Indian Historian Delivers Stirring Speech
Professor Romila Thapar, Emeritus Professor of History at Jawaharlal
Nehru University, New Delhi, India, gave a lecture on Monday titled
“The Writing of History and Contemporary Politics in India”
at the Craig Auditorium as a part of the Oberlin Shansi Distinguished
Lecture Series. Professor Thapar is perhaps the most admired historian
of Ancient India in the world today. Much of her work deals with the
ongoing controversy over the Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) dominated
Central Government’s changes in the Indian Education System,
especially the re-writing of Indian history. Thapar’s lecture
brought forth the current political situation of India leading to
the restructuring of a very communal Hindu identity.
Since coming to power, BJP, the Hindu Nationalist Party of India,
has given rise to a religion-based nationalist movement whose ideology
is that of India being a nation for Hindus.
The Hindutva movement, as it is more commonly known, is now focusing
mainly on the rewriting of the history books and changing the Indian
state school curriculum to promote its agenda that India has always
been for the Hindus, Thapar explained.
They argue that India is the land of the Hindu religion as well as
the Indian identity. Indian history, therefore, is a history of Indian
Hindus. Muslims, Parsis and Christians are all foreigners.
The government recommends that these “foreigners” return
to their land of religious origin. This sense of where the Hindu identity
originated from is heavily underlined by the notion that Hindus are
Thapar pointed out the irony of this claim because it has been derived
from the James Mill’s 19th century third volume colonial history
of India, which states that Muslims and Hindus are inherently antagonistic
to each other.
History has “moved right back into the traditional periodisation
of the Hindu period and the Muslim period,” Professor Thapar
explained. The Hindu period is written as the golden period, whereas
the Muslim period constitutes an interregnum defined by oppression
The discussion on changing the history books has been going on for
some time, the texts being drawn from those taught at the schools
of the Hindu political group, Rashtriya Samayksheva Sangha (RSS) in
Thapar also critiqued the Central Government for basing their reconstruction
of ancient Indian history on no real research and academic ventures.
“It’s the kind of thinking about history that has been
going on for sometime but it has always been treated more or less
by mainstream historians as a lunatic fringe...,” Thapar said.
“The danger now is that it has become a part of the curriculum
for the state schools,” she continued.
When asked about the relationship between the rise of this communal
education system and the part it plays in the political strategy against
Pakistan, Professor Thapar stressed that the hostile relationship
between India and Pakistan is an overwhelming factor in this rise
of the Hindutva movement.
She also explained that, “this kind of violence assumes in important
aspects in periods of transitions and change… India is a society
going through a tremendous change…It is a society where the
middle class is bursting out.”
After the legal suit filed by concerned individuals and the public
against the government’s change of the curriculum, the Supreme
Court of India issued a stay order, but that quickly changed, with
the Court going against its own decision. The Court simply sees the
curriculum change as providing value-based instructions that are anchored
In the larger schema of South Asia, Thapar sees religious nationalism
will only create more confrontation, especially with the production
of nuclear weaponry. She also said that “the brinkmanship will
increase as long as America is playing this role of [pretending] to
be the peacemaker.” In relation to the changes India is undergoing
in this global world, the Indian Diaspora is also financially supporting
the Hindutva movement.
Thapar also answered questions relating to a more micro-level recognition
of history at Oberlin College, where until today there is no Ethnic
Studies or Asian Pacific American Studies and Comparative American
Studies have not launched off yet.
She stressed the importance for diasporic studies which is crucial
for the diaspora itself as well as South Asia. Diasporic studies interweave
South Asians together instead of constantly separating them.
Thapar voiced concerns on the ways in which Indian professionals are
constantly leaving the nation for greener pastures. Unfortunately,
the professionals are not demanding the similar facilities in India
that they would ask abroad. But at the same time, Thapar is not very
optimistic for the future South Asians, the kinds of exchanges that
are made among South Asians of the region and South Asian Diaspora.
“In the mixing up, what has happened is that the sign posts
have got lost… people really don’t know why they are rushing
east and west,” Professor Thapar said.
Thapar does not particularly see anything optimistic about the future
but that the course of future depends upon the type of ideologies
this generation will be adapting to.
Professor Thapar’s lecture, overall, created curiosity within
Oberlin College about the circumstances in India, the manipulation
of religion and education for the legitimacy of the BJP government.
The lecture also presented a range of questions on the education system
as a whole, all over the world and how education is manipulated as
a tool for retaining status quo.