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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

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Romila Thapar … “Historical writing is not a free-for-all in which anyone can claim to be writing history.”Romila ThaparProfessor Romila Thapar was recently in Chennai at the invitation of the Prakriti Foundation, known to bring to the city the best among scholars and artists for an enlightened audience. She gave two lectures at the Museum Theatre on two unusual but important themes — “Perceiving the Forests: Early India” and ” Somanatha: The many Voices of a History”. They made Thapar’s lectures almost dramatic in their presentation with a rich artistic background to the stage, but the scholar performer had members of the audience glued to their seats with her highly academic and lucid presentation, which needed no setting or backdrop.

The two lectures were highly illuminating and were marked by the historiographical advance of recent scholarship, which has revolutionised our understanding of the nature of the discipline and our vision of the past. What was of interest to the audience was that they demonstrated the kind of historiographical changes that have taken place in both the handling of new themes and in the re-interpretation of existing theories. The first lecture on the forest was undoubtedly a new theme and the subject of the forest in history may have been puzzling to some, but the intention of the lecture was not only to show that such non-conventional subjects are relevant to the study of history but also to narrate changes that have taken place during a long span of time — Fifth Century B.C. to Seventh Century A.D. The choice of the theme is noteworthy. It indicates the importance to historians today of themes that had been neglected in the past or not even recognised as important in historical processes which would extend to societies such as pastoralists and forest dwellers and their contribution to mainstream history, and also those who had been at the lower end of society or had been marginalised.

Professor R. Champakalakshmi spoke to Professor Thapar on the significance of the choice of themes.

HOW important is the study of the forest for the present, especially in India?

Its relevance to the present is in the form of two aspects. One is the varied symbolism of the forest in Indian literature and culture, which has not really been investigated or fully explored, e.g., in the epics, exile is into the forest and the forest becomes a central space for the activities of the heroes. The question of why the forest was chosen relates to the early views in some North Indian texts, of the dichotomy between the forest and the settlement (aranya and grama or vana and kshetra). The interface between the two concepts is played out in many later texts. The second is the attitude of our present day society to the forest. There is a tendency to almost ignore the centrality of the forest and the people who live in it because their culture and living pattern is regarded as different if not inferior.

Has this attitude always existed?

Attitudes to the forest have changed in time and space. In some texts there was a dichotomy posed between the settlement and the forest. The forest was initially regarded as an unfamiliar space, a wilderness hosting people whose culture was alien. Sometimes the descriptions of such people are projected as realistic as in the description of, for example, the Nishada and Sabara, although even this supposed realism becomes a stereotype. At the other end the question may be asked as to whether the references to the Rakshasa, the Preta and the Daitya, demons and ghosts of various kinds could have been a reference to the alien people of the forest. Demonising the “other” is sometimes a technique to justify holding such people in contempt and even attacking them.

Was the relationship between the settlement and the forest always a contested relationship?

No. This was not always the case. There are other texts in which the relationship is depicted as distinct but harmonious or symbiotic, as in the Tinai ecologies of the Tamil Sangam texts, a concept that is just beginning to acquire importance in environmental history and needs to be discussed further. There is also the romanticising of the forest, as for example in the plays of Kalidasa. The forest is symbolic of nature and although there is some tension between the settlement and the forest, the forest is not a wilderness or an unknown place and is not associated with evil. In fact these changes in attitudes come about in different kinds of societies in different periods.

If the subject is relevant today, then what was the attitude of the state to the forest in the early past?

One major difference between the depiction of the forest in creative literature and the concern of state policy is the example of Kautilya’s Arthasasatra. The forest here is a resource from which the state derived revenue. The products of the forest such as timber, gemstones and elephants contribute to revenue as also does the clearing of the forest and converting the land to cultivation. From mid-first millennium A.D. onwards, the state increasingly made grants of land to religious authorities and institutions and to a lesser extent to those who served the state. Where such grants were of waste land or in the forested area they entailed the conversion of forest land to cultivation. Doubtless such activities would in some areas have been resisted by those who habitually derived their livelihood from the forest.

