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Who Writes History? Romila Thapar and the Textbooks of India

When historian Romila Thapar first reviewed student textbooks in her native India, she was surprised. “I was appalled by the quality of the information that was being conveyed in these books,” she wrote in a 2009 journal article recalling the experience. Particularly, she was struck by “an adherence to outdated ideas and generally colonial views of the Indian past” that the textbooks presented.[1]

It was 1961, and modern-day India was a young country seeking a national identity. With the departure of the British colonial administration in 1947, and the ensuing conflict between the newly formed independent nations of India and Pakistan, such profound upheavals necessitated the formation of new historical narratives–accounts that explained what collective pasts united these societies and what religious, social and cultural shifts created dissension and division. The unification of India itself created a political entity that needed to root its vast diversity in a richer understanding of its history and heritage.

Thapar was of a generation of Indians who sought to define the new Indian identity. Though an established academic historian with scant familiarity with schoolbooks, she agreed to write two history textbooks for the government as part of a project for the newly formed nation. These were targeted for middle school, and one was on the history of ancient India and the other on its medieval period. True to her academic rigor, however, she refused to perpetuate pious myths or distorted colonial interpretations of the Indian past. She insisted that her books would provide a kind of history that would contribute to the Indian child’s nuanced understanding of the past through critical interpretation and evidence-based research.

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Romila Thapar, co-recipient of the 2008 Kluge Prize

Thapar’s textbooks were published in the late 1960s and quickly sparked controversy. In 1969, members of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee insisted that Thapar’s textbook state categorically that Aryans were indigenous to India. Thapar could not find sufficient evidence to support the claim and the demand was ultimately rejected.

More controversies followed. Thapar’s textbooks were accused of not doing justice to regional personalities. Religious organizations felt their respective religions and religious teachers had not been properly glorified. In her textbook on ancient India, Thapar noted that ancient Aryans venerated the cow, but like all cattle-herders, ate cow meat on ritual occasions or when honoring a guest. Hindu organizations protested, arguing that not eating beef was, and always had been, essential to Hinduism. A lengthy article in a leading newspaper argued that there was no mention of eating beef in ancient Sanskrit sources, to which Thapar responded by quoting a text that unambiguously refuted the claim. This did not stop her critics; Thapar was further castigated, and told she was questioning orthodox opinion and encouraging students to do likewise.

Even more attacks followed. In the 1970s, officials lobbied for her textbooks to be proscribed. Attacks came again in the late 1990s, as her books were accused of being anti-Hindu and anti-Indian, charges for which she received death threats. Through it all, Thapar argued for the legitimacy of independent historical interpretations based on reliable evidence. She asserted that textbooks should not merely recite cherished myths but provide researched and rational explanations of the past.

Thapar’s lifelong study of the nearly 2,000 years of history revealed an Indian past that was more fluid, both temporally and spatially, than the periods delineated in textbooks or the boundaries drawn on maps. People and their beliefs migrated, mingled, interplayed and intersected to create the richness and uniqueness of India. Thapar challenged the purported singularity of Indian heritage, and the timeline of a Hindu golden age followed by a Muslim period of decline that facilitated British conquest. She argued against the notion formed by historians within the British colonial structure that Indian civilization was static and lacked a sense of history, an inertia broken only by British colonial administration legislating change.

Even in the United States, history textbooks are not infrequently a battlefield for controversy. On the one hand, they are often assumed to convey a generally-accepted version of the past, one that allows students to comprehend basic concepts as well as grand narratives. But history is concerned with change, and as circumstances change, and new sources come to light, historical interpretation evolves. When fresh research challenges received opinions, the reaction can precipitate dismay and rejection. Thapar is a scholar who has defended the methodology of the historian even in the face of the most virulent criticism.

At the award ceremony for the 2008 Kluge Prize, which Thapar shared with historian Peter Brown, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington thanked John W. Kluge for enabling the award as a “pinnacle recognition of the kind of scholarship that the country needs – the world needs.” Thapar’s work exemplifies scholarly courage summoned to the interest of her country as it grappled with the legacy of its own history – even a history 2,000 years old. As Thapar writes in reflecting on the present-day effects of our ancient past on today:

“Ancient history in particular has a special significance for contemporary times, especially in developing societies. In part this is because so much of the ancient past is still visible and evocative. But more importantly, identities, and the heritage linked to nationalism, still hinge on the interpretation of early history. In any broader understanding of the present it helps to be informed not only about the recent past but also about the remote past: the citizens of the future need willingness to distinguish critically but also to explore connections.”[2]

This post is the first in a series on past recipients of the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. The Kluge Prize will be bestowed again in September 2015 with an accompanying $1.5 million award. #KlugePrize.

Notes

[1] Thapar, Romila. “The History Debate and School Textbooks in India: A Personal Memoir.” History Workshop Journal, Issue 67, Spring 2009; p. 87

[2] Ibid, 97.

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