In Defence of History


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In Defence of History
The 'Frontline' Interview with Romila Thapar by Parvathi Menon

Fifty years after Independence, our knowledge of early Indian society stands doubtless enlarged. Could you give us an assessment of where our knowledge of early Indian society stands today? What have been the real breakthroughs in this field of study?

There are educational institutions where the history of India as was known half a century ago is still current and where a different kind of history remains unfamiliar. But there are some university departments which are at the forefront of research and which have witnessed a paradigm shift. This has not entered every university syllabus nor the popular perception of history. Nevertheless its impact is apparent in the fact that there is a general awareness that there have been radical changes in the interpretation of early Indian history.

The paradigm shift takes various forms. History is no longer a recital of information on events and dates. It is the analysis of the evidence relating to the past in an effort to understand the past. This is a complicated process in the study of early history since the evidence is both limited and of diverse kinds.

This has led to the periodisation of Hindu, Muslim and British - or its equivalent of Ancient, Medieval and Modern - being gradually eroded through studies that show continuities from one to the other or changes within one. Therefore the line of demarcation has to be made not on the basis of the religion of dynasties, but on more fundamental social changes, and these do not necessarily coincide with invasions, conquests and dynastic changes.

Early Indian society cannot be described as characterised by Hinduism as there are other factors which are more important, such as the evolution of caste, the utilisation of resources by a variety of social groups, authority systems and the interface between rural and urban areas. These mould the form of the public expression of religion, and history is essentially concerned with forms of public expression. Besides, what we today call Hinduism was not invariably the dominant religion in every area. There were, for instance, long periods of time when Buddhism was more prevalent in certain regions. The 'Golden Age' of the so-called Hindu period is now questioned, given these more realistic aspects of life which provide a different picture of early times.

So where does the focus lie now? It lies in locating distinctive social forms and in examining the transitions which lead to a change in social forms. These are what might be called historical processes.

For example, there is a transition from hunting and gathering and pastoralism to settled agriculture and there are a variety of agrarian economies. Juxtaposed to agrarian activity there is frequently an exchange of goods and trade, and this too takes various forms - barter, the use of money and other commercial transactions. The counterpart to these are various forms of social organisation developing from kin-related connections to a broader network of people performing social functions. This is particularly so in the history of the evolution of administrative institutions. Such changes can be seen among groups within a single society or across a number of societies, and are of course demonstrated in the different norms and customs of castes. Whereas previously the study of caste was largely for information, we now try and relate this information to a broader social context and try and understand the historical function of particular castes.

These are not linear changes which occur uniformly all over the sub-continent. They occur at different points of time in different situations. It is, however, possible to see a particular form which dominates and provides a context to the others.

For example, if commerce is central to a region, as in the case of the Indus cities, it involves studying the items exchanged and their production, transportation technology and the routes involved, the nature of the markets, the evolution of urban centres and the authority which controls the trade at various points. Discussions on economy require knowledge of technology. There is, for instance, a debate on whether the people of the Indo-Iranian borderlands introduced new technologies in the second millennium B.C. in the form of horses, chariots and possibly iron, which assisted in the spread of the Indo-Aryan language and the evolving of new societies in the north-west, or the even more intense debate on the role of iron technology in the formation of states and the growth of cities in the Ganges valley around 500 B.C.

The role of religion in history has undergone a major re-orientation. It is still regarded as important but as one among various social articulations. Once religion moves from the purely personal and private to the public, that is, once it becomes the expression of a social group which identifies with it, then in historical terms it has to be seen as more than just rituals and beliefs. Analyses of rituals and beliefs certainly provide clues to what the religion is about, but its historical influence is assessed in terms of who its propagators are, from where it gets its support, how its followers are organised and what it provides to the ordinary adherent. Thus the rise of Buddhism as a historical event is a process linked to the evolution of states and urban centres, which is one reason why it spread initially with the patronage of rulers such as Ashoka Maurya, and subsequently - what might be called its grassroots spread in the post-Mauryan period - is tied to the patronage it received from artisans, traders and small-scale landowners. This is attested in the hundreds of votive inscriptions at the major stupa sites and monasteries, which, in turn, are located along trade routes and at important commercial centres.

