Koenraad Elst: Examining Romila Thapar’s version of India’s past – Sandeep Balakrishna

Marxist historian Romila Thapar of JNU New Delhi

Ranbir ChakravartiThe 18 September 2015 print edition of the Marxist fortnightly Frontline cover story was a detailed interview of Marxist historian Romila Thapar conducted by Ranabir Chakravarti, Professor of Ancient History at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Predictably, the interview is in the nature of fawning over Prof Thapar and proceeds along expected lines which, among other things, upholds the Marxist ideological version of Indian history as the only authentic history. Contrary or alternate readings even when backed by solid research and evidence are dismissed and labelled as nothing more than Hindutva propaganda to say the least.

Sandeep BalakrishnaAnd so, with a view to better understand the context, motivation and other deeper issues surrounding this interview, IndiaFacts Editor Sandeep Balakrishna sought an interview with Dr. Koenraad Elst.

To claim that Dr. Koenraad Elst’s credentials are impressive is to understate it. He studied at the Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. This thesis was published as Decolonising the Hindu Mind, a seminal treatise on the subject.

Koenraad ElstIn the present time, Dr. Elst is perhaps the handful few in the academia who continues to courageously tell the uncomfortable truth about Islam and Leftism. As an independent researcher he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European civilizations, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. His enormous contribution to the Ayodhya debate continues to enrich scholars and serious students of the subject alike.

Dr. Elst’s two-volume work on the RSS titled, The Saffron Swastika is a great eye-opener and mandatory reading for all who seek to understand the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the larger Hindu movement in proper perspective. Equally, his Negationism in India—Concealing the Record of Islam is regarded as a classic.

He has also published innumerable works on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, and Maoism, among others.

His work on Ayodhya and the larger Hindu revivalist/nationalist movement entailed him to undertake a deep-dive into the forces on both sides of the issue. Among other things, history, and more specifically, Marxist historians played the most significant role in those momentous years. As a scholar who had firsthand experience who was equipped with deep study of these subjects, as a person who lived those years, and as a victim of Marxist historians, Dr. Elst is uniquely placed to provide his perspective on the present Frontline interview with Romila Thapar.

► Sandeep Balakrishna (SB): Elst, Prof Romila Thapar mentions that the kind of academic scholarship and history writing currently done is “impressive” and that “at least among those historians who work at the better universities and colleges.” Equally, she reminisces about how “history was taught fifty years ago, and the kinds of struggles that we had in those days to give a new direction to historical writing, and the kind of direction that is now being taken, it is in fact an impressive change. I am pleased with the way things have gone, although admittedly the change is not universal in the universities and most have still not caught up with history as it is taught in the best centres.” In this light, several questions arise, Dr. Elst: (a) Can you list some of these current history books that Prof Thapar finds impressive. (b) Which are these “better” universities and “best” centres where this sort of impressive history writing takes place? (c) How would you compare the history taught 50 years ago to the history that emerged after Prof Thapar gave it said direction?
► Koenraad Elst (KE): Given that this is a digital medium not constricted by space limitations, I may be forgiven for answering rather amply. There is already so much hurried superficiality these days.

Fifty years ago, R.C. Majumdar was at the end of his career. As he was a very prominent historian, whose History of India and History of the Freedom Struggle was required reading throughout the History departments across India, he was the main figure to be shot down. He was typical of the intellectuals at the heart of the Congress movement: secular-minded in a Gandhian way, but far more steeped in Hindu tradition than we can now imagine, and naturally accepting the religious and “communal” factors in history.

Other such historians were Jadunath Sarkar and, effectively, the anthropologist G.S. Ghurye. They naturally accepted and documented Islam as a factor in Hindu-Muslim conflict and in the well-documented fact of Islamic iconoclasm, c.q. the subversive role of the Christian missions.

I don’t know what universities she has in mind, but I imagine it would be the pioneers of her own version of history, JNU and AMU. Further, most serious universities have followed suit or are using her school’s textbooks.

There are very few hold-outs of Hindu-minded history, and these are admittedly not very creative, nor have they got international standing. The Marxists have always had their eye on the cultural sector, but after Indira Gandhi needed their support in a power struggle, some fifty years ago, they really got their chance. Thapar’s collaborators P.N. Haksar and Nurul Hasan changed the face of India. “Hindu” became a dirty word, and any young historian classified as a conscious Hindu could forget an academic career.

This power equation was aggravated by the passivity of the Hindu Nationalists. As the only nationally organized Hindu force, they claim to be the vanguard of Hindu society. If so, they should not be proud of their achievements in this field, where Hinduism has only been losing ground. They have never invested in scholarship.

The result can now be seen, when Narendra Modi’s government would like to pack the universities with pro-Hindu or pro-Modi vice-chancellors and other prominent professors, but fail to find qualified people.

In 2009 I attended a pro-Hindu conference about the politics of history in Delhi, with the usual wailing about the reigning anti-Hindu bias. But there was no session about what Hindus themselves had done wrong in M.M. Joshi’s textbook reforms of ca. 2002, a horror show of incompetence.

