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“We have to be secular. There is no choice”

Romila Thapar on history and politics of India

“We have to be secular. There is no choice”

Professor Romila Thapar, 83, needs no introduction. She is known among intellectuals of the world for her path-breaking work on Indian ancient history. She has memories of old Lahore where her grandfather used to live at Lawrence Road. It was her father, a doctor in the Indian army, who made her go through old manuscripts, thus developing in her an interest for history.

More recently, Prof. Thapar has been in the news for her third Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture “To question or not to question: That is the question” where she said that and experts shied away from questioning the powers of the day” and that they must question more.

When she was young, her father offered her to choose between dowry or money for a degree from London University; she chose degree over dowry and did not look back. Although her writings don’t reflect feminism, she calls herself a feminist and pleads that history written by feminist historians should be taken seriously.

Thapar is among the founders of the Department of Modern History at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), known for ‘deconstructing’ myths. She has inspired generations of history students. Her book Somnatha: The Many Voices Of A History led to condemnation by Hindu bigots and groups of Non Resident Indians (NRIs), living in the US are said to have opposed her appointment at Smithsonian Institute, Washington.

She has refused India’s highest civilian award Padma Bhushan twice. In a letter to the Indian president, she wrote “I decided some years ago that I would only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not accept state awards.”

Elegant and humble, Thapar is thoroughly committed to her scholarship, her memory exceptionally sharp for an octogenarian. Anti-communalist to the core, she spends her time reading and delivering lectures and so on;

At her beautiful house in Maharani Bagh, New Delhi, it is difficult to tell the sitting room apart from her study, both lined with endless collection of books.

Excerpts of an interview with her follow:

The News on Sunday: Why is secular India becoming a Hindu India?

Romila Thapar: This is a long story. It goes back to the period where we had a secular nationalism which was anti-colonial but we also had two, at that time lesser, movements: the Muslim League with its emphasis on Muslim religious nationalism and the Hindu Mahasabha with its emphasis on Hindu religious nationalism.

What has happened, in a sense, is that the Muslim religious nationalism was in its own turn successful in the creation of Pakistan. So those who were associated with Hindu religious nationalism wanted the same kind of political state to emerge in India. This did not happen because there were enough people in the national movement then who were committed to secularism and therefore it remained a secular state.

What has happened today is partly that there has been a kind of disillusionment with the way in which development has taken place in the last couple of decades, and therefore there is a turning away from the values that were upheld by the previous governments. There are now expectations from the possibilities of new values. It is interesting that the present government which had based its electoral campaign on issues of development, after coming to power, now seems to concede additional agendas. Attempts are being made to try and bring in a kind of ‘Hinduisation’ of state and society. This has started becoming more vocal.

I think in the process of neo-liberalism and market economy, there has been a marked growth of the middle class. But, at the same time, it has brought a highly competitive system in which there is a great insecurity. When there are periods of insecurity, people tend to turn to easy answers. The idea of giving primacy to Hindu citizens has an appeal for some of those looking for easy answers.

TNS: Don’t you think the combination of neo-liberalism, business and religion is lethal and anti-people?

RT: Yes, it is a lethal combination because neo-liberalism means leaving things to individual initiative whether it is investment or any other form of money-making. And the contradiction, of course, is that in order to create an ideologically-motivated Hindu state, you have to be very disciplined in observing the regulations of what is being projected as the requirements of such a state, which may contradict the economy. And I think that one of the possibilities that may happen in the time to come is a conflict that this contradiction may lead to.

TNS: Why did secular forces become weak in a country whose major claim was that it was a secular state?

RT: I think the people who were secular took it for granted that secularism had come to stay and they were too dependent on the idea that the state was secular and would ensure secularity. They did not do enough work amongst people to make them understand what a secular society actually means and the kind of laws it requires.

Here in India we have a different definition of secularism which I think is not adequate. We have regularly talked about secularism as the co-existence of all religions. Now that is not enough. You can have co existence of all religions but unless there is a social equality amongst all religions it is not secular, and social equality may be absent where there is only co-existence of religions. We have believed in co-existence but we have also allowed some religions to have a more dominant role. That is where our definition is inadequate.

