Professor Dilip Kumar Chakrabarti was until recently professor of history and South Asian Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. He is currently Distinguished Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation. The present two-part article was occasioned by Romila Thapar’s talk (delivered in absentia) at the invitation of N. Ram at the Asian School of Journalism. It was later published in the friendly pages of The Hindu. The articles are slightly abridged but otherwise unaltered except for editorial comments.
‘Nationalism’ or a ‘nationalist approach to history’ has long been used by and large in a pejorative sense by modern India’s historians, especially those who became powerful in the wake of the establishment of Indian Council of Historical Research in the early 1970s. To draw attention to the fact that this attitude to the nationalist Indian historians still persists, one can do no better than cite Romila Thapar’s Lawrence Dana Pinkham memorial lecture in Chennai in May 2012.
Thapar, who was a prominent member of the coterie of historians associated with the Indian Council of Historical Research, has long been a Prima Donna [Sic: and head of a cult. NSR] of ancient Indian studies both in India and the West, and her admirers go into tantrums at any kind of criticism of her, as they apparently did when her selection as a recipient of the Kleuge prize was questioned by some Americans of Indian origin.
She has not done much empirical research but considerably embellished her writings with smooth references to different vignettes of social science literature and suggestions on how they should be incorporated in the study of ancient India. This is the kind of history which is liked by a vast section of India’s English-educated ‘progressive’ middle class and their intellectual parents in the different ‘Indian studies’ establishments of the Western academia who marvel at the sight of this Third World woman who speaks their lingo, knows the etiquette and style of their ‘senior common rooms’ and expresses their ideas with supreme ease and confidence. [Sic: Or appropriates their ideas which flatters them. - NSR]
[Sic: Professor Chakrabarti’s observation that she has not much empirical research applies to archaeology as well as literary sources. She is not an archaeologist and knows no Sanskrit. She is dependent entirely on interpretations by others, written in English. This means her ‘research’ is based entirely on secondary sources like a journalist’s. - NSR]
The second paragraph of this lecture on ‘reporting history: early India’ begins with an imagined dichotomy between ‘British colonial historians’ and ‘nationalist historians’. I do not find the idea of such a dichotomy acceptable in the light of the empirical evidence. For instance, there is no attitudinal difference to Indian history and culture between the ‘British colonialist historian’ E.J. Rapson, the Cambridge Sanskritist who was the editor of the Cambridge History of India, Vol. I, Ancient India, (1922) and the Deccan College archaeological guru H.D. Sankalia (1973).”
Rapson wrote in 1922 that “the migrations and the conquests which provided human energy” with which the Indian civilizations were created had “invariably come into India from the outside”. In 1973 Sankalia wrote that every new innovation in Indian history had come from the West. Examples of this kind may be multiplied ad ‘finitum’ and underline the unpleasant fact that the basic structural premises of ancient Indian history as formulated in the colonial context continued without change till the modern period.
[Sic: I am afraid Thapar indulges in some sophistry here in equating Rapson and Sankalia -- the latter a distinguished archaeologist. Where Rapson talks of “migrations and conquests” Sankalia (whom Thapar doesn’t quote) only says (if her attribution is correct) that every new innovation in Indian history had come from the West. The two are not the same. We can say that every new innovation in computer technology came from America, which is not the same as saying that “migrations and conquests” brought computer technology to India. - NSR]
Regarding the notion of race, which Thapar mentions in pp. 2-3 of this lecture, it may be mentioned that, however unacceptable this may be in the modern context, the idea of a historical correlation between race, language and history was accepted unquestioned by India’s ancient historians including Thapar who, in some of her early publications identifies the Aryans as a distinct group of people speaking a distinct language and bringing horses to India.
In an earlier context, R.C. Majumdar not merely accepted the idea in its entirety but also extended it to Southeast Asia where the role which was suggested for the Aryans in India went to the Indian immigrants in that region. It is an unfortunate fact and a poor reflection on the way how history is taught in India that the race concept is still a potent force in the perception of the Indian middle class. Otherwise, is there any explanation of the frequently published cases of harassment of the student population from the northeast in Delhi? [Sic: It should be said in defense of Majumdar and other early historians that the science needed for refuting race theories did not exist in their time. Thapar et. al. have no such excuse. - NSR]
The people who have been dubbed ‘nationalist historians’ by later scholars like Thapar explored only at the peripheries of the historical premises of the colonial period. If some of them argued for the prevalence of a democratic system in the early republics or questioned the importance of Alexander’s invasion or the presence of Indo-Greeks in India, they should be given unqualified credit for what they tried to do. In retrospect, they were not powerful enough or even astute enough to question the overarching frame of historical explanations they inherited from their rulers, and to be fair to them, that frame has been left in place by the historians who came to power in independent India with full government patronage in the early 1970s.
