Romila Thapar Is One of India’s Bravest Public Intellectuals

Romila Thapar has transformed our view of India’s past, questioning myths first devised by British colonial ideologues before they were taken up by Hindu chauvinists. Her courage and integrity have put her at odds with Narendra Modi’s government.

Historian Romila Thapar, alongside colleague Harbans Mukhia, addressing students at Jawaharlal Nehru University on March 6, 2016 in New Delhi, India. (Sushil Kumar / Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Romila Thapar is one of India’s foremost historians and has made an immense contribution in the field of early Indian history. Thapar is best known for her writings against the communalization of India’s past and right-wing historical fabrications. Through her work on the periodization of Indian history and the history of religious beliefs and communities, she has exposed the chauvinistic agenda of the far right and its efforts to manufacture a falsified view of the past.

Thapar was born in 1931 in a Punjabi Khatri (traders) family. She belonged to a household where male members of the family worked in different echelons of the colonial administration, and received her school education in several different cities of what was then undivided India.

Her parents were close to people like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the anti-colonial activist who was known as the “Frontier Gandhi.” While studying at St Mary’s High School in Pune, she used to go to Gandhi’s own prayer gatherings, and remembers that on Gandhi’s advice, she started wearing khadi clothing for some time.

While her family had a liberal approach to her education, it was still an unconventional, even radical move for her to pursue higher studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Her father, Daya Ram Thapar, offered her the choice between pursuing higher education abroad or getting married comfortably with money saved as a dowry for her marriage at home. Thapar chose the path of education.

Moving Away From Indology

When Thapar was a student, two strands of historiography dominated the study of India’s early history: Indological and nationalist. The discipline of Indology was created to advance the colonial agenda of explaining the development of Indian society in terms of spiritualism and religion. It focused primarily on elite textual sources, the majority of which were composed in Sanskrit.

The methodological problem with the discipline was that it emphasized the collection of information rather than the interpretation of these sources. In spite of the scholarly vigor of some towering figures, such as Thapar’s own doctoral supervisor, A. L. Basham, the approach of the discipline remained unchanged. Basham made a seminal contribution in studying the socio-religious components of early Indian society, yet India remained to him a land of “wonder,” as conjured up by the title of one of his best-known books, The Wonder That Was India.

Nationalist historians, on the other hand, were preoccupied with a search for the “Golden Age” of the Indian past, when people lived in harmony and close cooperation under the aegis of the Hindu kings. Needless to say, both forms of historiography were inadequate for explaining the development of social, political, and economic organizations, state structures, or institutions like caste, religion, and patriarchy, which inflicted discrimination and exploitation on various sections of Indian society over the course of many centuries.

Thapar made a conscious decision to move away from both of these trends. Her doctoral project, later published in 1961 as Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, looked at the history of the Mauryan empire with a focus on epigraphic sources. The Mauryas rose to prominence in the latter half of the fourth century BCE with their stronghold in the northern Gangetic plain. The physical expansion of the empire reached its zenith under Asoka during the third century BCE, establishing its presence in different parts of the subcontinent.

By shifting the focus away from the empire’s dynastic history, Thapar explained and interpretated the formation of the state as a process, encapsulating political, economic, religious, and ideological factors. She used Indica, a text composed by the Greek historian and diplomat Megasthenes, as a source for analysing the social history of the time. In terms of source materials and methodology alike, Thapar was a pioneering historian who changed the way early India is studied.

Thapar moved to Delhi and eventually joined the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Socioeconomic concerns were at the center of historical discussions in which she took part during the 1960s and ’70s, a period that was formative for her academic journey. During these years, she developed some of her most significant arguments on the development of social formations and the processes of early Indian history.

These interests are clearly visible in her attempt to contextualize the transition from a pastoralist Vedic society to the formation of states in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. The 1984 book From Lineage to State: Social Formations in the Mid-First Millennium BC in the Ganga Valley presented her arguments. Thapar’s exchanges with such historians as D. D. Kosambi, R. S. Sharma, Eric Hobsbawm, and George Rudé, as well as colleagues at the Delhi School of Economics like Amartya Sen and Sukhamoy Chakraborty, assisted her greatly in the elaboration of these ideas.

Of these scholars, Kosambi made a seminal contribution in shifting the focus away from Indology to history while Sharma produced texts like Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India, which offered a materialist view of the past. We should also note here the important discussion known as the “Feudalism Debate” about the characterization of early Indian society, broadly between 600 and 1200 CE.

Marxist historians like Sharma and D. N. Jha contributed to this debate with different perspectives on feudal social relations. The idea that this was a period of economic and urban decline was central for their arguments. Scholars like Irfan Habib, on the other hand, rejected the label of “Indian Feudalism” for this period. A significant critique also came from two JNU historians, Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya and Harbans Mukhia.

For her part, Thapar did not participate in the debate, but she has developed the concept of “Threshold Time” for a time frame spanning the years between 300 CE and 700 CE. She defines this as a phase containing social, economic, and cultural developments that were in continuity with the later period, dismissing the notion of decline.

