“You can’t run disciplines on the basis of the notions that particular governments may have”: An Interview with Romila Thapar

Courtesy Penguin India
07 October, 2015

For over five decades, the historian Romila Thapar has been at the vanguard of research and writing about ancient India. Her books Early India: From the origins to A.D. 1300, Ashok and the Decline of the Mauryas, The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India and most recently, The Past as Present among others, are widely studied in South Asian history courses in India and abroad. Thapar has also been involved in the process of writing history textbooks for the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) on ancient and modern India, which are used in many schools in the country. Her writing, among other things, foregrounds the role of rational, evidence-based enquiry and research-oriented approaches towards uncovering secular and shared histories. On 18 August this year, Thapar deliveredthe fifth annual Dr Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Lecture titled “Indian Society and the Secular” at the Jamia Milia Islamia university in Delhi. During the lecture, she discussed how the notion of secularism should be squared with a system of social justice and equality. Last month, Nikhil Pandhi, an intern at The Caravan, met Thapar at her residence. Pandhi spoke to her about the role of history in curtailing religious fanaticism, the place of religion in pre-modern India and the recent attempts to impose an official monopoly over cultural and historical institutes.

Nikhil Pandhi: In your lecture, you emphasised a “decentralised” way of looking at religion through sects and castes. Could you elaborate on that?

Romila Thapar: If one looks at historical texts carefully, one realises that the concept of monolithic religions—whether it is ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, ‘Jainism’, or ‘Islam’—is an erroneous idea. Starting with the edicts of Ashoka and going all the way through to the writing of [the Persian scholar] Al Biruni in the [eleventh] century AD, the terms that are used for, what we would today call, ‘religions’ are the two categories of ‘Brahmans’ and ‘Shramans.’ The Brahmans refer to themselves as ‘astika’—believers in the sanctity of the Vedas and of deities as well as the immortality of the soul, and the Shramans refer to themselves as ‘nastika’—non-believers in these ideas. This differentiation is, to my mind, much more important than trying to talk about enormous, monolithic religions.

So what one gets [from a reading of history] is many references to sects, and this continues through history. Religious groups are frequently referred to as sects. The sects tend to cluster [a]round particular castes, not very specifically defined, but approximately upper-castes and non-upper-castes. After the [fifteenth] and [sixteenth] centuries AD, people that belonged to the earlier Brahmin-Shraman tradition are described as ‘Hindus.’ The ‘Hindus’ in turn refer to the ‘Muslims’ generally as ‘Turushka,’ meaning Turks; ‘Yavana,’ meaning people from West Asia; or ‘mlechcha,’ which is simply a person who is outside the pale of the varna-ashrama-dharma [a concept in Hinduism that dictates that everyone has a responsibility according to their caste (Varna) and their stage in life (Ashrama)], as defined in the Dharmashastras [a genre of Sanskrit texts pertaining to Hindu religious duty]. 

The term ‘Hindu’—itself a geographical and ethnic term—is used by the West Asians, the Arabs and the Turks to refer to the people living on the other side of the Indus—and this area was known as ‘al-Hind.’ It has a geographical identity. When does ‘Hindu’ get transferred to becoming a religious term? We’re not sure, but probably around the [fifteenth] century or so there are indications of using Hindu to mean all those who are not recognisably Muslims. So the erstwhile Brahmins and Shramans are all bound together under this umbrella term, which has a history of its own, and I think it’s essential that we should be familiar with this history.

NP: In your recent book, you said, “Our understanding of ‘conversion’ would be much clearer if we could focus on sect or caste where the evidence exists.” How does the political idea of “ghar wapsi” [a term given to a series of religious conversion drives conducted by Hindu organisations, meaning “homecoming”] distort this?

RT: I must confess, I’m intrigued as to how the idea of ‘[ghar wapsi]’ will play out. Conversion to a religion other than that of the Hindus, generally results in the loss of caste i.e. you became a ‘mlechcha.’ A medieval text, the Devalasmriti, addresses the question of conversion and reconversion by saying that people who have lived with and have been associated with the mlechcha can be taken back as Hindus provided they go through a ritual called ‘shuddhi,’ or purification. Now, shuddhi generally refers to the purity of caste. In the ‘[ghar wapsi]’ we hear of now, shuddhi as such has been given little attention, the emphasis being on a ritual that pertains to conversion. The rhetoric is about religion, and they define the religion as Hinduism.  I don’t see how that squares with the Dharmashastric view of caste.