If that overarching frame came in for criticism from any quarter, that came from a few great students of Indian affairs: for example, Gandhi who does not seem to use the term ‘Aryan’ anywhere in his writings; Vivekananda who was no historian but nonetheless realized that the whole Aryan idea was foisted on the Indians by Western scholars; Ambedkar whose legal mind perceived that there was no logic behind this idea; Rabindranath who regretted that the history of India, as taught to us, brought about a separation between the land and its people.
None of the ideas of these true nationalists ever got into the history books written by scholars like Majumdar or Thapar. The so-called nationalist historians or the self-styled enlightened ones had no difficulty in accepting the basic over-arching frame of ancient India as laid down by the old colonial historians. In fact, there should not be any logical distinction between the colonial and nationalist historians. What difference is there between what Rapson thought and what Sankalia thought, although their writings were about fifty years apart? [Sic: Unfortunately Professor fails to note that Rapson and Sankalia were talking about totally different entities -- invasion and conquest by people and adoption of ideas. - NSR]
Those familiar with the archaeological issues throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s will know that virtually all aspects of Indian archaeological issues were dominated, except some rare exceptions, by what old colonial scholars like D.H. Gordon and Mortimer Wheeler thought. Archaeological research no doubt expanded during this period but the mindset of the Indian scholarship during this period was basically a continuation of the old colonial mindset. Did Thapar herself question any entrenched colonial idea of Indian history in her Penguin version of the history of ancient India? Her distinction between the colonial and nationalist historians is unacceptable. Whether it is Rapson or Sankalia, or Vincent Smith and Romila Thapar, they are ‘colonialists’ all, if we simply look at the continuity of ideas between the different periods.
In fact, the only approach which could bring about a complete change in our perception of Indian history was what has to be called an essentially archaeological approach to relate this history to the land. Except some limited attempts on the basis of limited resources, this approach has not witnessed even a proper beginning in modern India, and the fact that archaeological studies on the basis of which the Indian land mass may assume a distinct historical reality have not even significantly caught on in modern India is an ample indication of how generally pointless is the general range of historical quibbles emanating from historians like Thapar. [Sic: This needs to go beyond archaeology alone and must include natural history and genetics, which have demolished these theories, especially Thapar’s. - NSR]
The question of periodisation of ancient Indian history, which Thapar writes about, is hardly a matter of great significance, with all the terms currently in use having some logic and relevance. I think that Thapar’s idea that “ancient India was projected as a virtual utopia” is untrue and has to be ignored unless accompanied by incisive historiographical research. Thapar throws in many unwarranted sentences: “if the Census of 1882 had included a column for those who observed a cross-over kind of religion, a mix of Hinduism, Islam and other formal religions, this column would undoubtedly have had the largest number”.
We would like to see the premise worked out in detail. Personally I find her reluctance to consider religion as a historical factor in India rather surprising, especially in view of the fact that the cataclysmic event of Partition took place in the name of religion. Thapar writes that the religion of the Harappans is unknown. This is certainly not the case, although I would not put a modern name to it. I would not call it a version of modern Hinduism but a lot of the elements which later became important parts of Hinduism were there. [Sic: This means it was part of the continuum from Vedic times to modern Hinduism -- a point that this editor (Rajaram) and his colleagues, notably Jha and Frawley have been emphasizing for nearly two decades. NSR]
What is the basic problem in accepting this simple proposition which has been staring archaeologically at us for a long time? What is the virtue in championing the claim that the induction of what has been called the Indo-Aryan language family is post-Indus civilization on the basis of a completely unstable Rigvedic chronology? Is there any way by which the Rigveda can be dated to anybody’s satisfaction? What is the reason of showing undue deference to what the comparative philologists write about the language history of India? There is no reason why archaeology should give a toss about these writings because linguistic reconstructions and their assumed chronology stand entirely on their own, without any independent support for their historicity.
