A review of Romila Thapar’s “INDIA, Another Millennium?”

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Sanjay Garg

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INDIA, Another Millennium? Ed. By Romila Thapar
(Viking: New Delhi, 2000)

A Review by Sanjay Garg


The transformation of an academician to a cult-figure by his devoted camp followers can be considered complete when he/she starts spending most of his/her time in

1.      Writing or commenting on issues beyond his/her area of technical expertise

2.      Writing patronizing ‘Foreward’ to others’ books

3.      Editing anthologies or collection of articles that deal with a diverse range of topics having nothing to do with his/her profession


The book under review, edited by the eminent Marxist historian Romila Thapar, (Professor Emeritus, Center for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) is an example of the third case. Her elevation to the status of a cult-deity is so complete that Rajiv MALHOTRA[1] has coined the term ‘Thapar’s Children’ for her admirers. In a recent article, he states  –

“The influence of Thapar’s Children in the Western world is considerable. Almost every year, they fly their icon around the world for speaking tours at prestigious campuses, where her cult-like former students are well fed gatekeepers. They make sure that no opposing voice is included on the panels – hardly an academically sound approach. At one of her talks last year, someone from the audience had the courage to ask her whether she knew Sanskrit and whether she had read the original texts, or whether she relied mainly on European sources for her scholarship. Very angry at this “rudeness,” she dismissed the question by saying  that she “only answers questions from academically qualified persons.” Clearly, since she did not know the woman in the audience, Thapar had no way of assuming that this person was not an academician, except for the fact that only an outsider to the cult and its sphere of control would dare ask such a question. The American academe considers her and her former students as the authorities on India. Any challenge to this hegemony of the brown (mem)sahibs is met with fierce personal attacks.”

The present book, however, introduces Thapar in a rather non-assuming manner, as one who ‘has specialized in the study of ancient Indian history, but is also sensitive to the way in which the past is used by the present.’ The statement is but a euphemism for the stark reality that for more than a decade now, Romila Thapar has functioned more as a full-time propagandist for a group of Hindu-hating political parties and only as a part time historian. The statement also conceals the fact that for several years now, she has not made any significant seminal contribution to the knowledge database or to the understanding of ancient India. Her recent articles are often published over and over again, with slight variation, in various magazines and journals (many of which have communist affiliations) and have a more of a political, than a historical content.


The Marxist credentials of Romila Thapar are well known in India,[2] and are recognized by many in western academia as well[3], even though Indian Marxist historians like her have recently tried to project themselves more as ‘objective’, ‘neutral’ historians who should be contrasted with the other ‘fascist’ and ‘communal’ historians. It is very important to understand the ideological affiliations of Romila Thapar, in order to understand the particular slant of the book under review.


The book has 15 contributors, of which the following are well-known, hard-core Marxists/communists or ‘secularists’ (read ‘perpetual Hindu-haters’) –

1.      N. Ram, the multi-millionaire, openly-Communist editor of the news magazine ‘Frontline’, who lives in great opulence in his Mount Road Mansion at Chennai, calls the Dalai Lama a revanchist and obscurantist, advocates that the Chinese rule in Tibet has been highly beneficial for the Tibetans and so on. The name of his article is ‘The Great Media Bazaar’.

2.      Prabhat Patnaik, whose article ‘The Future of Marxism’ says it all.


Many other articles in the collection echo positions that are typically associated with Indian Marxists. For instance, the article ‘Slow and Almost Steady‘ by Krishna Kumar (pages 1-16) advocates denuclearization of the Indian subcontinent, denounces large dams and multinationals, displays a contempt for the Kargil War – all this while making suggestions on education in India, promoting public hygiene and the like. In journalistic parlance, such fellow travelers of the Indian Left are termed as ‘Pinkos’.


