Professor Romila Thapar, one of India’s finest historians, is in the news again — for refusing the Padma Bhushan. During the reign of the National Democratic Alliance government, she was in the news for a series of run-ins with the ideologues of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the largest party in the NDA coalition. The BJP was keen to do away with her interpretation of history and present a new version — which was questioned by most historians for its authenticity and interpretation since it sought to glorify the Hindu aspects at the cost of non-Hindu aspects. The United Progressive Alliance government put an end to the ‘rewriting’ of history.
Thapar’s refusal of the Government of India’s award had so many from the media questioning her that she made copies of her reasons for declining the award and distributed them (the statement is reproduced below as the answer to the first question).
She also agreed to give an interview to Deputy Managing Editor Amberish K Diwanji where she dwelt on the study of Indian history in the country today.
Why did you decline the Padma Bhushan?
My declining a State award is an entirely personal decision that I took 13 years ago when I was first offered the same award and which I also declined then. I decided at that time that I would only accept academic and professional awards. And because it is a personal decision, let me emphasise that it does not reflect on others who have accepted the awards, neither is it a gesture of arrogance nor of opposition to the government. I was more than delighted with the election results of 2004.
I also have a sense of unease about these awards. One of the problems is that over the years there has been a degree of slippage where State awards are being seen as government awards, in effect, government patronage. The line dividing them may be thin but has to be maintained.
The procedures for these awards should be systematised and made more transparent. We should know who is consulted when names are considered, what the procedure is in taking a decision, and who decides. If the names of the members of these committees are known, that would add to the prestige of the award. Those listed for awards should be consulted just prior to the finalisation of the list. This would save considerable embarrassment on both sides when awards are declined.
These awards are generally given to those who are already recognised. One would like to see a larger number of awards going to those who are doing valiant work in various fields and who remain unrecognised: those in rural education, health care, urban slums, and areas essential to the well-being of our society as a whole. Awards going to such people would lend far greater weight in society to the work that they are doing.
Politics and lobbying plays a part in all awards, whether academic or even the Nobel Prize. Does that take away from the award or the recipient?
State awards have become increasingly mixed up with government patronage in India. But there is a difference between State awards and professional awards. The latter are strictly for the work one has done and nothing else. Therefore, I prefer taking a professional or an academic award.
The other point I’d like to make is that although many awards do get politicised, including professional awards, nevertheless in a professional context, a smaller group of people is involved, and professionals can critique a judgment. One can say that so-and-so doesn’t deserve the award, but it is very difficult to say that in a State award, which is more extensive, has a lot of people involved in different fields, and so forth.
My decision was the same in 1992 and my reasons then were the same as they are now. I have stayed with these reasons all through my career and I have stayed with the same decision.
Moreover, in societies like ours, there isn’t the same value placed on academic awards as is placed on State awards and one always likes to encourage academic and professional awards.
You had also said that in India awards are usually given to those who have already accomplished rather than to recognise emerging talent as they should. And it has always been pointed out that far too often, the Indian government recognises talent after it is recognised by an international body.
What I was trying to suggest is that awards are given to those who are already recognised. There are a large number of people who are working in unglamorous areas such as rural education, urban slums, etc. Some of them are doing valiant jobs and a lot of their credibility and respect would be increased if they were given a Padma Shri or Padma Bhushan. I think more of these persons need to be brought into the net of awards than they are at the moment. That is what I meant when I said the awards tend to be given to people who are already recognised.
International recognition does seem to be rewarded by national recognition.
You said textbooks are written based on accepted knowledge. So what should be the parameters for changing textbooks? A lot of people might object to, say, the school history textbooks as found in West Bengal. After all, there will always be some who will oppose change.
It depends on where the demand for change comes from. If it suddenly comes from political parties, then there is a suspicion as to why they want to change the textbooks. In the normal course of pedagogy, all knowledge has to be reconsidered from time to time because knowledge advances. The history that was written 20 years ago has to be revised in the light of new advances, whether in source material or interpretation. The objection is not to the fact that the history has to be revised, but to the basis on which that revision takes place.
