Renowned historian Romila Thapar, whose book The Past As Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History was just released, explains why popular views about the past need to be critically examined before being accepted as historical.

On August 15, 1947, the historian Romila Thapar — then in the final year of school in Pune — was asked to lower the Union Jack, raise the flag of our just-born nation and deliver a short speech. It focussed on two linked themes: the form independent India’s society should take, and what the identity of its people was. Those two ideas, she writes in her new collection of essays, “have hovered in my mind throughout my life”.

The essays in Dr. Thapar’s new book, The Past as Present, present a fabulous overview of a half a century’s work by one of India’s most eminent historians, running from ancient India to the charged debates over Indian identity that erupted in the 1980s. The historian, writes Dr. Thapar, “has to be alert to the way in which historical ideas can be used or abused in the name of history”.  The rest of us should be just as concerned, her work shows us, because these questions go to the heart of who we are as a people — and what we aspire to become. Excerpts from an interview:

First, the book obviously comes at a time of intense relevance to political life in India. Many of the questions of identity you address have a direct bearing on the General Elections and may become even more relevant in the five years to come. You obviously did not have this particular election in mind when these essays were written, but do you see the collection as, at least in part, an intervention in the ongoing debate?

The relevance of the book to the forthcoming elections is a coincidence. David Davidar of Aleph suggested that I put together some of my essays previously published and intended for the general reader. Written over the last four decades, their themes were of public interest, and in which a claim to history was used to legitimise an opinion. In writing the introductions to the sections and the Epilogue, I was aware of the immediate present, but I was nevertheless surprised as to how pertinent the earlier writing still was to present-day concerns. Drawing history into politics meant using history to create identities. The identities of religious communities as a historical process are coming to fruition in present times. This is largely due to our inability to give precedence to identities necessary to a secular democracy, even if it meant radically changing the previous identities constructed by colonial scholarship. We are now facing the propagation of the politics of religious identities combined with a global market economy, packaged into a totalitarian ideology replete with banning books and controlling the media. If this becomes the reality it may continue for longer than five years. Totalitarian systems tend to be long-lived.

One thing that fascinated me is how durable debates over identity — particularly religious identity — have proved in India, running from the half-century or so before independence through to now. To what extent do you believe that this has been a consequence of a failure of our historical imagination to come to terms with our past in a nuanced and accurate way?

The imposing of a religious identity as the primary political identity is of course the contribution of colonial scholarship and policy and eventually found its way even into anti-colonial nationalism. The tragedy is that, after independence, we did not question these identities but retained them. Some historians and social scientists questioned them suggesting alternative identities, but they were attacked and described as western stooges (oddly enough), anti-national and as Marxists (thought to be the worst abuse possible)! It was not the failure of our historical imagination but the general resistance to accepting a more nuanced and accurate understanding of the past. The methods and arguments used by religious “nationalisms” in India are rooted in colonial perceptions and procedures and will flourish as long as we accept these. We haven’t even excised those colonial laws that are harmful to democracy – we continue to be governed by them.

Anti-secular arguments have gathered momentum over the last two decades, or so, both in and outside the academy. The assaults have come from a variety of directions — from religious nationalists of course, but also from certain post-modern intellectuals. To what do you attribute this anti-secularism, and the broader break down of faith in reason that it seems to feed on?

Post-Modernism, among some intellectuals, reacting against positivism, has tried to banish the rational argument. Personally I find it unacceptable to argue that all explanations of the past have equal validity. As a fashion, Po-Mo is in decline in the U.S. and the same is likely to happen here.

At the broader level anti-secularism arises from many factors. There is the supposedly Indian interpretation of it being the co-existence of all religions. This has little validity since religions are not equal, and majority and minority communities defined by religion further destroy equality. Caste would also require to be annulled in a secular society, yet caste is essential to patriarchy and to the subordination of lower castes.

The influence of the NRIs should not be over-looked. They are often the role model; they have beaten the system in India and are living well in the Developed World. Yet most NRIs identify themselves preferably by religion and caste, and their version of these identities can be conservative, if not archaic.

Many of your essays were written years ago, when debates around Indian identity were not as sharp as they are today. Did you foresee that your historical work would become part of our most urgent political debates?

Four decades ago some of us did caution against religious ideologies and organisations using their versions of history for political mobilisation. For example, there was a debate on the NCERT textbooks that some of us wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. It started as a small battle under the Morarji Desai government but blew up into an explosion under the BJP government of 1999-2004. We wrote extensively in the newspapers at the time, trying to educate the public into differentiating between history and the use of history for political mobilisation. We also objected to the political control over the writing of history.

But the battery of abuse against us by the religious “nationalists” was too loud for us to be heard. Some liberal opinion tended to treat us as alarmists or else argued that since we had written textbooks for the state we should not complain if the state was interfering with their content.

But generally I think there was a notion that somehow the plurality of religions in India having survived many centuries will continue to do so. There was therefore no real threat. But what has been simmering during the last couple of centuries is now coming to a boil.

Finally, what do you believe are the major areas in which new historical research is needed to illuminate our on-going political debates over Indian identity? And how do you think historians should go about making this knowledge more widely accessible?

There is some current historical research on defining Indian identity, perhaps not directly so but implicitly. Historical knowledge is not static and like all knowledge it changes with more information and new methods of analysing it. When new communities are brought into the historical frame, or new questions are asked about their inter-relationships, this changes the picture as is happening now with gender and Dalit history. That history is a way of knowing as is physics and astronomy has to be brought home not only to the public but also to some ill-informed politicians. But in this the media — print and electronic — has to collaborate intelligently, not merely by looking for the sensational, but by trying to explain how to differentiate between history and fantasy. In other words they have to take the historian’s perception of history as their basic material and not what their own idea of history may be.