The leading, or rather the introductory article ‘Will a Millennium be Coming Our Way’ in the book is by Thapar herself. The article is more of a literary essay which, in its first half, brings together diverse concepts of time in different cultures and ages, comparing and contrasting them along the way. The agenda of the book is spelt out by Thapar in the following words [page xviii] –


“…the potential of men and women to create a utopia was a powerful concept. In the search for the ideal, some European thinkers of the eighteenth century were willing to fantasize on Asian societies as different and perhaps utopian. But the fantasy evaporated with the nineteenth century insistence on ‘progress’ which disallows golden ages of the past and which insisted on a rather acerbic view of the romanticisation of the past. However, the trajectory of progress encouraged the thought that utopias could be imminent. Some would argue that Marxism embodies the most recent of such visions. The shift from the saviour-figure to men and women allows us now to speak of the coming of what might be a millennium, but brought bout through human effort. That if might become a shade more real could be possible if we learn to protect that which takes us closer to it. It is in this sense that the Indian society of the future is envisaged here. Although the idea may not be realized, it is nevertheless worth considering what might be likely and where the barriers lie – which is the intention of this collection of essays.”


One does not need much effort or intellect to make such soi-distant politically correct comments and generalizations on the state of the society, indulge in armchair sermons, or even make recommendations. In fact, Thapar’s lead article is full of these features, so typical of a class of elitist Indians who are termed pejoratively as ‘pseudo-intellectuals’ by their detractors. The present review will restrict itself largely to Thapar’s contribution, primarily because it tends to touch in brief, the content of several of the other articles, and also because the issues dealt with by many other articles in the book are beyond the scope.


In her article, Thapar predictably positions Hindus as the aggressors who are causing the minorities to retaliate –


“The nurturing of intolerance is becoming increasingly common, and is expressed in formulations of hostility more frequently and vocally by certain Hindu groups claiming to defend Hinduism and commenting on Muslims and Christians with the potential for retaliation by those thus targeted.” [page xx].


Blaming Hindus selectively is a natural outcome of the Nehruvian dogma that ‘Majority communalism is more dangerous than minority communalism’. It overlooks the reality that it is the majority Hindu community in India has often been subject to worst atrocities at the hands of minority terrorists and fanatics in independent India, rather than the other way around. Indeed, the total cleansing of 300000 Hindus from Muslim dominated Kashmir is an event unparalleled in independent India, and a tragedy of this scale has never been experienced by any Indian minority since 1947. However, even a bare acknowledgement of sufferings of Hindus is unacceptable to ‘secularists’ and ‘liberals’ like Thapar, because of the mental block that ‘it could promote Hindu fascism’.


Thapar offers ‘secularization’ of the Indian society and polity as a panacea for the communal problems that we are facing currently, and fortunately, she makes a recommendation with which no true liberal and secularist should disagree –


“To identify the constituents of society as majority and minority communities defined by religion, is a negation both of democracy and of secular society.” [pp. xxi]


Some natural corollaries of this suggestion should be discontinuation of the special privileges that the minorities enjoy with regard to establishment of educational institutions, enactment of a Uniform Civil Code, replacement of the Minorities Commission with a National Human Rights Commission and complete non-interference by the state in the operation of religious institutions. Predictably, Thapar stops short of recommending all this. After all, in ‘secular’ India, it is the ‘communal Hindu-fascists’ who make such suggestions, while the ‘secularists’ agree with Mullahs and Missionaries in opposing them!


In discussing the role of education in the creation of a modern society, Thapar laments [pp. xxiii] –


“Education pertains to more than just literacy. State control over the content of education extends to the current method of education, which is further stymied by the choice of the curriculum and the discouraging of independent and critical thought…..The ease with which the government is diluting the content of education should act as a warning. The enrichment of the teaching of history, for example, through an association with other social sciences, is being annulled as historical interpretation is taken back to nineteenth century colonial historiography…”