To be sure, on the Hindu side there are some valuable individual historians, such as Meenakshi Jain, who has documented the dismal defeat of the “eminent historians” in the Ayodhya debate (Rama and Ayodhya, 2013). But organized Hinduism has produced nothing except some obscurantist repetition of scripture as if it were history.

In recent years, centre-stage has been taken by less ideological historians such as Upinder Singh, daughter of the former Prime Minister. In that sense, her own school of Leftist history-writing has lost some ground, in the wake of the loss of credibility of Marxism as such.

Still, this mainstream secularist school has essentially adopted some key dogmas that the Left in its age of dominance has rendered synonymous with serious scholarship, such as the Aryan invasion and the absence of a “communal” motive in the Muslim conquests. The Hindu perspective is still being ignored or despised.

► SB: Prof Thapar also criticizes popular history as being outdated or as “not history at all,” and that such history is propagated by “people who are not professional historians.” As someone who has left behind a sizeable body of work critiquing the Thaparesque school of history, how would you define a “professional” historian, and is that tag mandatory for people who actually want to do original, serious scholarly work on their own? This question applies to even those non-tagged people who’ve already done such work. Or is this sort of tagging a tactic to discourage such potential endeavours and to dismiss such work?

► KE: For her class of people, a “professional historian” is a historian with academic status. The Marxist historians are very status-conscious and constantly pull rank, especially when faced with informed arguments.

For a scholar, this is weak, but for sophomores, it is uppermost in their minds: climbing the status ladder. When you know the academic circles, you become far less inclined to be overawed by academic status: many professors have obvious ideological prejudices and bend their findings to suit their presuppositions.

Moreover, in many countries to some extent, and certainly in India, scholars in the humanities are selected for ideological conformity with the dominant school. After nearly half a century, this has led to a situation where a post of “eminence” is simply equivalent with ideological conformity, at least passively (not raising your head), often actively (furthering the dominant paradigm).

As you know, the late Sita Ram Goel, a qualified historian, was an outsider to academia, working as a publisher and book-seller. Books like his History of Hindu-Christian Encounters are of such calibre, importance of topic, and originality, that he should have been offered a teaching post. But he was a dissident, so Soviet-type historians kept him outside the institutions. An example right now is Shrikant Talageri, whose work is simply revolutionary, creating history where until recently there was only hazy speculation, viz. the Vedic age. Real scholars would not care that he is an outsider, but focus on his methodology and his findings. 

► SB: On methodology, Prof Thapar provides a rather detailed explanation about how one should be learned in various disciplines like archaeology, linguistics, Sanskrit, Prakrit, geography, genetics, reading inscriptions and so on in order to write on ancient India. Yet, it is a fact that Prof Thapar doesn’t know Sanskrit and she herself admits that “sometimes when reading contemporary archaeological reports I can’t fully understand them because they require training in science.” Yet Prof Thapar is described as a preeminent scholar and historian of ancient India. So, how do you reconcile the two, and two, where does her own admission put her work in light of this?

► KE: I have little to add on to her personal qualifications. Sanskrit, at least, would really be necessary if you research ancient India. But history is something else than archaeology: historians deal with sources speaking a human language, chiefly writings and inscriptions, whereas the archaeologists (and likewise, nowadays, the geneticists) try to draw sense from mute objects.

I myself have to confess that the technical details of an archaeological report bore me. But their conclusions are of course indispensable for up-to-date historical scholarship. Like Prof. Thapar, I am not equipped to follow the details of the new genetic findings; but of course I have to take their conclusions into account. She does not incriminate herself by admitting that she is ignorant about other fields than history, these human limitations are just normal.

It gets worse, however, when a scholar simply ignores the findings in adjacent fields. This is what you see in the debates on Vedic chronology and the Aryan invasion. Thus, most historians laugh at the ignorant claims of some self-styled “history rewriters” in the Hindu camp, who put the Mahabharata war in the 4th millennium BCE. These base themselves on scripture, treating it as a literal record, and date events in the light of a Puranic tradition dating the beginning of Kali Yuga to 3102 BCE.

To be sure, the doctrine of four world ages is as old as the epic, and even much older: judging from its presence among the Greeks and Germans, and even as far as the Mayas, it must have existed since distant pre-Vedic days.

But the time-spans attributed to them are far younger, betraying an estimate of the precession cycle discovered in ca. 150 BCE. These time-spans are in thousands of years, not hundreds of thousands of years as in the Puranas. So the Mahabharata war can reasonably be estimated to about 1400 BCE, which is in tune with the genealogical data in the Puranas, their most historically reliable part.

But what is more, and now I come to my point, this scripturalist chronology flies in the face of the findings of several auxiliary sciences. Thus, chariot warfare is central to the Mahabharata’s plot: it cannot be an addition by a later editor.

