By Saket Suman
New Delhi–As a globally renowned professional historian, she has in recent years been the target of vicious right wing trolls who are out to spread their own version of history. If it doesnt seem to overly bother her, it is because, unknown to most, Romila Thapar’s life has been one lived amidst sustained hate and criticism.
Thapar completed her PhD in 1958 from the University of London and returned to India in 1961 and joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, in 1970 as professor of Ancient Indian History (after brief stints at Kurukshetra University and the University of Delhi).
Just seven years after she joined JNU, her troubles began. In the late 1970s, several members in the Janata Party and the Morarji Desai government sought changes in textbooks. The books that were targeted by members of the Jan Sangh – which later morphed into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — included two significant works by Thapar: “Medieval India” written by her, and “Communalism and the Writing of Indian History”, which she wrote along with Harbans Mukhia and Bipan Chandra.
Those protesting against these books criticised Thapar for several reasons, primarily for going soft on Muslim rulers like Aurangzeb.
“I did not allow the text books written by me to be changed because every time they would want to make a change, I would say, yes go ahead and make a change, just take my name off the book. But they didn’t want to do that because they wanted the legitimacy of the name of a historian and yet they wanted to make the changes,” she told IANS in an interview.
Her troubles with the BJP did not end there. She was removed from the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) less than three months after the BJP came to power in 1999.
Merely four years later, criticism hit her again when, in 2003, she was appointed as the Visiting Chair at the US Library of Congress. She was supposed to spend 10 months at the John W. Kluge Center researching “Historical Consciousness in Early India” — but a petition against her appointment described her as a “Marxist” and “anti-Hindu”, while emphasising that it was “a waste of US money to support a Leftist”.
“Within a month of my getting there to Washington, there was a long 15-page petition saying the most vicious things about me. Really, I mean, written by people after reading whom one could make out how paranoid they were. And I was terribly disturbed at that point of time because I thought, What do I do, I am sitting in Washington, I know nobody in the embassy, I know nobody in the Library of Congress; and I wondered how was I going to manage this attack,” she recalled.
The question that many of her critics raise is why she does not respond to them, claiming that she is scared of a public debate.
“Do I respond? Or do I just keep quiet? The problem with responding is that one would then have to respond each time somebody wrote against one. When I was facing all of this in Washington, a couple of senior academics in London wrote to me and said, ‘For god’s sake don’t respond, because that’s exactly what they want you to do.’ They will want you to spend all your time defending yourself on stupid issues whereas you should be doing serious research.
“And so I thought about it at great length and eventually I decided not to respond — and I haven’t for that reason, although they call me a coward, they say I am not willing to have a public debate and so on. And my attitude is that as an academic I am not into public debate: I write what I think is right, I give my evidence, I give my references, take it or leave it. I am not insisting that you follow what I am saying,” she maintained.
“I think the main point is the insistence that I have the right to research and write and give evidence for what I am saying and make my statement about the past. I think this is the right that everybody has, and why should I be denied that right which everybody has?” she asked.
She maintains that arguing a particular position in any discipline is a constitutional mandate as long as she sticks to the given methodology and substantiates her research with enough evidence. This is also where she makes a distinction between “academic history” and “fantasy history”. Fantasy history, she maintained, is written for public consumption.
“But I have been firm on the fact that as an academic historian, I will go on saying what I wish to say, on the basis of my research,” she said.
Meanwhile, Oxford University Press has published “The Historian and Her Craft: Collected Essays and Lectures” by Thapar. This set of four volumes, according to the publisher, reflects “the scholarship of one of the foremost historians of our time”. It is a comprehensive collection of lectures and essays by Thapar, with each focusing on a theme — Historiography, Pre-Mauryan and Mauryan India, Social and Cultural Transactions, and Religion and Society.