The above apparently refers to the attempts by the current NDA government to overhaul the NCERT curriculum, after decades of stasis and Marxist hegemony. Such comments, coming from Thapar, a beneficiary of this hegemony for almost 35 years are therefore somewhat hypocritical. She has herself been accused of trying to brainwash more than 2 generations of students with the whitewashed  narratives in her NCERT history texts that are mandatory reading for lakhs of Indian students. Moreover, she has seldom updated her own works. For instance, the fourth edition of the NCERT history text for class VI published by her in early 1990’s (there has been no revision ever since) differs from the original edition of 1966 only in a few words here and there, leading one to wonder if there have been no significant changes in historical understanding between 1966 and the present. It may be pointed out that she has not bothered to revise even once, her highly popular  text ‘A History of India, Vol. I’, first published in 1968. So apparently, she considers the historical interpretations of others as ‘nineteenth century colonial historiography’ but regards her own work as ‘sanatana’ or eternal that is not in need of any revision even in the light of new emerging data from archaeology, historical linguistics and other related disciplines!


Arun SHOURIE[4] shows how Thapar and others constituting the coterie called ‘Eminent Historians’ came to have a stranglehold over a variety of government patronized institutions for several decades. One saw the same names – Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia, Irfan Habib, Satish Chandra, D. N. Jha etc., appear over and over again in the Boards of government institutions like NCERT, CBSE, ICHR, Centre for Historical Studies, Prasar Bharati, UNGC….The present NDA government has tried to break this monopoly by induction of fresh blood, and obviously the veteran beneficiaries like Thapar have started crying foul. They have started accusing the government of trying to meddle with the ‘autonomy’ of these white elephant institutions whereas in reality, the actions of the government have broken the hegemony of the ‘eminent’ historians. Predictably therefore, Thapar complains [pp. xxv] –


“The right to information is conceded by the state but us hedged around by ‘a few exemptions’ which act as the murky glaze that prevents transparency. A government can go through all the motions of democratic functioning and yet retain autocratic powers so long as that which is conceded is marginal. Controlling institutions can be a euphemism for dismantling their autonomy as has happened repeatedly in recent times.”


Clearly, the above statement has a political subtext of a disgruntled erstwhile beneficiary of state patronage. A good description of how Marxists like Romila Thapar have all along considered themselves more equal than others is contained in the book ‘KAPOOR, Ravi Shanker. 2000. More Equal than Others – A Study of the Indian Left. Vision Books: New Delhi’.


Thapar also makes the following disparaging remarks against the Non-resident Indian community [pp. xxiv-xxv] –


“Diversity also related to questions of modernization. Some would argue that the latter has advanced through globalization. But sometimes it takes the form merely of imitating the west. If this is so then the most modernized would be the Indians in the diaspora. Yet, perhaps for reasons to do with their alienation from the larger local society, many are only superficially modernized despite a western lifestyle, and in their social attitudes are strong supporters of conservatism and what they construct as ‘tradition’.”


The present reviewer is also an NRI Indian Hindu who rejects such a simplistic statement about my community. In fact, an NRI Indian could well counter by calling Thapar as a ‘secular transvestite’ – i.e., a Eurocentric Western mind clothed in a brown Indian Ghentoo body, or even as a ‘Resident Non-Indian’! The animus for NRI’s in the minds of Thapar and some other Leftists in India perhaps owes to the fact that the NRI community has been exposed to more diverse and truly secular and progressive views in their new homelands and having thus realized how hollow the Indian Leftist discourse is in reality, rejects their intellectual tyranny.[5]


In recent years, Hindu-hating ‘secular’ intellectuals have started advocating that all sections of the Indian society, sans the savarna or upper-caste Hindus, should form a ‘secular’ front to fight the hegemony of the savarnas, and thereby prevent their own ‘marginalization’. Thus, Thapar [pp. xxvi] also says –


“Muslims, Christians and OBCs, as marginalized groups, have a common agenda. Yet concerns about equality, honour and dignity or seeking of security are not identical. The political struggle for equality, security and democratic rights are also tied into the secularizing of Indian society. This process could be given direction by the alignment of those who are battling for equality and security, forming pan-Indian communities using agendas that run counter to non-secular ideologies….”


