Romila Thapar in Conversation

These are Romila Thapar's responses to the three papers presented on the occasion of her 90th birthday.

Mohona Chaudhuri

I am delighted that Mohona has focused on a book that covers a subject which remains relatively unexplored among historians of early India. In writing The Past Before Us, I was trying to zero in on the question of historiography and how it relates to texts from early India.

Why is history incorporated into texts of various kinds, and why does the form of such texts change over time? As indeed also the form in which the past is represented? The inclusion of representing historical consciousness is perhaps not a substantial change from representing history as we define it, and is more a variant in its representation.

                     It was argued that the early Indians had no sense of history because we did not produce the equivalent of a Greek Thucydides or a Chinese Su-ma-shien.  But every society represents its past in some form and the forms change as the society changes. How then was a society viewing its past?  This was what I was doing in this book.

                    Historical writing has to follow the method of historical analysis: the statements derived from the texts have to be based on reliable evidence; the explanations of past events must draw on logical and rational arguments. Any statement claiming to be historical must pass this test. This historical method is a major factor in differentiating history proper from the made-up stories, that for instance, supporters of Hindutva propagate as history.  Mohona has asked, and quite rightly, as to how one engages with Hindutva narratives. Obviously, it cannot be fact for fact, because historically these narratives are vacuous and there is virtually little in the way of facts in them. It is an exercise in wishful thinking. The reconstruction of history based on the work of professionally trained historians is sought to be effaced and the imagined history conjured up by those who support the Hindutva ideology is declared to be history.

                     The Hindutva version of history is rooted in colonial readings and has to remain so, if it is to survive. Professional historians have questioned the earlier colonial readings and have largely discarded them. They have been replaced with history that is intellectually more rigorous and challenging. The colonial and subsequent Hindutva versions are questionable and will remain outdated.  This in part explains the contradiction between the history of the professional historian and the make-believe narrative of the Hindutva ideologues.

                   In relating a text to its times, the question of its authorship is significant. This is what one does automatically when studying modern historians. Who is writing these texts? What was their social and intellectual context?  You have quite correctly made the distinction between the perspective of Vedic Brahminism and that of the Kshatriya tradition. But even within the broader categories there are many important nuances. Take Banabhatta who wrote the Harshacharita, the magnificent biography of Harsha who ruled in the 7thcentury AD. Bana belonged to a high-ranking brahmana caste, but by his own admission he mixed with a variety of people, some respectable and some rather dubious, perhaps not the kind of people who would be wholly approved of by the authors of the Dharma-shastras! This might explain why he has such a remarkably enquiring perspective on all that he observed and experienced.


                           When mention is made of representing the indigenous perspective, we have to always ask who are we taking as representing the indigenous. The term covers a huge span of peoples and cultures. It is more common to generalise from Brahminical texts when referring to early times and to give less space to statements from the Buddhist and Jaina texts that contradict the Brahminical. The pleasure of working on early India lies, among other things, in seeing the interface between consenting and dissenting groups.


Nikhil Pandhi


Nikhil introduces a topic that I have been thinking about as have some other historians, but perhaps not so many in India. The subject of what he calls ‘‘decolonial dialogue.” Historians in ex-colonies are all busy decolonising history, that is at the simplest level questioning colonial interpretations of all our societies that were erstwhile colonies. I have chatted with historians from Latin America who have spoken of an Iberian pattern of colonialism as followed by Spain and Portugal. This differs from that of the north-west European colonial countries—Britain, France and Holland—with colonies in various continents. Then there is the other attitude to colonialism evolving in Black Africa and the Caribbean that has been called Negritude. How did the people of these colonies react to the pattern of colonialism that was thrust on them? How much of this debate still hangs over us and colours our views of ourselves?  Or have we moved in large measure to other debates and theories not so closely linked to colonialism?  I would agree with the plea that we need far more debate and discussion on comparative colonialisms, if only to better understand our own variety and its aftermath. 

                    I am unfamiliar with the writing of Michel Rolph-Trouillot, but after listening to Nikhil, I think I shall read the study of the revolt in Haiti. Studying the inequalities of caste and race still carry much of the 19thcentury theoretical baggage, although its errors are being slowly shown up. Caste and race were initially confusing categories when jointly examined, but are being investigated more meticulously now with an input from the social sciences. It is important to keep in mind that like all rites, the rite of history also underwent and undergoes change. It still remains debatable as to how far caste and race coincide despite the rush to give caste racial characteristics in colonial writing. A comparison of normative texts with actual activities in society can often be contradictory. This is worth investigating.