In an article written nearly 25 years ago on the problems of historical writing, you drew attention to the need for the application of an "evolutionary analysis" in early Indian history. You wrote that "If Indian historical writing wishes to take its place as part of the social science tradition, it must come to terms with the assumptions of this tradition (and evolution is one), or else it must find its own way out of the jungle..." Has history as a discipline found its place in the social science tradition in India?

The inclusion of history as a social science has resulted from the changes in the discipline of history and that has been a major contribution of historians from the 1950s. It began with the seminal work of D.D. Kosambi. The emphasis given by Marxism to the economy and to social stratification is in itself an interdisciplinary process drawing on other social sciences. This has been developed further in at least three themes of research: the formation of states was once seen as resulting from conquest or from class confrontation, but the work being done now investigates the finer points of each of these, suggests other indicators and demonstrates its complexity and its variants; the relationship of political authority to control over wasteland and cultivated land involves legal issues, property rights, water resources, yields and assessments, rights and dues, as is evident from the study of land grants made in the first millennium A.D.; religion as ideology is now seen as an important part of social mobilisation, as for instance in the confrontations of the Shaivas with the Buddhists and Jainas.

Given these new dimensions, the inclusion of history as a social science has enlarged the required reading for research on a particular subject and this has resulted in greater specialisation and in-depth studies. The over-arching historical generalisation is now beset with multiple questions. Perhaps the narrowing of the focus has subtracted from the historical sense or mood of a period, but effectively it also makes the ultimate generalisation more valid. Let me add further that if history has been enriched by its association with the social sciences, the latter have also now had to take a more historical approach to their investigations. For example, it is not acceptable now to use arbitrarily historical data without reference to their context and time-frame.

Have any new tools been developed for the understanding of ancient India that have yielded interesting results? To what extent have developments in archaeology, anthropology and linguistics broadened the concerns of historical analysis?

The most substantial contribution in terms of further evidence has been from archaeology. Excavations in the last 50 years have revealed new cultures, some even going back a few millennia, in parts of the sub-continent that were thought to be uninhabited. There has been therefore both a spatial and temporal filling out of gaps.

Archaeology also shows up the irrelevance of present-day state boundaries. The Indus civilisation spread down to Gujarat and northern Maharashtra and into Punjab and the Doab. It becomes imperative therefore that Indian and Pakistani archaeologists should be in constant contact and, if possible, work together. It is quite absurd that we have to get our information on what is being discovered across each border from European and American sources.

The juxtaposition of archaeological and literary sources raises another set of questions. There are fanciful descriptions in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana of the life lived by the ruling families in towns such as Hastinapur and Ayodhya and other such places. But the excavated sites associated with these places suggest an ordinary style of life, hardly better than that of a prosperous village. Clearly there is much poetic licence in the epic descriptions. Archaeology in some senses questions what might be called the monopoly of the text.

Introducing archaeological data into historical studies also forces historians to think along inter-disciplinary lines. The decline of the Indus cities is attributed to a range of causes, of which ecological change is among the major ones. The evolution of towns in the Ganges valley in the mid-first millennium B.C. has to do with techniques of forest clearance, rice cultivation, agricultural technology, the transportation of goods and other such features, to a far greater degree than political events. Technology can be a factor of change in some situations and of stasis in others.

Data from archaeology makes, as it were, a direct input into history. Evidence from linguistics is less direct but extremely important to the analysis of texts, since it studies, among other things, the history of a language and language-change. Vedic Sanskrit, which was once thought to be a pure Indo-Aryan language, is now revealed as a mix of Indo-Aryan and non-Aryan languages. This puts it into a different perspective for the social historian who has to assess, on the basis of the linguistic evidence, the degree to which various social groups speaking other languages participated in the society reflected in the Vedic corpus. This naturally raises the question of an admixture not just of languages but of rituals, customs and institutions, and the need to explain how and why certain languages or certain institutions, became prevalent.