If a committee of a dozen respected and recognised historians go through the textbooks and tell us where and what should be revised, none of us will have objections to the principle, although we may disagree with the suggested revisions.
But people who represent the Arya Samaj, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), the (Shiromani) Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee or this and that — and none of them historians — when they say that they object to various statements in the history textbooks, then we have to ask for historically based objections. They are not historians and there can be little historical discussion on the objections. Here the purpose comes to be seen as one where ideology, in the political sense, is being brought in.
That seems to be happening worldwide. We now have a situation in the US where there is a demand to study the ‘theory’ of creation alongside the theory of evolution.
Yes, but the point is that there is a debate and there are people fighting the compulsory teaching of creationism. But you are right, this is not an entirely Indian phenomenon. Everywhere there are groups that don’t wish to bring in change and this leads to debates.
The only difference is that debates are generally conducted in a civilised manner, whereas here, when ministers of the Government of India were abusing us publicly by name, day in and day out, this was really not called for. That kind of behaviour doesn’t make for a debate.
There is a complaint that our history is seen from a certain perspective. For instance, Dalits often complain about lacking representation in history.
That is the same as the gender perspective. There is much feminist history that is only now being written. This frequently happens — that as and when groups become empowered, they wish to see their history at least incorporated in or parallel to the existing history. And this will continue a this is one perspective from which history changes. What I wrote about dalits and women in my recent Early India is much more than what I wrote 35 years ago, because there wasn’t that consciousness 35 years ago.
So it does boil down to the fact that history is driven by the political and social changes taking place?
No, it does not boil to that. Not at all! What it boils down to is that the political and social changes may make us conscious of other dimensions that we had missed out earlier. But the change in history is not one that simply reflects contemporary changes since there has to be reliable data for making statements about the past, or ways of looking at existing data that may give us leads that can be tested.
But so often history misses aspects. For example, books on Maratha history took a long time to discover that under the Peshwas, the Dalits suffered terribly. And this didn’t come out till recently.
I don’t know about this particular case. But more generally, one reason is that history, till recent times, has been treated as the history of elite groups, (is) because it was only the elite groups that left written sources, inscriptions and other literary records. If the Dalits had done so, if there were texts written by Dalits in earlier periods, those texts would have been treated as source material.
It is only now that historians have become conscious of the oral tradition and conscious of what (anthropologist) Eric Wolfe has called ‘people without history.’ They were regarded as people without history; but then, everyone has a history, and that is an input.
The awareness of these histories has some influence on our understanding of identities from the past. And when one is talking about looking for identities, it is no longer a single identity that the historian is concerned with, but the recognition of multiple and sometimes overlapping identities.
Are we as a people ready for critical history? So often our books lead to a public outcry.
This is part of the process of getting used to discussion and debate. It doesn’t happen overnight. We were a colony for 200 years in which our entire intellectual debate was focused on not deviating from the given message, not challenging convention and authority.
We challenged it at the political level through nationalism and this had its influence on secular historical writing. Now we have to challenge convention not as an opposition to colonialism alone, but through new ways of understanding the past and this includes accommodating intellectual processes that question conventional knowledge. It will take time to adjust to this, but it is happening.
If you read the history that has been written in the last few decades you will find that it does question conventional views and does so in methodical and precise ways. There is a premium on critical enquiry and this needs encouragement. The attack on critical enquiry, not just in history but in various fields of knowledge under the previous (NDA) government, has done a lot of damage.
But so often opinions are so sharply divided. For instance, you either have versions saying thousands of temples were destroyed or very few were.
There is historical writing investigating which temples were destroyed and for what reason and which declined through other reasons. These are careful analyses and not partisan figures. They are concerned with the why and how of the rise and decline of a temple.
The problem is that much of the general public, and particularly the media, seems to have given up on reading. Today, all that is wanted is not a book but a byte, and a sensational byte at that. So either it is said that ‘Oh they destroyed all the temples’ or that ‘No, no, they did not destroy the temples.’
