'McCarthy, where are you?'

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

Eminent historian Romila Thapar. - M. LAKSHMANAN.

Eminent historian Romila Thapar. - M. LAKSHMANAN.

Hindutva bigots have mounted a vilification campaign against Romila Thapar, perhaps the country's most illustrious historian of ancient India. Unless strongly challenged, this will further vitiate our public discourse and legitimise intolerance.

THE heading comes at the end of one of the many comments that form part of a signature campaign originating in the United States as a petition to the Library of Congress. The petition protests the appointment of Professor Romila Thapar, the distinguished historian, to the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South at the Library on the ground that she is an "avowed antagonist of India's Hindu civilisation", a Eurocentric Marxist, and too prejudiced or "ignorant" to be able to contribute to understanding Indian society and culture.

As many as 1,644 people have signed the petition as this goes to press. Many have added their own comments. The comment partly quoted above goes: "Fidel Castro would have been a better choice [than Thapar for the Chair]. At least he is not a venom-spitting anti-Hindu. I am worried about the future of USA. The Indian Communists have already infiltrated into all the American universities. And now the Library of Congress. McCarthy, where are you?" (U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy ran the 20th century's worst witch-hunt outside Nazi Germany, hounding anyone suspected to be a Communist).

The petition marks a new low in the Sangh Parivar's decades-long effort to demonise those who disagree with its view of India as "essentially Hindu", as opposed to syncretic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and plural. It is the worst calumny heaped upon a distinguished scholar who has done much to illuminate aspects of ancient India and the meanings of its texts in all their richness and variety. It also marks a new, hyper-aggressive form of intolerance, and a pathological tendency to abuse and defame individuals, rather than reason and argue with their ideas, which is a characteristic of the Hindutva tradition.

The genealogy of this tradition goes back to a pre-Independence project to "rewrite" Indian history (read, glorify it and purge it of its egregiously hierarchical, casteist, male-supremacist and violent aspects) undertaken by M.S. Golwalkar, V.D. Savarkar, P.N. Oak, Dharam Pal and others. Its central thrust is Hindu-supremacist: to depict "Aryan" India as the world's greatest culture and civilisation, the alpha and omega of all wisdom, the sole fount of all the sciences and arts, before which everything else - Mesopotamia and China, Egypt and Greece, Persia or Enlightenment Europe - pales into insignificance.

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre in 1998, it has energetically promoted that agenda through a virtual putsch against academic and cultural institutions like the Indian Council of Historical Research, Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICHR), the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the University Grants Commission and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. One of the first acts of the saffronised ICHR was to suppress the publication of certain volumes in the "Towards Freedom" series edited by distinguished historians Sumit Sarkar and K.N. Panikkar. This was the culmination of venomous attacks on them by pro-Hindutva ideologues such as Union Minister for Disinvestment Arun Shourie. NCERT's blatantly communal revision of school textbooks is too notorious to bear repetition. Thanks to such textbooks, whole generations will grow up steeped in ignorance, prejudice against other cultures and non-Hindu religions, and chauvinism and jingoism.

The BJP has thrown its full weight behind this agenda. Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee have done so countless times. On April 29, Joshi outlined his notion of what he called the "proper projection of the country's history and tradition". He said: "I want to teach students a history of Indian successes and victories and not of subjugation and defeats." This is a straightforward recipe for falsifying history by expurgating it of unpleasant realities.

All this has shifted the terrain of our political discourse, distorted academic priorities (towards refuting baseless allegations about "secularist" prejudices), and vitiated the possibility of rational, cool-headed, critical debate. It has also contributed to a rising spiral of intolerance of ideas and ad hominem attacks targeting individuals - a classic fallacy in logic.

THE present petition is a product of these processes. It was drafted by one M. Brannon Parker, who calls himself a "Friend of India", but whose qualifications and work as social scientist or commentator remain unknown. None of the first 10 co-signatories is easily recognisable as a historian, least of all of ancient India. (One is a medical doctor).

Among the signatories are well-known Hindutva zealots such as David Frawley and Praveen Togadia, and several non-resident Indians, but hardly anyone identifiable for their scholarship or understanding of history or historiography. (Indeed, the standard of grammar and the tenor of the language of the comments suggest the opposite).

The starkest fact about the petition is that its signatories appear totally unacquainted with Romila Thapar's work, including classics such as Asoka and the Decline of the Maurya, A History of India (Penguin 1966, revised, expanded and just published as Early India), Ancient Indian Social History and Cultural Parts, or the more recent Sakuntala, Interpreting Early India and History and Beyond, leave alone her scholarly papers and addresses which are too numerous to list. Some blithely accuse her of being "not a historian", or ask: "Who is Romila Thapar? Who knows her in India? Nobody except few Marxists/communists gang (sic) ... "

THAPAR is probably the best-known, and most widely read, living historian of ancient India, who has taught at numerous universities, including Oxford, Paris, Cornell, London, besides Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her History of India has dominated the ancient history field for three-and-a-half decades. As Sanjay Subrahmaniam - who by no stretch of the imagination can be called a Marxist - says, Thapar is "a monument of sorts in the Indian historiography". Subrahmaniam, Professor of Indian History and Culture at Oxford, says Thapar "has managed to be both centrally located and to maintain a distance from the ... hurly-burly of the Indian history establishment."