Also, with ‘[ghar wapsi],’ a new kind of religion may get created and the conversion is to that but what about the caste identity? The Muslims that have been converted back to the Hindu fold, what caste are they converted into and how are they going to arrange marriages in their families? Are they going to then marry within themselves and probably end up creating a new caste? It’s a question that needs asking. I also feel there is much merit in asking those who have ‘returned home,’ in the sense of ‘[ghar wapsi]’, whether they were happier as Muslims before, and also what are the rituals from before that they may still be observing.

NP: In the lecture, you define secularism as a concept that insists on social ethics and justice based on uniform civil laws. However, a party, whose, as you said during the lecture, “foundational ideology is anti-secular” [referring to the BJP], has been constantly rallying for a uniform civil code. 

RT: You have to ask, what do they mean by ‘uniform civil code’/UCC? What they’re referring to is the Muslim Personal Law, arguing that if we have a uniform civil code, there cannot be a Muslim Personal Law. This is aimed at stopping the possibility of four wives and many children since there is a strange arithmetic where a nearly 80 [percent] majority fears being overtaken in numbers by a 15 [percent] minority. The point of course is that if, strictly speaking, you have a uniform civil code then all the existing multiple codes of various religions and caste groups will have to be set aside in favour of a single code. Hindus will also have to reconsider their caste and customary laws pertaining especially to marriage and inheritance, because these then may no longer be in conformity with the civil code. So there is a distinction between saying we want a uniform civil code by excluding just the Muslim Personal Law and by saying we want to reconsider the existing civil laws and redefine what the civil code should be.

The Hindu Civil Code, for example, is not very conducive to the rights of women. This would have to be reassessed in the light of women’s rights as perceived in 1956 when the [Hindu Code] Bill was passed and how they are viewed in present times, half a century later. This was [a] significant half century in terms of the feminist movements and the demand for women’s rights. So the UCC [Uniform Civil Code] is a fundamental change, but one that is, in many ways, essential if we are going to have a properly secular democratic society. A uniform civil code would be a huge asset to the rights of the ‘citizen’ because it will move society towards greater equality.

NP: As a historian, how do you react to public spaces being renamed, food-items being banned and people being targeted by politically-motivated groups?

RT: I wouldn’t put them all into one bracket. The change of the name of a road or public space depends a little on whose name was used earlier, whose name is to be used to replace it, and what are the perceptions that people have of the change. It’s interesting that there is a popular perception of Aurangzeb, which is quite contrary to the historian’s perception. Is it curious why the historian’s perception never trickles down to the popular level? What is it that is acting as a barrier? The answer is obvious.

Then there is the ban on a particular kind of meat. I tend to agree with people who say, “Why should I be told what I should eat?” Once this is conceded then anything can be banned. Then, at another level, books are banned and films are censored. That again is a curious case. I may totally disagree with a book, yet I would not want it to be banned.  I would still insist that the book be available so that people can read and decide for themselves whether to accept or discard its contents. But, by far the most ghastly act of opposition is the assassination of people whom you disagree with or, as in the most recent case [in Dadri], the killing of someone whom you suspect may have gone against the ban on beef. This has absolutely no place in any society that claims that it is civilized.

NP: How effective do you think is the teaching of history in curtailing religious fanaticism?

RT: It’s a difficult job for historians alone to do this. The fanaticism that is nurtured through the propagation of ‘popular history’ is generally dependent on certain colonial readings of Indian history, which have, over the decades, fueled this fanaticism as, for example, the two-nation theory [which states that the primary identity of Muslims is their religion and therefore, Hindus and Muslims should have two separate nations], accepted by both Hindu and Muslim religious nationalism. These readings were not only skewed to support colonial policy but are now quite out-of-date. But the continued resort to these readings is the willful choice of some Indians. Colonial readings have to be juxtaposed with the work that historians have been doing in the last fifty years or so, which have seriously questioned popular ideas such as the two-nation theory.

Far from questioning those colonial readings we are, at the popular level, producing political ideologies using religious identities in the same manner as did the colonial authorities, to produce divisive groups and politics. And this cuts across all religions that harbor religious nationalist groups whether they be Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. A century ago there was, in the main, just the Hindu Mahasabha [a Hindu nationalist political party] and the [All India] Muslim League [a political organisation originally formed, in 1906, to protect the political rights of Muslims in India]; today there is a plethora of such groups.

