Misplaced Contemporary Past:

Romila Thapar Pic Courtesy: The Hindu
A week ago, ahead of her book launch, the Internet arm of TV channel NDTV published an excerpt from “Indian Cultures As Heritage: Contemporary Pasts” by eminent historian Romila Thapar. In the excerpt, she eloquently articulates about the pressures that have arisen due to political parties claiming to be unhappy with the content being taught in school and college textbooks. This, according to her, paves the way to seek revisions and rewriting of textbooks. Political intrusion, needless to say, must be unanimously condemned, irrespective of our individual and political affiliations. Hence, the aim of this post has been to draw Ms. Thapar’s attention to certain points she makes which deserve to be contested.

In the excerpt, she claims that educational institutions are often used by administrators as stepping stones in order to realise personal ambitions, which results in the credibility of an institution taking a backseat. This is certainly true and one must appreciate her fine eye for observing this. However, it must be mentioned that many of the appointments for administrators are often political. For example, Rajan Welukar, completed his five year term as the Vice-Chancellor of Mumbai University, despite a judicial case on his research credentials. Hence, Ms. Thapar, I hope you will agree with me when I say that political appointments lead to not just a credibility crisis but also a drastic shortfall in research ideas. Small wonder, then, that Mumbai, despite being one of the oldest Universities of the country, fails to appear even in the top 100 universities nationally.

In the book “Eminent Historians”, Arun Shourie effectively brings out the modus operandi of how many Left-leaning historians use their influence to seek an appointment in institutions. The capturing of premiere institutions of the country has fairly been well-documented particularly since the rise of social media. It is, therefore, indeed surprising that the political appointments are not so much of a concern when research projects funded by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) remain incomplete, despite multiple extensions.

Further on, she says, proximity to a certain ideology becomes the driving force of activity. Similar arguments are used to trivialise or dismiss the research done by their right-wing counterparts. For instance, our school textbooks and some of Ms. Thapar’s own books propagated the alleged Aryan Invasion, despite scientific research debunking such claims. Secondly, the ideological proximity is most visible when it comes to reading school textbooks on post-independent India. Many of our textbooks expounded how Jawaharlal Nehru, was not just India’s but South Asia’s tallest leader despite his disastrous foreign policy initiatives such as the Non-Alignment, despite some glaring strategic errors such as the UN resolution on Kashmir, misreading the 1962 China war. Thirdly, the proximity to a certain ideology is also established when our history textbooks glorify the Mughals and the British, thus completely erasing the contribution of the Marathas or even the Ahoms of Assam, who resisted the Mughals.  

She further states that many from her tribe argued that the NCERT and the councils of research from disciplines be released from the tight clutches of the central government. While the idea in itself is commendable, past experiences have shown how Left-leaning people generally “capture” institutions. In such an environment, can one hope to have a fair representation of academicians, regardless of their political ideology?

Lastly, I am glad that you admit that politicians are loath to power. The same can be said about the Left as well, especially in media, due to its denial of access-based journalism, is desperate to create an opponent when there is none to PM Modi and their single-track focus on destroying his credentials. In her concluding remarks, she poses a question about how science seems to be unaffected by the intervention of ideology and whether if it is because science is still perceived as a technology than a knowledge system? Perhaps, how does one even change things like numbers, fractions, pure physics etc.?


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