Communalism and History – Romila Thapar

Based on a talk by Professor Romila Thapar at the Khandala workshop organised by Vikas Adhyayan Kendra


Why is it that historians in particular are so concerned about communal ideology, the ideology of the communalists? Why is it that economist, sociologists and others who are in the social science: are less concerned while historians are constantly debating the ideology that is put out by communalism?

The answer to that question is that communal ideology always uses history for its justification. We had this with Muslim communalism in the 1920ís & the 30ís, when it was argued that Hindus and Muslims constitute two separate nations, two separate communities and very soon community becomes nation and there is talk about two separate nations. Therefore, you have to talk about the Hindu nation and the Muslim nation. This idea is also picked up by Hindu communal writing, in the concept of Hindutva in the 1920s and 1930s

But in addition to that, it is also a concern as I mentioned yesterday that when the Hindutva movement starts, in the writings of people like Savarkar and Golvalkar, there concern is with things like: What is the origin of our nation? How did the Hindu nation come into existence? In addition, if you are concerned with the origins of a people or a community or a nation, automatically you go to history.

Secondly, what is the identity of our nation, as origin and identity is closely tied in? What is theí history by which a particular nation comes to be established? So that again is a concern, a question that the historians have to answer, it is a question in which history is brought into discussion. And thirdly, as more recently we have witnessed in the movement around the Ramjanmabhoomi, there is also the argument that we can undo the wrongs of the past and re-do, as it were, recreate the balance by certain actions. Therefore, if there was a temple at Ayodhya and it was destroyed by Sarbar to build a mosque, then if we destroy the mosque, we are infact making the score equal. One kind of vandalism is received by another kind of vandalism; one kind of vandalism deserves another kind of vandalism.

But what the purpose of all this mosque destruction today is that is a reply to the Muslims destroying temples in the past. So there is that element of we are settling this score of the past. This is again something, which one has to be very careful about, because the basic question remains can you today settle the scores of the past?

You may use some of the problems that the past has created, some of the issues, the situations that the past history of society has created for the present, and try and make that situation better, try and take away the nastiness of the problems. However, can you really infact settle scores like this? Can you pretend that you are putting right what went wrong in the past?

Therefore, this really means that the interpretation of history becomes very important, as does the role of the historians in the building up or the opposing of a communal ideology. Consequently, many of us have argued that it is not enough just to write about the past. When the past is being misrepresented, when the past is being abused, when the past is being exploited for an ideology like a communal ideology, then the historian has to enter the political debate. One has to participate in the debate and point out that this is not the way in which history should be.

This then leads me to another point and that is that very often you get a complete fabrication, a made up story which is passed on by communal ideology .as history. For example, the supposed history of Ayodhya, which you get from the writings of the VHP and from the videos that they produced, and the articles that they have written, where they locate, an exact spot in Ayodhya as the birth place of Ram, and of there being a temple located at that spot which was destroyed by Babar and a mosque put up, and so on.

The argument runs not that this is what we believe happened. As long it is a matter of belief, the historians really cannot intervene except to say this belief cannot be taken as history. But when they start claiming that this is history and it is historic3lly proven that this was the birth place of Ram and there was a temple over there and so on, then the historian has to say, No, there is no historical evidence at all. This was the reason why some of us produced that little pamphlet, which you might have seen, the political abuse of history. The argument was that this is not historically proven. Today we have n much sharper and clearer notion of what is historical evidence and how one proves historical evidence. In addition, if the evidence is not there, then in todayís history one cannot say that this is historically correct and it is historically proven.

So there is a difference between the ëhistorianís interpretation of the past and the interpretation which communal ideology tries to introduce into the history of India. Now, this is an important difference, it is something we must be clear about because very often the argument is made that: “But this is history. History tells us that, this is the birthplace of Ram, history tells us that there was a temple over here”.

The question is: Do historians accept it? How do historians argue? There are some historians who accept the birthplace and the temple. However, then, you have to ask: Those that support its being the birthplace of Ram, how do they argue and those historians that are opposing this idea how do they argue? So in a sense it is not enough to say, is it correct or not that this was the birthplace? You have to understand what the arguments are. In addition, this is where the role of historian again becomes extremely important because the historian is not accepting n popular view, whatever that popular view may be. The historianís view is different and you must acquaint yourself with what is the historianís view.

Now, I would like to take up a few specific examples, so that we are really talking about actual problems and not in the abstract. I mentioned that one of the concerns of communal ideology is the question of origin and identity. The way in which they have argued this lies in what is being called for the last 150 years the theory of the Aryans. That is, in fact, very fundamental idea of which there are many debates. First, how does this theory of the Aryans come about? It is not referred to in any of the Indian texts, whether the texts are in Sanskrit or Persian, neither the Puranas nor the Vedas nor any of the Persian historians referred to the Aryans as a racial group. The theory of the Aryan race is an invention of Europe. It is an invention that European thinkers produced out of what they thought was the evidence and it was propagated and discussed in Europe from the middle of the l9th century.

