Conversations about history

Interpreting the past: Prof. Romila Thapar.

Interpreting the past: Prof. Romila Thapar.   | Photo Credit: Photo: R. Ragu


As the media representations of the Mumbai terror attacks demonstrated, we can’t do justice to contemporary events unless we understand our own history better. Renowned historian and winner of the prestigious Kluge Prize in 2008, Romila Thapar says heritage is too important a matter to be left to those with partisan political agendas. Excerpts from a conversation…

What worries me much more is the way in which the ideology of Hindutva has inveigled much of the middle class into accepting the idea that we should be only a Hindu country. This is essentially an unthinking acceptance of an ideology that claims to provide an easy answer to a complex problem…

Eminent historian Romila Thapar, Professor Emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, was awarded the prestigious Kluge Prize in 2008 along with the Irish historian Peter Brown, who teaches at Princeton University. The Kluge award is often referred to as the American Nobel Prize, as it covers the human sciences for which there are no Nobel awards. In an interview, shortly after she returned from the United States after receiving the award, Prof. Thapar spoke about the importance of history teaching, the need for autonomous institutes to govern textbooks and historical research and the media’s interpretation of contemporary developments. Excerpts from the conversation:

In a talk you gave in 2002, you said, “To comprehend the present and move towards the future requires an understanding of the past, an understanding that is sensitive, analytical and open to critical enquiry”. In the light of November 26, 2008 terror attack on Mumbai and the criticism of the media’s reporting of the event, what do you as a historian feel about media interpretation of such events and the absence of context in reporting?

As a historian I am and have been deeply disturbed — and I’m not alone in this — by the reaction to such incidents. Indian identity at the popular level is increasingly being narrowed to the perceptions of what is called the majority community. This is ironic because among historians the perspective has widened out. This is in part due to the expansion of sources for constructing history. In archaeology for instance, various sciences are giving us dimensions of knowledge that are new, such as the data on environmental factors affecting history. Our attitudes to texts have changed. We now ask incisive questions about the author, and why the text is written the way it is and what is the intention of the patron? One looks beyond the statements for deeper historical understanding. This has led to new perspectives on the past in terms of both evidence and the manner in which it is analysed.

So while the historian is opening up the past, its popular representation is narrowing it down. The kinds of linkages that are made with the past in popular outlets tend to marginalise many communities and cultures that make up Indian society. These linkages frequently draw from political agendas. Inevitably one begins to ask whether or to what degree that which we’ve been writing, and speaking about in the past 30 to 40 years, have at all affected people’s perceptions — perceptions of our past, our identities, and the values that we hold as important in our lives? Possibly we have been too passive in our response to aggressive political actions. And we have failed to be sufficiently critical of the way the media plays with political agendas in representing what it calls “culture and history”. These are themes that need much more open discussion.

We have not internalised our history in the sense that for most people seeing the historical aspect of the world around us is still an experience of the extraneous. Historical analysis is really about an entire society with an accounting of different levels and the way in which they are inter-related, the way in which they disintegrate or integrate and how these relationships have changed over time. We assume a kind of static past, which is of course the behest of colonial scholarship. This is being questioned by historians who are trying to understand the dynamics of different periods and communities but somehow this questioning doesn’t seem to seep into popular agencies like the media.

How much of media projection and the political discourse, which fails to locate events against history, is because of the way generations of Indians, including the post-Independence generation, have been taught history?

It has a lot to do with it. One of the biggest problems with the way in which popular representations of the past are accepted without questioning has to do precisely with the way history is taught. Not just history. Our attitude to knowledge is generally still dated. A student is told, “Here is a body of knowledge, learn it and memorise it ”. The notion that a body of knowledge implicitly means that the person who is approaching it has to question it and understand it and maybe develop it further — that is not something that is implicit in our educational methods. The purpose of education is increasingly, with rare exceptions, a competition involving numbers in an exam which determine the next step. This is not what education should be about.

When we first established the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1971, it was suggested to us that our courses and syllabi should preferably not be a mere repetition of what was being taught in other universities. We were asked to think of new ways of projecting history, where our courses would reflect inter-disciplinary methods of investigating the past.

My 20 years in JNU were intellectually among the most enriching in my life because we had a really good bunch of students who came because they felt that since the courses were different, the enquiries would be different. If one can take credit for anything at all it is for those students who are now teaching history and conducting historical research themselves. They are doing it because it is both an intellectual exploration as well as something that is providing insights into the society in which we live. It is through this way of looking at the past that students become curious about the world that surrounds them. If enquiry can be built into a subject it ceases to be just having to learn the same old dreary information and it takes on the challenge of finding out about other aspects — about objects, events, people, behaviour patterns, personalities, policies — a whole gamut of perspectives on what makes a society, who makes it and who governs it.