This suggestion, which is being touted these days with great passion by the Hate-Hindu Axis of Marxists-Mullahs-Missionaries, reveals Thapar’s own antipathy to the existence of the Hindus as a community, and is also a sure recipe for social unrest, or even a civil war in India.[6] The suggestion falsely implicates all upper-caste Hindus falsely as the perpetual oppressors of all other Indians, and instills a sense of persecution mania onto the minds of the members of certain minority communities, that actually enjoy a privileged status in the Indian society.[7] The idea that the 15% upper-caste Hindu-Indian population is the only ‘mainstream’ in India, and the remainder 85% of the Indian society is ‘marginalized’ is inherently absurd. Such a perverse viewpoint also does not see the irony of segregating ‘religious’ communities (Muslims and Christians) from ‘the other’ (= savarna Hindus) to form a ‘secular’ community! It also overlooks the well documented marginalization of ‘upper-caste’ Hindus in some parts of India such as in Tamil Nadu, or the cleansing of Hindus in some regions such as the Kashmir Valley, marginalization of Hindus in the Christian dominated states of northeastern India and so on. Finally, Thapar’s suggestion also ignores the presence of castes amongst Indian Muslims and Christians, and persecution of their weaker sections by elitist members of their own communities.[8]


This particular mindset of the secularists also projects the Hindu Nationalist ideology in opposition to the empowerment of Dalits.[9]  Such a crude equation ‘Hindu Nationalism = Dalit disempowerment’ is often contradicted by the heavy and prominent presence of Dalit, OBC and tribal Hindus in Hindu movements and upsurges, as is happening in Gujarat in recent times. If the Hindu organizations try to co-opt Dalit Hindus and tribal Hindus, the secularists smell a ‘Hindu fascist’ conspiracy. But if the Missionaries convert them to Christianity, causing social unrest and conflicts between the neo-converts and non-converted Hindus, the secularists blame the Hindus again. In short, such Thaparesque ‘secular’ solutions are nothing but an expression of the hatred and allergy that such elitist ‘intellectuals’ have for Hindus and our Dharma. Any expression of self assertion by Hindus is dubbed as ‘Hindu fascism’ or as ‘Hindutva’, and then condemned, by these worthies. Any Hindu organization that gears up towards social reform, acculturation of marginalized communities, and spreads education is termed as ‘fascist’ by these worthies. Their clear intent is to indulge in secular verbal terrorism in order to emasculate their bete-noires (the Hindu society) completely.[10]


In the opinion of the present reviewer, such ‘secular’ solutions offered by Hindu hating Marxist intellectuals like Thapar may be termed as ‘inverted communalism’.[11]  I would argue that this is precisely what has lead to undermining of secularism in India, and has resulted in a backlash by a section of the Hindu community.


Thapar does not even conceal her own soft corner for Marxism when she remarks[12] [pp. xxvi-xxvii] –


“Will Marxism, which attempted the restructuring of societies in the past, have a relevance for the construction of new societies in the future, and formulate opposition to new forms of exploitation, or is Marxism tied o a historical moment that has passed? Varieties of Marxism in different places suggest its flexibility and may give rise to divergent forms. It is argued that the central concern of Marxism lies in realizing human freedom and that the potential of this is not possible within capitalism because capitalism is predatory. A constant restructuring of methods to transcend capitalism is required. Globalization has arrived as a form of capitalism but has not fulfilled the prophecy of spectacular success in the Third World in terms of economic renewal for it often brings about the expansion of the middle class but leaves those below the poverty line unchanged.”