There are various: people who are associated with it, the most important of whom is a French thinker called Gobineau who refers to European society being divided into the aristocracy which is Aryan and the peasants who are non-Aryans. In addition, into this dual category there enters the Semitic people, the Jewish people who are the traders, the merchants and so on. Now this three fold division of Aryans, non-Aryans and the Semitics is a division that becomes fundamental to the thinking of Europeans in the l9th century. There was a lot of discussion as to where the Aryans came from. It was first said that they come from Asia, then some Europeans said: No, how can our ancestors have come from Asia, because this was the high point imperialism and Asians were subject colonies.

Therefore, they began to argue that the European Aryans were all indigenous Europeans. Now the term indigenous (adivasi) is crucial to the understanding of the notion of origin and identity. They were all searching for who is indigenous. Some of us today know that none of us is indigenous and none of us is alien. We are all mixed up, we donít know what our origins are: do we belong to this land? Did some of our ancestorís come from outside: where did they come from? How do we belong to this land? It is all confused. However, this kind of thinking is important to communal ideology, that you must know that you are indigenous, and therefore, that you are the rightful heir to the land. I was talking about this yesterdayñwhen I mentioned the theory that this land belongs to me, its my land and therefore Iím indigenous and my origins are related to this land, is a theory which comes from communal thinking.

Now, a person who picks up the theory of Aryan race and applies it to India is the very famous German scholar, Max Mueller. You probably may have heard of him. What does Max Mueller do? He is reading the Rig-Veda and in it, he discovers references to Aryas and Dasas. Now the references to Aryas and Dasas are in a particular context in the Rig Veda. They are not references necessarily to race, although many people read them as references to race because the Dasa is described once or twice as being dark, but the majority of the references, interestingly, to the Dasa are that he worships the wrong gods, he doesnít carry out Vedic sacrifices like the good Arya, that he doesnít speak Sanskrit like the good Arya and so on. The references to physical differences are very few compared to the other differences. Nevertheless, the argument was made that the Arya was a member of the Aryan race. It seems to many of us now, that it is simply a reference to someone who is to be respected, someone who belongs to a higher social category and should not mean members of the Aryan race.

So, he came up with the theory that there was an invasion of these Aryan peoples into north-western India and they subjugated the Dasas and settled down in India, bringing with them civilization, the Sanskrit language, culture, the Vedic religion and so on. In other words, Max Mueller sees this as a kind of civilising mission: that the Dasas are all very primitive, not developed or advanced and the Aryas come in and civilise them. Therefore, that is, in fact, what he is talking about. He also goes on to say, and this is important, that the upper caste in India sometimes referred to as the dvija castesñBrahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya in the varna system, are all descendants of the Aryans, so they are by descent demarcated from the lower caste.

Max Mueller general writings were published between about 1860 – 1880. Later he stated that he was not equating the Sanskrit language with the Aryan race and the term Aryan was used technically for the language. Do remember this: Aryan does not mean a race, Aryan means a language. Therefore, the correct expression is ë! The Aryan speaking people”. It is a language group. In addition, although he refers to the Aryan race, Max Mueller later contradicts himself and says that he was not trying to equate language with race. The to things are quite separate. He was only talking about language. However, he does, in fact, talk about the Aryan race.

Now, at this time there is a major reaction to this theory, a very interesting, reaction which comes about largely through the impact of Christian missionary writing, which keeps on emphasising that the Aryans were originally Brahmins and they, brought Sanskrit to India, but they also oppressed the lower castes. This confrontation between the upper caste and the lower caste is constantly stressed in Christian missionary writings. This is picked up by Jyotiba Phule who argues that, since, the Aryans are the upper caste and are invaders and oppressors, so the indigenous peoples are the lower castes.

Therefore, again, we are back to this argument of who are the indigenous people. The reference is to the indigenous people being the lower castes that were the original inhabitants; therefore, it is the lower caste and the schedule castes and the tribals, who are the inheritors of this land. We are back again with the argumentí of the inheritors of the land. In addition, he writes in a fascinating fashion, about the oppression by the Brahmins and their destruction of the Kshatriyas. He argues that all the lower castes in those days were called kshatriyas. This is an interesting argument which is, of coarse, historically not correct. They were not called Kshatriyas. But that is what Phule argues. He takes up the famous ëlegend, the myth of Parshuram and states that the Brahmin Parshuram destroys all the Kshatriyas and this is the myth of the destruction of the indigenous people by the invading Brahmana Aryans. Therefore, he argues it is perfectly justifiable for us to set right this historical invasion. The lower castes and the schedule caste must all get together and remove the Brahmins from political and economic power.í

This was one reaction to the theory of Aryan race. There is another reaction in the 1920ís and that is the Hindutva version that is the opposite. It insists that all Hindus – caste Hindus – are Aryae, therefore the term that is used is Hindu-Arya. The equation is made very clearly. Secondly, they say there was no invasion because all caste Hindus are indigenously born in a land that is their Pitrubhoomi. This notion is supported of course, by the notion of Punyabhoomi as well. All Hindu Aryas, they: say, spoke Sanskrit and all Hindu Aryas spread from India to the West. They migrated from India to West Asia, to Europe and carried civilization with them westwards. Therefore, this is a reversal of the theory of Max Mueller. Infact, it is quite interesting that this version also picks up the anti-Semitic notions of the European version of the theory.

