Romila Thapar:
As depicted in the book – “Saffron Regime”

Radhakanta Barik

[Professor Romila Thapar was asked to submit her CV by Jawaharlal University authority to justify her position as Professor Emerita. Everybody in the academic field knows that she is an internationally acclaimed historian. There are records aplenty. There are books acknowledging her eminence. Here We post a chapter as example from a book titled -"Saffron Regime" written by Professor Radhakanta Barik.]

The Case of Prof. Romila Thapar
Thapar is a leading historian of India who has got many academic awards from the foreign universities for her contributions. Some years back she was awarded by the central government Padmshri which she refused to accept on a condition that an academician needs not get award from the state. It seems that she is a fiercely independent scholar. As an intellectual she has to work freely in an objective manner. Her text book on Ancient India was the most popular text book in schools of India. The NDA government led by Vajpayee withdrew the book from the course. Her books have used historical materials of ancient civilization in a creative manner. Thapar is one of the historians with Prof. S. Gopal, Bipan Chandra and Satish Chandra who built the Centre of Historical Studies of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. This was a pioneering centre of historical research which looked at history of India from a different perspective; that complex understanding of a society is required to peep into the past of a society and social relationship of a society is complex. Indian society of sub-continental size needs to be understood in an objective manner. A multi-religious society like ours cannot be understood in the context of us vs. them. All these religious groups share many things common webbed into one regional tradition. Each region has its peculiarities and specificities. Writing of history needs to take into account the latest research work happening in various regional centres. Some leading historians of India including Romila Thapar took the challenge of writing the history in an objective manner with the latest theoretical findings from various disciplines of social sciences. Modernist and post-modernist understanding of history has happened in the area of Linguistics and Literature. Understandings of myths and legends have happened in the area of structural anthropology. Myths have cultural meanings and have an integrative role in a society, it explains the cultural history of a small community and regional history of people.

As an ancient historian she has taken into account of latest works in the area of archaeology. As she says that “the increasing relevance of the methodology of social sciences facilitated this shift. Not surprisingly the intensification of work in archaeology and anthropology has coincided with this new emphasis in ancient history.” (Thapar, 1978:18). Her area of research is the ancient India where archaeological sources are the major source for reconstruction of history of that period. She is aware of this new trend. “Archaeology is now the major source of fresh evidence, since it is unlikely that large numbers of literary sources still remain to be discovered. It not only provides new evidence in the form of the material remains of past culture but precisely because this evidence is tangible it allows of a more accurate reconstruction of the past. From the results of investigation into prehistory and protohistory a picture of the evolution of cultures in India is emerging.” (ibid: 18) It is interesting to note that archaeology is the bone of contention between the Hindutva forces and historians because archaeological evidence must be selective for propping Hindutva point of view. For instance, the archaeological findings in Mohengadara and Harappa prove a point in opposition to their point of view that it is a pre-Aryan civilization. The Hindutva scholars are convinced of the fact that it is a part of Aryan civilization. They have a different view of history in general and ancient Indian history in particular. For them ancient Indian history is a glorious Hindu rule but they forget that the most popular kings of that period such is Ashok was a Buddhist. They want to glorify the Gupta period as the golden period of history. Their findings need to be twisted for reaching their conclusions whereas historical research is open ended which can be changed with the new findings and new sources. Ancient India has given rise to prominent religious belief systems such as Buddhism and Jainism and Hinduism. All these religious beliefs compete with each other to dominate the public sphere. She is right in pointing a finger at non-historical works of the Hindutva forces. “Even if history is based on selected data the data selected need not be entirely arbitrary. These methods work within the framework of certain hypotheses.” (Ibid\2\).