Anthropology does not provide data for early history, but does provide some methodological assistance. The methods of analysing pre-modern societies do help in asking questions from historical data, the answers to which encourage a deeper investigation. The attempt is not to use an anthropological model and apply it directly to historical data but to be aware of the considerations and evaluations which go into the investigation of a society by anthropologists and use these as the basis for asking questions in relation to a historical society. Anthropological work on state formation, some of it rooted in Marxist analysis and some using other kinds of analyses, is one example of how an awareness of anthropological work has attuned us to the categories involved in state formation: proto-states, early states, mature states, imperial systems, primary state-formation, secondary state-formation and a variety of other aspects.

As for tools of analysis, there is one major new tool and that is the computer and it is being used for all kinds of historical studies.

A primary use is as a data-base. A Japanese Sanskritist has put the critical edition of both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana on computer and these and other such data-bases are used regularly in the very impressive work on Sanskrit from Kyoto and Tokyo. European and American scholars are doing the same and many texts are now available on floppies. Another Japanese scholar made a data-base of the Chola inscriptions and was able to do an intensive analysis of administration using this source. One is waiting for that dream period when the corpus of Indian inscriptions will also be available on diskette. Having a data-base on diskette makes it much easier to check the occurrence of words and phrases and thereby facilitates making certain kinds of connections and analyses.

The computer can also be used for linguistic analysis: either to prepare a concordance of signs, as in the Indus script, or to separate periods of composition in a text by demarcating the distribution of linguistic styles, as has been done for the Arthasastra.

But let me add hastily that the computer is a tool, it does not provide answers on its own. It merely makes the search for certain kinds of information easier and faster and this inevitably suggests fresh avenues of investigation. Ultimately it is the scholar using the computer who has to know the data, ask the appropriate questions and search for the answers.

Today Hindutva is attempting to recast our past. Could you discuss the impact and implications of the Hindutva interpretation of history, and 'Indigenism', which is perhaps Hindutva's diluted variant?

In a sense, Indigenism is the other side of the coin of globalisation. In terms of its application to history, it attempts to invent a "tradition" and retain it as something essentially different from other cultures and societies, and to build an ideology on such a tradition. But it fails to provide a theory of historical explanation or a method of historical analysis. It frequently incorporates 19th century colonial historiography as part of its ideology, as for example, in retaining the Hindu, Muslim and British periodisation together with the colonial evaluation of the first two, and using this to try and negate the significance of the second period. Another example is the insistence on the Aryan roots of Indian civilisation, to such a degree that some are now arguing, in complete opposition to the evidence, that the Harappans were Vedic Aryans! This stems from a 19th century concern in Europe for Aryan origins, and its utilisation in explaining the beginnings of Indian history. This was essentially a political agenda as has also been the appropriation of the theory by Hindutva ideologues. There is a clinging in such circles, to the Aryan as a source of Indian identity. Indigenism takes the form of arguing that the Aryans were indigenous to India and spread from here to Europe, so that India can be regarded as the cradle of European civilisation as well.

Because Indigenism is not a theory of historical explanation, it is used as and when required and quite arbitrarily to insist on history giving support to the premises of Hindutva ideology. A case in point was the debate over the Babri Masjid. The pretence at historicity was a new aspect of Hindutva ideology and was used to gull the public. It therefore required to be challenged by historians.

Indigenism of this sort is intellectually and historiographically barren with no nuances or subtleties of thought and interpretation. It hammers away at a certain point of view which acts as a casual explanation for every historical event irrespective of whether it is relevant or not - characteristic of the use of history by totalitarian ideologies.