You know, I mentioned earlier that in Europe they argued that the aristocracy was Aryan, the peasantry was non-Aryan and that the Jews who were traders in Europe were all Semites. Therefore, there was contained in this the idea that the purity of the blood of Europe, depended on segregating the Semite. The Jew must be destroyed or segregated so that the purity of Aryan blood remains in Europe. In addition, we all know what happened when Hitler came to power and put this literally into action.

The Hindutva version picks up this theory and says that the Muslims in India are like the Semites in Europe, a foreign element which is destroying the racial purity of the upper caste, the Aryans, of the caste of Hindu Aryas and therefore must be excluded, must be segregated, or done away with. In fact, Golwalkar when he is commenting on the Nazis killing the Jews goes to the extent of saying that the Europeans, have found one solution to the problem and if the Muslims donít look out that solution may be applied in the Indian case as well.

Now what is interesting also is that among historians, the nationalistís historians, in particular in the 1920ís and the 30ís, Max Muellerís version of the theory was endorsed. Why do they accept it? They argue that there was an invasion of the Aryans, the Aryans were a distinct people. The Aryan race is frequently referred to by such historians, although we now know there is no such thing. The argument I suspect is probably made because the historians themselves being of the upper caste and writing essentially for an upper caste audience gave a status to their own origins and the origins of the upper castes became very significant and special: all upper castes were said to be descendants of the Aryans, the Aryans were believed to be a superior people. They also argued that one branch of the Aryans went to Europe and the other came to India.

There were certain political persons such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak who argued that the Aryans came originally from the Arctic region (one doesnít know how the Hindutva theory of today would equate with that because thatís as far away as possible), that they divided into two branches, one branch which went to Europe reverted back to barbarism, it couldnít remain civilised, the other branch came to India, retained Aryan civilisation and it was this civilisation then that revived aryan culture all over the world. Or, there were people like the famous Bengali writer and religious leader, Keshab Chandra Sen, who said that since the British are the descendants of the Aryans and since upper caste Indians are also descendants of the Aryans, then the coming of the British to India was the meeting of parted cousins.

The point that I am trying to make is to ask the question, that, were the Aryas mentioned in something as remote as the Rig Veda, were they a race or simply a people speaking a particular language? All these issues become very important to the question of identity and origin. They remain important to this day and communal ideology has picked up these ideas and is trying to exploit them in a particular way.

Now, what is the debate today? Let us start with the communal ideology. What is it, for example that the RSS and the BJP is arguing ? Following the Hindutva line, they are saying that there was no invasion and that all Hindus are Aryas; therefore, they are the indigenous inhabitants of the land, therefore, Muslims and Christians are aliens. If the Aryas are Hindus, then the non- – Hindus are non-Aryas, therefore, they have to be excluded. The Aryas, they argue, all spoke Sanskrit. This is one reason why Hindutva runs into slight problems, when it comes to non-Sanskrit based languages and they do not quite know, to get around this. They also run into problems on the issue of the use of the term adivasi. It is now claimed that the Hindu Arya is, in fact, the adivasi, but then Hindutva runs into the problem of what to do with term adivasi which is used for those who are non-Hindus. They have tried to resolve this by now referring to these other non-Hindus as Vanvasi, so that they can get around the question of origin and inheritance.

That is the line now being put forward by the RSS and the BJP. Of course, it runs into conflict with the Dalit interpretation based on Phule, which is that there was an invasion and that the Arya, the Hindu Arya is an alien: He is the first alien, Muslims and Christians come afterwards.

Now what is the historical position on this? Since the argument began over a hundred years ago, we have a lot of evidence of a different kind that people, as Max Mueller did not have. We have new evidence that comes from archeology and from linguistics. Archaeology takes the culture of India back, much earlier than the Vedic period. The Vedic period is generally dated to about 1500 B.C. According to the Hindutva view, it should go back to 4500 B.C but this is not generally accepted by historians. However, still, we have archaeological evidence of habitations in northwestern India which go back even to 6000 B.C. which is much earlier, so Vedic literature, Vedic texts, Vedic society is no longer the foundation of Indian civilization. It is already something which is late, because now when one is talking about the foundations of Indian civilisation one goes back to the Indus civilization which is earlier and much more extensive and, in fact, much more advanced than anything that is suggested in Vedic society.

That is why some of our archaeologists who are inclined to be supporters of the RSS lineñare now arguing that the Indus civilization and the Vedic Aryans are identical. So, they are pushing the Vedas back to the period of the Indus civilization and stating that the Indus civilization is the archaeological counterpart, for the Vedic civilization.

