Thapar and Trouillot: A Decolonial Dialogue in History

As we commemorate the life and work of Romila Thapar, Trouillot’s words exemplify for me the core quest of Thapar’s history writing.



I want to begin by recalling the words of Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who said, “History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots” (Trouillot 1995: 15). 


As we commemorate the life and work of Romila Thapar, Trouillot’s words exemplify for me the core quest of Thapar’s history writing. As a cultural anthropologist, I am inclined to think juxtapositionally and comparatively through contexts, concepts and practices and unravel meaningful terrains of translatability between people across cultures. The terrains in question belong to history and in this essay I hope to outline the decolonial possibilities of listening to Romila Thapar and Michel Rolph Trouillot – a historian and a cultural anthropologist, and two towering public intellectuals from the global South - rehearsing history’s myriad symphonies in concert.


I focus on three key themes in Thapar’s scholarship that relate specifically to questions of inequality, caste, race and their primacy in historical (re)construction – which powerfully dovetails with Trouillot’s anthropological preoccupations (Trouillot 1995). I then relate my reading of Thapar to analytics running through Trouillot’s writings all the while keeping the emphasis on early India. In this juxtapositional reading of the past, I want to try and open up ancient history’s methodological and epistemological possibilities, which Thapar’s pioneering work compels us in essence to do. What follows is an elaboration of this “decolonial dialogue” between Thapar and Trouillot in three themes. 


The Rite of History versus the Right to History


By the rite of history, I mean the rituals of historical production. Trouillot states, “the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production” (Trouillot 1995: 15). In conjunction, Thapar’s work on early India allows us to understand the process of history behind categories that we use today to designate social inequalities; chief among these is caste.


For Thapar, the transition from jana to jati, clan to caste-based society in Early India must be contextualised in terms of longitudinal transformations in ecology, agronomy, polity and statecraft from Vedic to post-Vedic times. The wider context being the ascendent Sanskritic-Brahminic culture tied to urban state systems displacing the pastoral and monastic Shramanic-Buddhist culture by the mid first millennium AD. Brahminism created and thrived on dynastic struggle. The assimilation and enslavement of groups performing menial agrarian labour and the passage of land and temple grants to Brahmins in exchange for their legitimacy of newly emerging Kshatriya kings and communities, as borne out by the wealth of growing puranic genealogies and land-grant inscriptions especially in the latter half of the first millenium AD. 


In Clan, Caste and Origin Myths in Early India (1992), Thapar carefully details how this aforementioned rite of history occurs with regional variations through the longue durée of urban and social transformations by 1000 AD. Cartographies of caste (jati) and sect evolve and revolve around the assimilation of tribal cults, indigenous peoples and their local cultures into the wider Brahminic social code of four castes and four stages of life - varnashrama-dharma – that firmly institutionalises the upper echelons of savarna society. Equally, this sediments and segregates those meant to be beyond the pale of varna, like the asprishya (untouchable), dasa (slave), chandala, mlechcha and shudra.


In the Past and Prejudice (1975), Thapar evidences the seminal point that the ontology of varna and jati in early India strategically shifts with the expanding geographical and cultural frontiers of brahmanism. Curiously, intermediate caste status displays an openness in this period due to the fact that political power itself remained open to negotiation by those well-placed in society. For example, ritual priests not conversant with Sanskritic culture, in South India, became assimilated as brahmans creating heterodox conditions of possibility for elitism and exclusion. We also know of the Vedic dasi-putra brahman who is born of a slave; the post-Vedic abhira-brahman who is the product of a mixed-caste union and the lower-status Magha and Boya brahmans with shudra origins. 


By drawing attention to the plural textures of historical process, Thapar confirms that the pace of social change in early India was slow; as a result of little mobility at the lowest level of society, there was a striking increase of shudra castes in early medieval India. Yet, Thapar’s core thesis is that these trends are anything but unidimensional. She delicately traces the sociopolitical processes through which dynasties with obscure origins from the mid first millennium AD begin to claim kshatriya status and are inserted into exalted puranic lineages by brahmans. Crucially, in several cases, this happens by erasing their origins among mixed castes, tribal peoples and shudras. 