Prof. Thapar has given a new interpretation of ancient history by questioning old methodology of periodisation of Indian history as Hindu, Muslim and Christian periods. She has questioned the Orientalist’s view of history that Hindu India can be understood from the great Sanskrit classics. She has questioned the Utilitarian view of Indian history that ancient India was unchanging one. Indian society like other society is changing and with changes in technology new social forces have stepped in which have resulted in the new social relationship in a society. Caste society was unchanging one as sociology developed by some. Marx has given a view that Indian society was stagnant which resulted in oriental despotism. There was no concept of private property and no concept of class in Indian society which characterized by Asian mode of production. Thapar says all the societies change and that during a period stretching from 2500 BC to AD 1000 Indian society and its institutions must have undergone change; it is the work of the historian to study the nature of this change. The idea of a static society is clearly no longer tenable. (Tbid:22)

She took the tradition of history writing started by Bhandarkar who built an archives and library at Pune which was vandalized by Hindutva forces in ventilating their anger against a book on Shivaji. Their anger is not against the writing of history but against the library and archives which are store houses of modem knowledge. There are many historians including Prof. Thapar who worked hard to produce text books for school children by which they can imagine themselves as a part of modem India. They are all modernists from a progressive point of view who thought that India being a newly Independent nation needs a scientific curriculum in schools. Modem nation needs schooling for construction of citizenry. Her text book on Ancient India was withdrawn by the NDA government. Also, Bipan Chandra’s Modern India got withdrawn by the NDA government. The books written by the scholars belonging to Hindutva School are full of mistakes and plagiarism. Her contribution to Indian historiography is based on facts with open ended theoretical understanding which is different from Puran-Itiahas tradition. This is a tradition based on the Purans as the only source of history with an intended goal. Their goal is fixed and historical works are twisted to reach to such a conclusion. Puran Itihas tradition took seriously the Purans which were written long after the historical event by the particular section of the society who used to work in court as the Brahmins. Their only aim was to praise the royalty with some mythical meanings. These writSrs claim that these literatures have been handed down from the very ancient times. These texts are written some time in 4th century. As these texts are based on oral tradition each was getting modified according to the changing needs. Thapar raises a critical point regarding the historical value of these literatures. “The historical value of the purana as records of the past is limited by the fact that they were consciously and deliberately rewritten at a particular period subsequent to the events described and the rewriting was not by the sutas and the Magadhas who had earlier been the custodians of the tradition. Authorship was now ascribed to a variety of ancient and almost legendary sages. In fact, the texts were compiled by various Brahman families. The attempt was to collect from the heralds and chroniclers. This material was largely the genealogies of the royal dynasties and descriptions of the universe. The above observation has an element of historical truth which comes in conflict with the ideology of Hindutva. For they and their scholars look at the purans as the source written by the rishis or gods. This explains the glorious period of Hindus where the kings w-ere almost like gods who ruled over this world. They want to revive the imaginary historical golden epoch. They themselves tell it as Kala. This kala is described in the text of Bhagavad Gita which was written by first century BC as ‘the imperishable’.

They have a cosmological view of life and society: that man gets rebirth after doing good work which brings the relationship between karma and dharma. It is closely associated with the idea of punya for the merit accumulated from the activities of the previous births can provide an explanation for the facts and events of the present birth. The most meritorious actions are those which are carried out in conformity with the laws of dharma. The concept of karma frequently provides the channel of historical explanation. This does not allow any space for man’s free will. This indicates the closed social structure where subjective factor has no role. This leads to a strong belief that man has no control over his or her action but it is the fate which guides him to act in a certain manner. This is decided by the karma but to the direct intervention of the supernatural. Famines and natural disasters and death all occur because of the will of the gods. Divine retribution against evil actions is not unknown. Furthermore, the nature of king depends on the karma of the subjects bad or good is immaterial. The kingship as a man-made political institution is not approved by the theory of karma and dharma. There is a tradition of rebellion against the king’s misrule. Thus, historical explanations required for explaining the rebellion to find out the causes of downfall of the monarchy is very critical of Indian historiography pursued by Thapar. This creates anger in the minds of the Hindutva as they believe in the king’s role in today’s democracy. They support the Nepal King in the name of the only Hindu King against the democracy. Itiahas puran tradition has been rejected by the Indian historians including both the conservatives and liberals are not approved by the Hindutva forces.

