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February 4, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/ Romila Thapar

'You can't have a situation where the country is going to be held to ransom by a bunch of fascists'

These incidents of hostilities towards minorities, now the Christians -- how detrimental is this going to prove for Indian society?

Romila Thapar Surely, you see the results. The BJP has been in power for less than a year and look what is happening to the minorities. Look what's happening to the Christians. Isn't that detrimental? There is no hold on the Bajrang Dal and the VHP who are the groups so far accused of these crimes. The most barbarous crime can be committed and there is no one to stop it. The government is making weak statements. The PM says: 'We'll have a national debate on conversions.' This is no solution. This is a law and order problem, not a problem of conversions. You can't have a situation where the country is going to be held to ransom now by a bunch of fascists. Of course, it is detrimental.

Have incidents like the attacks on Christians happened in India's history before?

Not on this scale. There were moments of intolerance. For example in the 5th Century AD, the Shaivites attacked the Buddhists in Kashmir, killed the Buddhist monks, attacked their monasteries. In Tamil Nadu, the Shaivites attacked the Jains in the 7th Century. Still later they attacked the Jains of Karnataka. So you have these inter-sectarian attacks where a few people were killed, a few people attacked over problems of rivalry, competition and so on. But they were limited.

In one century you would have one such incident in one part of the subcontinent. Now it is becoming an all India activity. So where is it going to stop? The scale is totally different and the nature of what is being carried out is also different and much more detrimental.

But the contention is that the teaching of history in India has been dominated by Leftist thinkers and historians?

That's the kind of argument that is always put forward by proto-Fascists and Fascist groups who are making an ideological attack. This has been going on for the last 100 years. I can quote you chapter and verse from German Fascism and Italian Fascism saying exactly this: that the history that is being taught so far has been dominated by Leftists.

History that is being taught in most universities today -- certainly in 90 per cent -- if you look at the reading lists they are all books of people who are conservative nationalist historians. In many ways those of us who have broken away from that kind of history writing are rather concerned that there is still a hanging on to the history of the 1940s and the 1950s. So for these people to say that history has been distorted by the Leftists and that's the kind of history that is dominant is a lie, and can be proved if one goes through all the reading lists and assess what percentage of Leftist historical writing occurs in the syllabus of college and university teaching.

Talking of conservative historians, what do you think should be the syllabi included at the school and under-grad level?

The student has to be taught to understand that the analysis of a historical event means that s/he must consider all possible explanations. After a consideration of such explanations based on the evidence and a rational analysis, he/she should arrive at a conclusion as to what happened. It's the opening out of our understanding of the event, its interconnection, its past, and it's that which Hindutva is trying to close by saying no, it's a matter of religion, a matter of Hindu dominance and Muslim dominance and a conflict between the two. Whereas we want the mind of the student to be open and understand that historical explanation is very wide and takes many considerations into its ultimate conclusion.

Most students find history extremely boring. Do you think the method of history that you are talking about can be possible?

It is very possible. It is very possible if people understand that History is not about repeating information parrotwise, but is in fact an understanding of the past. Let's even have a dialogue on it, I don't mind, let Hindutva historians have a genuine dialogue on it, but that they're not willing to do because they know that the moment one goes into other kinds of explanations, their mono-causal explanations won't hold.

For example, why does a particular dynasty establish a kingdom? X conquers and establishes a state, but the sustenance, organising of a kingdom has to do with the nitty-gritty of daily life, administration, resources, control, communication. So all these factors have to be analysed and evaluated.

For eg, what was the mode of communication in the Mauryan period -- it was only roads. How long did it take for a king's order to go from Patliputra to Takshila, if it took two months then what was the nature of the administration. These are the kinds of questions that we are now asking. We are not content with saying that Ashoka was a good king, but he was a Buddhist. So all these other features like what is meant by an empire, what are the economics of an empire, who did they trade with, what did they trade, and the whole richness of a particular past disappears if the explanation is mono-causal.

If this government hasn't been open, what about other governments? Have they been more open?