As long as you have political ideologies with some amount of public support, which are rooted in colonial readings that are supportive of religious fanaticism, you are not going to get rid of it in terms of popular history. Of course, school text books are one agency of change but when you try and improve the quality of textbooks, you come up against an ideological wall of religious nationalism of every variety. We have seen what happened in the last sixty years—on more than one occasion—where textbooks of various kinds have been objected to for reasons of wanting to have a more religiously-oriented history.

NP: Recent agitations by upper-caste groups demanding reservations are often based on the need to preserve their “backward’ status.” As a historian, do you see any fault lines of this in the history of caste politics in India?

RT: That upper caste groups should declare themselves to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and want to avail of the reservation policy is a pandering to caste politics of course, as also are caste vote-banks. It is partially a reflection of the insecurity that the neo-liberal market economy has created among the middle-class. Opportunities are limited, jobs are scarce and so far ‘development’ remains a slogan. There’s a lot that is being done to keep caste going in spite of saying that we are trying to erode caste. We are, of course, dodging the real issue. It’s true that there has been a great deal of exploitation of Dalit groups and OBC’s in past history; making amends or even just claiming that we are a democracy based on social justice demands far more than just reservations. The solution lies in changing the quality of life of half the Indian population by giving them their right to food, water, education, health care, employment, and social justice. This, no government so far has been willing to do, because it means a radical change in governance and its priorities.

NP: Earlier this year you issued a joint statement expressing concern over the reported plans to transform the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) into a “Museum of Governance.” What do you make of the recent developments regarding the erstwhile NMML director, Mahesh Rangarajan?

RT: Many reasons have been put forward; some say it’s a political move to underplay the role of Nehru and his associates. Some argue there should be much more attention given to the people that thought up the ideology of Hindutva. My own position—and it is something that I have been writing about for more than the past ten years—is that these are all institutions that have to be autonomous, even if they are financed by the state, and that the presiding voice has to be that of the professionals involved. You cannot have councils of disciplinary research that are so completely controlled by government that each time the government changes the people who are effectively running those institutions change. This makes the institutions illegitimate in terms of the discipline.

But this is the same story as that of the NCERT textbooks; when there was an election and the government changed, I had anxious parents ringing me up and asking what history should they be teaching their children? One can’t describe it in any other way except by saying that education is being reduced to a zero. Many of us wrote in favour of the NCERT being made an autonomous body run by those actually working in the relevant disciplines. But does any government these days give attention to, leave alone respect, the opinions of academics? You can’t run disciplines on the basis of the notions that particular governments may have about how that particular discipline needs to be taught. The disciplines themselves have an independent intellectual trajectory and that autonomous, independent, intellectual trajectory has to be honoured by every government.

NP: The Pakistani political economist, Dr S Akbar Zaidi, recently said that history in Pakistan is being taught from an ideological viewpoint. Is this a challenge that historians of South Asia at large must confront?

RT: I think historians of South Asia have to insist on their independence of opinion and autonomy. This means that they have the right to say what they are saying provided they are saying it on the basis of reliable evidence. We have to keep in mind that history is now a social science. And like all the social sciences, for that matter even the sciences, knowledge can have an ideological edge. So, one begins with questioning existing knowledge.

The point is you cannot have static history, static sociology or any static social science. The changes that are to be brought in, or that one is intending to highlight, are changes that have to be backed by an intellectual understanding of the subject. That is a level that one cannot, as a scholar, ever discard. I think there is perhaps an unspoken collective acknowledgement of this among scholars of South Asia, to the extent that peer review is important. There is an intellectual consensus among professionals, although there can also be serious disagreements, but such debates are based on research. It is unfortunate when that intellectual perception and evaluation is not appreciated at the public level as well.

NP: In your books, you often describe history as a divisive and charged arena for battle. Yet, the discipline of history still battles with the image of being redundant and obsolete. Why is this and how can this be rectified?

RT: Yes, I have said that the way in which history is handled in our society can often end up by its carrying a divisive message. But it needn’t be. It’s the malfunctioning of the discipline of history that leads it into that condition.

How can this be rectified? When we, on the whole, become aware of the link between the past and the present and realise that we use history all the time, even where we don’t realise that we’re using it and begin to demand fuller explanations of the past, and not from just one perspective. People generally don’t understand that if you teach a divisive history, you will end up with a present day society that will be divisive. Possibly some political parties may require this in asserting power. Societies emerge not necessarily out of a single, unified history, but out of a shared history. Once you understand that, then you realise that even the present has to be a shared present.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

An earlier version of this interview stated that S Akbar Zaidi is a historian. The Caravan regrets the error.