The study of Rigveda helps the Hindutva scholars to identify the Aryans are a part of the Indus civilization. The earlier study conducted by B.B. Lai showed that Harappan civilization was a pre-Aryan civilization. Later study done by him and S.P. Gupta shows that it was an Aryan civilization. This is manipulated by these scholars to justify the ideology of Hindutva that Aryans had not come from outside. They were the real owners of the Harappan. B.B. Lai had earlier identified the Aryans with the painted grey ware culture and built his interpretation of archaeology and the epics on this. He now argues for the identity of the Harappan and Vedic cultures. Thapar made a careful study of the Rigveda and rejected the Oriental version of glorification of ancient history. Her careful analysis of Rigved shows that it is pre Aryan civilization as there is no archaeological sign of Horse which was the major animal of Aryans. Those who built the Harappan as the urban civilization which knew the technology of bricks and drainage system. The Aryans were basically migrants and pastoralists who used to keep the horse and other domestic animals. That was the basis of their wealth. They do not belong to white race as claimed by studies of Rigved a done by the orientalists. They belong to a cultural and social group where clans used as an important aspect of the social structure. Those who used to be called dasas might not be another race. Both the communities are stratified. Some important clans are superior to other clans. This may be the basis of emergence of castes such as Ksatriya and Brahmans. They worked as the pastoralist and used to sing well in Sanskrit. Those who could not sing well belonged to the inferior race. This study shows the Harappan civilization was a superior civilization which was urban whereas Aryan civilization was pastoral. There used to be sharp conflict over the issue of control over the pastoral land and animals. They were very fond of violence and were greedy people. There was intermarriage between the Aryans and dasas which may be the origin of the Sudras. Conflicts are over gaining wealth and are reflected in the difference of language arid social and ritual codes between those who have wealth and those who are seeking it. The wealth is largely pastoral and pieces of gold could well have been an exaggeration as were the number of animals. Status was dependent on birth into the clan claiming seniority and had gradually but increasingly to be backed by wealth if the wealth of the title of rajan had to be retained (Thapar, 2000:32)

She has given various interpretations of the issue of the Somanatha temple which was used by the Hindutva forces as the example of Muslim destruction. Mahmud of Ghazni’s raid on the Somanatha Temple as an event needs to relooked from a historical point of view. She has brought the narrative in a historical context. She says, "There are those who argue that narrative speaks for itself and does not require historians to interpret it. But narrative does not speak, it is spoken. The historian in giving a voice to the narrative invests it with nuances, emphases and interpretation. This is inevitably a different voice from that of the poet, the dramatist, the chronicler, although there may be points of fusion. The recognition ofdifferences it seems to me enriches the reading. We need to understand why these are variants and what is their individual agenda. Even in fictionalized accounts there is a politics in the telling and the retelling as I have tried to show.... This becomes more evident where diverse narratives are wrapped around what might relate to the same event. ” (Thapar, 2000:48-49) She has defined that a historian has a role to play in a complex society like India. Bringing various versions of the event and truth and placing before the public is the work of the historian.

