Sunday, 6 July 2014

Book Review :The Past As Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History by Romila Thapar

The Past As Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History by Romila Thapar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hardcover: 344 pages
Publisher: Aleph Book Company; First edition (23 April 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9383064013
ISBN-13: 978-9383064014
Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 14.4 x 3 cm

India had no history or historians. So the English said and went about creating their little history book on India which was only about three centuries since they shipped themselves into India that is..There was no science, empirical techniques, proveable records, archaeology developed enough amongst other things, to claim, otherwise, the British complained. Sadly. a large part of books and history on India parroted this colonial thesis. India became independent and a brand/type of nationalist historians were born the Mukherjees,Raychauchaudris,Majumdars, Vincent Smith et all..And the contrarian viewpoint was from a brand of 'subalterns',Ranajit Guha, Irfan Habib, Sarkar, Partha Chatterjee, RS Sharma,Bipin Chandra Ms Thapar included. The latter, a motley group supported a materialistic historical interpretation and hence this kind of research bore a certain stamp and style.Ms Thapar, notably, is against a 'communal interpretation' of history, for they are invariably 'partisan'or 'selective' and do not go by modern tools or methodologies of seeking and investigating 'multiple, prioritised causes'.Arun Shourie a prominent critic and practicing politician, though would have us believe the central issues of understanding history and its interpretation are caught up in the cross-hairs of nationalist historians vs Marxist hagiography.

Like all victors the so-called left-leaning historians seemed to receive a certain patronage from the Congress Party for a long while and their history writing style was encouraged officially. Politics being dynamic was undergoing a change gradually in Independent India and this or such a viewpoint started to getting challenged.There were numerous views and opinions and all felt had justification enough to be heard.The season of alternative histories had been spawned from the fertile eggs of a new found democracy. The Right or BJP and its kind which also sees the sense of history as a cultural and political desideratum wants to a be part of this process, too. It is into this competitive dialectics, quite legitimately,thus, that the contestations are underlined in.

One does read increasingly,regrettably though, of a new kind of intolerance. Very physical and coercive it is. Very violent. The banning of Ramanujam’s articles on Ramayana, the forcible exile of arguably the best known artist M F Hussain,non-publishing of Donigers books on Hinduism and the rise of a Batra Brigade bringing to the fore- a kind of thought control which is non-scientific,non-emiprical, a-historical and mythology based historical revival of Hinduism as an argument of force and power. Exactly the kind the British masters of yore had bemoaned, perhaps.

Notwithstanding, whether Left or Right, it has to be seen though that the 'identified' linkages of political power and historical research do they in the end, (if there is one) help in nation building and the continuity of its core values(whatever they are as it is in the debate) in the future. It can never be denied that the success of the arguments made in the reviewed book is also interestingly linked to the fear that a new age of non-ideology and digital overdrive, thoroughly technology driven would quite wipe out a nuanced and rigorous understanding of our past, history and politics. The alternative rewriting of history,the dressing up of right wing icons like Shyma Prasd Mukherjee, talk of return to 'linguistic nationalism', "civilisational consciousness"(read homogenised Hindu -dominated history of India) as proposed for in the BJP Manifesto or as is one already witness to is bad augury and appears to be a suspicious onslaught on the memory and recall of generations now and in years to come.For secularism is deemed to be intellectual snobbery and religion is unfairly seen as superstition,“a hypocrisy … a staged unfairness which treated minority violations as superior to majoritarian prejudices”:Modi and his kind drum this kind of historical apathy and anti-nationalism to be the bane of these government-funded researches of history..It is here that we begin to read wily and mischievous new interpretations on the process of nation building . How then secularism gets back to its true meaning of 'religion' being separate from the 'state', is a moot question for all in terms of contemporary identities:Hindu, including all castes and Dalits,Muslims i.e. Shias, Sunnis and other minorities ?

A word about Ms Romila Thapar and her impeccable integrity would be in order, here.In January 2005, she declined the Padma Bhushan awarded by the Indian Government. In a letter to President A P J Abdul Kalam, she said she was "astonished to see her name in the list of awardees because three months ago when I was contacted by the HRD ministry and asked if I would accept an award, I made my position very clear and explained my reason for declining it". Thapar had declined the Padma Bhushan on an earlier occasion, in 1992. To the President, she explained the reason for turning down the award thus: "I only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not state awards". That Ms Thapar has been a pioneer of sorts in pursuing a certain scientific and anti-essentialist interpretation of history is beyond doubt.It focuses more about what happens below and among the masses rather than the elites. As to how much of it survives or spurs others in continuing and furthering in part or whole,as not a mere academic debate but a living, objective history of the people will in the ultimate analysis be the judge and jury.It would be particularly gainful to remember that Ms Romila Thapar has always agreed to the right of the Hindus for a 'culturally sensitive and fair' representation as against an "unscientific and religious based material that distorts the truth and pushes a political agenda'.

For the moment we are sanguine ,however,only victors do not write histories. Heroes do not determine the consequence of wars and we learn from history to correct our mistakes. Early India is no longer about the Hindus; neither is the middle period of the Mughals and Muslims. Nor the last three hundred years about the English.

Hear this accomplished and much respected activist-historian speak:

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