The reason why we (non-RSS supporting historians), donít accept this is because the Indus civilization is essentially an urban civilization, it is a civilization that is based essentially on urban culture, whereas when you read the Vedic texts, whether it is the Rig Veda or the Atharva Veda or the Sama Veda or the Yadur Veda, there is no mention of big cities. The Vedic is essentially a pastoral, rural society. There are many other details to this argument but this is the basic argument. So the two cannot be identical, when the kind of civilization, and the society that becomes clear to us from the archaeological evidence is totally different from what is being described in the Vedic texts.

That is one kind of problem that comes up. Secondly, there is the evidence from linguistics. When Max Mueller was writing over a hundred years ago, it was possible to say that Vedic Sanskrit was the earliest form of Sanskrit and the purest form of Sanskrit. It is, Max Mueller argued, a pure Aryan language; it was untouched, uncontaminated by any other language. However, today, we know that even Vedic Sanskrit is not pure. It is, in fact, mixed up with non-Aryan languages. How did we discover this? This was discovered, first, by looking at the grammar of the language. There is a particular grammar of Sanskrit, which is known to us. There is a particular grammar, which belongs to the proto-Dravidian languages. If some elements of that proto – Drnvidian grammar are apparent in Vedic Sanskrit, and we now that this takes place at the time when Sanskrit, is spoken in India, it is possible to say that there is a mixture, that this is not pure Aryan, there is a mixture. Alternatively, there are words which are Indo-Aryan in origin. For example, there is a word in Sanskrit for a plough, Pangala. Now Pangala is a non-Sanskrit word, it is not Aryan. It is either proto-Dravidian or Mundari, the language that is spoken in the central Indian tribal area.

So, the historian then has to explain: how does this word come into Vedic Sanskrit? The only explanation is that those who spoke the Aryan language were living side-by-side with those who spoke various non-Aryan languages. In this living side-by-side you get what some people called a process of symbiosis, where elements of one language move into the other and the elements of the other language move into the first and you get a mixing of languages. What is interesting about the Vedic texts is that the mixing is of a small amount in the earliest stages and as you go later on in time, there is more and more mixing.

Obviously, what is happening is that the language has come from outside, from Iran, probably brought by small groups of people for which we have archaeological evidence. These migrants, were usually pastoralists or small-scale farmers, who over many hundreds of years were brining in a new language, which was also changing in the process. Then, when they settle in India, the language in India also under goes change because of Indian connections. Therefore, we argue that there may not have been an invasionñwe donít have the archaeological evidence for a huge, large-scale invasionñas Max Mueller insists, but there were multiple migrations and there is evidence for the migration of groups from archaeology. So the movement is from Iran into northern India. Now this raises a different set of questions. Its no longer a case of whether the invaders came or the invaders did not come, this raises a very subtle set of questions about how does one determine origin, how does one talk about any one being indigenous. What is meant by indigenous ? All that you can say is, may be some language is indigenous, but even that we are not sure of. For example, even with proto-Dravidian, which is the earliest parent form of the Dravadian languages, people are arguing that it had a connection with the southern-Iranian languages. So, there are many inter-connections. So, in a sense it is unimportant to go on saying: we are indigenous, this language is indigenous, and this group is indigenous, because you can never prove it. We are, in fact, very mixed up and that is the historical position today.

One has to distinguish then between the political use of the notion of the Aryan language or the Aryan people by Hindutva politics and the historians position which is a very different position asking a different set of questions.

The main thing I wanted to stress was that I hope you understand the argument that Aryan is not a race because we all use this term very loosely and speak about the Aryan race and the Dravidian race: the terms do not refer to race, but to the language used.

I have to go back a little into history at this point. You all know the difference between language and race. Language is what we speak, what we think in, what we write in; race is what we believe biologically to be the category to which we belong. There is something biological about race, its our ancestry, it is the people we are related to, the group we belong to. It is now said that there is no such thing as Aryan race. Max Mueller argued that the people who spoke Aryan languagesñand the Aryan languages are Sanskrit in India, Iranian in Iran, Greek, Latin, the Celtic languages, German, some of the Baltic languages and so on that the people who spoke the same language belong to the same: race. This was what is called monogenesis or a single origin. All these languages were traced ëback to a single language, which was then called Indo-European, and the originñphysical, biological originñof the people was traced back to a single race and it was called the Aryan race. This was the mistake which Max Mueller and others made. Language can never be equated with race.

Let me illustrate this with an example, which I frequently quote. If, for example, in the year 4000 A.D., two thousand years from now, if the civilisation of the United States becomes n ruin archaeologists excavating in North America, the United States, discover the language that had been in use in the U.S. What would they discover? They will discover English; they will discover American English to be more correct. All over, north, south, east, west from the lowest level to the highest level in society, with everybody using that one language. Now if because of that one language you say that everybody who lived in the U.S. in the l9th and 20th century belonged to a single race, you can realise how completely erroneous the idea is.

