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Lunch with BS: Romila Thapar

A question of learning Rrishi Raote & Kanika Datta / New Delhi March 17, 2009, 0:36 IST

The Kluge Prize winner isnt fazed by the questioning of her views on Hinduism.

Entire blogs have been devoted to Romila Thapar describing her as, among other things, the High Priestess of Indian Marxism and a flat-earth type and a deeply mendacious enemy of the Hindus. Vituperative anti-blogs, most of it of a saffron shade, about Thapars pinko views on ancient Indian history leave her wryly amused. Shes had her fill of public opprobrium, including threatening late night phone calls suggesting she alter her views on Indian history or face the worst, she tells Rrishi Raote and Kanika Datta. They stopped after a while when I told them there were many people who thought like me, she says. We are dining at Sakura, a tony Japanese restaurant in Hotel Metropolitan in central Delhi, that Thapar has chosen. She belies her 78 years with a healthy appreciation for food and drink and, for such a towering figure in academia, displays a comforting lack of gravitas. Dressed simply in a sari and warm pheran, a trendily outsized amber and silver ring is her only jewellery. Shes surprised when she learns that its the height of fashion now. I didnt know that, she says, slipping if off to allow us a closer inspection, This is an old one that I bought in St Petersburg years ago. Its just a very solid piece of Baltic amber. My rings are all solid and bulky because thats the only jewellery I wear. Having arrived early, weve ordered two glasses of the moderately drinkable Riviera Red, and Thapar adds to that after the waiter says her first choice of an Australian Chardonnay isnt available by the glass. I suggest ordering a bottle, but Thapar declines, saying she prefers hot sake, that deceptively innocuous Japanese rice wine, with the meal. In December, Thapar was honoured with the prestigious $1 million Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity in 2008, an endowment from a benefactor who made his money in Hollywood, which she shared with an old friend, Peter Brown, an equally towering historian who specialised in post-Roman and Byzantine history. The Kluge prize is regarded as a sort of Nobel for disciplines such as history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology, religion and so on. Its a fitting tribute for an academic whose secular and scholarly approach reoriented the study of ancient Indian history from both western, Orientalist and robust nationalist traditions. Her 1960s book, the Penguin companion to Percival Spears history of medieval India and now a standard university text book, broke important new ground by studying primary sources

archeology, books, epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), numismatics (the study of coins) to present a shift from the muscular Golden Age interpretation of teaching and research. Thapars was among the first, for instance, to counter the conventional oriental despot view of Indian monarchy and demonstrate that the Aryan was a linguistic grouping, not a fair-skinned master race, that migrated to, and did not invade, north India and occasionally ate beef (this last point exercising Hindutva votaries the most). Her reputation, though, was mostly confined to academic circles and generations of appreciative students at Jawaharlal Nehru University. It was only in the nineties after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, when she and several historians started criticising the communal interpretation of Indian history as a monolithic conflict between Hindus and Muslims that she attracted wider public attention. The controversy stretched to the US where in 2004, strong letters of protest were written against her appointment as the first holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South by the US Library of Congress. For Thapar, accepting the Kluge Prize is not without its ironies. In 2005, Thapar declined to accept a Padma Bhushan award, explaining in a letter to (then) President Abdul Kalam that she did not accept state awards but only those from academic institutions or those associated with her professional work. The menus are handed out but were engrossed in conversation. We re talking about the pluralism of Indian traditions Buddhist, Jain, Brahmanical and how they spread to southeast Asia through trade routes and other ways. As a historian, she instinctively looks for historical trends in the mundane. She was telling us, for instance, about how the Wayang shadow puppet shows in Indonesia weave different local legends into the basic story of the ramakatha . One of the most interesting things Ive found is the way this story lends itself to being the recipient of local cultures. It creates different cultures, so you have what we call many Ramayanas, with the changing adaptation of the stories. Her regret, she says, is that so much emphasis in modern times is put only on the Valmiki version both in India and outside, that weve forgotten the fact that there were and are multiple versions. What is interesting is not just that the Valmiki version travelled all over but how people varied the story to express their concerns in their own versions. The waiters roll up with barely concealed impatience to take our orders. Having had a chance to study the menu before, we choose pork and lamb dishes, too complex to pronounce so we read out the numbers. Thapar, who jokingly declares herself strictly non-vegetarian, chooses a fish dish (titled Chahan Non-Veg) and we agree on a sushi platter to start with (inexplicably, the waiter tells us it costs Rs 3,400).