Now, we know through archaeology that war chariots (as distinct from slow carts) originated only in the 3rd millennium, and that the heyday of chariot warfare was the 2nd half of the 2nd millennium, before cavalry warfare took over.

The war between the Egyptians and the Hittites, the Biblical pursuit of the Israelites by the Pharaoh, the Trojan War, all took place around 1200 BCE. To say that the Mahabharata battle took place in 3139, as traditionalists do, would imply that chariot technology took all of 1600 years to travel to West Asia.

But we know that military technology travels very fast, because generals eager for victory quickly adopt whatever innovation is in sight. Moreover, it implies that the Indians had a more advanced metallurgy (needed to produce chariots, as well as swords and shields) than archaeology can trace for the 32nd century BCE.

Another auxiliary science is archaeo-astronomy. Among the astronomical circumstances described in the epic is the full moon near the star Magha/Regulus after the winter solstice. Now, this star, in its slow precessional movement of 1° per 71 years, has crossed the solstitial axis in ca. 2300. In 3139 BCE, it was some 12° before the solstice, whereas in ca. 1400 BC, it was some 13° past it, as required by the description in the epic. So, the traditionalist chronology ignores the contribution of astronomy.

Prof. Thapar will probably agree with me that traditionalist chronology is bad science because it ignores the findings of these other sciences. However, established chronology including her own school suffers from the same flaw.

Thus, we have several astronomical data in Vedic literature that are incompatible with the established chronology. In the Kaushitaki Brahmana, dating from the late Rig-Vedic period, this solstice position of Magha is registered, so that points to ca. 2300. But according to her, this would mean at least 800 years before the Vedic seers started the composition of the Vedic hymns, and at least a thousand years before the Kaushitaki Brahmana was composed. The definitely post-Vedic book Vedanga Jyotisha gives two independent astronomical data that both necessitate its being written in the 14th century BCE, again centuries before its conventional date.

She has tried to explain this away by opining that the authors must have described reminiscences of earlier positions passed down by their ancestors. But this is impossible: the Vedanga Jyotisha is a hands-on work on observational astronomy: it tells priests where to look in the sky when they want to conduct their rituals.

What a strange world it would be, where everybody describes ancestral observations but no one describes what he himself actually sees. So, her escape clause is an explicit admission of what too many historians only do silently: ignore the findings of an important science adjacent and relevant to history-writing. The situation is that a handful of astronomical data consistently support a higher chronology, that not one of them supports the established low chronology, and that nonetheless most scholars in India and abroad proceed as if these data were not a permanent challenge to their conventional chronology.

► SB: While it’s known that even today, Prof Thapar seems unwilling or unable to let go of the now-discredited Aryan Invasion/Migration Theory, what is interesting is that from the beginning of her career as a historian of ancient India, she like many of others of her school, seem to have a penchant for propounding a theory (or at best a hypothesis) based on the absence of evidence. If this sort of thing is done in the sciences, the concerned scholar would not last a second in the academia no matter what his/her standing or experience. Yet she seems to have largely gotten away with it over the course of her long career. In which case, has history and humanities in general become free-for-all?

► KE: To be sure, historians have to navigate between many uncertainties and unknowns. Some of these may be resolved through research or by unexpected discoveries, others will be your companion throughout your career. So you ought to exercise some clemency here and accept that the rules of the hard sciences do not always apply to history. Even so, her school could indeed have done better in the Aryan origins debate.

In terms of the evidence now available, you are right to call the Invasion Theory (which some weasels now prefer to call a Migration Theory, though it amounts to the same thing) “discredited”. But in terms of academic opinion, it is not yet discredited at all.

I have participated in a number of Indo-Europeanist conferences where the linguists present had often not even heard that there exists an Indian indigenist theory, an “Out-of-India Theory”. And if they had heard of it, they did not bother to study it, because they had also been cautioned that it was supported by evil Hindu nationalists. Note that this is a very unscholarly attitude: a real scholar would realize that someone’s motive for supporting a theory implies nothing whatsoever for the correctness of that theory.

If it did, how could anyone ever support the Aryan Invasion Theory, as she does? That theory is many times more politically connoted than the Indian Homeland Theory. It was politically used in many more countries, for a much longer time, and not by some ivory-tower scholars but from positions of power.

It was used by British colonialism, by the Nazis, by the Nehruvians, the Ambedkarites (in spite of B.R. Ambedkar’s own opposition to it), the Dravidianists and the Christian missionaries in India. It is politicized through and through.

Yet Prof Thapar, like most academics concerned, supports it. But she is right to ignore these political taints: they are inconsequential for the invasion theory’s correctness. And me too, I treat it as a legitimate competitor in the Homeland debate, though I have finally concluded against it.

► SB: A related question: given her long expostulations on AIT and Harappa in that interview, it appears that she hasn’t perhaps updated herself with the latest in genetics and archaeology, for example, with the kind of dedicated and top-notch work done by say Michel Danino. As someone who continues to closely follow and render your own inputs in this matter, your views, Dr. Elst?