Although Thapar relied on other disciplines like social anthropology, she heavily borrowed from the conceptual frameworks put forward by Marcel Mauss, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and others for her interpretation of the economic aspects of pastoral and state societies and the close connections between the state and religion. This shift was important because it refuted the colonial interpretation of Indian society as being stagnant and devoid of any element that could advance processes of historical change.

Against Communalism

In his History of British India, published between 1818 and 1823, James Mill put forward the idea of dividing Indian history into three segments: Hindu, Muslim, and British. The agenda behind this approach sought to vilify Turko-Persian rule in the subcontinent. It was also evident in the introduction to an eight-volume work, The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians (1867–77) by Henry Elliot and John Dowson, which stated that the Hindus would have to accept that British rule was far superior from their perspective to that of the Muslims.

For their part, nationalist historians did not attempt to criticize the Hindu–Muslim–British periodization, as it was a comfortable fit for their own schema of a “Golden Hindu Age” that was disrupted by a “Muslim invasion,” following which the civilization of India passed into a “Dark Age.” Thapar and her colleagues Harbans Mukhia and Bipan Chandra developed an important critique of this framework in three separate essays that were published together in 1969 as Communalism and the Writing of Indian History.

In her own contribution, Thapar insists that there was no basis for labeling ancient India as “Hindu.” She notes that the rulers of that period followed and extended their patronage to a range of religions and sects. She also questions the division of the past into “ancient,” “medieval,” and “modern,” a Eurocentric approach that long remained influential. Instead, she suggests we should describe the time frame between the first millennium BCE and 1300 CE as that of Early India.

Just as the nationalist historians had borrowed the periodization of British colonial scholars, the proponents of Hindutva ideology appropriated the Orientalist claim of Aryan superiority. The classification of the people living in Vedic society as members of the Aryan race relies on European racial concepts, applied to the Indian past in a contrived and inaccurate manner. There were different sets of people in the Vedic culture who were not identified as Aryan since they did not speak Sanskrit.

The founding ideologues of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) gave this racial theory an additional religious dimension. In their theorization, the religious identity of the Hindus became central to the conception of Aryanism. They also claimed that the Hindus were the descendants of indigenous Aryans and should thus be considered the true inheritors of the land.

Using the Vedic corpus, Thapar argues that “Aryan” (or “Arya”) was not a racial but rather a linguistic category. There is a range of evidence from different fields — linguistics, archaeology, and more recently genetics — that cuts against the chauvinistic propaganda of the RSS and its co-thinkers. We have seen this debate renewed again and again, often through the undermining of evidence or the control of information by state-run institutions.

At a time when we find popular myths or manufactured tales about the past being peddled as history, Thapar has stressed the duty of historians to stick with the evidence. She has also warned us not to fall into the trap of confusing historical sources with actual historical processes. For example, popular perception often views everything depicted in the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata as if it were history.

In her study The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India (2013), Thapar contends that we can indeed use these texts as sources for writing history. They reflect upon processes of transition from one form to another and deal with social relations of the time, so one can trace an embedded sense of consciousness about the past in these texts. However, no one should look at them as faithful documents recording actual historical events.

Religious Nationalism and Imagined Communities

Since India gained its independence in the 1940s, the way that we define the Indian nation has become a matter of bitter controversy. As Thapar wrote in 2016:

For Indians of my age who grew up on the cusp of Independence, nationalism was in the air we breathed. Nationalism was not something problematic. It was an identity with the nation and its society.

Indian nationalism in this form never demanded loyalty to any particular religion, caste, ethnicity, region, or other sectarian identity. However, far-right Hindutva forces have attacked and abused this sense of inclusive nationalism emanating from India’s anti-colonial struggle. For the votaries of Hindutva, nationalism can only mean conforming to their own falsified idea of Hindu nationalism.

This ideology offers two contrasting images, that of Muslims as invading “outsiders,” and that of Hindus as homogenous, unchanging “insiders.” Through many of her writings over the course of decades, Thapar has questioned this notion of Indian society as being divided between two religious communities that are binary opposites.

In her famous 1988 lecture, “Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity,” she argues that there was no such thing as a Hindu religion as the Hindutva partisans would understand it in early India. What is now labeled as “Hinduism,” Thapar points out, has its origins in Vedic and later Puranic Brahmanical religion.

Alongside these forms of belief, alternative religious or philosophical currents existed such as Buddhism, Jainism, and the Ajivika religion. Thapar also notes that India in the second half of the first millennium BCE even had the presence of a vibrant materialist philosophical tradition represented by the Charvakas or Lokayatas.

In fact, we could best describe the Puranic Brahmanic religion as an agglomeration of various religious sects, with their affiliations directed toward either Vaishnavism or Saivism. There were severe interreligious and sectarian rivalries in the battle for state and elite patronage. Thapar gives an example of such competition dating from the seventh century CE in the present-day state of Tamil Nadu, where the Siva sects attacked the local Jain order, virtually ousting the monks (Shramanas) from the territory.