Now, Max Mueller and others were doing exactly the same thing. They were saying that all these people from India, Iran, West Asia, Europe, right upto Ireland, they were all using languages from the same source, related languages, therefore, they were all related people. Now the work that had been done on biological race over the years since Max Mueller wrote shows that in terms of biological race, that is, in terms of our genetic make up, in terms of our relationships to various group, the area of northern India comprises a huge, multiple variety of people, variety of races; one cannot talk about a single race. Therefore, the notion that there was once a pure Aryan race and everybody that spoke a particular language belonged to that race is complete nonsense, there is absolutely no validity to it. So, do make the correction if people talk to you about the Aryan race and the Dravidian race. These are not races, these are not biological races, these are language terms, they are simply people speaking a particular language, speaking a Aryan-related language in one case or they are speaking a Dravidian-related language in the other.

To come to another matter, which is of central importance to Hindutva ideology and communal, historical writing: that is the relationship between the Hindus and the Muslims. You all know that Indian history is generally divided into three periods, and in most universities, it is taught as the Hindu period, the Muslim period, and the British period. Do remember that this periodization does not come from any Indian source. This is the invention of a British historian called James Mill who was the first person to write “A History of British India”, as he called it, in the early l9th century. He divided Indian history into Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization and the British period. When people talk about not introducing any foreign theories into the interpretation of Indian history, the first foreign theory that we should throw out is a periodization, which is also inaccurate and incorrect.

The result of this periodization was that people began to argueñhistorians began to argue and it was than picked up at the popular level and has become an accepted belief nowñthat in the medieval period, in the Muslim period or what was later on changed in some cases and called the medieval periodñin the Muslim period there were two large, monolithic communitiesñthe Hindu community and the Muslimícommunityñand they were completely self-contained, uniform and were constantly in conflict with each other. The history of this period is sought to be explained by the conflicts between the Hindus and the Muslims, particularly, political history. Whether it is the Sultans or the Mughals, it is all in terms of who is fighting with which Rajput and what was the result of this. Now many of us are arguing that this is a view, which is not borne out by historical facts.

I would like to give some examples. The notion that there were these two communities ties in, again, with the notion of identity: where does oneís identity lie? Does it lie with the Hindu community or does it lie with the Muslim community. And if lies with whichever one you trace it back to these communities and said to be constantly in conflict. This is a very crude and an incorrect way of looking at Indian history. To begin with, when the Muslims, Whether they were Arabs, Turks, or Afghans, when they first arrived in India, and they came from Arabia, Afghanistan, central Asia, Persia. Let us see what they are called by the local people? Interestingly, they are not called Muslims. There are a series of names that are used which have a historical continuity from earlier times. For example, one of the terms that is used is yavana, a term that was used for the ancient Greeks and later on for anybody that came from West Asia, the Iranians, the Arabs they were all called Yavanas. When the British arrived by sea, the Dutch, the Portuguese and so, on they were also called yavanas, because they were basically from the direction of the west. This is a historical term, which goes back to the period of the Mauryan empire. It was first used in Mauryan sources referring to the Greeks.

Or else, they used the terms Shaka, Shakas meaning the Shakas who came from central Asia. The Turks are frequently referred to as the Shakas, or they are referred to as Turushka. Turushka is the Sanskrit, Turka is the term used in Marathi and Hindi and it is the same as Tulakan, which is used in Tamil. Going back again to Turkish, this is the ethnic name that was used for people that had come from Central Asia; or else they are described as mleccha, this being the term used for those who were outside caste society or did not observe caste regulations. So scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, Muslims, Christians, all these are described as mleccha, although, both among Muslims and among Christians there is a specific observance of caste, nevertheless they are regarded as being outside caste.

Nobody seems to know what the origin of this word is, although it is very important to Sanskrit sources. What is interesting about the use of the term mleccha is that it is not applied only to Muslims. It is sometimes said that it must have been upsetting that when the Muslims arrived in India they were described as mleccha and deemed an impure people. It is the same term that is used for a variety of others. In fact, even some of the rulers of India are described as mleccha if they come from; some obscure origin. The point that I am trying to make is that within Indian society there were hierarchies where some people were included others being excluded. Those that have status are called Aryas irrespective of who they are. There is a very interesting verse in the Ramayana, for example, where Ravanaís wife addresses him as Aryaputra. And this is simply a designation. So the Arya is the one who is of caste status and so on, the mleccha is one who is the outsider, who is impure and does not have caste status.

Therefore, there is this multiple use of many terms to describe this new element that has come in and it is only later that you get the use of the word Muslim. Even the famous text of Ekanatha the “Hindu Turk Samvada”, is not Hindu Muslim Samvad. So there is recognition, not only of difference and variations of people within Hindu society if one can use that term but there is also recognition of variation among those who are coming in.