They are tall words indeed, for a Marxist historian, whose concern for the downtrodden is contradicted by the fact that she herself lives in a mansion in the posh New Delhi locality named Maharani Baugh![13]


The aversion that Left of the center intellectuals have for free market, and unregulated media is often reflected in Thapar’s remarks in the article. For instance, she says [pp. xxvii-xxviii]  –


“In theory, if Internet and information technology are not controlled by the state then those with access to them will claim to be free of the fear of becoming closed minds. They will be however, only a fraction of the population. Will the kind of knowledge pursued by this fraction ensure a society committed to the freedom of the individual and humanist values? Technological proficiency by itself is no a sufficient safeguard against the increasing tendency in India to be comfortable with the soft underbelly of fascism and not recognize it for what it is…”


Obviously, Thapar is recommending a control over the media to keep out elements that oppose to her own ‘liberal’ views, and is raising the bogey of ‘fascism’ to maintain the Marxist hegemony over media. It is rather strange that the Marxists just always claim to have a monopoly over ‘concern for the downtrodden’, and over ‘truth’ in general! It might be worth mentioning here that the Internet has recently proven to be a great vehicle in demolishing the hegemony of Marxist historians who have a blinkered view of India’s past.[14]


Thapar could not prevent herself from interjecting a criticism of historians who do not follow her brand of negationist and dishonest history [pp. xxx] –


“It is worth remembering that the second millennium AD, said by some to be the period of extreme hostility between the so-called communities of Hindus and Muslims, was actually a period of intense creativity in both religions, sometimes independently and sometimes in unison. The warped reading of the past unnecessarily makes for a fractured society today.”


As has been pointed out so often, such a make believe secular fantasy fails to explain the large-scale one-sided destruction of Hindu and other non-Muslim shrines by Islamic rulers in the last 1000 years or more. True, there have been important developments in the Hindu society and religion during the Muslim rule, but what else would Thapar expect to have happened over a long period of a 1000 years? Does she believe that Hinduism could have remained perfectly static over these centuries? The secular fantasy runs counter to vast amounts of contrary contemporary factual data, which is explained away by these ‘secular’ Marxist historians with mere dogmatic, ‘secular’ assertions. After all, even the discriminatory Jaziya tax on infidels has been explained by Thapar’s colleague and fellow eminent historian Satish Chandra as having been rooted in economic causes, when in fact the tyrannical tax is based clearly on Koranic precepts.


What these secularists fail to realize is that long term harmony and peace in the Indian society cannot be achieved by whitewashing the fanaticism of medieval rulers (professing a particular religion) of India, or by transforming Aurangzebs and Tipu Sultans from villains to heroes. Rather, an acknowledgement of the unsavory aspects of the Indian past by all sections of the Indian society alone can solve the problem of communalism in the Indian society.


Thapar’s article, nevertheless, closes with some general remarks, made in a rather poetical manner [pp. xxxi] –


“We have to choose to create a society that internalizes the practice of social ethics, where human equality, rights and justice protect individual freedom and are priorities in social activity. This could be our investment for the generations entering the new millennium. The present is an uncertain transition and expectations unbounded. Do we have the courage to make these choices and work with what we have chosen? Only then can we say that there is a millennium coming our way.”


None indeed, would disagree with the above desire. Not even the pet-hates of Romila Thapar – upper caste Hindus in particular, or Hindus in general.


To close the review then, the impression one gets from Thapar’s article is that Marxist totalitarianism and pretentious Liberalism are woven in it like warp and woof. It contains a lot of subtle hatemongering against Hindus, as well as political propaganda.


Notes –


[1] Refer ‘The Axis of Neocolonialism’ in Sulekha.com (dt. 10 July 2002), available online at http://www.sulekha.com/column.asp?cid=218625

[2] An article in the Times of India (New Delhi edn.) dt. 24 February 2002, calls her a ‘hardcore Marxist’. Her interpretations of ancient India are treated in the sections on Marxist historiography by Shankar Goyal in his ‘Recent Historiography of Ancient India’, Kusumanjali Prakashan: Jodhpur (1997). Ravi Shanker Kapoor, in his More Equal than Others – A Study of the Indian Left, Vision Books: New Delhi (2000), which discusses the tyrannical Marxist intellectual hegemony in independent India, also classifies Romila Thapar as a Leftist historian (p. 140).