Where the relationship was not confrontational, what form could it have taken?

This is actually a very important area which has been discussed by social scientists working on recent history in relation to the conversion of non-caste groups to castes. It is one aspect of what some sociologists have referred to as the process of change from jana to jati. This process can be recognised in some sources of the early period but needs more detailed investigation. The argument that is sometimes made is that when caste society comes into juxtaposition with the peoples of the forest, there is a process of what might be called osmosis, where the conversion of the forest people to caste can take place, although frequently they continue to observe their kinship patterns, customary laws and religious beliefs and practices. As has often been stated by historians working on the history of religion, new forms of deities and new rituals were possibly contributed through this osmosis. The osmosis could be an end product of confrontation or of juxtaposition, depending on the particular circumstances.

Does this not suggest that it is entirely ahistorical to maintain that Indian tradition goes back to a single source and is monolithic? What you are suggesting is that there has to be a study of the multiplicity of sources and contexts that went into the making of Indian religious tradition.

Yes. I agree entirely.

For environmental history, your approach would seem to be a preliminary but necessary step towards further analysis of past attitudes to environment, man-nature relationship and ecological changes.

Yes. It is. One hopes that such subjects are taken up and analysed further.

Taking the lecture on Somanatha, it was in many ways a demonstration of a methodologically significant analysis of one of the most challenging of historical events — the raid of Mahmud of Ghazni on Somanatha in A.D. 1026. What is of value in this analysis is that the sources have all been well known to all historians in the past but their inter-relationships have not been probed and the event has been repeatedly misrepresented and abused for political ends. Your re-appraisal of a wide range of sources (six categories), situating them in their historical contexts reveals varied perspectives, diverse and even contradictory perceptions even in a single category of sources viz., the Turko-Persian chronicles and narratives, in projecting the raid as a crusade and Mahmud as a champion of Islam, the ideal Islamic ruler who founded Muslim rule in India, which is historically an inaccurate statement. You rightly attribute it to the erroneous periodisation of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British, which made it into a national event, as also the languages of their major sources viz., Sanskrit, Persian (especially for the Medieval period) and English, ignoring all other contemporary and later sources in other languages of other regions, particularly the contemporary Sanskrit inscriptions and Jain biographies and chronicles, apart from trade and mutually supportive agreements between traders and local big men regarding land and property for religious purposes. The colonial interpretations, which made it a national event, constructed the memory of a trauma among the Hindus, depicting Muslims as uniformly tyrannical and oppressive causing a deep Hindu-Muslim divide. Thus an event which had a restricted local significance and a political motive was blown out of proportion and constructed as the social memory of a traumatic national disaster. Equally important is the fact that what comes through in the lecture is the centrality of the context of the sources to the historian. The method followed in this lecture reveals the need to see the interface between various sources and not rely uncritically on just one category. What made you turn to the range of sources that others had not done so far?

If one is studying the history of an event or a location, one inevitably has to consider all the sources and their many voices. Unfortunately in the past, priority was given to the Turko-Persian chronicles, without considering a comparative study with Sanskrit sources and the Jain chronicles of the same period, the Rajput epics and popular traditions of the Nathpanthis and the Tantric texts, all of which have a relevance to the history of Somanatha and thereby a perception or otherwise of Mahmud’s raids.

Essentially this was an event that concerned a specific region, i.e. Gujarat and parts of North India and there appears to be no awareness of such an event in other regions and other sources of that period. What was a local event was projected as a national event and a traumatic one at that. Why was a local event projected as a national event?

The absence of reference to the raid of Mahmud in other sources other than the Turko-Persian chronicles remains an enigma. The wider coverage was initially in the Turko-Persian chronicles. But it was after the colonial endorsement of the event that the larger dimension came into the picture. This was then taken up by some sections among the Indian nationalists who treated it as a national event.

If you are using such a wide range of sources, can there be a single criterion for assessing their reliability?

