The eminent historian’s scholarship undermines Hindutva’s project to saffronise India’s past.

Earlier this month, renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar refused to submit her curriculum vitae to the administration of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where she holds a position of Professor Emerita since 1993 and taught between 1970-1991. 

The JNU registrar had written to Thapar on July 12 asking her to provide her latest CV so that a committee appointed by the University’s Academic Council could “assess [her] work and decide on [her] continuation as Professor Emeritus.” 

According to the administration the 87-year-old, who also holds the prestigious Kluge Prize, must requalify for JNU’s honorary post, a lifetime status that was awarded to her 25 years ago. Corresponding letters were sent to eleven other Professors Emeritus in the university, all distinguished scholars in their respective fields. 

The singling out of Thapar and academics is not new. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party took power in 2014, there has been a protracted crackdown in the country’s halls of higher education; against not just those who are critical of the ruling government, but on academic freedom in general.

The JNU Teachers’ Association believe the administration’s move was politically motivated, and there are good reasons as to why. 

Hijacking history

A fierce critic of the Modi regime, Thapar’s status as a leftwing public intellectual has solidified her as bugbear of the Hindu Right. Furthermore, Thapar’s robust scholarship discredits their mission to rewrite Indian history to serve the project of Hindu nationalism.

Thapar’s specialisation is ancient India, and her books have been required reading for generations of students. While she has a distinguished career in writing, teaching and speaking about India’s past, her domain has gradually come under attack by a virulent ideology that seeks to weaponise India’s rich historical tapestry for political gain. 

TheSangh Parivar– an umbrella term for Hindu nationalist organisations spawned by the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the BJP – subscribes to Hindutva, which sees India as a nation of and for Hindus. 

Since 2014, there’ve been renewed efforts to alter history by the Modi government and various state governments. Tactics ranged from erasing chapters or passages from public school textbooks and adding make-believe accounts of the past, to peddling mythical bunk as history in schools run by the RSS.

What makes history so important for Hindu nationalists?

For one, nationalists need to construct a version of the past that legitimises their actions in the present. For the Sangh’s ‘Hindu-first’ program to gain supremacy, it has sought to create a monolithic narrative that triumphantly proclaims the exclusivity of Hindu civilisation to be channeled into twenty-first-century renewal of a Hindu Rashtra(nation). 

In this vision, non-Hindus (particularly Muslims) are relegated to second-class citizens, or at worst, foreign contagions to be cleansed from the Hindu body politic.

However, for such a movement to succeed, society must contain a pre-existing homogenous bloc with numerical power. This is difficult in India’s notoriously diverse amalgam, and so Hindutva ideologues hijacked a primordial Vedic past, prior to the arrival of Muslims, to repudiate any plurality and syncretism within Hinduism.

Mother of Indian history

Thapar has always distinguished between Hinduism, a religion and way of life, and Hindutva, a politics of Hindu majoritarianism. She has maintained that India’s national culture is constitutively both Hindu and Muslim.

Paradoxically, the idea of Indian history being neatly periodised into Hindu, Muslim and British epochs is rooted in Britain’s colonial understanding the Subcontinent, which found its most intense expression in the two-nation theory that proposed India has always been two separate nations in conflict – the Hindu and the Muslim. 

This colonial-era theory would be at the heart of both the Muslim nationalist movement, led by the Indian Muslim League which produced Pakistan, and Hindu nationalism under the RSS and its affiliates, who hoped to usher in Hindu religious state. Thapar has been critical, as are most serious historians, of this colonial segmentation of Indian history. 

She also disagrees with the view, prevalent among Hindu nationalists, that the origin of Hindus can be traced back to the Aryans, who they claim were coterminous with the Indus Valley civilisation. The problem is that the Indus Valley civilisation predates the Aryans by a millennium, and scholarship agrees that the Aryans migrated from Central Asia to the Subcontinent in the second millennium B.C.

For the Sangh’s narrative of an indigenous Hindu civilisation to be given legitimacy, the nation’s soil becomes integral because, as Thapar reiterates, “if the Hindus are to have primacy as citizens in a Hindu Rashtra (kingdom), their foundational religion cannot be an imported one.”

And now in power, part of the Hindu Right’s campaign to erode the experiment of Indian democracy is to attack intellectuals and discredit them, crush dissent, and come up with their own, twisted version of history without any pushback. 

Lamenting the state of public debate in contemporary India, Thapar imparted a rejoinder in an interview back in 2016 that rings true today: “Intolerance of the views of others and anti-intellectualism are on the rise. In this confrontation, universities and the education system are, and will continue to be, obvious targets. Education can easily be converted into indoctrination.”

The animus for Thapar and her cohorts by the Hindutva brigade is further spiked by an underlying insecurity: that there is a Left-liberal monopoly on Indian scholarship, itself an outcome of Nehruvian democracy, which has denied Hindus their rightful place in its history books.

Those who wish to scrutinise the CV of Romila Thapar are not unaware of her intellectual contributions but resent them because they conflict with every myth they want to perpetuate in their crusade against history. 

As she prophetically writes in her 2014 book, The Past as Present: “If the past is to be called upon to legitimise the present, then the veracity of such a past is to be continually vetted.” 

Something chauvinistic nationalists consider an anathema – and for a good reason. 

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