                 A change in a historical reading can come from the discovery of a new source of information, or it can come from new methods of analyses. When the analysis of a language is not restricted to philology but includes linguistics, the study sometimes reveals the imprint of a different language on a particular language. For example, if there was a Dravidian linguistic imprint on Vedic Sanskrit, as is being argued by many scholars, then this does raise innumerable questions. These questions are disquieting to those that abide by the earlier thesis of the earliest Indo-Aryan being an unalloyed language. Explanations for caste classifications and cultural attitudes would also have to be rethought. 

                  The source of a fact has to be scrutinised as also the fact itself. There are these days much discussion on what is a fact and this raises many other questions. The source itself that is used for evidence has to be analysed as to agenda and intention. It is now time that concepts such as civilisation be studied more deeply and diversely. But here again there is imbalance. The achievements of civilisations are described in terms of the thinking of elite groups. But in many cultural forms those that actually gave shape to them, other than those who thought about them, had a necessary presence. The craftsmen and artisans who created architectural structures decorated with sculpture would surely have had ideas about what they were doing. If indeed one can speak about an unchanging tradition, then surely conversations with their successors might tell us more than just a study of the forms. Oral history now has respectability. Decolonisation should be directing us to answer yet another set of questions.


Suchintan Das


Suchintan has raised the relevant issue of what is the function of a public intellectual. I put out some preliminary ideas on the subject in a public lecture that I gave some years ago. But with the function of the intellectual in our country getting increasingly marginalised, the relevance of talking about it increases. It is not enough to throw up our hands and say we can do nothing. Once restrictions get embedded, it is difficult to be rid of them.

                   Speaking of historians, it is particularly pertinent to us since a control over history is so central to political ideologies, especially those that intend to exert greater control over society than is acceptable. This is frequently done by reinventing the history of the society, even if it means contradicting the hitherto acceptable history. The political control of the past gives an access to controlling the present. Where the past is so constructed that its purpose is to legitimise an ideology of the present, there history as a discipline is victimised.  This should not be confused, however, with the normal connect where some aspects of the present trace a lineage to the past. I think it was E H Carr who said that the best historian is one who writes about the past but is aware of the present.  

                   The role of the public intellectual becomes more relevant in this situation. It is to recognise, to alert and to object. But this requires the public intellectuals to do battle with the victimisers.  Some do it through public activities and some through publication. Since the public intellectual is also addressing the public at large, the defence of history has to be comprehensible and to the point. This does of course present the dilemma that Suchintan has referred to. Which audience is one addressing? Those that are at the cutting edge of knowledge and for whom one’s research may be seen as advancing knowledge, or those who cannot follow the mounting specialisation in disciplines and feel marginalised.  The latter need simplified versions of new ideas. Making complexities comprehensible is a perennial problem.

                     In earlier times, there were people who were reconciled to being left out, but in our times, they, quite rightly, want to know.  Between an inadequate education and the varieties of mind-softening media that they are forced to depend on, most of them unfortunately remain cut off. This can only be remedied by making quality education available to all. It seems that only the demand of a critical mass can attract attention to such problems. 

                As Suchintan has shown the historian is expected to have a critical perception of wide-ranging knowledge—how else does one understand the essence of an age—whether it be the numerous golden ages or the dominant age of extremes. It is this that enables the historian to question and to qualify assessments and generalisations, so essential to an understanding of history.

                                                *  *  *

                     Many decades ago, I used to wonder if I would see the turning of the millennium. I did. It turned and was just like every other year. Only more numbers on the calendar changed. I also wondered if I

would live for many years. I have. But this has been so different from other years, even at a personal level. Not only has the event of this evening been an extraordinary birthday celebration, the likes of which I have never had before, and it will keep me going in my remaining years. But it has also given me the pleasure of listening to and thinking about the three presentations.

                 Battling to establish and to give authenticity to the fundamental principles of historical research becomes a struggle when authority rather than professional expertise controls the contents of what is to be taught and how it is to be taught. But in the last few years as it intensified, I have talked history with young historians. I now have a sense that at the core of the upcoming historians of India there is growing clarity about the meaning and intention of history. This has been demonstrated with such excellence in the three presentations this evening.

              I am therefore comforted that there is going to be a worthwhile legacy from historians. The generations to come will be reading yet more thought-provoking histories and explanations of the Indian past, despite the efforts of some essentially political organisations to derail such histories. Confronting this will also give more meaning to the present. 

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