How Romila Thapar and her brand of historiography have dented India’s image globally

It’s time to rewrite Indian history from India’s perspective — just like other proud and self-assured nations and nationalities have done in the past. And for that, Romila Thapar’s brand of historiography has to be consigned to the dustbin of history

Utpal Kumar January 27, 2023 08:07:35 IST
How Romila Thapar and her brand of historiography have dented India’s image globally

Historian Romila Thapar. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The year was 2003. Romila Thapar, professor emeritus at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and author of several books on ancient Indian history, was appointed the first holder of Kluge Chair in “Countries and Cultures of the South” at the US Library of Congress. Established in 2000, the aim of the Kluge chairs was to “facilitate discourse among top academics and political leaders” based in the US. It so happened that one Brannon Parker, who called himself a “friend of India”, sent a petition calling Thapar’s selection a “travesty” and “wastage of our American resources on a Marxist ideological assault on Hindu civilisation”. Given Thapar’s “Euro-centric worldview”, he even wondered how her selection would bring true understanding of Hindu civilisation in the US.

Parker passionately raised the issue, but he soon found himself dismissed as a Right-wing agent. However, as one looks at India’s Leftist historians led by Romila Thapar — disdainfully called “eminent” by Arun Shourie in his 1998 book, Eminent Historians — their role in subverting the minds of Indians, turning them rootless, apologetic and defensive about their own culture and identity, and also projecting a negative, demented image of India globally becomes too obvious to ignore. If the West today looks at India as a land bereft of any intrinsic democratic, liberal values of its own, it’s primarily the result of our historians’ mischief. If India is seen as a landmass rich in natural resources but with no indigenous population of its own — India is projected more like a railway platform where people of different racial profiles deboard at different intervals to ultimately become its rulers — it’s again our historians’ mischief at play. And if Hinduism is largely seen as a religion that promotes superstition, gender violence, caste atrocities, and even religious fanaticism, the blame primarily lies with these very historians.

Leading the pack of these surveyors of India’s history is the 91-year-old Romila Thapar, about whom read the citation of the Kluge Prize awarded to her in 2008 by the Library of Congress: “Her research has profoundly changed the way India’s past is understood both at home and across the world.”

And it did.

While reviewing Early India in May 2003 for London’s Financial Times, Edward Luce wrote: “Romila Thapar’s masterful recent book, Early India, ends before the Islamic era, but it makes it plain that the destruction of temples — a highly combustible issue in today’s India — was also the normal thing for incoming Hindu dynasties to do… Well before Islam appeared in India, Hindu dynasties had erased almost all the Buddhist and Jainist temples of early dynasties.”

And this narrative remains well-entrenched to date. In June 2022, the Outlook magazine carried an article, ‘How BJP is Distorting Indian History for the Upcoming Generations’, by Faroagh Ul Islam and Maaz Rashid. The article said, “Were temples crashed by the Sultans of Mughals only? In ancient and medieval periods, it was an entrenched tradition to destroy the religious places established by the defeated ruler. Pious places like temples were smashed due to their political, not religious significance and it was a common practice in that society. Rulers always have a definition of defeating their opponents, irrespective of their ‘religious colour’. It is the sheer tactic of the Indian right-wing, however, to paint only the Muslim rulers as hostile, a narrative that plays up to their religio-political advantages.”

Interestingly, the idea of Hindu intolerance seems to have made its first appearance in 1969, in the booklet, Communalism and the writing of Indian History, written jointly by Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia and Bipan Chandra. In this 60-odd-page booklet, Thapar questions the “assumption” that “only a Muslim would despoil temples and break idols since the Islamic religion is opposed to idol worship”. She continues, “Little attempt is made to search for further explanations regarding Mahmud (of Ghazni)’s behaviour. Other reasons can be found when one turns to the tradition of Hindu kings and enquires whether any of them were despoilers of temples and idol-breakers.” She then, predictably talks about King Harsha of Kashmir, about whom we will talk later in the article.

What began on a cursory, indefinite note in 1969 became a definitive event in later years, using the Marxist toolkit of “maybe, perhaps, probably mostly… therefore”, a term used by Arun Shourie in Eminent Historians. So, by the late 1980s and 1990s, against the backdrop of the Ayodhya movement, Hindus were academically transformed from being the most tolerant people in the world to a photocopy of Islamist marauders. If Muslim rulers destroyed temples, so did Hindus, our eminent historians told us.