► KE: Here we meet the problem once more that we just discussed: scholars willfully ignoring the conclusions from related disciplines.

Western linguists who support a more westerly Homeland (hence an Aryan invasion from there into India) ignore the findings of Harappan archaeology. The latter only confirms a complete cultural continuity since before the Harappan cities and lasting through their abandonment. It has failed to find a single trace of Aryans entering India.

By contrast, in Central Europe, an invasion from the east ca. 2900 BCE, amply attested both by archaeology and by genetics, has been identified with Indo-Europeanization. That is what an “Aryan invasion” looks like, and it is completely missing in India. Yet, of this state of affairs in Harappan archaeology, Western scholars are completely ignorant; or else they fail to draw conclusions from it for their own field.

Last March I participated in a conference of Indian archaeologists in Delhi. One archaeologist after another testified how his own Harappan excavation site only threw up cultural continuity instead of an Aryan immigrant revolution. Everybody there was skeptical of the invasion theory.

I was sitting next to the nonagenarian éminence grise of Indian archaeology, Prof. B.B. Lal, who had just publicly said: “Vedic and Harappan are but two sides of the same coin.”

At that very time, I received an e-mail from a top American linguist defending a westerly Homeland theory, shared by virtually all his colleagues. I then realized that this was a unique situation: a consensus of top scholars for theory White, and a consensus of scholars in a very related field for theory Black, with neither feeling challenged to respond to the other.

Historians ignoring the astro-chronological evidence, linguists ignoring the archaeological evidence: this is abnormal and unhealthy, and the first thing to do now is to break through these walls and get people to listen to the other side.

Actually, this problem of stonewalling is even worse. There are, for instance, philologists who avoid any association with the sterling philological work of Shrikant Talageri. The topic of “history within the Vedas” is quite legitimate, and has been with us for some two centuries. Nobody has revolutionized this field the way Talageri has.

Yet many students of ancient history or of Vedic literature are ignorant of his work, often willfully so. Come to mention it: his conclusions are right inside Romila Thapar’s field, so she ought to speak out on it. Fifteen years after the publication of his book The Rigveda: A Historical Analysis, it is about time. (Abroad, top philologists H.H. Hock and M. Witzel, two Germans working in the US, have spoken out, and Talageri has also answered them.) And merely parroting smug denunciations will not do, at least not for a top historian like Romila Thapar.

► SB: It is also interesting to note in the interview how, after still holding on to said theories about an Aryan Invasion, and falsely extrapolating “some sort of a horse sacrifice” in Central Asia which has a “later reflection in the Vedic corpus” [i.e. Ashwamedha], the interview quickly jumps to how all those who disagree with the AIT are breeding a “chauvinistic attitude,” and how therefore India is not the “greatest of all civilisations,” and further, how accepting ancient India’s greatness would again lead to “the disastrous direction that Aryanism took in Europe in the 20th century” and cautions of how “Historical theories coupled with extreme nationalism and the politics of identity can have severe consequences….” I don’t see this as anything different from the standard, Marxist-template-ish discourse that we’re all familiar with. So, is this a stubborn insistence on a pet theory that refuses to come to terms with reality or is it something else?

► KE: As Talageri has shown, the horse sacrifice originates in the Vedic period and then becomes prominent. Subsequently it was exported to Central Asia.

If remains of an Ashwamedha are found there, it is not earlier but later than the Vedic testimonies of this ritual. Its performers are not on the way to, but on the way out from India. There is no need at all to deny the Central-Asian findings related to the Veda, only the implied chronology of the Vedas is wrong. Which is no wonder, as the present chronology is not based on anything.

If scholars write, say, “Kena Upanishad (ca. 500 BCE)”, I always wonder: “How do they know that?” For doing proper history, the first thing to straighten out is the chronology of ancient India. In that respect, Romila Thapar has always been a follower, not a leader. Her school has been dominant for half a century, yet no progress at all was made in this respect, they merely parroted the dates that British scholars had thought up.

Perhaps she is too old now to change her mind in view of new evidence, but I don’t think she is attached to a non-Indian Homeland per se. She just hates the Hindu nationalists. Now that these are openly supporting the Indian Homeland hypothesis (which has existed for more than 200 years, since well before the notion of “Hindutva” even existed), she just has to oppose this theory any which way.

As for her allusions to Nazism, that is really rich. Let us be clear that the Nazis completely supported the Aryan Invasion Theory, like she does. Hitler, Thapar, same struggle!

This theory was the perfect paradigm of the Nazi worldview: (1) the dynamic White Aryans trekked all the way to India and naturally defeated the indolent Black Aborigines; (2) these race-conscious Aryans imposed the caste system as an apartheid system to protest their racial purity, an example to follow; (3) unfortunately, some race-mixing took place nonetheless, and the Aryan castes, though still superior to the Aborigines, became inferior to their European Aryan cousins; (4) but fortunately, now they were being uplifted again by the rulership of their British cousins, the best thing that ever happened to India.