Let us lock then on the constitution of Muslim society. Did it constitute a single, monolithic, uniform Muslim community? The interesting point is that inspite of conversion, there is a persistence of existing patterns of behaviour and culture and forms. Caste persists: does not matter who you are, when you are converted to Islam there is ample evidence that, your caste characteristic or caste observances or caste customs are carried over into the conversion. Therefore, we have a variety of Muslims. For example, all along the West Coast of India there are Muslim communities that are mixed Hindu Muslims, the Khojas, the Bohras, and the Mopillahs. The other day I was introduced to somebody who comes from a very interesting community known as the Navayata, which I did not know about earlier. These Arabs married into the Jain community in Konkan and whose observance was as much Jain as Muslim.

So, there are all these variations. In the north, there are conversions of Rajputs to Islam and the conversions of the ordinary, low-caste weaver. The question that one has to ask is did they really see themselves as the members of the same community? Surely, the notions of being a Rajput Muslim must have kept that Rajput Muslim as far away from the julaha (weaver) as a Hindu Rajput would had kept away from .a member of the weaving caste? So, to argue that there was a monolithic community, which was uniform, seems to me not to be an argument that is borne out historically. This is something, which I think needs to be kept in mind all the time. Conversion is not the sole factor in Indian society.

In contrast the conversion of, people to Christianity in Europe were a major change of social form, pattern of living, and was identity. That is not the case, in India. In Indian society, the imprint of caste is so strong that that imprint continues even when one converts from one religious belief to another. I do not have time to give details but there is very interesting data from the census that the British conducted in 1881, in the district of Bijapur. Among those that they called the Muslim community, the identification was according, to caste and there is a strong distinction between the people regarded as foreign origin MuslimsñSyeds, Sheikhs and Ashrafs and north Indian Muslims who settled and started cultivating the land and local Muslims who are Kannada-speaking, not Urdu-speaking, and who return themselves by their traditional caste name and, in fact, they also state that they avoid eating beef, they observe all the Hindu festivals and they worship Hindu deities. I think this is very important and it applies not just to Muslims but to Christians too. For example, converts to Christianity, in the Punjab, especially the schedule castes that were converted to Christianity in the l9th century, are treated as such by caste Christians too. They will not many among them or have close connections with them.

Let me turn now to something, which is much more topical, and that is, the destruction of temples. We are told that the Muslims destroyed temples by the thousand and some people have listed something like three thousand and eight temples that were destroyed and where at such sites mosques have been built. Quite right. There was a lot of temple destruction; there was also a lot of iconoclasm, the destruction of images. But let us at the same time go into the question: what is the reason for this temple destruction? And I would like to look at it from two points of view. One is why were temples destroyed? Were they only destroyed because of religious-differences, religious conflict, religious confrontation, or were there other reasons? Temples after all are centres where wealth is gathered. Some of the richest institutions in this country today are the temples. One has to only think today of Tirupati or Pandharpur to realise what wealth means. The amount of jewelery, land, offerings etc: that they have accumulated is very impressive. So, they are centres of wealth.

Besides, when a temple is built by royalty, it is also the declaration of a political statement, it is a declaration of power. What is being said is, that I am so powerful, Iím so well established, I can now built this magnificent temple or, I can build this magnificent mosque or I can build a marvelous church, as the case may be. Thus, these religious monuments are not just religious monuments they are also symbols of economic power, political power, social status. I am not only referring to religious monuments of the past, it is the same for the religious monuments of today. Everytime a new temple goes up, you must go and ask who has built it? With whoís money? How much money is it going to collect? Which caste or sect controls the management of the temple? Al1 of this is relevant to the building of a temple, a mosque, or a church.

What is more interesting is that temple destruction did not begin with the Muslims in India, it began much earlier. The earliest Hindu temples were built in about 5th century A.D. and temple destruction begins from about the 10th and 11th century A.D. What is the evidence that we have for this?

In Kashmir, we are told that whenever there was a financial crisis in the kingdom, kings would send out their officers to loot the temple and, if need be, to destroy the temple. One of them, in fact, the eleventh century King, Harshadeva, actually appointed (a category of officers known as the “Deva-Utpatana-Nayakas the officers for the uprooting of temples). Kalhana, the person writing the famous history of-Kashmir – Rajutarangini, finds this inexcusable behaviour.

The Parmar rulers of Malva in western India go to war against the Chaulukiyas ruling in Gujarat, resulting in a campaign between Malva and Gujarat. And one of the best known of the Malva kings, one of the best known of the Parmar rulers, in the course of this campaign, destroys the Jain temples in Saurashtra. He also goes to Cambay, where the Chaulukiyas had built a mosque for Arab traders and he destroys the mosque as well. The reason for this is that the Jains and the Arabs were crucial to the economy of the Chaulukiyas which was essentially a trading economy, trading with West Asia. By destroying their temples and their mosque, he was demonstrating to the local people of Gujarat that he was capable of destroying those who were the backbone of the economy in Gujarat. Thus, it is more than just religious iconoclasm.

Or you have a Rashtrakuta king who fights a successful campaign against the Pratiharas and his elephants are sent into the temples to uproot the courtyards in order to demonstrate that he is the victor. Even the temple comes in for destruction.

