The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the battle over India’s history, Hindu nationalists square off against a respected historian

Historians Romila Thapar and Harbans Mukhia address students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in 2016. (Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — Romila Thapar is the preeminent historian of ancient India, an octogenarian feted the world over for her scholarship excavating answers to questions at the heart of the country's past. She holds honorary doctorates from top universities including Oxford, is the recipient of the Kluge Prize — akin to the Nobel in social sciences — and has lectured at colleges across the world.

Those decades of research and accolades have turned her into a prime target.

At the age of 89, Thapar is the subject of attacks by supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, who view her as an opponent to be discredited.

“In the early days, I used to get a little upset,” she said. Accusations of ignorance about ancient Indian history quickly devolve into “pornographic and sexist” remarks. “But it’s happened so frequently and regularly that it doesn’t distress me anymore,” she said.

At stake is India’s sense of self. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pursuing an agenda that emphasizes Hindu primacy in India — a vast, multireligious democracy founded on secular ideals. History is a key part of that vision.

For Hindu nationalists, India’s past consists of a glorious Hindu civilization followed by centuries of Muslim rule that Modi has described as a thousand years of “slavery.”

Thapar considers such assertions both simplistic and incorrect. Based on extensive research of Sanskrit and Prakrit texts and drawing upon archaeological data, she presents a more complex picture of Indian history. Her research and writings undermine the ruling party’s efforts to project a unified Hindu tradition stretching back thousands of years and to paint Muslim rulers of India as nothing more than invaders or tyrants.

Thapar’s work “changed the way India’s past is understood both at home and across the world,” read the citation of the Kluge Prize awarded to her in 2008 by the Library of Congress. In India, her work is part of the authoritative canon among academics who have used it as the foundation for further research.

“Romila Thapar is a remarkable scholar whose oeuvre is extensive and beyond reproach,” said Audrey Truschke, a historian specializing in South Asia at Rutgers University who has also faced criticism from government supporters for her work on Muslim rulers of India. Thapar, she said, “does not bow to political pressures but rather is a model of what it means to be an ethical historian.”

Hindu nationalists project “ancient history as Hindu history,” whereas Thapar and other historians of similar views gave space “to the other peoples of the subcontinent and their religions as well as a fuller picture of the past,” Thapar said.

Thapar said attempts to humiliate her for her work have come from even trusted institutions. In 2019, Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where Thapar spent decades teaching, sent her a letter asking her to submit her curriculum vitae so officials could “review” her status as an emeritus professor, an honorary title normally given for life.

The notion that a scholar of Thapar’s stature would need to submit her credentials for reevaluation sparked outrage. Thapar, who declined to comply, took it as a warning from the ruling party and its ideological allies. The intent, she said, was “to show that unless we all bend at the knee, we will be subjected to public ridicule.”

Officials at the university denied that the move was meant to demean her. “If someone asks for my CV, how is that humiliating me?” asked Pramod Kumar, the university registrar. In the end, officials did not carry out the review.

Thapar and others said the incident is reflective of declining academic freedom as Modi’s party has sought to seize control of progressive, left-leaning institutions of higher education by appointing loyalists to key administrative positions.

The vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University is a controversial figure who proposed installing an Army tank on campus to “instill nationalism” in students and is blamed for changing administrative rules to favor his supporters.

In 2001, Thapar criticized the then-BJP government’s move to delete references to beef consumption in ancient India from textbooks she had authored, terming it election propaganda. (Cow slaughter is illegal in most Indian states.) Since Modi was elected, she has frequently made a distinction between Hinduism the religion and Hindutva the political formulation of Hindu majoritarianism espoused by his party.

Historians like Thapar have “undervalued and consciously rejected many of the achievements of ancient India,” said Rakesh Sinha, a right-leaning academic associated with Modi’s party. Sinha said Thapar was guided by Marxism and had a Eurocentric view. “They take only those parts of history which undermine India’s image as a cultural and intellectual society,” he said.

But being a political target for over three decades has not slowed Thapar. In October, her 30th book title, “Voices of Dissent,” tracing the history and evolution of dissent in the Indian subcontinent, was published. Critics of the government, including Thapar, say dissent is increasingly being criminalized.

In 2018, Thapar and four other public intellectuals approached India’s Supreme Court to petition for a court-monitored investigation into the case of a dozen well-regarded activists, lawyers and academics who had been charged under a stringent anti-terror law for conspiracy to assassinate Modi.

“They are the kind of people who spoke openly about what troubled them in the functioning of society and of the socio-economic problems that need attention,” she said.

Two years later, the trial has not begun and the accused remain in jail.

Thapar, who never married, has an illustrious family background. Her father was an Army doctor, and her uncle served as the chief of the Indian Army in the 1960s. Her brother was a prominent journalist, and her cousin is a famous television anchor.

With bright eyes, white hair tied neatly in a small bun and reading glasses perched on the nose, Thapar makes for an unlikely public enemy. She speaks in slow, measured sentences and shies away from media appearances.

“Staying home because of the pandemic is, as my nephew said to me, a kind of house arrest,” said Thapar, who has left her house just three times since March, to meet with family. Besides writing a book, she reluctantly learned how to Zoom and enjoyed the luxury of time to think, particularly about the rapid changes to Indian society.

“I, too, despair and quite often,” Thapar said. “Then I have to pull myself up and tell myself that when one hits rock bottom, there is only one thing left to do, and that is to start clambering up again.”

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