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The Good Historian

Vigilante of Indian Past

Gérard Fussman ( is emeritus professor at the College de France, Paris.

Talking History by Romila Thapar, Ramin Jahanbegloo and Neeladri Bhattacharya, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp xvi + 340, 795.

Professional historians seldom read books on history writing. In fact, once recognised as historians, books and papers written by colleagues are either their models, or examples they do not wish to imitate. However, Talking History is not a book on how history ought to be written. It is a book on Romila Thapar’s achievements as a historian, and as such, a book on intellectual life in India since independence. For Thapar was, and still is, one of the leading intellectuals of India since that period, the incarnation of Indian history in Europe and the United States, as well as a public figure acclaimed by the most progressive part of the society, while also subject to violent attacks for her secular vision of India and Indian past as one which cannot be reconciled with Hindutva.

Talking History is both a scholarly autobiography, and a reflection on the links between history and politics. Thapar mostly answers questions posed by Ramin Jahanbegloo, who plays the role of an intelligent layperson, while also responding to a younger historian, Neeladri Bhattacharya, who asks fewer, lengthier, and more specialised questions. The book has apparently been entirely rewritten by Thapar, and on reading it, one does hear her voice. So Talking History is truly a book by Thapar; a reflection on her whole life. I ought to specify “professional” life, because she does not talk (except occasionally) about her personal life, her circle of close friends, her celebrated brother, or the manifold invectives and honours she has received. Politics come in only in relation with her work as a historian. To be honest, there is nothing entirely new in the book; there exist a number of papers or interviews, in which Thapar has expressed herself on these subjects in the past. Talking History is, however, the most comprehensive presentation of her ideas, and may interest every reader who wishes to understand how Thapar came to be a historian, as well as the beginnings of her work in newly independent India. While the core of the book is not entirely new to me, reading it has made me much more conscious of the difference between the work of a patriotic Indian historian of India and that of a foreigner.

Which Side of History?

I suppose most of the readers of the Economic & Political Weekly would not know my name, for I write almost exclusively in French. Suffice to say, I was a graduate when Thapar was preparing the PhD which made her famous (Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, 1961). My first book was printed in 1965, my first paper on Ashoka’s inscriptions in 1974. Yet, our trainings were quite different.I trained as a Greek archaeologist, which at the time meant learning Greek and Latin. I began studying Sanskrit not from a desire to know India, but because I was fascinated with the comparative history of Indo–European languages, for which a knowledge of Sanskrit is, or should be, a requisite. I was nevertheless a historian at heart. At that time, history in French universities was almost exclusively the history of France. The narratives of foreign countries were either ignored entirely, or appeared only when they were warring with France. It was self-evident that we were not supposed to ask ourselves questions about the established identity of our country.

Quite different was the training of Thapar. She was located in Britain, and most of her professors would have been convinced that India was at its best when it was British India. The history she learnt, and was expected to write, while pursuing her degrees, was of a kind, quite foreign to the Puranas, the chronicles of the Afghan and Moghul sultans, and the Mahabharata, which her maternal grandmother would read in Hindi. None of the books she had to use and meditate upon were in her native Punjabi or Hindi. All of them were in English, a language foreign to India (she learnt later, when she travelled abroad, that there also were some valuable contributions by French and German scholars; British universities tend to be as chauvinistic as the French ones). Even the books written by Indian historians, some of them quite outstanding, were in English, and so were the handbooks used to teach Indians their own history.

While writing in a foreign language would have been unthinkable for a Frenchman, English was never an issue for Thapar. Members of her family had been employed by the British Raj, and were fluent in English as well in the other North Indian languages—Urdu, Persian, Hindi, and Punjabi. In 1947, in part even now, English was the only language understood by a majority of educatedIndians in the country. It was the language through which Thapar could address herself to Bengalis, Maharashtrians, and Tamilians alike. She was soon convinced, both as a historian and as an Indian nationalist, that the time had come to replace the outdated history she had learnt at school with a new Indian history, advanced by Indian scholars for Indian readers. It was evident to her that she should write in English, and hope to get translations in what were called “the vernaculars of India.” This was a political choice: Indian historians had to write historical narratives which, although true to the evidence, would help Indians build a new, peaceful, and democratic country. She never attempted to conceal this purpose, as is witnessed in the titles of some of her papers and books (The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History); her inroads in the Babri Masjid dispute; and the discussions on the Aryans in India. She always kept true to the ideal, of a secular India, where Muslims and Hindus could peacefully coexist as they did in her native Punjab before partition. At the same time, she had to define what was that newly independent India, whose borders were no more those of British India and which did not enclose remains of her pre-Muslim past. This past lay in Pakistan, a country to which Indians could not easily, or safely travel, and whose scientific publications could reach her in Delhi, only through London, Paris or Rome. Her conception of the Indian nation—which stemmed from experiences in her personal and professional life—is at the heart of her opposition between early India and Hindutva. The former she considered a scientific and neutral concept, the latter, a religious and divisive one, which does not rely on proved historical evidence.