If one thought, given the audacity of communist imagination to bracket Hinduism with Islam, there would be a plethora of evidence supporting the case of Hindu violence and vandalism, the story of YC Rosser is an eye-opener. The American researcher, in the early 2000s, after reading about Hindu rulers’ propensity to destroy their own temples and also decimate Buddhist viharas, reached out to the proponents of the theory. Rosser first met Harbans Mukhia, who “has mentioned the destruction of temples by Hindus” in an article in the Hindustan Times (19 March 2000). “I asked him what documents on the subject he had in possession. He told me that Prof Romila Thapar has some information to support the proposition”. After some days, Rosser met Thapar and told her about the Mukhia conversation. “She (Thapar) said she has not written anything but an American research scholar, Richard Eton, has written something recently about it in the preface to his new book.”

Now that’s called the Marxist way of time travel! Yes, Thapar made revelations about the ‘iconoclastic’ tendencies of Hindu rulers based on the evidence that would be collected in future by an American scholar! But then this was not the first time Thapar had made such an incredulous statement. In one of her speeches recently, she even claimed that Yudhishthira, the eldest among the Pandavas, probably had in his mind the image of Asoka when he said he didn’t want to be a king. Given the Leftist propensity to turn “maybe” into “therefore”, one won’t be surprised to see the next generation of Thapar-inspired historians claim that Yudhishthira actually became king after Asoka!

Be that as it may, let’s look at the historical evidence. The truth is, our eminent historians have peddled this temple theory based on half-a-dozen unreliable stories — of Kalinga king Kharvela, Pallava king Narasimhavarman, King Harsha of Kashmir and King Shashank of Gauda. (One can also add the names of Pushyamitra Sunga and a Pandya ruler to the list, but their sources are so compromised that even Leftist historians use them with a pinch of salt.)

In her book Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples, historian Meenakshi Jain talks about Kharavela and Narasimhavarman to demolish the myth. “Almost without exception, Hindu rulers honoured the images they acquired, thereby reaffirming a shared sense of the sacred. In the Islamic case, seizure of an image entailed its very dismemberment,” Jain writes as she explains how Kharavela (2nd-1st century BC) and Narasimhavarman (7th century AD), after vanquishing their adversaries, took the murtis of a Jaina Tirthankar and Lord Ganesh and placed them with honour in a shrine in their respective kingdoms.

As per Purva Karana Agama, the victorious king was supposed to bring deities from the vanquished kingdom and arrange for their worship in an appropriate manner. This will not just divest the defeated ruler of divine protection, but also ensure that the idols remained under veneration. Also, it was obligatory for the vanquished king to try and retrieve the images within a span of three years. This explains the so-called ‘iconoclastic’ tendencies of Hindu rulers. Worse, only a prejudiced mind would think of comparing the acts of Mahmud of Ghazni and Aurangzeb with those of Kharavela and Narasimhavarman.

As for King Shashank of Gauda, he has been accused of persecuting Buddhists, destroying their places of worship, and even cutting the sacred Bodhi tree. But even in his case, the evidence presented, as per historian RC Majumdar, is “extremely unsafe”.

The most interesting case of Hindu iconoclasm is presented by Kalhana’s Rajataringini, which mentions that King Harsha of Kashmir plundered Hindu and Buddhist temples. Again, what our eminent historians deliberately downplay is Kalhaņa’s comment that in doing so, Harsha “acted like a Turushka (Muslim)” and was “prompted by the Turushkas in his employ”. This one statement made it clear that murti desecration and destruction was not an Indic phenomenon, and if someone like King Harsha of Kashmir did it under the Islamic influence, it was severely criticised as a Turushka-like act!

The ‘temple act’ of Romila Thapar and her ilk would remind us of their misdeed on the Ayodhya issue. They openly and vehemently sided with the All-India Babri Mosque Action Committee (AIBMAC), saying there never existed a Ram temple on the disputed site. They wrote dozens of articles in the mainstream newspapers. But when they were invited by the then Director General of Archaeology to submit proof, they immediately sought more time, saying they were yet to study the evidence. Just another example of Marxist time travel: They knew there was no Ram temple even before doing any research work!

The invention of Hindu intolerance is an afterthought. It came into use when our eminent historians realised their failure in suppressing the record of Islamist violence and vandalism in medieval times; it made sense for them to create Hindu equivalents of Aurangzeb and Mahmud of Ghazni. The damage, however, has not just been confined to the Hindu psyche. It has also badly hurt the global image of India in general and Hindus in particular. It is this kind of misinformation, pedalled by our mainstream historians, questioning the innate democratic-secular-liberal values of the Indic civilisation, that makes India a suspect in the Western eye — a wily wolf in the garb of democratic sheep.

Things won’t change much until we stop allowing our history to be written by those who had collaborated with the prophets of Pakistan and had dreamt of carving 17 nations coming out of India post-Independence. It’s time to rewrite Indian history from India’s perspective — just like other proud and self-assured nations and nationalities have done in the past. And for that, Romila Thapar’s brand of historiography has to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The author is Opinion Editor, Firstpost and News18. He tweets from @Utpal_Kumar1. Views expressed are personal.

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