Though Subhas Bose and many millions of Indians expected Hitler, with all his vegetarianism and swastika, to support them against the British, Hitler actually glorified the British Empire and had offered German manpower and expertise to administer it. He thought the leaders of the Freedom Movement should be shot and India put back in its place, for he thought he was having the best interests of the darker races in mind when he tried to keep them in subjugation to a “superior” white nation.

Yes, there is plenty of criticism of the Hindutva movement (I myself have written quite a bit of it), but here it is really on the right side. Opposing the Aryan Invasion Theory is not only defensible from a scholarly viewpoint, it also happens to be politically correct.

Most people don’t judge a theory by whether it is true, but by the company it puts them in. If a truth is spoken by a despised group, they will feign to oppose this truth, and even interiorize that position. So, anyone desiring to be in the good books of the international establishment, will oppose an Indian Homeland.

Mind you, in this respect (in contrast with the economic realm), the Modi regime is not yet part of the establishment, and it doesn’t invest in a serious (as opposed to a flaky) redrawing of the scholarly power equation. It is still fashionable to laugh at the Indian Homeland position, so if Thapar chooses the safe side, the reason may not be any deeper than this: it need not be true, but it’s cosy. People who are not just camp-followers of the Aryan Invasion Theory, but who can actually defend it with serious arguments, are only a few. She is not one of them.

► SB: Equally, when Prof Thapar claims that “Questions that are historically debatable should be treated as such, with scholars holding variant views and each one’s views being weighed in terms of the evidence,” there’s something amiss, eerie even. As you’re aware, there’s a vast body of precisely such variant views, evidence, etc, which I’m sure she’s aware of yet doesn’t deign to even mention. Further, she mentions that this kind of thing “reduces the possibility of a historical debate.” Over the last three decades at least, accomplished scholars like Sita Ram Goel, Ram Swarup, yourself, Vishal Agarwal, Dr. Rajaram, Dr. Meenakshi Jain and others have painstakingly produced volumes aimed at fostering precisely this historical debate. Is this both willful blindness to and denial and/or dismissal of alternate/opposing/different views?

► KE: Last summer, two important Indo-Europeanist conferences took place in my neighborhood, in Leiden (Netherlands) and in Marburg (Germany). They commemorated the decipherment of Hittite one hundred years ago. Most linguistic arguments for a westerly Homeland are easy to shoot down. That is why most believers always tell you that the proof exists—only it is someone else who has provided it.

My own professor of Indo-European linguistics said that linguistics couldn’t really decide it but that it “had been proven” by the archaeologists. Most people there are like Indian civil servants, expert at passing the buck. But at those conferences, there were a few people who said they themselves had the proof for a Pontic Homeland.

It is essentially this: Indo-European and Uralic were originally one family, maybe 10,000 years ago, somewhere in Bactria-Sogdia. This language moved westward to the Ural-Pontic region and was adopted by locals speaking Northwest-Caucasian, an ergative language (i.e. the object of a verb-with-object, e.g. “he sees her”, is in the same case as the subject of a verb-without-object, e.g. “she goes”) with heavy consonant clusters but few vowels—unlike Uralic but like Sanskrit. This substrate influence of Northwest-Caucasian is sought to explain the Indo-European declension system and other grammatical traits, and its heavy consonant clustering.

Already two remarks: other leading linguists at these conferences were skeptical of this scenario, and the same linguistic traits (ergative structure, consonant clustering) equally count for Tibetan, the immediate neighbor of Manali and Ayodhya, where Aryan history began according to the Puranas. Just to say that this is not gospel truth, just a theory. But this is now the backbone of the belief in a westerly Homeland, and the Indian Homeland School should respond to it.

But then a third remark: this theory was developed in perfect ignorance of Kazanas’s and Talageri’s argumentation for an Indian Homeland. While our side should indeed keep up with developments within the Aryan Invasion School, they should do the same, and so far they haven’t.

Unlike the American Indologists, who are hand in glove with the Indian secularists and openly partisan, these European linguists know little of Indian politics and would be open to pro-Indigenist arguments on merit. They would only demand that these are methodologically sound.

Unfortunately, anti-Hindu intellectuals act as gate-keepers and make communication between India and the West difficult for non-established Indian historians. Then again, today there are ways to get around this, and at least my own little person is working to get this debate going.

This is my own initiative: the organized Hindu movement should take an advance on the results, and it will eventually reap the fruits, but it is not doing anything at all to further this research and this debate.

And this makes me think of one more important aspect of the Aryan debate. A debater confident of his position will seek to debate the strongest version of the opposing position. In that case, the Thapar School would have discussed Talageri’s work threadbare. In reality, they prefer to highlight the Hindutva people who think “history-rewriting” means restating Puranic accounts of history. They seek out the weakest version and then thump their chest at having refuted or ridiculed it. This is seeking cheap success rather than seeking the truth. It is a trick used by the not-so-competent.

