The Past as Present (Aleph Book Company), Romila Thapar’s new volume of essays, recollects her best work for the general reader. The articles span four decades and retrace her enduring concern — the evolution of Indian history as a discipline, as it changed from a reflection of the colonial world view to a nationalist project, as its focus changed from the genealogy of strife to factors of historical change like the economy and ecology, and as the scientific laboratory came to the aid of trusty old tools like epigraphy and philology. It also explains why these developments were politically disturbing, and how the door to electorally potent pseudo-history was opened. Having witnessed the rapidity with which educational issues involving the human resource development ministry moved to the front pages after the formation of the new government, these essays look like reliable field guides to the near future.
Thapar had come into conflict with the state over her book on ancient history in the first set of NCERT school textbooks. The series had modernised the teaching of history in India, introducing economic, social and cultural inquiry that the colonial era, focused on imperial and military concerns, had ignored. But when Morarji Desai’s government took office, he “forwarded an anonymous note to the Education Minister, asking that these history textbooks be banned as they were anti-Indian and anti-national in content and prejudicial to the study of history”.
Desai failed, but Hindutva almost succeeded. In the first NDA government, MPs reviled authors of liberal history texts in Parliament, from behind the shield of privilege. Portions of these books discussing problematics like caste and food habits in early India, or insufficiently demonising the Muslim nobility, were blacked out. However, the debacle of India Shining scuppered a project to write fresh textbooks and now, it is generally agreed across political lines that Murli Manohar Joshi’s tenure in the HRD ministry was a bad dream come true.
Interestingly, Thapar suggests that historical nationalism is not exclusive to the right. She writes of a post-Partition scramble to discover Indus sites in India, since Mohenjo Daro and Harappa had been lost to Pakistan. It was a good thing, since the footprint of the civilisation widened far beyond the Indus Valley, but had the political culture been less than liberal, archaeologists may have been under pressure to discover (or invent) signs of proto-Hinduism in Hisar and Ropar. Recently, the Archaeological Survey of India had suffered the trauma of having to seek an artificial bridge between India and Sri Lanka, and one feared that it would even find empirical evidence that squirrels were involved in its construction. With such precedents, anything is possible.
All nationalist projects use selective readings of the remote past to justify currently popular prejudices, and the diversification of history is opening up the game. New histories of gender and caste are already ticking bombs. Now, if the Nishadas are discovered to have harboured strong opinions on mining, that would really set the tyrannosaurus among the pterodactyls.