Such an event has gone into a narrative of fiction and poetry of K.M. Munshi which has roots in the debates over the event in the English Parliament. While this issue came for the debate in the English Parliament the opposition blamed the treasuiy bench for inflaming the communal passion over this issue. Thapar says, “Interestingly, what appears to be the earliest mention of a ‘Hindu tramua’ in connection with Mahmud’s raid on Somanath comes from the debate in the House of Commons in London in 1843 on the question of gates of the Somanath temple. (The UK House of Commons Debate, 9 March, 1943, on, The Somnath Proclamation, Junagadh 1948, 584-602, 620, 630-2, 656, 674.) (Thapar, quoted p. 42) In 1842 Lord Ellenborough stated that Mahmud Ghazni while returning from the war had taken the sandalwood gates from the Somanatha. It was claimed that the intention was to return what was looted from India by Afghanistan. This issue raised debates in the House of Commons. It was alleged by the opposition that whether Ellenborough was catering to religious prejudices by appeasing the Hindus. ‘It was argued that no historian mentions the gates in various accounts of Mahmud’s raid; therefore the story of the gates could only be an invention of folk tradition.” (Thapar: 43) Without verifying the authencity of the fact the issue was raised by Ellenborough with ulterior intention. Those who supported him argued that it would, ‘relieve that country which had been overrun by the Mohammadan conqueror from the painful feelings which had been rankling among the people for nearly a thousand years.’ And that,—‘the memory of the gates has been preserved by the Hindus as a painful memorial of the most devastating invasions that had ever desolated Hindustan.’ (ibid:44) Ellenborough saw Mahmud’s raid on Somanatha as embedded in the Hindu psyche and the return of the gates he felt, would avenge the insult of eight hundred years. (While raising the issue of Babri Masjid the same sentence got repeated by Advani in India)

Taking clue from the debates in the House of Commons on Somanatha, K.M. Munshi a conservative national leader raised the issue of restoration of the Somanatha temple. He started fictionalizing by writing novels which were intended to revive the glory of Hindu history. He got inspired by Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s ‘Anandamatha.’ His novel Jay a Somanatha was published in 1927. As Thapar puts it, ‘Munshi was concerned with restoring the Hindu Aryan glory of the pre-Islamic past. Muslim rule was viewed as the major disjuncture in Indian history. Munshi’s comments often echo the statement made in the House of Commons debate as is evident from his book, ''Somanatha—The Shrine Eternal. ’

Munshi, being a prominent leader of the Congress Party demanded the restoration of the temple in 1950. This led to excavation of the site in 1950 which went contrarily to the views expressed by Munshi. The archaeological evidences show that there was a temple of the 9th and 10th century but in dilapidated conditions. Thapar as a historian looked at the various traditions existed behind the issue of the Somanatha temple. She as a historian looked into archaeological sources and other records before reaching a conclusion. Various interpretations about the same event existed before the Itihas puran tradition reinvented one version of the story which was located by the imperialists with ulterior intentions.

The Somanatha located in the prosperous region of the Western India had a flourishing trade with the Arabian world. It is located in a port town of Gujarat. The trade and business was controlled by the trading community who used to be the Jains. This was a sacred place for the Hindu pilgrims who used to be attacked by the local kings and chieftons for plundering their wealth. There was a temple located in the town which had a rich source of income. This drew the local kings to attack the temple for its wealth. As Thapar states that ‘this is the backdrop as it were to the Somanatha temple which by many accounts suffered a raid by Mahmud in 1026.” (Thapar: 27) The Turko Persian chronicles talk of the pre-Islamic deities such as Manat rather than the Hindu deity. It is interesting to note that in the 13th century the famous Persian poet Sadi provides a description which does not mention this, which explains that the Somanatha idol was not that of Manat.

There are chronicles of Barani and Isami of 14th century who project Mahmud as the ideal Muslim hero. There are other sources like the Jaina texts of this period which have ignored it. “It does seem curious that these activities were focused on the Somanatha temple yet no mention is made of Mahmud in spite of the raid having occurred in the previous couple of centuries.” (ibid:35) The third category of major narratives is constituted by the inscriptions in

Sanskrit from Somantha itself focusing on the temple and its vicinity. But there is no mention of the raid of Mahmud. There is a legal document of 1264 which mentions about the buying of land from a Local Hindu king by a rich Muslim trader who built a Mosque in the town. In the land deal there are signatures of some dignitaries belonging to the Somanatha temple. Thapar came to conclusion that The tone and sentiment of the inscription is amicable and clearly the settlement had been agreed to on all sides. The building of a substantial mosque in association with some of the properties of the Somantah temple not by a conqueror but by a trader through legal agreement was obviously not objected to eitherfy the local governor and dignitaries or by the priests all of whom was party to the decision. The mosque is thus closely linked to the erstwhile properties and the functionaries of the Somanatha temple. (Ibid'35)