[3] Thapar is quoted as one of the Marxist historians in the entry ‘Hinduism’ of ‘A Dictionary of The Marxist Thought‘ (Tom Bottomore et al, 1983, Harvard University Press, p. 204). Ronald Inden, in his Imagining India [1990:pp. 154-156, 197] clearly refers to Thapar as a Marxist historian.

[4] Arun Shourie. Eminent Historians, ASA: New Delhi (1998)

[5] Interestingly, such a wholesale condemnation of the supposed support of Hindu nationalism by ‘upper-caste Hindus’ is seen in Gopal Guru’s article (‘Dalits in Pursuit of Modernity’) in this book, page 132, as well. A recent article “Fear of NRI’s, Fear of Numbers, Fear of Logic’ (Rediff.com, 02 November 2002, available on-line at http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/nov/02rajeev.htm) tries to explain why Indian Leftist humanities academics fear the NRI’s.

[6] The article ‘Dalits in Pursuit of Modernity’ by Gopal Guru in the book presents such theses more bluntly, and crudely.

[7] The Christians for instance dominate every sphere of life in several Indian states (Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, parts of Kerala and Goa), the Church is said to be the biggest landowner in India after the State and the community as such has a fairly dominant position in numerous sectors of public life, such as education. So it is unclear why Christians should be treated as a ‘marginalized group.’

[8] Consider the Indian Christian community, for instance. ‘Dalit Christians’ still have separate churches and graveyards, they supply a small minority of the higher church officials, and are discriminated against by their own clergy. Globally speaking, the role of the Christian church in the promotion of racism is well known – separate churches for the blacks and the whites a lingering legacy of the same. Amongst Indian Muslims, the Syyads and Pathans dominate the politics and religious affairs of the community. Note that the Imam of Jama Masjid of Delhi still suffixes the title ‘Bukhari’ to his name, in order to emphasize his foreign (and therefore ‘superior’) ancestry.

[9] The same viewpoint is articulated by Rustom Bharucha in his contribution ‘Thinking through Culture’ on page 82 of the book.

[10] In this connection, read Shrinivas Tilak’s article Hindutva – The Indian Secularists’ Metaphor for Illness and Perversion, pp. 123-134 in Arvind Sharma (ed.), Hinduism and Secularism after Ayodhya, Palgrave: New York (2000)

[11] The term is used by Subhash Kashyap on page 87 of his article The Case for a Divorce Between Religion and Politics, pp. 57-76 in Arvind Sharma (2000)

[12] These sentiments echo the conclusion of Prabhat Patnaik’s article.

[13] Thapar has often criticized the Indian ‘middle-class’ in her writings for the ‘marginalization’ of Dalits and OBC’s, and non-Hindu minorities. One wonders if this hatred for the Indian middle class in them minds of Thapars, Irfan Habibs, Setalvaads and N Rams has to do more with their own elitist backgrounds, rather than a genuine sympathy for the weaker sections of the Indian society.

[14] In a lecture delivered on 11th October 1999 on the Aryan question at the Jawarlal Nehru University (New Delhi), Romila Thapar remarks – “Whether it is the media, newspapers, popular books, whatever it may be everybody imagines that they are experts on the Aryans. And you get an absolutes mass of total nonsense that comes on. And now a days of course the problem is that internet is getting full of all these. And so those students who think that they can bypass library reading by surfing the internet very often have a rude shock because they reproduce a lot of this garbage and then discover their teacher telling them they are getting failure grades because it does not hold.” It is unfortunate that while Universities all over the world considers the Internet as a valuable medium for research and instruction, Marxist historians like Thapar have such negative views of the same just because it threatens their hegemony over the right to indulge in historical interpretations. The article is available on the Internet (!) at http://members.tripod.com/ascjnu/aryan.html



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