A fascinating and seminal example of this process is outlined also In Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas (1961), where Thapar notes: “The Mauryas are shudras in the brahmanical Puranas but kshatriyas in the Buddhist and Jaina texts. The Mauryan kings having patronized the heterodox sects had to be downgraded in brahmanical reckoning and possibly for the same reason were upgraded in Buddhist texts.” 


What does all this evidence tell us? That crucial to our understandings of the rite of early history is the need to restore ethical balance by asking who exerts or claims the politico-moral right to history. For Trouillot, “lived inequalities yield unequal historical power” (Trouillot 1995: 55), implicating (if not replicating) the status of social groups in the contemporary past and present thereby creating historical traces and sources which are inherently uneven and unequal. By dethroning the dominant logic of brahmanical sources like the puranas, dharmashastras and the Vedic corpus, Thapar skillfully teases out the role of marginal and tribal groups, women and forest dwellers, and groups placed “lower” in the varna-jati status of early India like shudras, nishadas, shabaras and pulindas. By focusing on their historical roles in mediating the transformation from clan-based society into a caste state, Thapar’s pioneering scholarship critically elaborates the nuances of South Asian history from below. 


The Tyranny of Facts


For Trouillot, the production of history concomitantly conditions the terrain of historical impossibility. Facts that cannonise particular events and interpretations of the past conceal the failures of alternate narrations. Facts are thus complicit in the production of silences, and when those silenced are the groups with unequal historical power like slaves and black bodies (in the context of Trouillot) or the asprishya, chandala and avarna (in the context of Thapar) it becomes the ethical task of the scholar to critically historicise the politics of surveillance and exclusion. 


In the Aryan: Recasting Constructs (2008) and a range of other articles and essays on this theme (see Thapar 2019, 2014, 1996) Thapar confronts the Brahmanical quest for racial purity in early India that silences the facticity of those who lie beyond the epistemic limits of humanity and therefore of history. Under the garb of what is termed the Aryan Theory of Race,’ Savarna political groups bent on establishing heteropatriarchal cis-gendered Hindu male paternity on the Indian past achieve little aside from a banal mimicking of colonial interpretations of early India as monolithic and unchanging. It also essentialises religious identities operating in early India through sect and jati (and not as Hindu or Muslim) and diverts attention from the cultural mutations and migrations of Indo-Aryan-speaking peoples over the longue durée of early history. Hindutva political groups vying to validate the eugenist Aryan racial project also fail to acknowledge that it was that very Aryan culture (a social construct and not a racial or genetic community) that sedimented caste stratification, enslaved Vedic women as dasis, produced the non-Aryan ‘other’ as barbaric and laid the historical grounds for structural segregation based on pollution and purity. As Thapar masterfully demonstrates by engaging evidence from archaeology, history, linguistics and even genetics, all along brahmanism made available to itself concessions through inter-caste unions and non-Sanskritic ritual and tribal assimilations whilst encrusting the avarna as a civilisational and genetic other. Thapar’s project then counters the tyranny of brahmanical facts and resonates with Trouillot’s key thesis: that facts wielded by groups having historical power ultimately function as “formulas of erasure” (Trouillot 1995: 95).


In Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (2004), Thapar opens out to careful historiographical scrutiny the popular view that Mahmud Ghazni’s raid on the Somanatha temple in 1026 AD carved the primal wound in the Hindu heart and created a permanent schism between Hindus and Muslims. By deflty examining alternate voices of the event in Sanskrit texts, regional and Jaina histories neglected by historians, Thapar presents a different if polyvocal story of Somanatha. Her critical thesis is that a variety of people and sources depending on their interests and inclinations narrate history differently and the politics of this discursivity are arguably more compelling and complex evidence for history than the so-called ‘facts’ frozen in time.