TNS: Do you think there is some movement or there are people who are thinking along these lines?

RT: At the moment there are individuals who are thinking on these lines but there is no substantial movement as such, at least not that I know of.

TNS: That looks like a sad state of affairs because people in Pakistan, particularly secular people and liberal people look towards India?

RT: Yes, there seems to be a rise in what has begun to be called Hindu fundamentalism, which may be a contradiction in religious terms but not in political terms. There is certainly despair at this happening but, at the same time, one must remember that should it get really bad, there is bound to be a challenge. So let us hope that we can meet the challenge. And there are people opposed to it.

TNS: If I correctly recall you also said that the term Hindu was coined later on, it was first Brahman and ….?

RT: No, it was not Brahman. There was no single term to cover all the religious sects. The term Hindu was coined when those living in West Asia mentioned the Hindus as the people living across the Indus. Al-hind was linguistically connected to Sindhu/Hindu, in that sense. Initially it simply meant anybody who lived beside the Indus. It was a geographical term and then gradually, when there was a need to separate Hindus from Muslims and Christians and so on, it came to be applied to those who were not Muslims and not Christians. It began to be used by about the 14th or 15thcenturies in a religious sense but originally it is a geographical term.

TNS: You said that the Buddha was the first rationalist…?

RT: I did not say that he was the first rationalist. I said Buddha represented groups of people who challenged Vedic Brahmanism and they challenged the sanctity of the Vedas as divinely revealed. They challenged the concept of the soul and various other ideas. But Buddha was not the first rationalist nor was he the only rationalist; there were others.

TNS: Why did Buddhism fade in India and flourished in other parts of the world?

RT: It was extremely important at one stage. It was almost the dominant religion and then in competition with Brahmanism it declined. It was pushed to eastern India, from eastern India it had links with Tibet and then it went to South East Asia. Another branch went from Gandhara in north-western India to Central Asia and from there to China. So it became almost the dominant religion of Asia for a period, although it gradually declined in India.

TNS: While the Hindu right wing forces tried to strengthen their power, secular historians of the time contested their attempts. In the present context we do not have such kind of contest. You advised in your lecture to historians to question the Historical development. Do you think there is a need for mobilisation of historians?

RT: In my Nikhil Chakravartty lecture I argued that people should speak up where they disagree with actions relating to state and society. So I was bothered that not enough people seem to speak up these days.

I must point out that I have a problem with the word ‘mobilisation’ that you have used. It is not that we as historians were ‘mobilised’ during the last half century. We were secular historians and our reaction came out of the secular history that we were writing. You can’t mobilise historians; historians have to think of their own way of explaining history. Each historian has to be convinced that the kind of history he/she is writing is an explanation, or it provides an understanding of the historical problem being studied. As a historian I would find a secular history preferable to one that supports a purely religious perspective. But we as historians can’t go around ‘mobilising’ historians. They have to think of their answers themselves.

So if they are not asking themselves about the validity of the history they are writing, then what is one to do beyond critiquing it. This is because it is not history that is based on a critical assessment of the evidence, on a logical and rational analysis, on the use of all possible sources, and on other such considerations.

TNS: Textbooks are considered as a significant tool to transform knowledge. Textbook produced by you in the 1970s and 1980s aimed at inculcating a secular identity. What is your opinion on changing the textbooks by right wing forces?

RT: What we have to understand is that if the society is one in which there are multiple identities, each of these at some point is going to want its place in history. The historians, therefore, cannot say that we will include this but not that. It becomes a question of how the historian, who sees these multiple identities, represents them in an integrated way. In this connection we also have to re-examine the idea of identity. What do we mean by an identity? And we have to keep in mind that identities change when the historical context changes. Even if we are speaking of a single identity, we have to define it carefully as even single identities undergo change.

What do we mean for instance by Pakistani identity, Indian identity or Sri Lankan identity? What are these identities beyond the fact that they relate to nation-states? We have not really discussed them but have merely assumed them. The discussion would include the notion of culture, religion, language — everything that goes towards the creation of communities and then of citizens. We need to look at them much more carefully in historical terms than we have, and from various perspectives.