Much more open. In fact, the NCERT books were started when a few of us did a review of school text books being used in the Union Territory of Delhi. We were appalled by how bad they were. Really third rate books were being used by the children. So we wrote a long report and sent it to the ministry of education. Then the minister was Mr M C Chagla. He replied saying that you are historians and you have objected to these books, why don't you write the text books? It was Mr Chagla, who got us university professors, to sit and write school text books. That was the kind of openness of that government, and we wrote those books -- we tried them in schools -- and it created something of a revolution in school text book writing.

Even now books need to be revised, but it's for the next generation of historians to do that because knowledge has moved on in the last 30 years. Those governments at least formed committees of historians who vetted what we'd written. It was not that one wrote a book and it was accepted. There were very careful stages of seeing that the books were really representative of different kinds of historical opinion. Which is why when they say they were all Left wing historians -- it is not correct -- because the people who were vetting our books were not Left wing historians.

Can you name some of them?

R C Majumdar, Biseshwar Prasad, B P Mishra, D Sharma to begin with. Later the committee consisted of S Gopal, Nurul Hassan and others.

If you had to point out the single most decisive factor in India's history in the last 50 years, what would that be?

Nehru's decision to give adult franchise. I think that's been a remarkable decision. It's the one thing that saves us from dictatorship and from fascism. I think it's been quite amazing. I think it is the single-most important thing that happened in the post-Independent history of India.

What do you think has been a negative factor?

The rise of Hindutva, which I think is going to put us back by at least a century. We simply won't be able to think of ourselves as a modernising society because of all these impediments. Look at the articulation -- you have a film like Fire and they go and break down a cinema house. Husain paints a picture and they go and burn it. This is not modernisation. This is not even civilised living. This is barbaric because it terrorises society and prevents creative expression.

You are just coming from a workshop, have you had a chance to have a debate on History with the Hindutvawadis?

It's not possible, because they wouldn't come to a workshop like this. Or if they came, they wouldn't argue. They'd just make their statements and stick by them. There'd be no debate. It's not the kind of mind that debates and discusses alternative explanations. It's the kind of mind that's dogmatic. They have been given a certain catechism. It's just set questions and set answers. Nobody asks a question other than the set questions and nobody gives an answer other than the one they are expected to give. That is my definition of a closed, dogmatic mind.

There was a television programme, where there was a historian and there was Arun Shourie -- who's been writing the worst kind of pulp fiction on History. And the issue was that of beef eating in the Vedic times. Instead of discussing the issue of why are there are references to beef eating -- as the historian claimed there were references, and what could be the reasons for it -- they kept asking him to mention the chapter and verse in which the reference occurs. History is not written like this.

You don't say here's the statement. You collect the data, you ponder over it, you see it in context, you analyse it and then you make your statement. That's not their procedure. The man who was moderating the programme kept saying -- 'answer yes or no.' This is not history. This is not how you treat knowledge.

Under the influence of state governments, history teaching is known to have been tainted at times…

I don't think we should attach the teaching of history to governments and states. We must attach it much more closely to a tradition of knowledge. That's the only way we can get a truly independent teaching of history. As long as we keep thinking it is one government against another government, that's exactly what the Hindutvawadis want. That's the argument. The old government was supporting the Leftists historians, we will support our own. That's not the issue. History teaching is not a governmental enterprise.

In newly created nation states there is a close link up between history and nationalism. And it needs more and more of independent knowledge to force people to realise that history is not the handmaiden of a government. For example, I have taken a view that is not in conformity with the way in which Indian nationalist historians have described ancient Indian history. That doesn't mean I am anti-national. It just means that I see it differently.

It is understood that Indian history is largely written from the ruler's point of view? Is this assumption correct?

Largely that would be correct. Now people have begun to write from the point of the other sections of society. Again there is an aspect of Hindutva interpretation -- if you write only from the ruler's point of view, you ask was the ruler Muslim or Hindu. And then your historical interpretation is based on the religion of the ruler. If you start looking at other social levels, you begin to see overlaps between Hindu and Muslim practices, beliefs and social behaviour. You begin to see all these interactions and realise that it makes no sense to only talk in terms of Hindu and Muslim because there are other dimensions to the society of medieval India which are much more important. This opens up different vistas about the past.

Photograph: Jewella C Miranda

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