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To target Romila Thapar is to target a new way of asking questions and writing history

The truth is that, regardless of the governments in power, universities need academic freedom to flourish, they need fresh air.

Written by Vijay Singh |
Updated: October 1, 2019 10:41:09 am
Romila Thapar, Romila Thapar cv, JNU Romla Thapar, jnu seeks Romila Thapar cv, jnu administration, historian romila thapar, indian express Historian Romila Thapar.

Before heading back to Paris, I decided to visit Romila Thapar who had been in the news for the insidious interrogation of her status as professor emerita at JNU. She referred then, with a certain distraughtness so rare to spot in her, to an ancient formula that sets out the pattern of debate — Purvapaksh-Pratipaksh Siddhanta. According to it, one first spells out the opponent’s position as truthfully as one can, and then refutes it point by point before setting out one’s own position. This principle was put forward in an ancient Indian text as a methodical way of reaching an intellectual resolution and ensuring further progress. The immediate context for referring to this principle was our conversation about the spate of ill-informed and foul comments she has been receiving, and how far their writers could be from the debating siddhanta of ancient India. I was outraged to hear about such language, insulting as they were to one of our most eminent intellectuals in the world.

When I reached Paris, I reached out to Charles Malamoud, an honorary professor of history at L’Ecole of Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and a very respected historian of ancient India. It was Malamoud who first translated DD Kosambi’s work into French. “I was outraged to hear about Romila being asked for her CV,” he fumed. “It’s an act of hostility against independent science, against Romila and all that she represents…”

The conversation with Malamoud led me to speak to Gérard Fussman, the renowned Sanskrit scholar and professor emeritus at the Collège de France, the most prestigious research school here which boasts of 21 Nobel Prizes (Romila Thapar has been a guest lecturer at the Collège). Visibly upset with the JNU administration, Fussman remarked: “Questioning her status is an act of pettiness and jealousy.”

Fussman, who has worked closely with Indian scholars on historical and archaeological projects, wondered if people seeking Thapar’s credentials realised what her contribution to Indian history, and to India, has been. “She is an excellent historian — and much more. She is a towering intellectual in India and abroad. And her greatest contribution is to have Indianised Indian history.”

Fussman, who has devoted a lifetime to a study of the Indian civilisation, reminisced insightfully about an archaeological project undertaken in Chanderi (Madhya Pradesh). “At the end of the day, when we would sit down to discuss our research with the Indian colleagues,” he recollected, “I found there were questions that the Indians were raising, but which had escaped me. Similarly, there were things that had intrigued me, but the Indians hadn’t even thought of them… But in the case of Dr Thapar, this was not the case because she was at home with both the perspectives — Indian and foreign. This is an extremely rare inter-cultural quality in an intellectual, and it is such qualities that have permitted Romila and her colleagues to take a university like JNU from scratch and build it into a great institution.”

In fact, I myself was witness to the nascent years of this university. I wonder whether it was the intellectual stature of our teachers (Thapar, Bipan Chandra, S Gopal, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya) or their manner of inspiring a handful of young minds that turned JNU into a vast, turbulent sea of intellectual passion. Libraries overflowed with students. There was no place to sit in them, they looked like railway platforms. It wasn’t uncommon to see students taking a nap between book racks in the library, while they waited for their next book. People skipped meals as dhabas ran virtually round the clock to cater to their insomniac clientèle. There were passionate discussions everywhere — on buses, at dhabas, in rooms and dining halls.

When I look back at those times with envy or nostalgia, three “teachings” from that era seem to have left an imprint on the mind. The first is a spirit of inquiry — a deathless devotion to the truth and an inner necessity to dig down to the root of the problem. Second, that period of learning infused in us a certain intellectual confidence to stand up to the world. Finally, perhaps the most important, we learnt a new way of perceiving history, a new way of reading our colonial and human experience, a new way of asking questions and writing history. This is “history from below”, written from the perspective of those who live or suffer it.

The truth is that, regardless of the governments in power, universities need academic freedom to flourish, they need fresh air. Intellectual and creative milieux anywhere in the world will always pose awkward questions to the state. They will say and do things that will please or displease the powers that be. But freedom of expression, and of learning, constitutes a sacred space that needs to be guarded as, in the long term, it teaches us — as individuals and as a society — to swim through the enigmas of life and history.

To cite an example that illustrates the sad predicament facing intellectual professions, I once made a film called “India by Song” on the post-1947 Indian history. I thought Doordarshan would be a good platform for its airing, so I proposed it to them. A senior official, who viewed it, liked it and wanted to air it on Republic Day. The film was sent to the in-house review committee which, incidentally, re-censors films which already have a censor certification! One of the committee members called me and said: “It’s such a beautiful film. But why did you have to include Romila Thapar’s interview where she speaks of the Emergency being like a dictatorship? Sorry, we can’t air it.” At that time, the Congress was in power. One year later, the government changed and I spoke to Doordarshan for an airing. This time around, it was someone else who said: “It’s such a nice film but why did you have to speak of the Babri Masjid demolition and the riots.”

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 1, 2019 under the title ‘Her way of seeing’. Singh is a writer and filmmaker living in Paris.

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