► SB: A common strand that runs throughout Prof Thapar’s interview is how she alleges that, starting from the Harappan civilization, the “nationalist” and “chauvinist” “version” of Indian history denies diversity, and how this denial is rooted in the “the fear of having to see the past differently, that is, of seeing it as complex interactions of diverse cultures”. This is ridiculous at worst, and ironical to say the least given that right from the Vedic corpus to the massive volumes of dharmashastric texts, local customs, traditions, etc … all of these reflect the contrary: of an all-inclusive umbrella that has incorporated precisely this diversity. For example, it’s well known that Jagannatha in Puri is actually what’s known as a “tribal God.” Thus, contrary to what Prof Thapar claims, if fear was at the root, the “tribal God” of Puri would’ve been destroyed long ago. Exactly how does this pass of as history much less “history reading” and “scholarship?”

► KE: The Thapar School is very status-conscious. When I studied the RSS, I thought it was an RSS trait that they will hire as a guest speaker an enemy with status rather than a friend without it.

But I now realize it is rooted in a pan-Hindu trait shared by Hindu-born secularists. In fact, it is a universal trait but with important exceptions. In the West, and especially in the US, they appreciate new ideas even if they are brought by someone coming in from the wild. There, the emphasis in on creativity, and it doesn’t matter what status or entitlement/adhikara you have; if it works, it’s alright. So when they have a difference of opinion with anyone, they will natural take a condescending pose, like alleging that your position is not “scholarly”.

► SB: Talking about cultural nationalism, Prof Thapar claims that “Traditions, as we know from history, are invented through the generations or on particular occasions.” This is quite a bold claim to make given that I don’t think anyone can use the word “invent” with “tradition.” From my limited studies, traditions just grow organically, in a way, to say, as collective and mutually shared social and religious practices over several generations. My question is twofold: (a) What is the motive behind making such assertions in the context of cultural nationalism? and (b) How does Prof Thapar link this with her other claim that “The construction of cultural nationalism can be rooted in colonial interpretations of a culture, rather than in interpretations that might have existed in pre-colonial times?”

► KE: It is simply true that in the colonial period, Indians have acquired a self-perception that didn’t exist before. Swami Vivekanada and Gandhi strongly promoted the idea that India is spiritual while the West is materialistic.

But even before Muslim and British colonialism, Hindus had already started reinterpreting their past.

Puranic Hindus paid lip-service to the God-given revealed Vedas whereas the Vedic seers themselves knew that the hymns were not revealed by a Supreme Being but skillfully composed by human poets.

Ancient Hindus wrote the Vedas, medieval Hindus crawled before the Vedas. Most Hindus believe that the seers Vishvamitra and Vasishtha had a caste-based rivalry, because at a later time caste had become very important, whereas the Rig-Veda doesn’t mention anything about caste. So, the distant past is distorted by the recent past and by the present, and it is part of the historians’ job to reconstruct the events as they looked to their own agents.

A different but related distortion: the recent past obscuring the distant past. I see this in the Aryan debate all the time. So many internet Hindus resolve to disprove the Aryan invasion, and then they start fulminating about Max Müller.

I don’t care what Max Müller said or did, he lived in the 19th century whereas we seek to know what happened thousands of years ago. The supposed motives of the coiners and propagators of the theory in the 19th century (colonial, missionary, racist …) cannot possibly say anything whatsoever about the facts of the Indo-European dispersal more than 5000 years ago, or about the presumed Aryan invasion of 3500 years ago.

I compare it to being asked to describe a tree in the distance and then proceeding to describe the nearby window through which you look at that tree. If Hindus want to get anywhere with their Aryan debate, the first thing needed is a moratorium on mentioning anything from the colonial period. All the noise about Max Müller only serves the laziness of people who don’t want to acquire the skills to research ancient history.

► SB: It is a given that in a Romila Thapar interview or essay, at least one question or mention will be made about secularism, the tone and tenor of which we are intimately familiar with. So it is with this interview as well. Here, “I would say that secularism in the same sense means putting religion in its place, and maintaining that religion is not to be the single dominant factor in politics and in society and its institutions. The identity of society has to be an open identity.” Forgive my ignorance Dr. Elst, but what exactly does an “open identity” for a society even mean, even in purely lexical terms?

► KE: Effectively it means: no identity. It certainly means: no majority, for it could put its stamp on the society as a whole. In some respects, I think she is right about this. For Pakistan, for instance, it would be a healthy innovation.

► SB: Prof Thapar also claims without proof that “When one gives a definition of a Hindu, it is generally in terms of members of upper castes since the basis of the definition is from the texts of these groups.” To my knowledge, until British started studying Hinduism systematically (for whatever purposes), nobody in India had even attempted to define the term “Hindu.” Indeed, as far as my knowledge goes, there hasn’t been a comprehensive study that shows how Hindus viewed themselves prior to alien Muslim invasions. And so, on what basis does Prof Thapar claim what she does?

