Professor Romila Thapar’s latest slim book, Our History, Their History, Whose History? is a profound statement on India’s ongoing engagements with the past. She has spent her life in the vocation of pursuing historical research with the commitment that “readings of the past have to be based on proven, reliable evidence” and “not every narrative from the past is valid history”.
Our History, Their History, Whose History?
Seagull Books, 2023
She has remained unfazed despite facing some extremely abusive tirades from her spiteful detractors over the past several decades. This book is a blessing for many professional historians who have resolved to question those who merely fantasise about the past and who “present what they would like to believe to be the picture of the past”. This book can also be seen as a summation of Romila’s decades-old engagements with India’s historical past, an engagement that has even more salience today than it had a few years ago.
As a professional historian who follows the premise that “knowledge can only advance if it is questioned”, she spells out a historical methodology where a scholar needs to proceed with four a’s—artefact, author, agenda, and audience—and the expanse of possible inquiries would attempt to explore questions relating to what?, when?, where?, and why? Her scholarship over the past few decades is palpable with the above-mentioned methodology and rigour, which is summarised in the book.
She begins with a serious engagement with the idea of nationalism and the writing of history. This brand of history writing is in vogue today, where nationalism is defined in varying ways based on segregated religious, ethnic, and linguistic identities. This is antithetical to the idea of integrated nationalism and lays stress on the majoritarian idea of national identity. If we perceive our past this way, then the history we produce will be flawed to the core. It will not represent the spirit and ethos of the nation, which is a palimpsest of religions, cultures, and languages.
The book, in the light of the above, states categorically that “with the emergence of diverse segregated nationalisms, with their versions of history required to justify their own political ambitions, and the politics of identity, there develops a difference, in some cases even a confrontation, in how the past is viewed and presented.”
Our reading of the past is actually a product of our all-pervading nationalism, where facts are manufactured to conform with the so-called nationalist agenda. First of all, nationalism in India today needs an enemy; it needs an object of hate to flourish in full relish. It longs for uniformity and hates any deviant behaviour or even questioning of its so-called nationalist premise. It abhors diversity of cultures, views, eating habits, dress, and even modes of entertainment. This paranoid nationalism, now patronised by the state, is the most lethal weapon being used against many of its citizens.
Our reading of the historical past is thus coloured with this toxicity, where propaganda through multiple media options is more important than facts and scholarly rigour. I am reminded of a letter that Jawaharlal Nehru wrote on September 20, 1953. He was prophetic when he said: “[A] more insidious form of nationalism is the narrowness of mind that it develops within a country, when a majority thinks itself as the entire nation and in its attempts to absorb the minority actually separates them even more.” Romila has been conscious of this farcical history for very long, which is being peddled through social media such as WhatsApp, where a mere narrated story by you and me is claimed as history, particularly when these stories “become central to the most influential of current storytellers: namely, the media of every kind”.
- The book highlights the dangers of nationalism that seeks to define history based on segregated identities.
- It underscores the need to view the past through facts and scholarly rigour, not through the lens of nationalism.
- It also warns against the propagation of false history through social media and the selective deletion of facts by the NCERT.
Propaganda as history
The worst victim of this propaganda as history is the medieval Indian past, a period that today’s right-wing xenophobes see as an era of mere Hindu bloodletting. Their blind hatred makes them forget about so much that was worth celebrating in this period.
It was during these centuries that the Bhakti saints/poets from Kabir and Guru Nanak to Surdas and Tulsidas flourished. They could write and mock all religions, including Islam, as Kabir did so often in his dohas. It is in the Mughal India of Akbar that Rahim and Tulsidas could be friends, though in the present times, as the author repeatedly stresses in the book, the period is portrayed merely as conflictual. If the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and other agencies selectively delete these parts of history, then the closely intermeshed history will sound hollow and truncated. It will be difficult to teach the battle of Haldighati and the struggle of Shivaji without mentioning Mughal Emperors Akbar and Aurangzeb.
She also goes into the details of Hindu society that was segregated for centuries, even before the arrival of Islam into India, though most of the social/religious divisions and conflicts are attributed to the presence of Islam. That does not mean that the arrival of Islam did not lead to any violent conflict for power and control. It did, and there are many such instances in history, but there were more examples of collaboration in governance and enriching sociocultural exchange. Sadly, it is the perpetual religious conflict and the conversions by medieval Muslim states that reverberate in the propaganda peddled as history.
For all the bigots of today, who see history through their present political/communal compulsions, Romila cites an interesting example of an Asokan pillar, relocated in Mughal times to the Agra Fort. She calls it a true palimpsest of Indian history, which begins with Asokan edicts in Prakrit followed by the Gupta ruler Samudragupta’s achievements, and later, Feroz Tughlaq and Jahangir also mark their presence. Many such pillars were not destroyed, they were rather treated with respect as examples of continuity in the history of India.
While referring to all periods of Indian history from the ancient, medieval, and modern phase, she repeatedly stresses that the inter-community relations of the past—both the harmonious and the conflictual—should be seen through reliable evidence and not superficial generalisations. “To describe the entire range of relations as invariably the victimization of the Hindus by the Muslims is not borne out by the evidence.”
The afterword in the book deals with the “rationalizing” of Indian History by the NCERT. She pertinently wonders what this “rationalizing” really means. For example, the burden of post-COVID studies will not ease “if the sentence referring to the assassin of Gandhi being a brahmana is removed”. She stresses that mere deletion cannot be rationalisation as history is based on a continuity of events. It is ridiculous to make a section of history disappear because you do not like that history for your own political reasons. Such huge blanks in the narrative will make it almost impossible to comprehend the narrative of our connected history. It seems, she writes, that NCERT probably got confused between “rationalizing” and “rationing”, because “rationing means to cut down, to prune, to delete—which is precisely what the NCERT has done”.
The NCERT is not just hacking history, even science courses have suffered a similar fate where Darwin’s evolution theory has been axed. Most of it happened, she says, without any reasoned debate and discussion.
She ends the book by voicing her concerns and fears at the irrational and unscientific approach to the understanding of our past. No history can be written without raising questions about everything we inherit from the past, including religion and culture. Another rampant trend today is to fantasise about the past and use flimsy “nationalist” arguments to question trained professional historians.
I hope and wish that this short but profound book will help us to comprehend the past in a scientific and organised manner. We may go on deleting sections of our history but there are several centres of historical research in the world outside, where new advances will keep enriching our knowledge about Indian history.
S. Irfan Habib is a historian and author based in Delhi.