The sushi a giant thali of 23 pieces and sake arrive. Sushi has become common fashion food in Delhi, but Sakuras platter lives up to the restaurants reputation. All of us eat with appetite, despite some manful struggles with chopsticks. Thapar has no such problems but wisely ignores the wasabi, the accompanying pungent green ginger paste that inevitably causes much embarrassed sniffling (as it did to one of us). Since shes a controversial historian in a country that is witnessing a resurgence of muscular patriotism we feel compelled to ask her views on India as a future superpower and the rise of Hindutva. On the first, she says, I think weve got a long way to go. But more to the point, America has behaved so outrageously in matters concerning the rest of the world that if this is written into being a superpower, one would not wish it for India. And Hindutva? I think it has its roots in a certain extremist trend in Hindu religious nationalism, parallel to similar trends in some other religions. It was less anti-colonial and one concern was with propagating the greatness of the Hindu past and Hindus to the exclusion of all else. What disturbs her is the fact that this view of Hinduism has had to be given a certain shape and form as Hindutva that I think is not something that belongs to the Hindu tradition. But interestingly, few Hindus who belong to the Hindu tradition object to the activities of Hindutva publicly. The problem began with the British periodising Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British and maintaining that Hindus and Muslims were always antagonistic towards each other. This cannot be sustained historically. But now this ideology is used for mobilising political power. Basically, the mobilisation is through appealing to Hindu sentiment. Which raises the issue of her rebuttal of the Golden Age theory another point that rankled with historians of a religious nationalist persuasion. Golden ages all over world in various histories were a fashion among nineteenth-century historians. Most historians of present times have given up the idea. Nationalist thinking didnt pay enough attention to the implications of the description nor was any attempt made to define it in detail. They just went on saying it was a marvellous age of harmony and prosperity. Its like today when one hears talk about India Shining; few analyse what it means and what the implications are for the Indian citizen. Given all this, how does she feel about the way history is taught in schools? I think its dreadful in most schools. Ive been arguing for a long time that we need an enormous improvement in the textbooks and these should be vetted by a national body of historians. Not just history, the same goes for other subjects. Quality control of textbooks is essential. Equally important is the training given to school teachers. But every time textbooks are vetted, controversy erupts. Controversy is a part of the advancement of knowledge. There wouldnt have been an advance of knowledge unless there had been controversy look at Galileo, for example, what he propounded was hugely controversial but it led to an advance in knowledge. Questioning is essential to teaching, and we dont have enough of that. Instead, we treat information as knowledge and the child is told, Now you learn this and repeat it in the exam.

Our main courses arrive. Thapar looks dubiously at her patently inadequate dish, a tiny piece of fish and sticky rice, and we add a cod dish to supplement it. As we tuck into our meals we chat about her childhood. Her fathers job as an army doctor took her all over India. She reminisces about meeting Gandhi in Pune and, amusingly, how the Great Soul charged Rs 5 for an autograph, a practice now common among celebrities, and admonished her for wearing silk instead of khadi. Our conversation and the food all Japanese lightness and subtleness of taste is absorbing enough to make us linger (and Sakuras staff is keen to remind us of this by pacing near our table). Thapar talks about the historians craft, which involves much more than the conventional reading and interpreting reams of old documents. For instance, she tells us how she participated in the excavations of the Harappan site at Kalibangan (Rajasthan) for three years the better to understand archeological reports. She did a six-month course in pottery as part of a fellowship in London to understand the technology of pottery so central to archaeological artifacts. She is currently working on historiography or history writing in the ancient period, in which she has always been interested. The generalisation that has been put forward is that Indian civilisation is unique because it doesnt have a sense of history. And I used to wonder this was 40 or 50 years ago how it was possible for a complex and sophisticated civilisation not to have a sense of history. It kept bothering me and I decided to work on it. It turned out to be a long-term project because it required reading a range of texts. I kept working on other themes but every time I got a fellowship or a scholarship I would take up another body of texts as a historiographical exercise and I made my notes, and kept them aside. About two or three years ago I felt that with increasing age I might not be around in the next year. So Ive done a rough first draft and Im now working further on it. Right now, though, Thapar shows no signs of not being around. Weve been chatting almost two and half hours, but shes still full of lively talk and turns mildly professorial to ask us about ourselves, two former history graduates in the unlikely world of business journalism. It takes us all of 15 seconds to fill her in. As for her full life, weve barely had a taste.

The Future of Indian Democracy Vinay Lal


[First published as Can Democracy Survive?, in India Today, 13 December 2006, pp. 32, 34.]