► KE: Lack of historical consciousness. The definition of “Hindu” is very simple. Originally a purely geographical Persian term for “India(n)”, the Muslim invaders introduced it with a mixed geographical-religious meaning: “an Indian Pagan”.

Christians and Muslims were not included because they were not “idolaters”, and Parsis were not because they were not deemed Indian. But all Indian Pagans, including Brahmins and other castes, Buddhists (“clean-shaven Brahmins”), Jains, tribals, even communities yet to be born, like Lingayats, Sikhs, the Ramakrishna Mission, they were all “Hindu”.

In Islamic theology, they were all going to hell anyway. To the Muslims, distinctions of social rank or religious tradition didn’t matter in the least. Their negative definition of “Hindu” was taken over in the definition used in the Hindu Marriage Act, and essentially also in V.D. Savarkar’s definition of “Hindutva”.

Now, I am not at all impressed when you list that so many millions of Sikhs say: ham Hindu nahin! I am not impressed by all the rhetoric with which the R. K. Mission is trying to leave the sinking ship of Hinduism.

“Hindu” is now a dirty word, the secularists have seen to this, and so everybody is running towards the exit, saying: “We are not Hindu.”

Well, this is simply a matter of definition. Tribals who convert to Christianity can legitimately say that they are not Hindus (in spite of the RSS’s weasel position that they are then “Christi Hindus”), but otherwise they are Hindu by definition. Even if millions of people say that “1 + 1 = 4”, I will maintain that it is 2, and I will be proven right in the end.

It is in the Ayodhya debate that I have learned the power of historical scholarship. After the 1989 statement by the JNU historians, starring Romila Thapar, the historical position, though having been a matter of consensus between all the parties involved, was suddenly tabooed.

There had already been partial archaeological excavations confirming that there had been a temple on the site where the Babri Masjid was built. Even if you decided to doubt the consensus, the balance of evidence was already clearly on the side of the temple.

Yet, the whole media and political class, and all the foreign India-watchers, suddenly had to pretend that the historical position was but a ridiculous Hindutva concoction. Well, through all this commotion, the historical facts remained what they were, and they were amply confirmed by the excavations of 2003.

There are still a few Leftists maintaining that there had never been a temple at the site, but most people concerned just look the other way, embarrassed at having been led by the nose so badly. And with such a death toll as a result.

Imagine that this JNU statement had never been made. PM Rajiv Gandhi would have worked out a deal, denounced as “horse-trading” but with the merit of avoiding lots of political commotion and physical violence. He would have bought off the Muslim leadership with some goodies and left the site to the Hindus, thus also boosting his own popularity in the elections. There would not have been an Ayodhya affair, merely the building of just another temple. The BJP was not even on the horizon yet.

But no, the “eminent historians” preferred lies and bloodshed (and apparently also the rise of the BJP). It is not often in history that the intervention of intellectuals has had so much effect at the mass level.

But I was saying that Ayodhya has taught me the power of historical scholarship. There was a lot of hue and cry, there was the demonization of the pro-temple position which I also held—in my personal case there was the veto against any academic position for me. But when all was said and done, we were proven right. All the commotion had made no difference to the facts of history. The “eminent historians” were proven wrong.

Why, in fact, has Romila Thapar been interviewed now? Though she was already well-known, her hour of glory came with the unnecessary and artificial Ayodhya controversy. But in that controversy, she was on the wrong side.

It doesn’t always come about, but in this case it did happen: justice. The wrong side, though absolutely dominant for more than a decade, was proven wrong. Her major claim to fame is now as the historian who was proven wrong, and this in a self-created controversy. I feel for her, she threw away her good reputation at the end of her career.

Then again, she can still win it back by crossing the floor in time. She is in an excellent position, for instance, to create the much-needed dialogue between the different schools and disciplines in East and West; to stop the stonewalling, the guilt-by-association and the ridiculing that obstructs or poisons the debate.

► SB: When asked about the reason for the popularity of the Ramayana, Prof Thapar claims that “Evidence of the widespread popularity of the Ramayana is of course more recent…. I am referring to when the Ramanandi sect begins to propagate the Ramayana and Rama bhakti….” and the Kamba Ramayana and Krittibas. To put it bluntly, the good professor is bluffing. As you’re aware, one of the earliest evidences of Ramayana’s popularity can be had in Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsham, and we know his period generally falls in the 5th century. She also recounts the now-familiar refrain about how Ramayana “celebrates and upholds the patriarchal family order.” While she’s entitled to her interpretations, the political subtext is unmissable. I’d like you to elaborate more on this, Dr. Elst.

► KE: The patriarchal family order is also upheld by the Bible, the Koran etc, yet I can’t remember her protesting against that. Worse is that she judges ancient writings (well, not the Bible or the Koran) by the standards of today, a capital mistake for a historian.