Feminist history is absolutely essential because one cannot write social history without asking the kinds of questions that feminist historians are asking. One may agree or disagree with whatever their answers or generalisations are, but few would doubt the need to ask these questions. Similarly with Dalit history, questions have to be asked. What eventually emerges depends on how it is linked together with the rest of social history.

Discussions and debates can and do split historians into groups. Some historians were and are Marxists and some remain non-Marxists. There were extensive debates, as for example on the question of whether there was a feudal society in India similar to that of Europe, and if not then what were the ways in which it differed. These debates advanced our knowledge of what was called medieval Indian society. Those that see history from the Hindutva perspective are more concerned with pushing their ideology than with the historical debate.

If you are trying to understand a complex society, it has to be seen from multiple perspectives, each based on evidence and analysis. What the historian has to do is to test the reliability of the evidence used as well as the validity and logic of the statements that follow, and then see how best the understanding of the past emerges.

TNS: What are you writing now a day?

RT: I am not writing anything. I have finished with writing academic monographs!

TNS: How do you spend your time?

RT: I am reading, and delivering lectures and talks and so on, and doing smaller bits of writing, but not a book.

TNS: How do you see the future of secularism in India in the context of its current politics. Will it change?

RT: Oh, it is bound to change. I think there is going to be a lot of discussion, debate, possibly even confrontations, on the issue of defining secularism. But ultimately if we do survive as a democracy we have to be secular. There is no choice. It would [change] if we became a dictatorship. But then the politics of the whole region will change.

TNS: Do you see any signs of dictatorship in India?

RT: I don’t know. It is very hard to tell at this moment.

TNS: What about Delhi? Aam Adami Party (AAP) is a new phenomenon.

RT: I have only a little idea of how the electorate is thinking in the city. The AAP did once have much potential, but let’s see if that is still so.

TNS: Do you think relations between India and Pakistan will normalise?

RT: I sincerely hope so. Eventually that has to happen. When the entire area is culturally and historically so deeply intertwined, it will happen. I don’t see hostility going on indefinitely.


  • It is pleasure to see Romila Thapar interview in a prestigious Pakistan daily. She is one of the most respected scholar in whole of South Asia today, known for her sharp objective analysis of south asian history-from ancient times to present. More interactions between Indian and Pakistan scholarship through both sides media should take place, which can strengthen the peace desire of people from both sides and defeat the designs of war monger-er armies and vested interest politicians on both sides. Thanks to Dr. Khatau Mal for forwarding this link.
    Prof. Chaman Lal(Retired-JNU-New Delhi)

    • Prof. Chaman Lal I respect you very much for your pioneering work on Bhagat Singh. But see, Pakistanis are worried about Secularism in India, which is ridiculous.

      • India’s secularism is intact, there is no doubt about that. The Hindu Kashmiri Pandits were driven out from their own land by the Islam practising secular Muslims and no political party is supporting the Kashmiri Pandits not to antoganise the Mohammadans who are getting radicalised and becoming a threat to the democratic values

  • This guy, Zaman, should have asked more meaningful question on secularism and the indoctrination of text and concepts. The question interpreted by Thapar many times. Romila is most trusted historian I read till now and her contribution in building a perspectives is immense.

  • Very interesting and wise interview, good efforts by The News on Sunday team, applause.

    Sabir Hussain Jarwar (Mirpurkhas-Sindh, Pakistan)

  • India is secular by its law and constitution. Hindus are essentially secular by their own traditions. But the Pakistanis should be worried about secularism in their country that has its existence based on Islamic fundamentalism.

  • Both secularism and political religion have sub-continental dimensions in the region. A fight for secular values is also a common struggle across the sub-continent. Political religion feeds off its counterparts across the sub-continent and the fight against it should in a measure be a common fight by people across the region.

  • A pakistani is asking why secular India is becoming a Hindu India???? Means secularism/communal-ism binaries query from a country ruled by Kathmullas ??? Journalistic travesty.