For a country with a very long past, many in India now seem to be resolutely focused, when they are not consumed by the demands of daily living, on the future. Indeed, one of the many reasons why the BJP and their allies may have lost the last general election in 2004 is that the advocates of Hindutva, in particular, have been obsessed with ideas about the gloriousness of the Indian

and specifically Hindu past, though the obsessions of the young are doubtless very different. With a campaign revolving around the idea of India Shining, one might have thought that the BJP was poised to prevail. Certainly, if the persistent invocations of the new India, the roaring economy, and the entrepreneurial and aggressively capitalist spirit of India are any guide, at least the Indian middle classes have signified their assent to the idea that an economic rather than a political conception of democracy will drive the Indian future. Democracies everywhere present a complex scenario of tensions between constraints and liberty, unfreedom and freedom, the imperatives of the modern national security state and the aspirations of a free citizenry, but perhaps nowhere more so than in India. The very fact that India has repeatedly been able to mount general elections, and on a scale nowhere else witnessed in history, is adduced as evidence of the strength of Indian democracy -- an accomplishment that seems all the more remarkable given the precarious state of democracy in most of the world. Not all institutions of civil society are equally robust, but it is an indisputable fact that there are strong peoples and grassroots movements. The same Supreme Court that sentenced Mohammed Afzal to death, notwithstanding the failure of the state to produce decisive evidence against the condemned man, also acquitted other men for want of evidence. Similarly, if the press has often been a bulwark of support to lites, the vigilance of the English-language press during the antiMuslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 cannot be denied. There have been important legislative gains for ordinary people, including the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest Peoples Land Rights Bill, the Right to Information Act, and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, but it is also widely conceded that progressive legislation, for example on the practice of dowry, can coexist alongside a resolute determination to prevent its implementation. The law can obfuscate problems as much as it can help to relieve them, an outcome all but assured when the state has no substantive commitment to the idea of an open society and distributive equality. In thinking about Indian democracy and its future prospects, commentators have lavished far too much attention on politics in the narrowest conception of the term. There is much speculation, for example, on whether India might move towards a two-party system or some variation of it, with the Congress and the left parties constituting one bloc and the other bloc being constituted by BJP and its allies. But this kind of scenario has little room for parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), which together dominate politics in Uttar Pradesh, where efforts by the Congress to reinvent itself do not hold much promise of success. In the General Elections of 2004, the Left Front won 60 seats and came to hold the decisive swing vote. While so far the left has show little inclination to revolt, and West Bengal is rapidly retooling itself to become attractive to the corporate world and foreign investors, the possibility of genuine and irreconcilable differences developing between the Congress and the Left Front should never be minimized. Consequently, in addressing the question of the future of Indian democracy, one is asked to think well beyond political parties, regionalism, the two party-system, and other like considerations. If there is still considerable hope for Indian democracy, it is because it still has several distinct sources of renewal. First, and foremost, there is the peoples wisdom. Time after time the illiterate electorates of India have shown better judgment than the educated, though whether the likes of Chandrababu Naidu, the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh who fancied himself a

CEO and attempted to transform the state into a technological mecca even while the agricultural countryside was being roiled by suicides of farmers driven to desperation, ever learn a lesson is another matter. I am reminded of a conversation that transpired in 1927 between Gandhi and a visiting clergyman, Reverend Mott. When Mott asked Gandhi what gave him the cause for the greatest hope, Gandhi unhesitatingly referred to the peoples capacity for nonviolent resistance despite the gravest provocations. And when Mott queried Gandhi on what filled him with the greatest despair, Gandhi said: The hardheatedness of the educated is a matter of constant concern and sorrow to me. The wisdom and resilience of ordinary people has been exemplified not only at the ballot box, but in grassroots movements and cultural practices of syncretism. Secondly, the Constitution of India remains, despite attempts to subvert its emancipatory provisions, a document and a vision that continues to hold out the promise of equality, justice, and opportunity. It has survived the wreckage of an authoritarian executive and will outlive the Supreme Courts present disposition to allow massive land grabs in the name of progress and development. Thirdly, though Mohandas Gandhis assassins never seem to rest, the spectre of Gandhi remains to haunt, guide, and inspire Indians who are resistant to everything that passes for normal politics and have not entirely succumbed to the oppressions of modernity. As I have elsewhere written, Gandhi took great risks and was not in the least cowed down by history, the sanctity of traditions, or scriptural authority. Some six decades ago, Indians entered into a tryst with destiny. Now is the time to gamble everything on the unique experiment that constitutes Indian democracy.