Then of course, there is the history of Karnataka where increasingly we are now finding evidence of Shaivite attacks on Jain temples; the destruction of temples, the removal of the idols, the re-implanting of Shaivite images in their place – this is a regular occurance.

So the question, which arises, is that we imagine that in the so called Hindu period, the ancient period of history, there was no vandalism, there was no destruction. But, in fact, Buddhist monuments were destroyed by Hindus and Hindu monuments were destroyed by other Hindus. Even temples were destroyed, or Jain monuments were destroyed by Hindus, particularly by Shaivites.

So this destruction of monuments was going on for a much earlier period than we are willing to concede. It is true that the description of this destruction is much more evident in the Turkish and the Persian chronicles because they openly take great pride in destroying temples. That is why we assume that it was only the Muslims who destroyed temples. In the Mughal period, for example, there is ample evidence of the politics of the destruction of temples. But what is interesting is that even rulers like Aurangzeb are known from firmans, royal documents, to have been giving donations to temples building and to Brahmans at the same time as he was destroying other temples. It is not that the man is schizophrenic and cannot make up his mind whether he wants to destroy temples or build temples. It is a matter of policy and one has to look at the location of temples, and what that is suggesting? Why is it being destroyed? Or the location of another temple, and why is it being patronised by the same ruler. The question of political policy becomes extremely important in this issue.

The last point that I want to make is that when we consider this period of history, we must always ask ourselves a question: Whoís history are we talking about? Are we talking about the history only of elite groups, are we only going to base our information on court chronicles and religious texts because we are concerned only with upper caste history or are we not also concerned with the history of the whole of society which takes us to the lowest social strata. If we are concerned with tha4, then we have to look at the texts and the archaeological dated linked to people lower down the social scale. Most of these texts of people that belonged to either the lower levels of society or who are outside the mainstream of Sanskritic culture or Persian culture are in what we today call regional languages. They are in Marathi, they are in Bengali, and they are in old Hindi, in Tamil, Telugu, and so on. And the historians who have been writing on this subject until very recently have been using only Persian, Turkish and Sanskrit texts. Therefore, the expression, the articulation, the feelings, the beliefs, the ideas of people lower down the social scale have not entered history books. Our history textbooks are still concerned only with the elite sections of society.

When one starts looking at this kind of data one finds a very interesting mixing between Hindu belief and thought and Islamic belief and thought. I mentioned the name of Ekanatha who wrote a text called the “Hindu Turk Samvada” where he discusses the differences in religious beliefs between his own sect and Islamic belief. Its a very rich and vigorous discussion in which unpleasant things are said on both sides. But eventually he says; that we have to live together and therefore we have to learn to understand each other. In Marathi, for example, by the end of the eighteen century there is a strong tradition of texts where very deliberate attempts are made to try and weave together the mythology of Vaishnavism and Shaivism and stories connected with Islamic origins, the Quran and so on. And then there is also one of my favourite quotations from a famous text called the “Hrihat Shavara Tantra” which was written in a mixture of Sanskrit and Hindi. It dates ~o about the l5th century. It is very interesting because it is full of mantras for various situations: if you want to bear a male child you must recite this mantra, if your child falls ill you must recite these other mantras, if you are getting married and want a happy married life you must recite yet other mantras and so on. For all these important points in oneís lifetime, there are different mantras. There is one, which says that when a child is sick or when you want to remove an obstacle, the mantra is not to Shri Ganesha, the mantra is to Mahmood of Ghazni. Now this is something so curious. The removal of obstacles I can understand, but why when your child is sick would you invoke Mahmood of Ghazni?

Now, I am just giving a little taste o~ the kind of issues that come up if one begins to look for a different kind of historical data. Once you move out of the elite circles and you go into the popular traditions you meet with a different culture altogether, a culture that does not suggest a monolithic Hindu and Muslim society. Let me conclude, then, by saying that Iím not arguing that because there were no two monolithic communitiesñHindu and Muslimñin permanent conflict, that there were a number of communities that were constantly in harmony. I am not arguing that peaceful co-existence and permanent harmony is not what the picture is. The picture is that you have a number of small communities, that are negotiating with each other all the time that they are, in fact, talking to each other, having a dialogue, seeing how they can adjust to each other. There is a certain amount of give and take, there is perhaps more take and give in some cases, there is hostility in some cases and there is an absence of hostility in other cases. But, then, until we start examining how these small communities lived and co-existed, we will not even begin to understand how Indian society essentially functioned. And, therefore, the plea that one makes is that please let us shift our vision from the history of rulers and court circles to looking at the reality of history which is much more the kind of text that we have from groups that are not connected with the ruling class. There is an absolute range of such texts; we have not even begun to explore them as historians, but these kinds of alternative reading of history are therefore extremely important.

Question: Your talk has been quite an eye-opener for many of us. Particularly interesting is the last point you made about what historians are finding now that they are beginning to move beyond the history of the elite. Why is al; this not reflected in the history that is taught in our schools?