  • First of all, Romila Thapar should not be talking about secularism. As a historian, her job is to write what is factual.
    There is nothing like a secular historian. That is a nonsense. There is only history which is based on facts, concrete evidence.
    Romila Thapar worked for US university and held an important post there. She wrote what was then and still is, the acceptable version of history, completely disregarding new genetic, archeological evidence.
    In fact, Romila Thapar has no expertise in genetics or archeology. People like her belong to the old school which keep on beating the same old tired argument. Things have vastly changed.
    Arun Shourie whose book “Eminent Historians: Their Technology, Their Line, Their Fraud” has done a beautiful job of exposing the art of disfiguring Indian history as done by left leaning authors like Thapar (there are many such authors in JNU, that bastion of leftist ideology).
    Just to give an example: Aryan Invasion Theory has been discredited but many historians still pay lip service to it including Ms Thapar. Her entire research on India is built on 19th century translations of Vedas and the Puranas, done mostly by colonial era British and German scholars who gave these a racial interpretation. It is well known that Max Mueller believed that the world was created with all its life forms at 9.00 AM, October 23, 4004 BC (as per the Chrisitan belief of the time). He placed the time of Aryan invasion around 1900 BC making some intuitive guesses and the time when Rig Veda was written around 1200 BC.
    WE of course know today that the world came into being millions of years ago. In fact, the earth as we know it is more than 4 billion years old!
    Ms Thapar of course has no knowledge of Sanskrit, so she had to rely on the biased translations of the Hindu sacred texts like Vedas, Upanishads. Sanskrit is a highly developed language and one word means many things and many word can mean one thing. For example: sun has many words in sanskrit; one word “dwija” means both bird and priest.
    Now, Max Mueller did have more than average knowledge of sanskrit but he could not have understood the nuances of sanskrit. Please remember, what is in vedas is “vedic sanskrit” that predates “classical sanskrit” known today.
    Max Mueller clearly did not have the kind of facilities that exist today to analyse a data. These include satellite imagery, genetic studies. modern tools of archeology etc.
    Ms Thapar sticks to old school and does not take into account recent discoveries. For eg, satellite imagery has clearly shown that Saraswathi river is not a mythological river but did exist and its river bed (as found by satellite images) dried up around 1900 BC. That throws the theory of Aryan Invasion around 1900 BC out of the window.
    As I already said, even the Aryan Invasion Theory has been totally discredited by modern archeologists, geneticists. Population genetic studies have shown that there was no major influx of population from outside in the past several thousand years.

    • Sridhar, have you have even read her book. She DOES NOT support the Aryan invasion theory. Are you one of those paid BJP trolls that we keep hearing about? How much do they pay you

    • And I am very interested in knowing which peer rewiewed journal supports the Aryan race theory/ or even the theory that all south Asians belong to a common gene pool. Cite with references. I know you made it up, see sangh propaganda satsang is not the same as solid verifiable peer reviewed academic research.And by the way Romila Thapar debunks the racial theory in her book.

    • And she DOES NOT deny the existence river Saraswati in ancient times. Read her book. What are you talking about? I am honestly amused that somebody could be so wrong about everything! READ what you are trying to critique only then you would be taken seriously.

  • Ms Romila Thapar’s involvement in Babri Masjid case is interesting. She has gone on record to say that there was historically no temple in Ayodhya.
    As I already said in my last post, Ms Thapar does not seem to take archeological finds seriously. Archeological survey of India did show evidence that there existed artifacts predating the babri masjid when that area was dug up and the artifacts were related to hindu deities.
    (In July 1992, eight eminent archaeologists (among them former ASI directors, Dr. Y.D. Sharma and Dr. K.M. Srivastava) went to the Ramkot hill to evaluate and examine the findings. These findings included religious sculptures and a statue of Vishnu. They said that the inner boundary of the disputed structure rests, at least on one side, on an earlier existing structure, which “may have belonged to an earlier temple”. (Indian Express, 4 July 1992.) The objects examined by them also included terracotta Hindu images of the Kushan period (100-300 AD) and carved buff sandstone objects that showed images of Vaishnav deities and of Shiva-Parvati. They concluded that these fragments belonged to a temple of the Nagara style (900-1200 AD).)
    So, Romila Thapar was clearly disproved and Supreme Court of India accepted the evidence. This is just one eg of inherent bias Ms Thapar suffers from.
    When she passes away, she will be remembered for her scholarship but not necessarily for the contents of her writings which are fast becoming obsolete in the modern age of computer analysis, satellite imagery, genetics.