He adds that Thapar's "reputation does not rest on a single work, but on the capacity to have adapted herself decade after decade to changing trends and tendencies, and to have continued nevertheless to produce work of a consistent quality. ... [I]t is a sad commentary on the popular perception of ancient Indian history today that even this even-handed work will be tarred by some as being `sectarian'." (The Hindu, "Literary Review", April 6).

The pro-Hindutva petitioners accuse Thapar of trying to discredit India in the same way as the "Europeans discredited the American Indians' land claims ... " They say she "represents a completely Eurocentric worldview" and "disavows that India ever had a history"! Even worse, the petition says she is engaged in a "war of cultural genocide", and the result of her Library of Congress research subject, "Historical Consciousness in Early India", is "a foregone conclusion: "She will of course attempt to show that Early India had no historical consciousness."

If the petitioners had only bothered to read Thapar they would have known that one of her main, indeed recurring, themes is her critique of "Orientalist" Eurocentric interpretations, which hold that ancient India lacked a sense of history and that pre-colonial Indian society was "static". Some of her most exciting recent work (for example, Time as a Metaphor for History) interrogates and refutes the stereotype that people in ancient India had only a cyclical concept of time. It establishes that there were a variety of concepts, including linear and genealogical time.

It is ludicrous to say that Thapar is an "antagonist" of Indian "civilisation", as distinct from being antagonistic to those who paint this richly plural entity as purely Hindu, ignoring its Jain, Buddhist, Christian, animist and agnostic traditions, and its secular, scientific and materialistic currents.

Few historians have treated ancient Indian texts with greater respect and scholarly deference than Thapar, in interpreting and reinterpreting them in the light of new insights, and relating them to material reality. Thapar is strongly rooted in India and its classical languages. But she has never allowed herself to be isolated from new thinking in the rest of the world.

THE present attack on Thapar is a landmark in intellectual depravity and indulgence in hate speech as if it were the ritual of a religious cult or secret society. Witch-hunt is the only term that describes the quality of this McCarthyite campaign against Thapar. McCarthy cast aspersions on the integrity of individuals and persecuted and vilified them as monsters engaged in conspiracies to destroy the U.S. and "freedom" - "un-American activities". This is faithfully reflected in a majority of hysterical comments accompanying the petition. (A minority even say Thapar's Kluge Chair appointment, like U.S. Ambassador Robert Blackwill's recall, is a "neo-conservative" conspiracy!)

Petitions like these could have serious repercussions in post-9/11 U.S. The already paranoid climate there has been vitiated by the Patriot Act and jingoism over Iraq. Patriot-2 is in the offing. A new wave of intolerance might be rising. This could adversely affect the progressive Indian community in academe. The Library of Congress, the world's largest library of record, is unlikely to reverse Thapar's appointment - without risking a serious loss of credibility. But some institutions - including prestigious universities - could develop cold feet over appointing Indian scholars of left-wing or anti-communal persuasion if similar protests are organised - if only to avoid controversies. This will seriously interfere with academic freedom. It must not be allowed to happen.

Might America be exceptional in this regard? There are any number of social scientists in more tolerant Western societies who are universally respected, and who hold Marxist or socialist - or for that matter, anti-socialist, libertarian or conservative - political beliefs. In Britain alone, one can think of eminent historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill or E.H. Carr, who were/are Marxists. Hobsbawm has been a life-long member of the Communist Party. No serious scholars, including those who disagree with them within their discipline, have accused them of lack of integrity or shoddy work attributable to their political beliefs.

Antony Giddens, the present director of the London School of Economics, is known to be the theorist of "The Third Way" paradigm informing Tony Blair's right-leaning social democratic policies. Controversial as "The Third Way" is, both on the intellectual left and the right, no serious scholar has cast a slur on Giddens' integrity or his contribution to sociology.

A number of examples can be cited from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and indeed from India's own recent past too.

It is frightening how rapidly intolerance in India has taken the malign form of witch-hunts under Hindutva's patronage and influence of "long-distance" hypernationalism. The target today is Thapar. Tomorrow, it could be Amartya Sen (who too contests Hindutva claims about India's past), indeed anyone else. Those who inspired - and rationalise - Mahatma Gandhi's assassination cannot be expected to have compunctions about the character assassination of their ideological opponents.

The witch-hunt must stop. All those who believe in the indispensability of critical inquiry and free debate (free from both intimidation and censorship) based on rationality, must stand up against this pestilence of bigotry to the point of defending the right to commit heresy. Societies that burn their heretics cannot claim to be civilised.

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