The evaluation of the reliability of each category of sources is crucial because each has what would today be called an ideological context. These contexts have to be recognised as different from one another. Court chronicles, whether of the Sultanate or of the Chaulukya (Solankis of Gujarat) court carry their own biases as do the statements of traders and of popular preachers or for that matter the use made of Indian history as part of colonial policy as much as subsequently by religious nationalism.

Would you then say that this historiographical advance makes it imperative that historians realise that history is as rigorous a discipline as any other science and that teaching and research have to be constantly updated, both in content and methodology? And that students are made aware of the importance of multiple and diverse perspectives of historical processes and events, which cannot have a mono-causal explanation?

As you know, we have all been arguing for many years now that the writing of history has to be based on what historians now call “the Historical Method”. Stated briefly this requires ensuring the reliability of the evidence that is used (and this requires wind-ranging training in handling sources), the critical analyses of the evidence, assessing the priorities among multiple causes and the logical basis of the historical arguments that follow. Historical writing is not a free-for-all in which anyone can claim to be writing history. The use of the Historical method has primacy in historical writing.

Yes, it is a rigorous discipline. It is the same with the more intellectually challenging writing in all subjects. It is this kind of change that encourages advances in knowledge.

The advances are also dependent, as you rightly say, on constantly updating the content and methodology of the discipline. In the case of history, an awareness of the method and the changes also come through historiography — that is, the history of ideas relating to historical explanation. Inevitably this becomes a component of historical method.

R. Champakalakshmi is former professor of history, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

The Hindu, Forgotten themes, S.R. RAGHUNATHAN, Sunday, Dec 19, 2004

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Monday, 05 January , 2004,

Pune: Internationally renowned Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) on Monday was vandalised and around 18,000 books and 30,000 rare manuscripts damaged by activists of the ‘Sambhaji Brigade’, a sister organisation of the Maratha Mahasangh.

Around 150 activists reached the institute at around 1115 hrs protesting the ‘objectionable’ reference to Shivaji given by scholar Shrikant Bahulkar in James Lynd’s book on the great Martha warrior and broke windowpanes, electrical fittings and 18 huge portraits of renowned scholars, including that of BORI R G Bhandarkar.

Copper plates belonging to the 11th century, an idol of Munda Katta Ganesh (Ganesh with his head cut off), an album of the Nizam dated 1935, spearheads, important curios and a calendar disc have been stolen and rare manuscripts torn.

Additional Commissioner of Police MS Maheshgauri told reporters the ‘Sambhaji Brigade’ was responsible for this act and around 71 activists had been rounded up in this connection. “Its difficult to estimate the loss but it is the country’s loss. The staff of the institute was hit by chairs and most of them were not allowed to go out and even telephone cables were broken.”

When asked what action would be taken against the activists, Maheshgauri said it depended on the complaint. “‘We can consider this a ‘dacoity’ under Section 395 of the Indian Penal Code as they have stolen rare articles and other things.”

The incident has shocked scholars and researchers from all over. “The extent of damage is difficult to state at this point but the loss to our heritage cannot be measured,” said a tearful researcher and former BORI Secretary Mohan Gopal Dhadphale.

Around 20 cupboards, 30,000 manuscripts, idols of Ganesh and Saraswati have been broken. “Kaunse se adhar pe ye vidhan kiya” (what prompted this destruction?) asked 85-year-old Madhukar Anantrao Mahendale, Sanskrit scholar and researcher presently compiling the cultural index of the Mahabharata.

Another scholar NB Marathe, who is assisting Mahendale, said “We can only shed tears on this act. We are simply shocked to see all this”. The institute has been the source for many important researches and scholars from India, Europe and other countries studying different aspects of ‘Indology’. Scholars from countries such as the UK, US, France, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Germany draw heavily from its library.

Works of renowned scholars like Killhorn, Kathote, Ghate and Bhandarkar himself have been destroyed. The State Government had also given many manuscripts under the institute’s ‘Manuscripts Mission’ for care and preservation.

http://sify.com/news/fullstory.php?id=13352618

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