Review: The Past as Present by Romila Thapar

book1For those who believe that the lone founders of ‘Indian civilization’ were the Aryans or that the Indian past was singular and exclusive in character, Romila Thapar’s latest book The Past as Present, is a must read. Because Thapar, in her highly readable yet profound essays, logically demolishes distorted historical arguments, showing readers how and when different academic pursuits and debates have gone wrong.

For example, Romila Thapar argues against the Hindutva notion that Muslim rulers destroyed Hindu temples in the past because of religious animosity alone. She points out, even Hindu kings like Harshadeva, Paramara raja, and some other Kashmiri ones destroyed Hindu temples for different reasons. Analytical study of history shows that temples, other than being places of worships, were centres of political power and depositories of wealth too and hence, an assault on them.

In another instance, Thapar claims, with ‘archaeological and linguistic’ evidence, that ‘Indus Civilization was pre-Aryan and non-Aryan’. And, the belief that Indian civilization was Aryan in its roots is nothing but the fruit of a faulty Western interpretation of the Indian past, a mistake for which she holds even the German philologist Max Mueller responsible.

Though the nineteen essays in The Past as Present were written over the span of Thapar’s illustrious career as a scholar and researcher, the thinking reader will be delighted to discover that the essays cover the most essential of themes and ask the bravest of questions pertaining to the current socio-political discourse in the country. To put things in perspective and augment her arguments on the relation between the past and the present, Romila Thapar has filled the interstices of the narrative with thought-provoking insights, such as, if in 1940 ‘Muslim nationalists’ were countered by saying that nationalism of a religious community is not Indian nationalism, then why after seventy years a man claiming to be a ‘Hindu nationalist’ is considered to be an Indian nationalist.

She explains, as to what happens when nationalism is reduced to identity politics and priority given to a specific religious community. She writes extensively on secularism and states why the secular critique is not of religion, but of those who exploit religious faith for political gain. In many of the essays she fervently asks the reader to ponder on whether India’s past was only a ‘Hindu past’ or, an extensively plural one, embracing multiple identities, cultures and religions. She talks about attempts to cherry-pick from Indian history so as to substantiate the claims of a certain political ideology.

A memoir in some parts, the essays in the book stretch over a wide array of themes—the study of history, religion and communalism, identities and pluralism, the temple of Somnatha, religious texts and epics, and so on. This collection is a powerful voice against historical misrepresentation and propaganda masquerading as facts. It’s a timely reminder of things that might go amiss if the country is deprived of a correct interpretation of its past. But, at the same time, these essays have a subtle poignancy running through their veins—one that reminds us as to how the intellectual and academic discourse on any subject can be easily distorted and fed into the public discourse.

In certain parts, the essays, however, are in defence of the conscientious historian, who strictly follows what his research yields, in the face of repeated attacks by political agents. Thus, Thapar recounts how journalist and eminent BJP politician Arun Shourie had once taunted ‘eminent historians’, as having hymens so thick that they retained their virginity even after publishing articles on Leftist platforms. She, however, mention this, not as yet another piece of mud slung at the BJP, but as an example of how proponents of divisive political ideologies have time and again tried to erase the ‘intellectual enterprise’ that the study of history is and the ‘intellectual dimension’ that it often requires. And in this context, she criticises both Hindu and Muslim communalisms which try to impose a fabricated understanding of the past, so as to leverage their political gains in the present.

In fact, Thapar also writes about how the two school history textbooks she wrote for the NCERT came under harsh criticism, first from the Morarji Desai government and then from the Sangh Parivar. She was attacked by the Morarji Desai government for having written in the textbooks about the ‘disabilities of lower castes’, for not describing Muslim rulers as ‘oppressors and tyrants’ consistently, and for not saying that ‘Aryans were indigenous to India’, and then again by the Sangh Parivar for, in simple words, not teaching children the Hindutva version of Indian history

Apart from seeking a correct interpretation of our past, what Romila Thapar stresses on in her essays is that the study of history has changed its course—no longer is it a mere collection of facts about rulers and their wars. With the advancement of research into themes hitherto unknown, history is being looked into with a much broader and analytical perspective by scholars. And the remarkable fact is that, the author herself has been one of the strongest catalysts for this change in the country.

This article was first published in India Resists on June 24, 2014.