What can be done so that the teaching of history does not get swayed each time there’s a change of government?

This is something about which I wrote at length in The Hindu soon after the UPA government came to power. I argued that a body like the NCERT, which is producing what are called model textbooks, should be made autonomous from government because there was a danger that each time the government changes, the NCERT will be required to rewrite the textbooks — and not just in history but in politics, human geography, sociology and science as well. We came pretty close to that with Vedic mathematics. There should be independent bodies of specialists in each subject that vet all prescribed textbooks so that there is always a sieve through which any textbook has to pass and that it conforms to at least a minimum standard. This doesn’t exist at the moment. The academic quality of textbooks differs from one kind of school to another to a third.

When you proposed this to the UPA, what was the reaction?

Virtually no reaction. A few teachers responded positively since changing textbooks can be a serious problem for teaching in school. A few others said it would be difficult administratively although the idea was well taken. At the end of the day one feels almost as if one is talking to a wall when one refers to a problem that we have lived with for the last half century, and suggests ways of solving the problem, but there is silence. Perhaps there is a hesitation to take away government patronage — of any government. Patronage today has become sacrosanct. At another level privately published textbooks are often money-spinners and would not like to be vetted. The ideological motivation in some textbooks, especially in the social sciences, is crucial in schools with a political agenda, often run by so-called “cultural organisations”.

But education per se remains a low priority for almost any government.

The notion of quality in education is directed to post-graduate education and to the IITs, the IIMs and such like. But many of us feel that the foundation of primary and secondary schools has still to be established and nurtured. I suspect that nothing is done about the foundation because political parties fear an educated electorate that can ask questions. It would then not be swayed by mass meetings and would make vote-banks irrelevant. The moment people ask questions and relate the present to the past and have a project for the future, it becomes a different electorate. I don’t think it is just an oversight that governments and politicians pay so little attention to education.

My second contention is that there is a need to put much more into training teachers. In today’s world, a teacher has to be technically proficient in the subject. Gone are the days when a broad-based liberal education sufficed. Subjects have become specialised. Teachers have to know how to handle this new knowledge. This means a larger outlay on training teachers and on their salaries and in return taking them seriously and demanding that they be responsible.

You had spoken of what you called the “blight” of reducing Indian culture to a single identity, in the period leading up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Do you feel that this type of ideology has been somewhat diluted today because of other political developments, or do you think we still face the danger of this “blight” returning and attempting to project Indian culture in a monochromatic way?

There are two aspects to this question. One is the political aspect, the use of the Hindutva ideology to garner votes. We saw this displayed in the political mobilisation around the Ram Janmabhoomi movement leading up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Echoes of this were audible in the debate on the Sethu Samudram. And if groups tied to Hindutva politics find that they are having problems with electoral support, it may be raked up again. That’s one aspect that may at the moment be somewhat diluted, but it’s unpredictable.

What worries me much more is the way in which the ideology of Hindutva has inveigled much of the middle class into accepting the idea that we should be only a Hindu country. This is essentially an unthinking acceptance of an ideology that claims to provide an easy answer to a complex problem, namely the modernisation of a society that has always had multiple communities, and it is based on questionable and erroneous premises rather than what one expects in this day and age, namely at least a minimum of logical and rational thinking about the problem. The attitude of treating members of other religious communities as the “Other”, as the ones who are alien, and who will never be part of “us”, that is something that I find unacceptable as it goes against the grain of the concept of being Indian. It is also unacceptable because it is historically untenable. Where education has not succeeded perhaps civil society will be the agency to oppose this attitude. But if it isn’t opposed it will encourage the kind of politics that can take us to the edge of fascism.

Finally come to your award. You’ve turned down so many but this Kluge award is different.

The only awards that I’ve turned down are state awards from governments. Indian society has yet to respect the academic. It seems to me that one of the ways of creating respect is to give priority to recognition from one’s peers in a profession and this will require a distancing from government patronage. I have accepted awards from historical associations in India including the Indian History Congress and the Asiatic Society of Calcutta without a moment’s hesitation because this was a gesture from my fellow professionals.

The Kluge award, like the Nobel Prize, draws from a private donation. John Kluge made his money in media and movies and decided that he would use it encourage human sciences and humanities. These are not covered by the Nobel Prize. He located a research centre in the Library of Congress, so as to attract the best scholars to one of the leading libraries in the world. Subsequent to that, he established the Kluge Prize. The selection involves a rigorous process of academic assessment. Nominations are processed through a series of evaluations by scholars in a particular field — in my case it was Ancient History and Indology. The Council of Scholars attached to the Kluge research centre advises in the choice. The rigour of the academic evaluation makes it a coveted Prize.

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