Historical craftsmanship of Thapar shows that the mosque was constructed on the land of the Somanatha temple but not by destroying the temple by Mahmud. This brings a point of contention between the historians and ideologue of the Hindutva that the Mahmud of Gazni destroyed the Somanath temple and built a mosque which was the theme of their political mobilization. Unfortunately, this movement was started by the conservative leaders of the Congress in 1950s. The BJP leaders took similar story of the Babri Masjid and led a movement in 1989. On both the occasions the historical works have been ignored and political views of some groups have taken the centre of their imaginary history.

How difficult is a historian’s craft to work over a historical problem? It needs various sources to study the matter and come to a conclusion. Romila Thapar has done all her research works with sincerity and passion. Most of her research works are milestones in the historiography of the Indian history.

Thapar has prepared a text book on ancient India which demanded hard work and consultations with various scholars working in different parts of the world. She has looked into regional historical traditions in India. Preparing a text book to be published by the Penguin India (1978) is a big achievement. This is a popular text book in Indian universities and colleges. She revised the text book in 2002 by taking new facts and new interpretations into consideration while writing the text. As she says, '’It has been almost four decades since the first version of this book was written and in that time there have been substantial changes in the readings of Indian histoiy. These have come about as a result of some new data together with many fresh interpretations of the known data. My attempt here has been to incorporate the essentials of the new data and interpretations while retaining some of the older arguments where they are still relevant. ’’ (Thapar 2002: Preface) Her engagement with the Indian history has kept her busy. She believes in independent scholarship which does not bow to the pressures of the power elite or state. She refused to take Padmashri given by the UPA government on the pleas that one should not subordinate to power elite. This is a lesson she has learnt from ancient Indian history that scholars in ancient times used to over glorify the kings because of the land gifts given to them by the kings. They used to mystify and glorify the kings. This is a proof of her honesty to the scholarship that one should not get subordinated to the power elite. She has brought a lesson from capitalism that the thinkers should not get subordinated to the treasurers. Keeping a high level of integrity and honesty is the value to be required for working as a public intellectual. She has taken a stand because she is a public intellectual on various issues in the contemporary India.

Prof. Thapar was invited by Delhi University to give the convocation address. The hoodlums of the VHP went to the pandal, created havoc and abused her. They threatened her of dire consequences. Hindutva forces were ready to work as the state within state to crush the intellectual dissent in a liberal society. They get direct or indirect support from the state. With the BJP as part of the NDA government these forces were very active to harass the scholars, artists and writers who have a different view point. They intend to create fear in the civil society by which no dissent is possible. The forces either with the state help or without it crush creativity. However, it should be noted that human creativity has never been crushed by even the most fascist states of Europe or the racist regime of America. The blacks could create jazz music staying under the control of the white landlords. Liberal society without creativity cannot survive. Innovations were very much a part of liberal thinking.

Hindutva talks of Purans which are the ancient texts but they are scared of the ancient Indian history. They are scared of truth. For them there is nothing like truth. If it exists it needs to be accepted by a community. Any truth needs to reconcile to the beliefs of the majority community. Historical writings need to adjust rather than speaking a truth which is controversial. If somebody like Prof. Thapar dares to speak out then she can be harassed by the Sangh Parivar if not by the state as it is a constitutional state. They attacked her when her works show India has not got one Ramayan but hundred Ramayam. This disproves a point that Ramayan is religious text and there is only one version of Ramayan which the Hindu community follows all over the country.

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Sep 23, 2019

Prof. Radhakanta Barik [email protected]

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