To come back to the issue of periodisation of Indian history, there cannot be any single answer, nor is such an answer particularly necessary. One need not feel terrified at the prospect of lumping the whole period up to c. 1200 AD as ‘ancient’; after all, it is the history of only 2000 years, assuming that historical writing began about 800 BC. If one feels happy by coining a separate phrase called ‘early mediaeval’ for the post-Gupta period till the coming of the Muslims, one is entitled to do so.
Let us, however, not claim that this is based on detailed studies of socio-economic changes during this period. The concepts of ‘feudalism’, urban decay and an evanescent trade and commerce during this period, although much trumpeted by a particular section of ancient historians, may turn out to be fairly shaky on detailed research. In Europe itself there is no single idea of feudalism, and the less said about the idea of missing cities and trade and commerce in India during this period the better. In any case, the term ‘early mediaeval’ for the post-Gupta period is unlikely to harm anybody as long as one remembers that it is nothing but a term to describe the post-Gupta context.
There need not be any objection to the use of the terms Hindu, Muslim and British either, because, for one thing the historical sources get written primarily in the non-Indian languages of Arabic and Farsi in the Muslim period and in English during the rule of the British.
Thapar’s attempt to paint herself and others of her ilk martyrs in the cause of historical studies is downright amusing: “Ancient India was projected as a virtual utopia, starting with the Vedic age and culminating 1500 years later in the so-called “golden age” of the Guptas. It was supposedly a period of unchanging prosperity. Society functioned according to the norms laid down in the Shastras, so historians did not have to investigate the reality.
“But let me add that this was not a situation typical of India alone. All nationalisms have to have a utopian past, preferably located as far back in time as possible. With limited evidence the imagination is free to conjure up a romantic past. Questioning this ideal picture is treated as an anti-national act, as it happened in India not so long ago. Some of us have been subjected to the slings and arrows of extreme religious nationalist views when we have tried to give a more integrated and reality-based view of the past. Historians began to analyse early Indian society in the 1960s and 1970s to arrive at a more realistic picture. But the opposition to this research was articulated through a range of religious organizations whose main concern was using religion for political mobilisation and for acquiring authority. This has now increased and has become more recognizable.”
Thapar would not possibly know much about the history of Indian art. She would otherwise have known that the Gupta period symbolises everything that is best in Indian art tradition and is the culmination of a long period of development. This period certainly represented a golden age of Indian art and by implication, a golden phase of India’s historic development as well. There is nothing prima facie objectionable to this idea. If Thapar had taken care to tabulate the specific points which have been developed by her and others of her group for a ‘more integrated and reality-based view of the past’, we would have been in a better position to appreciate her arguments.
[Sic: Like most of her ilk, Thapar is a philistine when it comes to art. She is on record as having said that the Vijayanagar Empire was artistically barren. Leaving aside their architectural wonders like Hampi (a World Heritage site), Purandaradasa and Venkatamakhi laid the foundations of classical music that made possible the later Golden Age of music in Mysore, Tanjore, Travancore and other places. - NSR]
She also seems to be upset about attempts to use “religion for political mobilisation and for acquiring authority”. Such attempts, especially if they have led to the loss of human lives, are surely unfortunate and have to be condemned, but are such attempts unknown even in the comparatively recent past of the subcontinent? Was not the entire Pakistan movement based on the Islamic identity of its protagonists?
[Sic: And what about Gandhi’s Khilafat Movement? Those who accuse Narendra Modi for not controlling the post-Godhra violence should also condemn Gandhi for not controlling the Moplah Rebellion and Gandhi and Nehru for not controlling the bloodbath of Partition. And unlike Modi who had nothing to do with the Godhra train burning but was caught in the maelstrom, Gandhi was directly responsible for both the Khilafat and the Partition. - NSR]
When Thapar writes about being “subjected to the slings and arrows of extreme religious nationalist views” one cannot help but feel amused. As usual, the specific details are missing, but the only thing which others could observe was that with the coming of the NDA government at the centre, she and others of her group lost their importance in the power grouping of the government-sponsored Indian Council of Historical Research. Considering that she and others of her historical group were at the helm of the country’s historical affairs since the early 1970s, this loss of power in the government has to be counted as a normal professional hazard which the historians closely tied to the strings of political power of the country like Thapar should take easily in her strides.
On the contrary, they should feel very satisfied that for a long uninterrupted stretch since the take-over of the financial and other powers of Indian historical research by their group, they enjoyed the role of a kind of divine pantheon in the firmament of Indian historical studies. – Folks Magazine, 1 June 2012
To be continued »
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