Eminent historian Romila Thapar, Professor Emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, has emphasised on the need to cultivate an awareness of the perceptions that the authors of early historical works, which are currently used as sources, had of their own past.

These perceptions, when analysed, would provide illuminating insights into that past. Historians will have to inquire on who had written the texts, when were they written, for what purpose were they written and whether the purpose was effective. We may then begin to comprehend the variant forms in which history was recorded, thereby, enriching our understanding of the discipline and the society that we have studied, she said.

Prof. Thapar was inaugurating a three-day national seminar on ‘New History: A Critical Appraisal’ at Mahatma Gandhi University on Thursday. The programme is being organised by the Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), School of Social Sciences, in association with the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR).

She traced the manner in which the Indian past had been regarded by colonial powers. “The argument from colonial scholars denying history in India was not made in passing. It was to become axiomatic to the orientalist view of the Indian past and is still held by some historians. Derived from the European definitions of history, it was additionally pertinent to the requirements of the colonial policy.

European scholars, conscious by now of historical literature as a distinct category in recording the past, looked for recognizable indigenous histories from the Sanskrit texts, but could not find them.

Indian civilisation was, therefore, defined as ahistorical, sometimes, directly so and sometimes, hesitantly.

The Indian past was characterised by colonial scholars as being, what they call, an oriental despotism. It assumed a static society that registered no historical change and therefore, had no use for recording the past.

One the function of the past was to legitimise the changes that took place in the present. Change is a nodal point in history when new identities can emerge and the past can be reformulated. So if there was no change, there would be no need to record the past. This view underpinned the requirements of colonial policy in a changing relationship between the colonial power and the colony. The colonial power would now write the history of the colony as it saw fit.”

According to Prof. Thapar, historical consciousness had existed in the early period of Indian history, contrary to what had been understood by many sections. “Nearly 200 years ago, it was stated that the Indian civilisation was unique, because it lacked historical writing and implicitly a sense of history. This generalisation is taken as axiomatic. While in the early period of Indian history, there may not be historical writing in a conventional form that is familiar to us from the European traditions, there are nevertheless, many texts of a different kind that reflect historical consciousness. Some of these came to be reformulated, even in those times, as historical traditions. It is worth investigating on what was recorded and why, and what were the concerns that occasioned the writings. Historians will have to analyse as to why certain narratives were projected as historical,” she pointed out.

She also said that three aspects of the study of historical traditions merited examination. These include the widely-held view that Indian civilisation lacked a sense of history, the recognition that historical traditions of diverse cultures will, inevitably, differ and finally, the nature of the representation of the past in the early Indian historical traditions.

Indian Council of Historical Research Chairman Basudev Chatterji delivered the keynote address. The inaugural session was chaired by Vice-Chancellor Rajan Gurukkal.

IUCSSRE Joint Director Radhika Parakkat, and Associate Fellow P. Madhu also spoke on the occasion.

Later on the day, Prof. Gurukkal delivered a lecture on the topic ‘The Critical Modernity’.