Answer: Well, this is a real problem. You know, I have been involved in it because I have written two texts books for NCERT for class six and seven. When we wrote these textbooks, it was considered a very new kind of approach. But, now, even that approach is out of date because I wrote these in 1966-67, almost thirty years ago. Our problem today is that every time we say that we would like to change the books and write in a new fashion we are told that we have to confirm to the syllabus. So one answer to your question is that the: majorities of historians who teach in most universities in India are not really thinking along these lines. Therefore, those historians who think conventionally are very often the ones who are put on to textbook committees. So, the text book syllabus remains a conventional syllabus.

Comment: When it comes to the regional level, you find the states, or some particular minister of education taking a somewhat different attitude, saying, this and this aspect should be included in teaching history in the state. We did a study of history textbooks for students from eight to twelfth standard in Madras. We found that a sentence or two apart here and there, there was an attempt in these books to strike a balance. It would seem then that in some areas or states there is a larger interest in the whole subject of history. In the Tamil Nadu case, when you are looking at Dravidian history, you will necessarily undermine many national prototypes. This is a major problem, which I think needs to be tackled.

Comment: In Maharashtra, the textbooks committee for history had found that some of the textbooks biased. It undertook the task of removing these distortions but just before the new texts could be finalised, somebody leaked the story to the press and the reaction of parochial politicians sabotaged the whole exercise.

Professor Romila Thapar:

Well, there is a group working in M.P, the Ekalavya Group. They produced history textbooks, which are superior to anything we have written. But they were having great difficulties with the BJP government. It was a stroke of luck that the BJP was voted out in M.P. so they could carry on.

I think that one has to concede that history is much more interpretive than the natural sciences. As you know, even in the natural sciences today, the idea of an absolute objectivity is being doubted. Nevertheless, the point is that objective history is not something which is static, objective history also changes as one goes along. One may have a particular interpretation from an objective point of view of history and it may begin to change in a later generation. New evidence and fresh interpretations have to be incorporated.

Secondly, precisely because we have a society in which there are multiple views of history and multiple claims to “This is my history, therefore, I believe what I am saying is historically true”, it is very necessary that there must be people who say, no, sorry, your view of history is ëprejudiced because of such and such. Now this is an ongoing debate in society, it is not as if there is finality to history. I am not claiming that the kind of interpretation I am making is final. I mean tomorrow somebody may come along and say: that is not true, I have evidence of this kind. My interpretation then will have to face that evidence and that argument. But it is very necessary in any society that there be historians who are relatively much more objective than others, who are questioning these very particularistic versions of history which are claiming to be objective. That debate must be constant.

Question: Romila Thapar: That I think is a particularly important view. What we were talking about yesterday that many of us who belong to the secular tradition do not really have a feel for local history. It is very important that one goes into the, question of local history, does it intelligently, and says that you know this, this and this is possible but this is definitely not possible. So one has to force oneself to take an interest in local culture and local history.

Comment: I believe the RSS is engaged in a massive project of going into local history. I think in the next ten years, they plan to go into each, district, each local area, and produce their versions of local history. It is therefore necessary that secular historians and groups also take serious interest in understanding local history.

Question: Can secular historians afford to bypass events and incidents of conflicts in history, say, destruction of 5temples or mosques or whatever. How does one face such historical reality?

Romila Thapar: No. I do not think one should bypass it. I think bypassing has been a fatal mistake. We have bypassed and that is incorrect. I think it is necessary to make the unsavory parts of our history public and to explain why they happened, explain why this attitude was rampant at that time and explain precisely that we have moved on, we are not the uncivilised people that say the Portugese Jesuits were who demanded the destruction of temples and mosques. We do not do that any more. I mean one uses that as an example to explain how our understanding of ourselves and the world around us has changed. But I do not think we should bypass it at all, it is very necessary to talk about this past. And the argument should not be that because they endorsed the destruction of temples we today must endorse the destruction of mosques. No, we cannot totally understand, no we cannot recreate the past, but we can move towards the greater understanding of the past, that is all that one is trying to argue.


2 thoughts on “Communalism and History – Romila Thapar

  1. Reblogged this on wingedream and commented:
    Well, no doubt that the simple confusions that blight our minds due ignorance mostly coupled with a lack of clear understanding of our own prejudices causes much anger and heartburn.Enough to take sides and at worse to cause violence. Much of these cobwebs get carefully lifted away like turning pages of stories told well.Her courage and confidence in her own understanding of historical processes and in the clear knowledge of any kind of objectivity to have its limited life too.Always giving way for something better bowing to the imperatives of new evidence and interpretations. I know I gathered something out of the many profundities to let me take sides without being blinded.

  2. Truth is hard to digest. Madam Thaper unveiled a lot of historical truths with full evidences.
    Common man not at all know anything of this history that is the pity. She is painstakingly found all this evidences from research. We want such articles in to the public through popular regional media.
    Thanks a lot.

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