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The Rediff Interview/Professor Romila Thapar

February 14, 2005

Professor Romila Thapar, one of India's finest historians, is in the news again -- for refusing the Padma Bhushan. During the reign of the National Democratic Alliance government, she was in the news for a series of run-ins with the ideologues of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the largest party in the NDA coalition.

The BJP was keen to do away with her interpretation of history and present a new version -- which was questioned by most historians for its authenticity and interpretation since it sought to glorify the Hindu aspects at the cost of non-Hindu aspects. The United Progressive Alliance government put an end to the 'rewriting' of history.

After responding to questions from Deputy Managing Editor Amberish K Diwanji on why she refused the Padma Bhushan and the study of Indian history in the country today, Professor Thapar dwelt on some of the burning issues of 21st century India -- the role of ideology and the media in 'rewriting' history. The final of a three-part interview:

Part I: 'I have a sense of unease about State awards'

Part II: 'There is no absolute objective history'

You said textbooks are written based on accepted knowledge. So what should be the parameters for changing textbooks? A lot of people might object to, say, the school history textbooks as found in West Bengal. After all, there will always be some who will oppose change.

It depends on where the demand for change comes from. If it suddenly comes from political parties, then there is a suspicion as to why they want to change the textbooks. In the normal course of pedagogy, all knowledge has to be reconsidered from time to time because knowledge advances. The history that was written 20 years ago has to be revised in the light of new advances, whether in source material or interpretation. The objection is not to the fact that the history has to be revised, but to the basis on which that revision takes place.

If a committee of a dozen respected and recognised historians go through the textbooks and tell us where and what should be revised, none of us will have objections to the principle, although we may disagree with the suggested revisions.

But people who represent the Arya Samaj, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), the (Shiromani) Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee or this and that -- and none of them historians -- when they say that they object to various statements in the history textbooks, then we have to ask for historically based objections. They are not historians and there can be little historical discussion on the objections. Here the purpose comes to be seen as one where ideology, in the political sense, is being brought in.

That seems to be happening worldwide. We now have a situation in the US where there is a demand to study the 'theory' of creation alongside the theory of evolution.

Yes, but the point is that there is a debate and there are people fighting the compulsory teaching of creationism. But you are right, this is not an entirely Indian phenomenon. Everywhere there are groups that don't wish to bring in change and this leads to debates.

The only difference is that debates are generally conducted in a civilised manner, whereas here, when ministers of the Government of India were abusing us publicly by name, day in and day out, this was really not called for. That kind of behaviour doesn't make for a debate.

There is a complaint that our history is seen from a certain perspective. For instance, Dalits often complain about lacking representation in history.

That is the same as the gender perspective. There is much feminist history that is only now being written. This frequently happens -- that as and when groups become empowered, they wish to see their history at least incorporated in or parallel to the existing history. And this will continue a this is one perspective from which history changes. What I wrote about dalits and women in my recent Early India is much more than what I wrote 35 years ago, because there wasn't that consciousness 35 years ago.

So it does boil down to the fact that history is driven by the political and social changes taking place?

No, it does not boil to that. Not at all! What it boils down to is that the political and social changes may make us conscious of other dimensions that we had missed out earlier. But the change in history is not one that simply reflects contemporary changes since there has to be reliable data for making statements about the past, or ways of looking at existing data that may give us leads that can be tested.

But so often history misses aspects. For example, books on Maratha history took a long time to discover that under the Peshwas, the Dalits suffered terribly. And this didn't come out till recently.

I don't know about this particular case. But more generally, one reason is that history, till recent times, has been treated as the history of elite groups, (is) because it was only the elite groups that left written sources, inscriptions and other literary records. If the Dalits had done so, if there were texts written by Dalits in earlier periods, those texts would have been treated as source material.

It is only now that historians have become conscious of the oral tradition and conscious of what (anthropologist) Eric Wolfe has called 'people without history.' They were regarded as people without history; but then, everyone has a history, and that is an input.

The awareness of these histories has some influence on our understanding of identities from the past. And when one is talking about looking for identities, it is no longer a single identity that the historian is concerned with, but the recognition of multiple and sometimes overlapping identities.

Are we as a people ready for critical history? So often our books lead to a public outcry.

This is part of the process of getting used to discussion and debate. It doesn't happen overnight. We were a colony for 200 years in which our entire intellectual debate was focused on not deviating from the given message, not challenging convention and authority.

We challenged it at the political level through nationalism and this had its influence on secular historical writing. Now we have to challenge convention not as an opposition to colonialism alone, but through new ways of understanding the past and this includes accommodating intellectual processes that question conventional knowledge. It will take time to adjust to this, but it is happening.

If you read the history that has been written in the last few decades you will find that it does question conventional views and does so in methodical and precise ways. There is a premium on critical enquiry and this needs encouragement. The attack on critical enquiry, not just in history but in various fields of knowledge under the previous (NDA) government, has done a lot of damage.

But so often opinions are so sharply divided. For instance, you either have versions saying thousands of temples were destroyed or very few were.

There is historical writing investigating which temples were destroyed and for what reason and which declined through other reasons. These are careful analyses and not partisan figures. They are concerned with the why and how of the rise and decline of a temple.

The problem is that much of the general public, and particularly the media, seems to have given up on reading. Today, all that is wanted is not a book but a byte, and a sensational byte at that. So either it is said that 'Oh they destroyed all the temples' or that 'No, no, they did not destroy the temples.'

Temples have a biography and a community history, which explains much of what happens to them. A large range of questions have to be asked and answered. Such questions are being asked and answered by historians. But few are interested in these because it means a little bit of reading, the kind of activity that most television channels set aside.

The media is only interested in sensation! I am sorry but I am convinced about this.

Are you writing another book?

I am writing on something that I have been thinking about for virtually all my working life. There is a widely held theory that Indians never had a sense of history, that Indian civilisation was 'a-historical.' I am trying to refute this by pointing out that there is a historical tradition; it is expressed differently but it is there and I am trying to trace it.

The Rediff Interviews

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