Temples have a biography and a community history, which explains much of what happens to them. A large range of questions have to be asked and answered. Such questions are being asked and answered by historians. But few are interested in these because it means a little bit of reading, the kind of activity that most television channels set aside.
The media is only interested in sensation! I am sorry but I am convinced about this.
Are you writing another book?
I am writing on something that I have been thinking about for virtually all my working life. There is a widely held theory that Indians never had a sense of history, that Indian civilisation was ‘a-historical.’ I am trying to refute this by pointing out that there is a historical tradition; it is expressed differently but it is there and I am trying to trace it.
How would you assess the study of Indian history at present? Is much research being done?
Oh yes, there is an enormous amount that is being done. The public perception of history generally goes back to books that were written 50 years ago or so, but in fact, in the last half century, much has been done to further the methods of historical writing. The basis of this has become much more specialised, and historical research much more complex.
Now we speak about the historical method, which wasn’t talked about when I was a student. It is a method that requires a historian to assess evidence — and particularly its reliability — to analyse it, to examine as many causes as possible, to argue for a priority of causes, and then to finally to bring the argument together in a historical generalisation. There is a method to the procedures and to specialised research. This is something that the press, the visual media and the politicians don’t understand when they readily pronounce on history.
The point that I have been making all along in the issue that was being discussed during the period of the BJP government about NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) textbooks is the difference between textbooks and research. Textbooks are never at the cutting edge of knowledge because the main purpose of a textbook is to encapsulate the mainstream of accepted knowledge. Those on the frontiers of knowledge, propounding new theories, do not include these in textbooks. Maybe some years from now, when this knowledge becomes part of the mainstream knowledge, it will become part of textbooks.
But many who took part in this debate during the last five years were unfamiliar with the kind of historical research that was being carried out because they didn’t read the books we were writing. They were commenting on us as historians on the basis of what they read in the textbooks, if at all they read the textbooks.
So the attack on me was because I had talked about the eating of beef in the Vedic period in a Class VI textbook. This has been an established fact in historical research for many decades and therefore has found its way into a textbook. And the people who were vilifying me as a historian were people who had certainly not read my other books on history.
But is there a case that ultimately the version of history we accept is determined by ideology?
In the case of the confrontation with the BJP it was not just ideology but also the intention of using history as part of an ideology geared to political mobilisation. It is something that has been slowly boiling up as it were and was used when the opportunity occurred.
A clear example was the Ram Janmabhoomi movement where there was a misuse of history in order to support political mobilisation. In fact, the historical factor should not have come in at all. If people have a belief in their associations with a particular place, and it is an appeal to faith, this has nothing to do with the history of the place. You can’t bring history into faith. But there is the feeling all the time that in order to strengthen the argument, if you can say there is historical proof as well, then it becomes much stronger.
There are various ways of seeing ideology. Where ideology is the driving force of ideas it can lead to shifts in the paradigms of knowledge and to that extent knowledge can be driven by a context that includes ideology. This has been argued even for much of scientific advance. The point here is that knowledge is that which makes advances or overcomes any kind of ideological constraints and goes forward.
But at a more ordinary level, there is the kind of ideology that becomes a mechanism for political mobilisation. This has nothing to do with knowledge. It has to do with a political intention and political agenda. Therefore the attack should not be on the driving force of knowledge but on the intention of using ideology for political gain.
Aren’t you contradicting yourself here? If knowledge is driven by ideology…
(Interrupting) No, I am not saying it is driven by ideology. There is a difference. Ideology may play a role in pushing knowledge in a particular direction, but this is a different kind of ideology as it does not require people to demolish historical monuments. The popular definition of ideology is more a programme for political action.
But wouldn’t it have the tinge of the ideology that drove it?
If the word ideology is used in its widest sense, namely, the manner of thinking of individuals, then everything has a tinge of ideology; the way one speaks, what one eats, how one thinks… that is part of life and in part an explanation of what one is. From this perspective all our attitudes to life are tinged with ideology.
Does that mean there is no such thing as objective history?
There is no absolute objective history but some histories are more objective than others based on how the historical methods are used. There are no absolutes.
Rediff, Feb 2005