• Written by  Amit Ranjan
                                                Romila ThaparThapar, Romila (2014) The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities through History, New Delhi: Aleph Books p. 330, price Rs 595.

Romila Thapar is one of the most authoritative historians on ancient India, who has empirically argued against and burst various myths related to ancient India propagated by what she calls syndicated Hindutva forces. Her writings have falsified almost all historical hypotheses used by these forces to forge a communal identity. Her new book The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History is a compilation of essays and papers on myths about two Hindu epics- Ramayana and Mahabharata. She discusses how a process to indoctrinate children and university students by communalizing the textbooks and syllabus began; and also examines persisting myths about race, caste language, social order and cultural traits in ancient India.

Taking a cue from A.K. Ramanujam’s famous essay Three Hundred Ramayana, Romila Thapar writes about the existence of different narrations of Ramkathas (story about Rama) in many non-Brahminical texts. The story which is being propagated by the Hindutva groups is mainly a mix of the Valmiki Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas written by Tulsidas in sixteenth century. This version became very popular after the serial Ramayana was telecast on the state-run channel Doordarshan in 1987. Specially, in north India, that telecast helped in the re-production of a much sought after wider public space for a religious ideology near to Hindutva forces which was exploited by them during the Babri mosque demolition movement in 1992.

That movement and its aftermath gradually benefitted the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) which came into power for the first time in 1996. Once in power, the project to communalize history was started: School text books written by Romila Thapar and other eminent historians were replaced by the books with ‘intoxicated’ versions of history. Not only this, even the syllabus of universities was targeted. Professors of Delhi University were assaulted by members of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS), for teaching A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayana. As a result, the essay was removed from the syllabus. The religious radicals in India have been successful in imposing ban on various other literatures likeSatanic Verses by Salman Rushdie etc. The latest example of this is the withdrawal of a book by Wendy Doniger by Penguin publishers. Even the communist government during its rule in the Indian state of West Bengal joined the communal brigade and banned Tasleema Nasrin’s novel. These steps are attacks on the right to dissent, which is the most important right a citizen has in a democracy.

Another mythology about which myths have been spun and propagated is Mahabartha. The Hindutva forces have an obsession to mark out its time period. An effort in this direction was first debated in 1975.  At present, with the BJP-led government in power, its appointed director of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Professor Y.S. Rao, has unequivocally asserted that his objective is to find out the date of the Mahabharata war fought between Pandavas and Kauravas at Kurushetra. Romila Thapar, on the basis of her work, finds that this epic is a story of different periods.  She argues that a few events in this epic depict a picture of clan-based society while other features were possible only after the caste system came into existence. A major problem, she writes, one faces while marking out a period for Mahabharata is to find out and locate genealogies.

Romila Thapar has also burst the myths  about the origin and nativity of Aryans, and maintains that the ransacking of temples was for economic reasons, and not a religious plunder. She proves her contention by talking about Somnath temple, which is being used by the Hindutva groups as an example of the religious plight of Hindus at the hands of Muslim invaders and ruler. On the contrary, she argues that even Hindu kings plundered the temple for economic reasons. To support her argument she gives examples from Kalhan’sRajtarangini which records the looting and devastation of temples by a series of Hindu kings of Kashmir in the eighth and eleventh centuries for financial reasons.

Another project of the RSS, supported by the present dispensation in India, is to popularize the Sanskrit language. The argument made is: Sanskrit represents Indian tradition and culture. Learning a language and knowing the past are innocuous exercises, but the arguments made in favour of them are futile. About this debate Romila Thapar writes that during ancient India, Sanskrit was a language of elites, not of the masses (including most of the women from elite families). The popular language of ancient India was Prakrit or Pali which is evident because of their use in engraving inscriptions. Sanskrit texts give only one version and not the entire picture of ancient India.

Despite facing so many criticisms and personal abuses, Romila Thapar has remained adamantly honest towards her work. George Orwell’s sentence: ‘in time of universal deceit, being honest is a revolutionary act’ best describes the character of the author and her works. Her latest book is yet another revolutionary act.