‘Historian Romila Thapar’s Dogmas’
Column by Dr. Vijaya Rajiva
Romila Thapar has entered her 80s and the favourite historian of Indian Marxist circles and as well the feted and decorated icon of certain sections of the international scholarly jet set is now settling further into her dogmatic world view. This can be readily discerned in the talks that she has been giving in the last two to three years. The old dogmas are carefully swaddled in more attractive clothes (and sometimes not even that, as we shall see) but the basic dogmas of her school of historiography are still there. Although she declined the Padma Bhushan and expressly wrote to India’s President (and preeminent scientist)Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam rejecting it, she did readily accept in 2005 the Kluge Chair at Harvard University. J.W. Kluge was some sort of entrepreneur who made millions and therefore gave endowments to academic institutions and notably the Library of Congress. Dr. Thapar’s words to the Indian President in 2005 were:
“I only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work and not state awards. “
The Kluge Chair was conferred after much controversy, foremost among the criticisms being that Dr. Thapar was not knowledgeable in Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Persian and Arabic and therefore much of her work in ancient Indian history and medieval history suffered from that limitation.
It might seem ungracious of anyone to criticise this public face of Indian scholarship (whatever its limitations) and yet this task must continue to be undertaken consistently and unhesitatingly by Hindus. Her works are primarily on ancient India and also the medieval period of Indian history. Apart from the fact that Dr. Thapar is not familiar with Sanskrit, surely a must for someone dealing with ancient Indian history, her work is handicapped by her intense partisanship (expressed in sophisticated tones to be sure !) and this can be explained by her Marxist beliefs. While for a Hindu view of Indian history there has been, and continues to be , an ongoing interface of Hinduism with social and economic history, Thapar rejects this. Veda Agama simply does not exist in her world view. And the facts staring in her face are quietly dismissed. The importance given to Veda Agama by Hindus is the result (she claims) of the British study of ancient Hindu texts, and not an ongoing reality ! Veda Agama is not a living reality for this JNU historian. The absurdity of this view, her tunnel vision, is not obvious to her for important reasons.
As a Marxist historian she is directly influenced both by Marx’s view of religion in general and Hinduism in particular and his materialist interpretation of history. Needless to say, Marx was ignorant of much of the history of the East and certainly of India. While he had some familiarity with Russian history and wrote about it and indeed corresponded with the Russian revolutionaries, especially on the viability of the Russian obschina (the village commune) he was singularly unfitted to pontificate on India, which alas he did. He was well equipped to analyse and critique capitalism, that product of his own society Western Europe, and his 6 volumes of Das Kapital are a testimony to this ; but he was at sea when it came to the older existing cultures and civilisations such as the Hindu culture and civilisation.
His negative view of Hinduism can best be appreciated in his statement that while Britain exploited India it was also a progressive force in India where MAN who should be the master of Nature falls on his knees before Hanuman the monkey and Sabala the cow (British Rule in India).
His materialist interpretation of history namely that it was the mode of production that dictated the social, religious and political structures of a society became crytallised into the periodisation of history, namely that history went through successive phases, each successive phase a higher one than the previous. Hence, the primitive communist phase was succeeded by the feudal and then the capitalist phase and thence the proletarian phase and thence to the highest form of communism, where society would be organised according to the principle : from each according to his capacity and to each according to his need.
This periodisation was ironically a materialist imitation of the Hegelian view of history which outlined a primitive African society followed by the higher Oriental society, then the higher Greek society and finally highest of all, the ideal Christian modern state, which in his time was the European state, specifically Germany. Marx did not outline an Asiatic mode of production and that was Stalin’s contribution. Romila Thapar made a recent mistaken identification of the same with Marx’s name(Hard Talk with Karan Thapar 2012).
Note Marx’s observation on India :
“England has to fulfill a double mission in India : one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of the
old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundation of Western society in Asia “
( Karl Marx ‘ New York Daily Tribune ‘, August 8, 1853).
