Whipping girl of the Right: Attack Romila Thapar's ideas, not her integrity
By suggesting that Romila Thapar’s opposition stems really from pique rather than principle, Swapan Dasgupta actually cheapens his own intellectual class as a whole.
It’s only to be expected that a Narendra Modi government will not mean acchey din for historians like Romila Thapar.
Thapar butted heads with the previous NDA regime as well about changes made to her textbook on ancient India. She has complained about “an attempt to replace mainstream history with a Hindutva version of history.” It’s only natural that when an ideological shift happens in government, its reverberations will be felt within the intellectual class. Different think-tanks, different intellectuals, even different artists will come to the fore and enjoy newfound clout.
But for some reason, it is the 80-plus Romila Thapar who has emerged as the whipping girl of the sins of the old order. First Subramanian Swamy, in a moment of fiery hyperbole, and hopefully no more than hyperbole, suggested her books should be set on fire. Now Swapan Dasgupta sniggers in The Telegraph that the “real complaint” of Thapar was the “grim reality of change” that has left her feeling irrelevant. Dasgupta writes that “(f)or the first time in their living memory, the privileged ‘progressives’ of Delhi find themselves cut out.”
What Dasgupta is implying is when Romila Thapar warns in a lecture about the “narrowing of liberal space in the last couple of decades” or the dangers of “organisations and institutions that claim a religious intention but use their authority for non-religious purposes” or the pusillanimity of intellectuals who “prefer not to confront authority even if it disbars the path of free thinking” -- what she is really upset about is that she is out in the cold. All her anxieties and worries and warnings are nothing more than the pique of a maharani who has suddenly lost not just her crown but also her privy purse.
The implication impugns not just her ideas but also her intellectual integrity.
This is not to deny that Thapar was a huge beneficiary of a regime whose world view was aligned to her. This is not to say that Thapar’s works and ideas must be accepted as inviolable truths and never be challenged. This is not even to argue whether or not Thapar and her ilk themselves shut out historians and scholars whose ideology they did not agree with. Ramachandra Guha himself admits that some state-run organizations like ICHR were “from the beginning dominated by left-wing historians who favoured themselves and their friends in the distribution of funds for research, travel and translation.” And he also says those Marxists were “partisan and nepotistic.”
But this is not about the scholarship of Romila Thapar. That’s a different debate. No one is saying the new dispensation in Delhi must bow in obeisance before the old order or even accommodate Romila Thapar. But we must allow them their dissent. When Dasgupta denigrates that dissent as merely the “contrived angst” of those displaced from “the top of the hierarchical pile” he does stinging disservice not to Thapar as much as to the intellectual class as a whole -- to which he himself belongs.
Let’s face it, Romila Thapar’s discomfort with the new regime is completely in keeping with her ideology and her track record. In fact, if today she suddenly started singing hosannas to Narendra Modi and his appointments, the likes of Dasgupta would be the first to sneer at greedy intellectuals changing their tune, happy to curry favour with the new sarkar by changing their stripes. So someone like Thapar is damned if she does and damned if she does not. If Dasgupta stuck to his ideological guns during the UPA regimes when his favourites were not in power, why should Thapar be denied that same courtesy now?
What Dasgupta does not realize in his column about Thapar is he is attacking the very foundation on which he himself stands. Every democracy needs a debate about ideas and the value of a Dasgputa and a Thapar is that as ideological opponents they can parry and thrust and put forward a real argument in a real debate of ideas as opposed to a mudslinging contest which any troll on a comment board can deliver.
By suggesting that Thapar’s opposition stems really from pique rather than principle, Dasgupta actually cheapens his own intellectual class as a whole. If it’s all about the gravy train, then Dasgupta himself cannot but be singed by his own fire. And that’s why someone like @LutyensSpice can tweet snarkily that “Swapan Dasgupta who had made his displeasure obvious at not being deputed to UK has been accommodated in the Nehru panel.”
Whether that’s true or not, Dasgupta's cheap shot at Romila Thapar does not help his case because -- and here lies the irony -- for the rest of India they may as well be twins (in pedigree if not in ideology: both Anglophone public intellectuals, both India International Centre types (Dasgupta’s column begins there), both ironically with degrees from the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Dasgupta argues that those who call themselves "progressives" and decry the shrinking of liberal space now do not acknowledge the fact that they were hardly more tolerant of real intellectual dissent when the shoe was on the other foot. The question is whether in dissing Thapar -- and on the grounds that has chosen -- is Dasgupta guilty of the very sin he decries. Then again, it is always easier to shoot the messenger than deal with the message.
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