Book Review: The Past as Present by Romila Thapar

By Abhishek Saha,

For those who believe that the lone founders of ‘Indian civilization’ were the Aryans or that the Indian past was singular and exclusive in character, Romila Thapar’s latest book The Past as Present, is a must read. Because Thapar, in her highly readable yet profound essays, logically demolishes distorted historical arguments, showing readers how and when different academic pursuits and debates have gone wrong.

For example, Romila Thapar argues against the Hindutva notion that Muslim rulers destroyed Hindu temples in the past because of religious animosity alone. She points out, even Hindu kings like Harshadeva, Paramara raja, and some other Kashmiri ones destroyed Hindu temples for different reasons.  Analytical study of history shows that temples, other than being places of worships, were centres of political power and depositories of wealth too and hence, an assault on them. Past as Present

In another instance, Thapar claims, with ‘archaeological and linguistic’ evidence, that ‘Indus Civilization was pre-Aryan and non-Aryan’. And, the belief that Indian civilization was Aryan in its roots is nothing but the fruit of a faulty Western interpretation of the Indian past, a mistake for which she holds even the German philologist Max Mueller responsible.

Though the nineteen essays in The Past as Present were written over the span of Thapar’s illustrious career as a scholar and researcher, the thinking reader will be delighted to discover that the essays cover the most essential of themes and ask the bravest of questions pertaining to the current socio-political discourse in the country. To put things in perspective and augment her arguments on the relation between the past and the present, Romila Thapar has filled the interstices of the narrative with thought-provoking insights, such as, if in 1940 ‘Muslim nationalists’ were countered by saying that nationalism of a religious community is not Indian nationalism, then why after seventy years a man claiming to be a ‘Hindu nationalist’ is considered to be an Indian nationalist.

She explains, as to what happens when nationalism is reduced to identity politics and priority given to a specific religious community. She writes extensively on secularism and states why the secular critique is not of religion, but of those who exploit religious faith for political gain.  In many of the essays she fervently asks the reader to ponder on whether India’s past was only a ‘Hindu past’ or, an extensively plural one, embracing multiple identities, cultures and religions. She talks about attempts to cherry-pick from Indian history so as to substantiate the claims of a certain political ideology.

A memoir in some parts, the essays in the book stretch over a wide array of themes—the study of history, religion and communalism, identities and pluralism, the temple of Somnatha, religious texts and epics, and so on. This collection is a powerful voice against historical misrepresentation and propaganda masquerading as facts. It’s a timely reminder of things that might go amiss if the country is deprived of a correct interpretation of its past. But, at the same time, these essays have a subtle poignancy running through their veins—one that reminds us as to how intellectual and academic discourse on any subject can be easily distorted and fed into the public discourse.

In certain parts, the essays, however, are in defence of the conscientious historian, who strictly follows what his research yields, in the face of repeated attacks by political agents. Thus, Thapar recounts how the journalist and eminent BJP politician Arun Shourie had once taunted ‘eminent historians’, as having hymens so thick that they retained their virginity even after publishing articles on Leftist platforms. In fact, she also writes about how the two school history textbooks she wrote for the NCERT came under harsh criticism, first from the Morarji Desai government and then from the Sangh Parivar.

Apart from seeking a correct interpretation of our past, what Romila Thapar stresses on in her essays is that the study of history has changed its course—no  longer is it a mere collection of facts about rulers and their wars. With the advancement of research into themes hitherto unknown, history is being looked into with a much broader and analytical perspective by scholars. And the remarkable fact is that, the author herself has been one of the strongest catalysts for this change in the country.

Abhishek Saha holds a Postgraduate Degree in Journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. He can be contacted at [email protected] and www.abhisheksaha.com .

  • a rose cellar

    Arun Shourie’s comment is clothed in symbolic metaphor, but quite explicitly represents a rapist’s mind! we need to silence such people—socially, politically, legally…

  • a rose cellar

    arun shourie’s words: “but so tough are the hymen of these progressives that, even when they contribute signed articles to publications of the Communist Party, their virginity remains intact !”

    what kind of mind does it reflect? decide for yourself.

  • India had no history or historians.So the English said and went about creating their little history book on India which was only about three centuries since they shipped themselves into India that is..There was no science,empirical techniques,proveable records, archaeology developed amongst other things to claim, otherwise, the British complained.Sadly. a large part of books and history on India parroted this colonial thesis.India became independent and a brand of nationalist historians were born the Mukherjees, Raychauchaudris,Majumdars Vincent Smith et all..And the contrarian viewpoint was from a brand of subalterns,Irfan Habib, Sarkar,Partha Chatterjee, Ms Thapar included.The latter, a motley group supported a materialistic historical interpretation and hence this kind of research bore a certain stamp and style.Like all victors they seemed to receive a certain patronage from the Congress Party for a long while and this history writing style was encouraged officially.Politics being dynamic underwent a change gradually in Independent India and this or such a viewpoint started to getting challenged.The Right or BJP and its kind which also sees the sense of history as a cultural and political desideratum wants to a be part of this process, too.It is in this dialectics quite legitimately, that the contestations are underlined in.Whether Left or Right it has to be seen though that the linkages of political power and historical research do they in the end, (if there is one) help in nation building and the continuity of its core values(whatever they are as it is in the debate) in the future.
    That Ms Thapar has been a pioneer of sorts in pursuing a certain interpretation of history is beyond doubt.As to how much of it survives or spurs others in continuing and furthering this as not a mere academic debate but as a living, objective history of the people will in the ultimate analyses the judge and jury.For the moment we are sanguine in that only victors do not write histories.Heroes do not determine the consequence of wars and we learn from history to correct our mistakes.