Romila Thapar’s historical dogmas
by Vijaya Rajiva on 07 Feb 2013 38 Comments

Romila Thapar, the favourite historian of Indian Marxists and the feted and decorated icon of certain international scholarly circles, is settling further into her dogmatic worldview, as can be discerned from the talks she has been giving in recent years. The old dogmas are carefully swaddled in more attractive clothes (sometimes not even that) but essentially the old school of historiography persists. Although she declined the Padma Bhushan and expressly wrote her rejection to then President APJ Abdul Kalam, she readily accepted the Kluge Chair at Harvard University in 2005.


J.W. Kluge was an entrepreneur who made millions and gave endowments to academic institutions, notably the Library of Congress.  Dr. Thapar’s words to the Indian President in 2005 were: “I only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work and not state awards”.

The Kluge Chair was conferred after much controversy, foremost among the criticisms being that Dr. Thapar has poor knowledge (if any) of Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Persian and Arabic and therefore much of her work in ancient and medieval Indian history suffers from that limitation.


Apart from her linguistic limitations, Dr. Thapar’s work is handicapped by her intense partisanship, which can possibly be explained by her Marxist beliefs. While a Hindu view of Indian history involves an ongoing interface of Hinduism with social and economic history, Thapar rejects this. Veda Agama does not exist in her world view and facts staring in the face are quietly dismissed. She claims that the importance given to Veda Agama by Hindus is the result of the British study of ancient Hindu texts, and not an ongoing reality. Veda Agama is not a living reality for this JNU historian either. The absurdity of this view, this tunnel vision, eludes her.


As a Marxist historian, she accepts Marx’s view of religion in general and Hinduism and his materialist interpretation of history. Yet, Marx was ignorant of much of the history of the East and certainly of India. While he had some familiarity with Russian history and wrote about it and corresponded with Russian revolutionaries, especially on the viability of the Russian obschina (village commune) he was singularly unfitted to pontificate on India, which alas, he did. He was well equipped to analyse and critique capitalism as a product of his own Western European society and his six-volume Das Kapital are a testimony to this, but he was at sea when it came to older existing cultures and civilisations like the Hindu.


Marx’s negative view of Hinduism is best seen in his statement that while Britain exploited India it was also a progressive force in India where Man who should be the master of Nature falls on his knees before Hanuman the monkey and Sabala the cow.


His materialist interpretation of history, namely that it was the mode of production that dictated the social, religious and political structures of a society, became crytallised into the periodisation of history, namely that history went through successive phases, each successive phase a higher one than the previous. Hence, the primitive communist phase was succeeded by the feudal and then the capitalist phase and thence the proletarian phase and thence to the highest form of communism, where society would be organised according to the principle, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.


This periodisation was a materialist imitation of the Hegelian view of history which outlined a primitive African society followed by the higher Oriental society, then the higher Greek society and finally, the highest of all, the ideal Christian modern state, which in his time was the European state, specifically Germany. Marx did not outline an Asiatic mode of production; that was Stalin’s contribution. Recently, Romila Thapar made a recent mistaken identification of the same with Marx’s name (Hard Talk with Karan Thapar 2012).

Note Marx’s observation on India: “England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating - the annihilation of the  old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundation of Western society in Asia” - Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune, August 8, 1853


Apart from her Marxist dogmas, Thapar like many JNU historians, had a political motive in upgrading (and falsifying) Muslim history in India. An intense dislike of Hinduism drove this view and the amnesia towards Hindu history as predating either Islam or Christianity on the Indian subcontinent. Yet even her conservative estimate showed the Veda and Vedic culture and subsequent Vedic Agama culture preceded Islam in India by nearly two millennia! These facts alone should have told her the major defining role of Veda Agama in Indian history, not to mention its continuation in present day India.


Thapar’s her work on ancient India focuses on social and economic factors, ignoring the impact of Hinduism in shaping Hindu society; but her work on the Muslim period mitigates the evils of the barbarian invasions and argues that it resulted in an integrated Indian society. The two enterprises, the downgrading of Hinduism and the upgrading of the Islamic ethos go hand in hand. Her defence of Mahmoud Ghazni for his attack on the Somnath temple (Somnatha, the many voices of history, 2005) is well known. She dismisses the evidence of contemporaneous Persian sources which glorified Ghazni’s destruction of Somnath as the work of a true Muslim who destroyed the infidel’s place of worship.


Instead, she argues that this was simply the usual pattern of conquerors and overlords, nothing specific to Ghazni. In recent talks she has emphasised that she is a historian, with a certain scientific methodology:

1. Reliance on facts.

2. Use of concrete evidence.

3. Use of Analysis/ Interpretation.


What she means by the above is the use of sources, linguistic, literary, artifacts, inscriptions, anthropological, archaeological etc and their analyses/interpretation. The entire Veda Agama tradition is dismissed as not being significant ‘concrete evidence’. And when asked by the interviewer about the evidence provided by the Archeological Society of India on the Rama Janmabhoomi, she said archeological evidence is not reliable since it is an interpretation (Hard Talk with Karan Thapar 2012). Unbelievable!


Thapar revealed her partisanship in the way she upheld the Aryan invasion of India theory long after Indic scholars had disproved it through decades of authentic work. Along with the debunking of the Aryan invasion of India theory, Indic scholars undertook conclusive and definitive work on the Sarasvati Sindhu Civilisation (formerly the Indus Valley Civilisation) by discovering the famed river, mentioned in 78 times in the Rig Veda. The river had disappeared at the end of the Vedic period owing to tectonic shifts, which was established through archaeological finds and satellite photography. The major sites of this civilisation were located on the banks of the Sarasvati. And since Sindhu was the ancient name of the river Indus, also mentioned in the Rig Veda, the name Sarasvati Sindhu Civilisation became popular.

In her interview with Karan Thapar (March 2012), Thapar insisted darkly that the only reason Hindus favoured the indigenous origin of the Aryans was because they wanted to show that the late coming Muslims and Christians were outsiders, a funny claim by a historian who is supposed to be firm about being scientific! And she continues to insist that the Veda Agama is accepted by Hindu historians simply because they were following the British who read only the texts of Hinduism!


Quite reluctantly and tardily, Thapar has now abandoned her pet Aryan Invasion Theory and speaks instead of ‘migrations’ of peoples into the subcontinent, which is another variant of the Out of India orthodoxy. Since it is now impossible to maintain the Aryan invasion thesis in respectable academic circles, the old lies are being spun in new designs. Hence, Hindus must remain on guard and watch Marxist manoeuvres carefully so that the history of the civilisation is not compromised by false prophets and their dogmas.


The writer is a political philosopher who taught at a Canadian university

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