The past is the past, every historian ought to know that; only political propagandists blur the distinction between ancient facts and modern standards.

Anyway, the popularity of the Ramayana is not so important, but you are right that it was a thousand years older than she claims. Her position follows from the anti-Hindu fervor of the Ayodhya controversy. Need we say more about it?

► SB: Throughout the interview, there’s plenty of alarmist talk about how we’re now living in an atmosphere where “hegemonic thoughts” and “obscurantism” are growing, and how the good professor has taken “them on as I often have to do.” Equally, there’s also this condescension that stops short of saying that ordinary people must be lectured to about history etc, and that only historians have a special mandate to change the world or whatever. This again is familiar for anyone who has followed the careers of these Eminent Historians. Yet, even as India has mostly moved on from ideology-as-history, this refrain from these Eminent Historians continues to reverberate. What gives?

► KE: Well, they are old now, and throughout their career this attitude has served them well. I guess they will not change now. It is again this status consciousness, this pulling rank, this looking steeply down on people without adhikara [conferred by these Marxists].

It is a fact, though, that the Modi government and its local dependencies do give the impression of promoting, or at least of giving space to, backward tendencies. There are plenty of Hindus with very backward attitudes and beliefs. That is partly the revenge of a deliberate choice made long ago by Guru Golwalkar. He had a very anti-intellectual prejudice (“do you need to read a book to love your mother?”), which became official policy of the RSS, and as they never listen to feedback; that has remained effective till today.

Just watch how Hindutva spokesmen perform in TV debates: their communication skills are dismal, because they have always despised intellectual work, both in scholarship and on the media front.

► SB: Finally, one must really celebrate the ingenuity of Eminent Historians in coining innovative terminology. Of course, we’re familiar with “otherness,” “upper caste middle class chauvinism,” etc. I came across new ones coined by Prof Thapar here: “Aryanism,” “Sanitised Aryanism,” “Syndicated Hinduism.” Your comments,  Dr. Elst?

► KE: In Europe we have a media-conscious philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy, who egged the French president on to invade Libya and oust Colonel Qadhafi—an unqualified disaster, a very dark cloud without any silver lining. But he is very good at coining catchy phrases.

Likewise, I won’t deny that Prof. Thapar has a gift for turning an English phrase and putting her thoughts into sticky new expressions. Good for her. – IndiaFacts, 6 October 2015

» This interview was compiled by the IndiaFacts Team. Sandeep Balakrishna is the IndiaFacts Editor and CEO. Koenraad Elst is a Belgium Indologist and Historian. This interview originally appeared on IndiaFacts with the title “Examining the Marxist Version of India’s Past.”

George Orwell Quote

2 Responses

  1. Dear Dr. Elst,

    Your interview with Sandeep Balakrishna was highly informative and educative. You have put Romila Thapar in her place, whatever it is, without using harsh language or departing from norms of a civilised debate. Judging by what needs to be told about her, you have been very kind to her. It is another matter that the other side cannot be expected to reciprocate the courtesy. For a Marxist, the opponent is not merely in error, but also in sin.

    The interview also highlights the shortcomings of the officially recognised champions of Hinduism and underlines the kind of intellectual equipment that Hindu nationalists need to take on the likes of Thapar.

    I also have a word of praise for Mr. Sandeep Balakrishna. His questions were as well informed and well formulated as your responses. If you remembered Kath Upanishad, you might have felt like Yama about Nachiketa: May I get a questioner like you (tvaadrug no bhooyaat Nachiket prashta).

    I have, however a small difficulty about the date of Mahabharata War as around 1400 BCE. Rig Veda describes Saraswati as a mighty perennial river flowing from the mountains to the ocean. Mahabharata mentions it as a very holy river, but much shrunk and shriveled from the Vedic times. And finally we see its complete drying up. The river was completely dried up by 1900 BCE. So, Mahabharata must have preceded it and Rig Vedic age must preceded both.

    I have been your admirer right from the day I read and reviewed more than twenty years back “Negationism in India: Concealing the Record of Islam” that was kindly sent to me by Sita Ramji. Hinduism has had many foreigners as its admirers and sympathisers, but few have fought for it the way you did and do. Instead of showering verbal praise on this great tradition, you draw out a sword as it were and take on its sworn and entrenched enemies. As a Hindu I am grateful to you. I have no doubt that that when a history of Hindu renaissance is written, your name will be mentioned in golden letters along with Ram Swarup, Sita Ramji and other VoI scholars.

    With best regards

    Virendra Parekh

  2. If the Modi government is serious in wanting to change public discourse, it needs to get true Hindu intellectuals to be in positions of power in government funded institutes. As Mr. Elst points out, the BJP is finding it hard to find the right people and they are not smart enough to identify people from outside their own political circle. Thus, a Smriti Irani becomes a minister and a Gajendra Chauhan becomes a head of FTII. They need to go outside the political circle to get their intellectuals from civil society.

Comments are moderated

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: