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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Prof D N Jha: Iconoclast scholar who made ancient history contemporary

A former professor and chair at the Department of History at Delhi University specialising in ancient and medieval history, Jha consistently called out what he saw as distortions of Indian history.

Written by Devyani Onial | Dehradun |
Updated: February 5, 2021 7:20:39 am
Prof D N Jha: Iconoclast scholar who made ancient history contemporaryProf D N Jha passed away on Thursday. He was 81.

A historian whose work on India’s ancient past often found its way into its polarised present, Prof D N Jha was never afraid to speak his mind.

A former professor and chair at the Department of History at Delhi University specialising in ancient and medieval history, Jha consistently called out what he saw as distortions of Indian history.

Whether it was challenging the notion of the Gupta age as being the “golden age” of Indian history, or showing that the sacred status of the cow was a much later development than is frequently claimed, or documenting religious violence in ancient India, Jha’s works and words played out in the battlefield of politics in modern India.

Jha passed away on Thursday. He was 81.

“He was a stickler for historical facts, for empirical evidence. He wouldn’t make any statement without sound empirical basis. Because of his empiricism, he was constantly challenging what he would call the distortions of Indian history,” historian Harbans Mukhia, who taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said.

Jha graduated in history from Presidency College, Kolkata, and did his post-graduation from Patna University. In a career spanning over three decades, Jha remained a life-long crusader against communal readings of ancient and medieval history, repeatedly taking on ideological readings of the past.

In May 1991, Jha and three other historians prepared a document titled ‘Babri Mosque or Rama’s Birthplace? Historians’ Report to the Indian Nation’, which argued on the basis of textual and archaeological evidence that there was no Hindu temple under the Babri Masjid. This ran counter to findings submitted by the ASI, and the Supreme Court in 2019 dismissed the historians’ report as an “opinion” at best.

“From 1986 onwards, the momentum on Ram Janmabhoomi was gaining ground and he was the Secretary of the Indian History Congress, I was the treasurer then, and we faced the heat,” said Prof T K Venkatasubramanian, former Head of the Department of History at Delhi University. “But he was a very bold man, he wrote on the contentious issue of the holy cow… His writings were considered anti-Brahmin, but he never minced his words.”

In 2001, Jha published The Myth of the Holy Cow, which argued that “the flesh (of the cow) was very much a part of the early Indian non-vegetarian food regimen…though attitudinal divergences to beef consumption are also reflected in Indian religious and secular texts”. He stuck to his argument through a firestorm of hostility, abuse, and threats, and repeated it in summary in numerous interviews and articles for years afterward.

In his personal life, Jha was easily accessible and sociable, several people who knew him closely said. “I knew him very well for a long time. He was a very affectionate man. I had never been his student or his colleague but as a fellow historian, he would always appreciate your work,” said historian S Irfan Habib, former Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.

“For such a senior historian, he would never feel constrained to call and check some facts with you. He was a very popular teacher and a courageous man. This was an old generation, people who came from Bihar, a whole bunch of them – Professors K M Shrimali, R S Sharma, RL Shukla — all came from Patna,” Habib said.

Audrey Truschke, associate professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University, said, “I met Dr D N Jha once, in August 2018 in Delhi, for a delightful Sunday brunch. I recall that his driver got a bit lost on the way to the restaurant, which gave us an extra 30-45 minutes to talk about Indian history. I have always been impressed by Dr Jha’s scholarly work, integrity, and strength. I also recall that he brought me a stack of books, some of his books and some by other people. One of his legacies is to pass on a continual pursuit of knowledge and scholarship.”

Vishwa Mohan Jha, who teaches history at Delhi University and wrote the foreword to a recent re-publication of Jha’s 1967 PhD dissertation, said he would always be remembered as an original outstanding historian. “Whatever he had written is ‘history’, as they say. He enjoyed being an iconoclast… Ancient history can be very contemporary. More than 10 years ago, women in a Bangalore pub had been attacked and one of the arguments used by the attackers was that the consumption of wine was not a part of ancient Indian culture. Then he and Mrinal Pande wrote several articles arguing against that contention,” Vishwa Mohan Jha said.

He added that even as D N Jha delighted in controversy, his scholarship must be emphasised, with his diverse interventions in work even in South Indian history and in the debate on Indian feudalism.

(Inputs from Sukrita Baruah, Surbhi Gupta, and Paromita Chakrabarti)

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