  • The write-up is in English. Words like secularism, religion etc are alien to most of the natives of the world. Religion was invented in IV century by Romans for specific purpose of dividing the natives whom they could enslave. For that they enticed cowards, criminals and crooks among the natives by share of loot of natives, jobs and promotion in their court. This is the origin of Christianity. It has nothing to do with Yeshu / Jesus or his teachings. His Story we all learned is penned by the Roman Darbari, wana be more Roman than Roman native convert or Roman themselves. Rationality can blow away their cock and bull His Story. Why would an illiterate Aramic speaking native Jew write a book which is a copy of old Jewish book? And, why would the rulers and Jewish clergy persecute him for copying the book? He must be teaching something which hurt their economic and political (enslaving) interests. Yeshu was teaching individualistic spirituality which made going to synagogue redundant for his followers. At the synagogue Jewish clergy got donations or alms and Romans collected taxes from the assembly. Jesus spent 17 years of his young life from age 17 to 34 in India learning Yog & Dhyan (Zen/meditation). He went back to his people to teach Yog & Dhyan. When he was persecuted then he returned back to India and died peacefully at the age of 78 in SriNagar, India.

    Secularism is recent word. Religion was used for building empires, for running slavery as institution and looting and plundering the natives all over the world by European colonialists. When the wealth from colonies started poring in, hedonistic ruling elite did not want meddling of religious clergy and so they started keeping religion out of state craft. This is secularism for Europeans. In Indian context secularism is used for creating vote banks so that colonialist’s proxies get to rule the natives by dividing them. Miss Thapar is merely another darbari His Storian, who is as alien as Macaulay of 19th century. She writes about ancient India without knowing Sanskrit the language of ancient Indians. Her writings on Indian history is for keeping India enslaved. Angrez Gaye but left ConAngrez here. That is why Gandhi wanted to dissolve Congress. Anglo’s proxies within Congress created ConAngrez out of Congress.

  • Why should secularism look Hitchcockian?

    Just a joke about the intriguing photography, that’s all.

    Don’t get me wrong.
    I have the greatest respect for Romila Thapar and her invaluable contribution for preserving the greatness of India which is based on spirituality shot through with humanistic values.

    A re-examination of her work is a much needed intervention at a time like this when fundamentalist demons are being rejuvenated with great vigor by the Modi phenomenon.

  • British educated Indians are the last remnants of the British Raj. The Congress Party and its imbecile Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, presided over the WORST SCAMS and WORST CASE OF TREASON in Independent India. I have scant respect for Romila Thapar primarily because they espouse their British-ness over their Indian roots. That is why this article talks about her Dad’s house on Lawrence Road in Lahore. Why is that of any relevance to an Indian born in Independent India, other than the left leaning, pseudo secularists.

    However, on the other side of the spectrum, the right wing Hindutva chauvinists are equally bad like their leftist, pseudo secularists. What the Hindutva chauvinists do not realize that a Muslim or a Christian born in Independent India is as Indian as the Hindutva brigade. To be fair to the RSS and Hindutva folks, they are a disciplined nationalists and have done good work for the country. But Havildar Abdul Hamind, winner of the Param Vir Chakra and fighter pilots like Denzil Keeler and Generals like Jacob have done a lot for the country also, perhaps even more than the Hindutva brigade.

    Hence, we Indians have to accept that we are a pluralistic society in which all religions are welcome. That is different from the pseudo secularist garbage that gives special rights to minorities and plays the filthy vote bank politics.

    Infact, Hinduism itself says that the whole world is one big family. That is the highest echelon of secularism.

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