle Myths and Call it History New York Times May 17
How do we understand ‘secular democracy’, and what is the link between secularity and anti-colonialism?
How does evidence-based historical inquiry assist us to decolonise and demythologise contemporary narratives?
What key roles can public intellectuals play in mobilising resistance against far-right fundamentalist movements?
In what ways can school curricula be transformed, from the ground up, in order to rewrite and rebuild historical narratives?
How does Thapar’s call for public education mirror/reinforce Freire’s call for radical pedagogy?
Submitted by Anupama Ranawana