All the religious institutions used to compete amongst themselves for endowments from locally powerful ruling houses and communities. The elites would often extend patronage to competing religions and sects to augment their own prestige and support base.

The conflict between these sects were not merely ideological or scriptural, but often involved unabashed violence. Even in such cases, however, it never took the form of a war cry calling for the destruction of an entire community of those who belonged to a particular sect. These bouts of violence happened at the local level.

For Thapar, the development of religious beliefs and practices went through various changes over the course of Indian history, never resulting in the formation of a monolithic religion of any variety. She notes that we can best view the institution of religion as consisting of distinct and disparate sects and castes that operate along a social continuum. Association with any particular sect or belief did not necessarily mean the formation of a religious community. There were multiple forms of identity in South Asia, and sectarian confrontations at the upper levels of society might have no impact further down the social scale.

While talking about religious persecution, Thapar brings up the question of untouchability, which is the most brutal form of oppression validated by the Brahmanic religion. This poses a challenge to those who believe in the superiority of the Hindu religion, since they have absolved it of responsibility for all forms of exploitation and oppression, including untouchability.

In similar fashion, she questions the idea of a homogenized Muslim community. The invention of these “imagined communities” — a term that she borrows from Benedict Anderson — has served the ideologies of religious nationalism. Thapar has frequently cited Hobsbawm’s remark that “history is to nationalism what poppy is to a heroin addict.”

Listening to the Voices of History

The impact of a heightened sense of nationalism was brutally demonstrated in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. The Hindu chauvinist forces organized through the Sangh Parivar organized a ratha yatra (a type of religious procession), which was led by the national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Lal Krishna Advani. The campaign of the Sangh, which had been going on for several years, culminated in the destruction of the mosque and communal rioting that claimed thousands of lives.

The ratha yatra began from the temple of Somanatha on India’s western coast. The Sangh justified this choice of starting point by asserting that it was a question of undoing a “historic wrong.” They claimed that the subcontinent fell under foreign (Muslim) rule after the invasion by Mahmud of Ghazni in the eleventh century CE, who supposedly vandalized and looted the temple of Somanatha.

One of Thapar’s most powerful pieces of writing, Somanatha: The Many Voices of History (2004), came against this backdrop. She demonstrates that there is no unitary voice we can trace in the historical sources, whether contemporary or later, about Mahmud’s raid. She argues that we can only find hyperinflated claims about the magnitude of the raid in Turko-Persian sources, which had their own political agenda. None of the other sources, such as Brahmanical or Jain texts, have anything to say about the raid or its aftermath.

What emerges from these sources instead is an image of a region flourishing on trade across the Indian Ocean and accommodating Arabs as well as other, non-Sunni Muslim communities like the Shias, the Ismailis, and the Bohras. No historical source, whether from the time or afterward, talks about any “Hindu trauma” as a result of the raid. It was the British governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, who first promoted this idea, which was later picked up by the Hindu fundamentalists. 

Thapar asks why there would be complete silence about the destruction of Somanatha temple in all the sources, other than the Turko-Persian ones, if it were a historical event of such magnitude. She could only find one Jain text that stated that the temple was in a state of disrepair due to weathering from sea spray and in need of renovation.

In the rest of the book, Thapar moves further in time to show how local communities of northern India, both Hindu and Muslim, later developed folk traditions of their own in which Mahmud’s nephew, known as Ghazi Miyan, and Mahmud himself became symbols of cultural syncretism. She questions the Hindutva attempt to remedy a supposed historic injury of which there is no evidence in popular consciousness, presenting the whole episode as an invention of British colonialist and Hindu fundamentalist forces — a deliberate attempt to create what she calls “historical memory without history.”

A Public Intellectual

In India today, mosques are being demolished under the state’s watch while members of religious minorities and Dalits are lynched with active support from the current political regime, defenders of rationalism are murdered, and intellectuals are put behind bars. Under such conditions, it is important to celebrate the contributions made by scholars like Thapar in upholding India’s secular and democratic values.

Alongside her contribution to Indian historiography, she has written textbooks for middle-school children and participated in the work of building up public universities. Under the rule of Narendra Modi, with any form of dissent not only dismissed but even branded as “anti-national,” Thapar has courageously taken up the role of a public intellectual.

She did not hesitate to visit the protest site of Shaheen Bagh in solidarity with women fighting for their constitutional rights. She also came out in defense of JNU, where she taught for several decades, as it faced continuous attack from the BJP government. In 2020, she offered a timely intervention with her booklet Voices of Dissent: An Essay, discussing examples of dissent in Indian society at several different historical junctures.

In spite of being the target for decades of vindictive and misogynistic attacks, Thapar has remained unmoved. Today, when amateurish claims are presented in the guide of genuine history, Thapar reminds us that a historian must always go with her evidence.