In the 1960s, French historians were no more asked to give historical foundations for a new France: France was eternal; “national identity” and immigration were only topics for a handful of politicians. In my young years, historians were drawn into politics not to demonstrate the existence of the nation and the advantages of being a republic, but because they belonged to a very politicised intelligentsia, who considered it their duty to confront the immediate problems of the country. Discussions in universities on politics, philosophy, and the conception of history often demanded a return to original sources in their original languages, and featured rigorous understanding, backed by data and reasoning. Furthermore, considering France is a country of many sceptics and unbelievers, the main text of Descartes, Voltaire, and Diderot were taught magna cum laude in high schools. The Bible and Jesus’s life were examined as if they were legends and Michelet’s History of France was almost looked at as a historical novel. In the field of Oriental studies, Dumézil was arguing that the foundation of Roma according to Titus-Livius was modelled on an old Indo–European vision of the world. Erudite studies by French-speaking scholars exhibited the greatest scepticism about the Buddha’s biography as told in the Pali scriptures.

In her PhD on Ashoka, Thapar follows a classical, yet rigorous approach of dealing with every source available. She does not exhibit the kind of radical scepticism mentioned above. For instance, she tries to make the best use of the Pali and Sanskrit legends of Ashoka, although each time we compare these with Ashoka’s inscriptions, they are proven wrong. Surprisingly, in Talking History, she says that, when choosing Ashoka as her subject, she was mainly interested in the possibility of exploring the “question [of the importance] of the individual in history” (p 163).

Indeed, Ashoka is the only early sovereign whose thoughts we are able to decipher through his numerous inscriptions. In any case, it was a good choice in the 1950s: Ashoka is the only Indian king whose chronology is known with some certainty, whose dominions almost equated the extent of British India (along with a small part of modern Afghanistan), and one who publicly renounced violence (except on some occasions). No wonder the capital of a so-called Ashokan column was chosen to symbolise a newly independent India.

Curating a National History

It came to me as another surprise that, in discussions about Thapar’s book and curricula to be introduced in Delhi University, she was dubbed a Marxist, an epithet she strongly contests. Having been well acquainted with French, German and Soviet marxisms (English Marxist historians were and are almost unknown in France), I would never have imagined Thapar termed a Marxist. Like so many historians after Karl Marx, she is interested in the economic and social background of historical events. Such an approach has long become common sense among leading historians, and is no more a privilege of the Marxists. What distinguished the Marxist historians from the non-Marxists is precisely that they were neither interested in individuals, nor in religion. Rather, they were interested in identifying the economic and social forces responsible for the apparition of these individuals, the religious changes and the social classes responsible for an optimistic conception of a historical development, and in an evolution towards socialism from slave society, feudalism, capitalism and imperialism. That was a vision of the past which was congruent with the facts when Marx used to write, at least in Western Europe. You will never find such ideas or suggestions in Thapar’s books or papers. Her only preoccupation is: what India was, is, and ought to be.

There exist Marxist historians of India, some of them quite good, like D D Kosambi, whom Thapar admires. However, they face an enormous difficulty: we have almost no data on the economy and social differences in early India, except in a few inscriptions, and in the shastras (whose date, geographical origin, validity and domain are disputed). So when Thapar wanted to research beyond the role of the individual in history, she did not search for evidence of slavery or feudalism, but instead, turned to an anthropological study of the emergence of Indian states, hence her famous title, From Lineage to States. Her inspiration clearly stemmed from the British school of anthropology, and not Marx. Still, Thapar had to content with the dearth of precise data covering the whole of India, although she did search for such data in archaeological reports, inscriptions, and numismatics. In order to write her narratives, she took part of her inspiration from the eminent foreign historians and anthropologists, whom she would read and meet with. But Thapar stayed Indian. From that point of view, the most interesting pages of Talking History are those wherein she explains the choices a historian has to make. She points out that while writing history always involves selecting some facts, focusing on some themes, and choosing one system of explanation (the one which best fits the data), it is always tainted with some ideo­logy. “The difference between a good historian and a bad historian is that the good historian makes it clear why and how the selections have been made” (p 207). I would add “and never distorts the data.” Thapar never distorted the data.

