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February 4, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/ Romila Thapar

'The rise of Hindutva is going to put us back by at least a century'

Romila Thapar With the attacks against Christians culminating in the killing of Graham Stains and his two sons, the Bharatiya Janata Party is once again in the thick of allegations of religious intolerance. The need for Hindu supremacy has seen several attempts since the Rath Yatra in 1990. An assertiveness, which historians feel, is wrestling its way into the teaching of history and text books. Aimed at an interpretation of history based on a Hindu point of view -- certain historians feel -- has led to certain changes in the perception of Indian history in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Though the debate on what is the correct interpretation of history has continued in journals and articles, there remains an aggressive school of thought that condemns the Hindutva interpretation. Celebrated historian Romila Thapar is one of them. In Bombay last week to attend a workshop organised by Khoj, she discussed these issues with Chief Feature Writer Archana Masih.

In your scholarly understanding of Indian history, would you say the teaching of history since Independence has been accurate?

When one talks about history, one talks about it at two levels. One is information which has to be accurate, and the other is interpretation of that information which is where different schools of history come into play. At the time of Independence, the information that we had on our past was accurate. The interpretation of that information was largely based on concerns of nationalist historical writings, which were trying to counter the earlier of colonial historical writing -- the colonial interpretation of Indian history. So at that point there were two sets of interpretations -- the colonial and nationalist interpretation -- the latter was questioning the colonial interpretation.

What has happened since and why one is worried about the development of what we call the communal interpretation, is that not only is there a change in the kind of interpretation which is not historically justified, but the informational aspect is also tampered with. Some facts are dropped, some are not mentioned -- wherever it is inconvenient to their ideology.

Let me give you an example: I wrote a text book for middle school -- class VI and VII -- 30, 35 years ago for the NCERT. It had a small paragraph on Mahmud of Ghazni. I mentioned that Mahmud of Ghazni was an iconoclast and raided the temple towns of India for loot. He took the loot back to Ghazni and with this wealth and with the wealth collected from other campaigns, he built a Central Asian empire including a very renowned library at Samarkhand.

Now this passage is criticised by communal historians -- they say that the statements that he was an iconoclast and he raided the temples should be retained -- but mention must not be made that he used that money to build a large empire, a great army and a library. Aurangzeb is an other one. All his bad qualities should be mentioned, but never mention that he also gave grants to Brahmins and temples. So it's a highly selective history. We all know that up to a point history is selective because one does not have information about everything that happened every minute of the day. But in addition to that if it is ideologically selective, history gets distorted. The problem with communal history writing is that not only is it being extremely selective about facts but the interpretation is also from a deliberately partisan point of view.

Communal interpretation is based on the notion that for the last thousand years Indian history has been dominated by a society which consists of a monolithic Muslim community and a monolithic Hindu community. And that these two communities have always been in a state of conflict. Therefore every historical event that takes place is to be explained by this conflict. This I think is absolutely primitive history. This is worse than colonial history. Because historical interpretation has now moved on to a position where we analyse an event in a multi-causal way.

The cause of an event is explained through a range of explanations which we then arrange in order of priority. So none of us as self respecting historians say that an event has only a single cause. Nor would we say that all these events are determined by that single cause. This is making a mockery of history. This is a way of trying to destroy the discipline of history.

This book that you wrote 30, 35 years ago, when were you told about the changes?

The debates on that book and various other books written by some of us have been on these kinds of issues. We have not removed those portions because we have contested the communal interpretations.

Have they been removed?

No, they haven't so far. But now that the BJP is in power, let's see what happens; because now they are going to rake up the issue again.

How has the teaching of history changed in the country in the past decade, especially after the demolition of the Babri Masjid?

The Hindutva ideology was invented in the 1920s, but up till recent decades it has been subterranean. But in the last 20, 30 years it has been slowly creeping into all kinds of text books, school and college teaching, newspaper articles. The Hindu-Muslim divide has become a very major issue of historical interpretation in communal history writing.

In states like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh?

In states where there is a BJP government or a BJP coalition government.

As a teacher you must be having a good understanding of what is taught in our schools. Is it true that certain changes have been made in history books in UP like Babar's policies etc as a justification of the demolition?

In UP, the BJP government did try and introduce these changes. They did publish some books with changes. Not only Babar's policy, but Aryan theory, trying to say that everything is indigenous, also that that it goes back to the Indus civilisation. They did introduce these changes and there was an objection from teachers of history in UP. We joined in these protests and told them how these were distortions. So they had to withdraw those distortions. Now they are back in a much more powerful way, so will they introduce the same changes again. Let's see.

As of now are there text books being used in schools where history is being taught with these changes?

I believe so. I haven't seen them myself, but I have been told that there are school text books where portions have been changed. But as I said I have not personally seen them because I am out of touch now with school text books.

What do you think has given rise to a certain section of society equating Indian nationalism with Hindu nationalism?

I don't think it is an equation of Indian nationalism with Hindu nationalism. We make a very sharp distinction. We don't for a moment say Hindu nationalism is the same as Indian nationalism because Indian nationalism was relatively, reasonably secular which Hindu nationalism is not. There is a resurgence of Hindutva and Hindu nationalism for a variety of reasons. At one level it is power hungry groups that want to come to power and they are using an ideology of a restricted nationalism in order to do that. There is an understanding that nationalism that can be successful will lead a group to power. For example, Indian nationalism. Indian nationalism was anti colonial, it was successful, it led the Indian middle class to power.

Hindu nationalism is arguing the same thing. That if it is successful, it will also lead its supporters to power. It's a different set of people -- the social component of Hindu nationalism is different from what was the social component of Indian nationalism. Another reason is that in moments of tremendous social change, people who are in potential areas of power, often feel very insecure -- will they make it, won't they make it. So there is a turning to some easy ideology which will quickly mobilise large numbers of people. This is another reason for rise of Hindu nationalism.

Another explanation is that when you have an economic policy like globalisation, in which the whole world is involved also brings with it the insecurity and competition of multinationals coming in and taking over the economy. There is a turning to a sense of Swadeshi. It is distorted into talks of Swadeshi economics and Swadeshi politics, without understanding that what is really required in this process of change is to fully understand the problems of Indian society and economy.

Instead of just replacing one ruling class with another or one ruling group with another, we really have to learn how to distribute our wealth, distribute our social concerns so that the whole of society moves. Otherwise, all that we are doing is that a Hindu nationalist is moving into where an Indian nationalist was before. In addition to moving in, he is also distorting Indian culture and Indian history and producing a rather warped Indian as a result.

These incidents of hostilities towards the minorities, now the Christians -- how detrimental is this going to prove for Indian society?

Photograph: Jewella C Miranda

'You can't have a situation where the country is going to be held to ransom by a bunch of fascists'

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