Apart from her Marxist dogmas Thapar like many other historians of the JNU school, had a political motive in upgrading (and falsifying) Muslim history in India. This was basically the philosophy of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. An intense dislike of Hinduism was propped up by this and hence the amnesia towards Hindu history as predating either Islam or Christianity on the Indian subcontinent. Even on her conservative estimate the Veda which was composed around 1500 B.C.and the Vedic culture and subsequent Vedic Agama culture preceded Islam in India by nearly two millenia ! These facts alone should have told her of the major defining role of Veda Agama in Indian history, not to mention its continuation in present day India.
While her work on ancient India focussed on social and economic factors, ignoring the impact of Hinduism in shaping Hindu society, her work in the Muslim period mitigates the evils of barbarian invasions and argues that it resulted in an integrated Indian society. The two enterprises, the downgrading of Hinduism and the upgrading of the Muslim ethos go hand in hand. Her defence of Mahmoud Ghazni is well known in her study of his attack on the Somnath temple (‘Somnatha, the many voices of history’, 2005). She dismisses the work of contemporaneous Persian sources which glorified Ghazni’s destruction of Somnath as the work of a true Muslim who destroyed the infidel’s place of worship !
Instead she argues that this was simply the usual pattern of conquerors and overlords, nothing specific to Ghazni.
In recent talks she has emphasised that she is a HISTORIAN, with a certain scientific methodology:
- Reliance on facts.
- Use of concrete evidence.
- Use of Analysis/ Interpretation.
What she means by the above is the use of sources, linguistic,literary, artefacts, inscriptions, anthropological, archaeological etc and their analyses/interpretation. The entire Veda Agama tradition is dismissed as not being significant ‘concrete evidence’. And when asked by the interviewer about the evidence provided by the Archeological Society of India on the Ramajanmabhoomi she said with as straight face that archeological evidence is not reliable since it is an interpretation (Hard Talk with Karan Thapar 2012) !
Her partisanship is revealed in the way she upheld the Aryan invasion of India theory for many long years even though Indic scholars had in the last three decades done authentic work on the subject disproving it. Along with the debunking of the Aryan invasion of India theory Indic scholars had also undertaken conclusive and definitive work on the Sarasvati Sindhu Civilisation (formerly called the Indus Valley Civilisation) based on the discovery of the famed river Sarasvati (mentioned in the Rig Veda some 78 times and which had disappeared after the Vedic period owing to techtonic shifts) establisheded through a variety of archaeological and satellite photography techniques. The major sites of this civilisation were located on the banks of the Sarasvati river. And since Sindhu was the ancient name of the Indus river (it was mentioned in the Rig Veda), the name Sarasvati Sindhu Civilisation became popular. The word Indus was an Anglicisation of Sindhu.
In her interview with Karan Thapar (Hard Talk, March 2012) she insisted darkly that the only reason that Hindus favoured the indigenous origin of the Aryans was because they wanted to show that the late coming Muslims and Christians were outsiders, they came from the outside ! Rather an about face for someone who claims that as a historian she is firm about being scientific ! Along with this surprising about face she continues to insist that the Veda Agama is accepted by Hindu historians simply because they were following the British who read only the texts of Hinduism !
Quite reluctantly and tardily Dr. Thapar has now abandoned her pet Aryan Invasion Theory and now speaks of migrations of peoples into the subcontinent. Ironically, after accusing Hindu scholars and historians of an earlier era of borrowing Western, chiefly British ideas of the Aryan invasion theory, and of Indian history in general, she had herself diligently done the same ! Her motive was clear. From the vehement way in which she blatantly accused Hindu (in her terminology Hindutva) historians of upholding the indigenous origin of Aryans so that they could prove that while Hindus were native to India , the Muslims and Christians were from the outside, her own motive was to malign the Hindus. She did not seem interested in any scientific basis for debunking the Aryan invasion theory. Now that the Aryan invasion theory has been consigned to the dustbin of history she finds a deep motive for this development, even though she herself has now accepted this as scientific fact, as the result of ‘scientific’ investigation.
Her distrust and dislike of the work of Hindu scholars of Indian history is patently clear. It has become a lifelong habit. It must be viewed critically by Hindus so that the history of Bharat India is not abandoned to such dogmas.
(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university)