Unfazed by attack

Print edition : September 16, 2016

Romila Thapar during the Ramayana festival in Puducherry. A file picture. Photo: T. Singaravelou

A teacher at Jamia Nizamia, a seminary in Hyderabad, displays a centuries-old Persian translation of the Mahabharata by Abul Fazl. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

The eminent historian Romila Thapar, who has been targeted by the Sangh Parivar for her views on nationalism, refuses to be silenced.

Mention the name Romila Thapar and the saffron brigade sees red. Talk of her latest work On Nationalism, which she has co-authored with A.G. Noorani (another person the right wing loves to hate) and Sadanand Menon, and the proponents of Hindutva, high on a diet of self-styled nationalism, fly into a rage. Venom flows, insinuations fly thick and fast and allegations sneak in unannounced. Younger proponents of Hindutva fail to appreciate the nuances of the eminent historian, who argues that the nationalism she inherited at the time of Independence was in the air she breathed and was far removed from today’s sloganeering and revivalist expression.

“Nationalism was not something problematic. It was an identity with the nation and its society. The identity and consciousness of being Indian did not need to be defined. We understood nationalism to be Indian nationalism, and not Hindu or Muslim or any other kind of religious or other nationalism,” she told Frontline.

This inclusive definition of nationalism has now attracted fierce criticism from the votaries of Hindutva. Organiser, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), chose to anoint her “the Queen Bee of highbrow intellectualism of divisive Left”. Her fault? In the book she talks of division of nationalism into two: secular nationalism, which was essentially anti-colonial in nature, and religious nationalism (Hindu, Muslim and Sikh), which was, for all pretensions, largely communal in nature.

Organiser also tried to drag the Congress into the issue, claiming that in the “post-Independence period, historians like Romila Thapar were nurtured by the Congress party and were established as intellectuals only to ensure that they echoed the political programme of this power-mongering party through their divisive theories and intellectual activism”.

Romila Thapar, on her part, does not get flustered. “It is expected. I would have been shocked had it been otherwise. All my life they have gunned for me. Everything I write, they find fault with it. They seem to reserve their ire for me,” she said.

About being criticised for the “phony communist character of her intellectual politics” and to be simultaneously accused of being propped up by the Congress, Romila Thapar said: “I have never been a communist all my life. I have never been a communist party member or subscribed without reservations to everything about the ideology. But yes, this is the first time somebody has called me a fake or phony communist. As for being propped up by the Congress, well, they cannot make up their mind as to who is propping me up. Logic and reason has never been their strong point but this is absurd.”

Yet, even as Romila Thapar questions the flag-waving, sloganeering, in-your-face nationalism of the Hindutva brigade, there are right-wing sympathisers who insist that what they are speaking for is cultural nationalism, whereas what was experienced during the freedom struggle was political nationalism. But Romila Thapar begs to differ: “Nationalism cannot be segregated into political, cultural, economic, and so on. Nationalism is one basic concept that has to do with giving citizenship to all the people living in a country and who are its nationals. It brings everyone together to build a society committed to human rights. Citizenship means the acceptance that all citizens are equal and have the same rights on the state and abide by the same obligations to the state. Rights and obligations are stated in the Constitution. Politics, economics, cultures are aspects of the one nationalism. Cultural nationalism does not mean differentiating between citizens on the basis of culture but bringing culture to support the concept of nationalism.”

Romila Thapar’s portrayal of the Mughal period as one of synthesis which saw the flowering of letters has rankled the Hindutva proponents. While the noted historian talks of the likes of Raskhan singing paeans to Lord Krishna, her opponents see it only as a period of foreign rule, much like the British era. Their voice is similar to that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who referred to a thousand years of foreign rule in his inaugural address as Prime Minister. She said: “The dynasties of the Sultanates and the Mughals settled in India, intermarried locally (such as the marriages between Mughals and Rajputs) and, above all, invested their wealth back into India which they treated as their home. The British did not settle in India and they drained the wealth from India to support their own development of capitalism and industrialisation in Britain. British colonialism impoverished India. Economic historians have argued that India and China in the immediately precolonial period were leading economies. The last one thousand years have seen a synthesis in many aspects of life bringing about new forms of religious and cultural experience. The religion of the average Hindu today reflects the changes that took place in the last two thousand years and more so in the last one thousand years, such as the Bhakti sects and their teaching and the Sakta sects. Remember that Hindu does not refer only to upper-caste Hindus but includes the majority of Hindus as well who are not upper caste. Further, Sanskrit learning and literature received patronage in the last one thousand years. We jettisoned our history by faithfully following what the British taught us, especially their insistence on Hindus and Muslims being two separate nations.”

Romila Thapar, not known for mincing her words, said: “Nationalism cannot be built on religious identities alone. This conflicts with the definition of nationalism. In the last fifty years historians have seriously questioned British colonial interpretations of Indian history. The only people who still repeat what the British taught us are the proponents of Hindutva for whom the two-nation theory continues to be central. Hindutva has no use for a rationally researched history.”

Then she reminds us that “religious nationalism had no role to play in our freedom struggle”, thereby silently questioning the right of the so-called nationalists to question others on the subject. “Sloganeering or flag-waving smacks of a lack of confidence among those making the demand for slogans.”

Are we headed towards an Emergency? Romila Thapar refuses to say as much though, measuring her words carefully in response. “We are going through times where we all have to be careful about what we say. And one does not know who is driving it all. There are people who are setting themselves up as super-nationalists. They seem to be arrogating to themselves the powers of the state.”

The New Delhi-based academic, whose views on the origins of the Aryans are well known (and criticised by the RSS, which propagates a theory of intermingling of the Indus Valley civilisation and the Aryans without any conflict), refuses to be silenced in the face of fierce criticism. “You cannot eliminate or silence people. Everybody has a right to opinion. You cannot set them aside just because you do not agree with them. Everybody has a right to see things in a unique perspective. You have to respect that.”

This is not her first brush with the Hindutva lobby. Back in 2002, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under A.B. Vajpayee was in power at the Centre, the government changed school textbooks according to its vision of history. Romila Thapar had objected to the changes made without her permission, questioning deletion of passages on beef eating in ancient India and the existence of the caste system.

That was an attack only on education. But today it is not just free speech but also free trade that is being challenged with so many Dalit and Muslim traders being attacked with impunity by the so-called gau rakshaks. “Yes, it is disturbing. People are not allowed freedom of movement too. For the common man, things are pretty bleak. One does not know where the next attack is coming from,” she said.

Yet, living in an age when a section of the nation has forgotten all about conciliation and cooperation, it is important to read Romila Thapar. As she reminds us ever so softly of medieval India: “Immensely devotional poetry was written by poets, some of whom were born Muslim but worshipped Hindu deities. One of the best known among them was Sayyad Ibrahim, popularly referred to as Raskhan, whose dohas and bhajans to Krishna were widely recited in the 16th century and are still remembered by devotees of Krishna.”

Yes, contrary to the notions of “we” and “they” sought to be drilled into young minds, the period between 1000 C.E. and 1700 C.E. was one of the flowering of the process of synthesis; an age when the Mahabharata was translated into Persian as Razmanamah and the bhajans of Surdas and Mira as also the poetry of Kabir and Tukaram was composed. But then, as Romila Thapar reminds us: “Hindutva has no use for rationally researched history.”

In her essay titled “Reflections on Nationalism and History”, Romila Thapar refers to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who said that historians were to nationalism what poppy growers were to heroin addicts. That has not gone down well with the Hindutva practitioners, who say that she is elitist.

“As I said, logic has never been their strong point,” Romila Thapar said.

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