Could you assess the classroom status of ancient Indian history? How is history being taught in schools - how far are the results of modern research being reflected in textbooks; have the distortions you have been discussing also crept into them?

Barring a few exceptions, early Indian history is still generally taught in many schools as it was half-a-century ago. Out-of-date textbooks, sometimes factually incorrect, written in a dull and plodding fashion, are used to smother students with boring information, chunks of which they are made to learn by heart and reproduce in examinations. There is little attempt to convey the idea that history is a process of gaining an understanding of the past and not a body of information to be memorised. No attempt is made to integrate the different activities that went into the making of the past, or to explain why there are differences in various parts of the country and how they came about. Even the differences in the nature of the societies of early times and of now are not discussed. The continuity between periods of time and the transmutation of ideas and institutions are absent. Distortions are sometimes not even noticed, leave alone being corrected. The results of modern research are not reflected because those authors of history textbooks who are not historians seldom consult historians or their work. The writing and prescribing of textbooks used to be a cottage industry; it has now become a factory system. One has therefore to ask where the profits go before the mess can be cleaned up.

School teachers are frequently blamed for being badly trained, but the training is not of their choosing. My own experience in workshops involving school teachers is that they are eager to be up to date and to teach history as it should be taught, but are discouraged by the syllabus, often unintelligently formulated, and an examination system in which learning by rote and using bazaar notes is at a premium.

There isn't nearly enough attention given to setting right the way in which school education functions, even though it is recognised that this is the bedrock of each generation.

What have been the problems encountered with the regionalisation of historical studies that has been a feature of post-Independence research?

At the time of independence there was a feeling that the history of India was dominated by the history of the Ganges valley and that south Indian history, for example, tended to be neglected. This was largely true. The colonial vision had been the perspective from the Ganges valley and northern India. Added to this, the identity of each state was strengthened by the creation of linguistic states. The impetus for writing regional histories was encouraged by the growing middle class in the States searching for its identity in the past of the region.

The positive result of this was an intensive search for local sources on the past. Archaeological excavation was undertaken with enthusiasm, surveys of local monuments revealed structures ignored prior to this change, inscriptions were discovered through a more careful screening of local landscapes and settlements, and texts pertaining to regional circuits of pilgrimage and administration, all added up to increasing the knowledge about the region.

But the weakness lay in either adhering too closely to the all-India periodisation of Ancient, Medieval and Modern, which in some cases, such as the States of the North-East, made little historical sense, or else in moving too far away and losing the broader perspective for the narrower regional history. We met with this problem as early as the 1960s when some of us wrote model textbooks for the NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training) in which attempts were made to keep in mind both the national and the regional perspectives. But we frequently heard that our textbooks did not suit the local schools since there was not enough of the history of the particular State. This was also born out of a regional chauvinism where the local elite was concerned that the regional history should focus on its origins and rise to power. Yet regional history, when placed in perspective, can usefully modulate the generalisation about historical change on a national level.

A further corrective which regional history can encourage, if it is not hijacked for purposes of regional chauvinism, is to demonstrate that there is a multiplicity of histories, even of early India, which have to be co-related. There are variant perspectives on the same events and the historian has to be aware of this variance, both in looking for evidence and in interpreting it.

Which is the future direction in which you would like to see our exploration of the ancient past proceed? Which are the neglected areas?

Historical writing has its own momentum, which draws from dominant groups seeking to legitimise themselves by controlling the projection of the past. This has been so from the remotest past for which we have written records and will continue. One hopes, though, that this will be on the decline through a greater awareness of the uses of history. Irrespective of predictions about the "end of history" or the devaluing of historical narrative as a subjective enterprise, I do believe that the obsession with the past will continue and that historians will thrive. In fact the greater the contentions, the more will there be a honing of historical generalisations. I shall be interested to see what form the new theories of historical explanation will take, since the survival of history as a discipline depends as much on theoretical rigour as on historical data.

(Professor Thapar responded in writing to a questionnaire from Parvathi Menon.)


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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .