New Delhi: The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) administration has sought the curriculum vitae (CV) of renowned historian Romila Thapar to review her status as professor emerita. The authorities have justified the move on the grounds of changes in rules and regulations of the university regarding the continuation of a professor emeritus after turning 75.
The move has stirred a controversy as a section of the academia feels that this is being done to “dishonour the acclaimed historian”, who has been critical of changes in the JNU and for not being on the 'right' side of history writing. Thapar's run-ins with right-wing thinkers and politicians are not new. Some have in the past even called her and other historians of the genre as “the progeny of Macaulay, Marx and the madrassas.”
Thapar has often been accused of toeing a particular political line of thought in the writing of textbooks, including those prescribed at primary and secondary schools by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). The historian has said the impact of such remarks remains marginal on the profession. Her work on ancient India has often been questioned by the right-wing or Indic thinkers. In one of her articles, Thapar has claimed that “those who question their theories are dismissed as Marxists.”
At a time when the eminent historian became a subject of controversy, News18 traces the roots of the chapters that irk the right-wing understanding of history.
The Unbroken Genealogy for the Hindu Race
Thapar has challenged the interpretation of Indian history that seeks to establish the narrative of “an unbroken genealogy for the Hindu as Arya, and therefore, supports the Hindutva reconstruction of events.” Equating the Harappan civilisation with the Vedic times strengthens the notion of an unbroken Hindu Aryan origin for the historical beginnings of both India and Pakistan. Right-wing scholars are working hard to prove that the Vedic and Harappan cultures are same and their antiquities go back to the Fifth Millennium BC. It is also trying to portray that “Aryans are indigenous to India and took the Aryan mission westwards from India.” To the discontent of the Hindu right, she has questioned the claims that the Indus Valley civilization is Vedic and Aryans are indigenous to India.
Beef in Ancient India
Thapar has even criticised the changes made to the NCERT curriculum in 2004. Certain passages pertaining to beef were deleted from history books by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) in contravention of the agreement with the author. The book on Ancient India for Class VI was being studied since 1966 and was revised by Thapar in 1987.
“The passages axed are based on historical evidence and cannot, therefore, be described as one-sided history,” she wrote in a column that was later curated in Delhi Historians’ Groups publication, titled ‘Communalization of Education’. Thapar wrote that the statements were drawn from well-known sources, including the ‘Shatapatha Brahmana 22.214.171.124’ and ‘Vasishtha Dharmasutra 4.8’ that mention honouring guests by serving beef. A statement in the ‘Brihadaranyaka Upanisad 6.4.18’ says that “if a learned and long-lived son is desired, then rice cooked with veal or beef should be eaten,” she wrote.
Plea in Supreme Court
Thapar and four other activists — Prabhat Patnaik, Devaki Jain, Satish Deshpandey and Maja Daruwala — have filed a plea in the Supreme Court against the arrest of Left-wing activists by the Maharashtra Police for suspected links with Maoists.
The petition that was mentioned for urgent hearing before a five-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra said, “Issue appropriate direction, directing an independent investigation into arrest of these human rights activists in June and August 2018 in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon violence”. As a petitioner, she sought independent investigation into the arrest of the activists and alleged that the act was an attempt to muzzle the voice of dissent.
Column in New York Times
In May 2019, Thapar wrote in NYT about the Narendra Modi government’s fascination for history and writing “make-believe-versions of the past.” While expressing her wonder at why was history so important to “Hindu nationalists”, she wrote, “Nationalists are known to construct an acceptable history to identify those they claim constitute the nation; extreme nationalists require their own particular version of the past to legitimise their actions in the present. Rewriting Indian history and teaching their version of it is crucial to justifying the ideology of Hindu nationalists.”
Thapar further accused them of peddling myths and stereotypes through “pliant media networks,” and “teaching these versions as history in schools run by the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh, the parent body of Mr. Modi’s party, which he served as an outreach worker and organiser for numerous years.”