From her early work on the many Ramayanas and ramakathas (Thapar 2011) to her later work on Shakuntala (Thapar 1999, 2000) and Somanatha, Thapar’s scholarship has rigorously challenged popular perceptions that the past can only have one interpretation as the facts do not change. Like the cultural anthropologist, the ethico-empirical task of the historian too requires counterposing many plural narratives and uncovering the normative structure of silences which sediments them into place. While it is true, as Trouillot observes, that “professional historians alone do not set the narrative framework into which their stories fit. Most often, someone else has already entered the scene and set the cycle of silences” (Trouillot 1995: 41), Thapar’s scholarship skillfully pursues the variants to establish what (and who) is excluded and how radical ambiguities and silences behind tyrannical claims to ‘truth’ – especially the counter-histories of non-Brahmin castes - can be recognised as voices of dissent if not agency and possibility.


Decolonisation and Desegregation 


The aforementioned themes also bear the vitality of charting a decolonial recognition of history that calls out the privileges of dominant and elite castes in the same breath as it reimagines and rewrites the brahmanical past. In a recent book, Indian Cultures as Heritage: Contemporary Pasts (2018), Thapar argues that throughout Indian history the ideal was the culture of elite groups, whose texts, monuments and traditions received larger patronage and were readily labelled as ‘Indian heritage.’ She states, “Questioning exclusions and identities will explain how and why they came about, their contribution to the making of what we call our civilization and our ethical values. It might also lead us to effectively annul that part of our heritage that denies social justice and is ethically unacceptable” (Thapar 2018: 372).  


Coming from a public intellectual who has been involved in the writing of history textbooks in India since the 1970s, this is an integral insight for our contemporary times in which groups possessing what Trouillot calls “unthinkable histories” (Trouillot 1995: 69) like Dalits, Adivasis and Shudras are using their voices to summon radical futures by forcing new ways of historicising the human condition. Over the course of nearly five decades Thapar’s historical scholarship has signposted the intellectual moment that we in the social sciences and humanities are today globally calling the ‘decolonial turn.’ Importantly, Thapar’s work alerts us to the perils of a fragile and facile definition of decoloniality. 


A powerful exposition of Thapar’s nuanced view is provided in her essay titled, “Decolonizing the Past” (2005), where she writes about the need to unfreeze theoretical patterns of privilege in which Indian history has been written. She gives the example of nationalist histories of the 1950s and 1960s in which colonial views of brahmanical supremacy went unquestioned thereby erasing the everyday politics of caste and its potential to radically rescript existing historical narratives. Several nationalist historians - like the upper-caste and middle-class academy and society - were complicit in excluding B R Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule and anti-caste scholars in their citational politics and not countenancing the views of Shudras and Dalits in (and as) history. Today, using claims of propagating nationalism and an indigenous view of history, purveyors of Hindutva are effectively enforcing similar colonial interpretations and legitimising brahmanical supremacy and caste exclusion. 


We are therefore compelled to ask, how do contemporary forms of cultural nationalism undergird attempts at decolonising history and the social sciences? After 75 years of independence, why is the project of decolonisation still pressing upon what Trouillot calls its “burning questions” (Bonilla et al 2021)? What are the pitfalls of decolonialisation being appropriated by those who banalise and normalise exclusion and inequity in their scholarly praxis? And, if the aim of decolonisation is to desegregate the present and its possible futures, what novel paths will the decolonisation of history have to forge to recalibrate its own rites, counter the tyranny of brahmanical facts and annihilate its casted silences and exclusions?


These are some burning questions Thapar’s scholarship prepares us to ask. I want to end by mentioning that one of the key ways we can respond generatively to the contemporary decolonial moment is by putting public intellectuals like Romila Thapar and Michel-Rolph Trouillot – together with the arc of their archives, analytics and analyses - in dialogue, for there are global structures of silences and inequality that critical projects of history and cultural anthropology can together address for our times and beyond. At stake in the scholarly study of early Indian history are pressing issues of decoloniality, carcerality and the cultural politics of radical humanism that Thapar and Trouillot are ultimately steeped in. At a point in her writing, Thapar deciphers what she calls the “social ethic” of Ashoka Maurya (Thapar 1961) - it is really her ethic as a pioneering historian of decoloniality that relentlessly shines through.

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