Custodian of the Past

It is fascinating to see how Thapar stresses that the historians are first, members of their society, and as such, should intervene in the discussions where the past is used as an argument, in order to tell the truth, and point out misrepresentations. Thapar never shirked her responsibility in these domains, both as a historian and a citizen. The title of her book, The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India, explains her patriotic conception of history. I was admittedly puzzled when I read that huge book of 758 pages, inspired by conversations with the British historian Arnaldo Momigliano and dedicated both to him and to Kosambi. This puzzlement persisted when I read the first lines of its conclusion:

The purpose has not been not just to ascertain whether or not there was a sense of history in early India…It has been to search for the forms this might have taken. (Thapar 2013: 681)

To a European scholar, this seemed more like history of literature than historiography. Indeed most Indological handbooks begin with that kind of survey of the sources, even if less expanded and far less intelligently written. Moreover vanshavalis (genealogies) are not history. The succession of the kings of England does not teach much about the history of Great Britain. It is only upon reading Talking History that I understood Thapar’s motivations. It becomes evident that The Past Before Us was not meant for foreign readers or scholars. It was meant for Indian readers, in order to tell them that like all peoples, they too had a sense of the past which modelled their views of the present and the future. This sense of the past did not look like the history written by Europeans since Herodotus and Thucydides, but was pan-Indian, and saying so stressed the unity of Indian thought over the whole of the subcontinent. At the same time, it was diverse, different according to times, places, dynasties and creeds. The unity of India was not made by a unified creed, less so one that was supposed to have existed from “immemorial times” (the so-called sanatana dharma or “eternal Hinduism”), as espoused by the advocates of Hindutva. Thus, trying to unify India according to only one creed and doctrine, now called Hinduism, does not correspond to its past, essence and destiny.

Smritis or Itihasa?

This is obviously the underlying purpose of Thapar’s studies of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. In Sanskrit they are called itihasa (thus it was); she calls them “epics.” But epics are studied by historians of literature. Two centuries of critical studies of the Greek epics, Iliad and Odyssey, as well as many others, have demonstrated that although they contain reminiscences of the past, they are not historical documents. Historians can use the data these epics preserve, only when they are substantiated by other data, such as archaeological excavations and inscriptions. Still, Thapar argues that she studies the epics as a historian, stating, “the Mahabharata is telling us primarily about clan society, and how it is organized, how it functions, what are its values, and so on” (p 236). That may be true, but history requires some chronology as well as a geographical location. The main story of the  Mahabharata is dated between the 4th century BCE and the 4th century CE. Furthermore, the events it records, and as such the society it depicts, are dated any time between 1500 and 1000 BCE (some even say 4000 BCE). Can one then construct history using a document whose date could lie anywhere between 1200 and 2000 years? Thapar is right in her observation that the Mahabharata depicts a clan society, but when exactly did that society exist? Was it at the time of the great war, when the epic was first recited, or when it was
enlarged to its present core?

The analysis made by Thapar makes sense only if we consider the present situation of India. Itihasa means a historical narrative, and for many Indians the epics are both religious (smritis)1 and historical documents, true to the facts. The Ramayana is thus at the root of the dispute over the Babri Masjid. By calling them epics and studying them as a historian, Thapar claims that they are man-made poetry, with many layers, with huge variants, not historical documents to be adduced in politics. She could have added (she alludes to it in the first chapter of Talking History) that the epics were also known and appreciated by the Muslims in India, in the same way that many Hindus know Muslim poetry in Urdu.

Indeed these epics are fascinating texts for a historian. One would like to understand how the Mahabharata—which recounts a war that took place near Delhi at least 3,000 years ago; whose participants left no descendants; whose heroes, the Pandavas, were modelled on a very ancient Indo–European scheme of five male gods and one goddess, and thus partake of the same wife (an abomination condemned by all the dharmashastras)2—quickly became known over the whole of the subcontinent, and was one of the main vehicles of its “sanskritisation.” Further, how it could inspire playwriters in far-off Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as well as in South-east Asia and Indonesia; how it still fascinates both Hindu and Muslim Indians, as one witnessed when it aired on television; how it can still attract Pakistani Muslims through Bollywood movies; and how it is now known the world over, are all worth studying. Yet we have no sure data to conduct such a study until the 18th century, except some sculptures, the date and origin of the most ancient manuscripts, and the adaptations made in the “vernaculars” of India and in Persian.

Thapar would have been able to carry out such a study if the data existed; this is precisely what she did in her studies on Shakuntala, and especially in Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History. There she is at her best, as she demonstrates how a legend is made, how it develops, as well as how and why one version (often not the most reliable) may become popular and be mistaken for a true historical narrative. Her book also demonstrates the limits of thehistorian’s powers. It could hardlyprevent the rebuilt Somnath temple frombecoming one of the greatesttemples of India.

Doyenne of Indian History

A review of Thapar’s latest work ought to be much longer, for reading Talking History forces every historian, Indian or foreign, to reflect on what they are doing and what they should do. It also demonstrates how one can take the best of Western authors and thinkers, while still remaining entirely and passionately Indian, true to one’s roots. It reminds professional historians and readers that there exists no neutral history, that historical narratives are always dependent on the vision of their authors, that new nations need roots and search for them in a past which is always reconstructed (and sometimes deliberately imaginary). History played a major role in French and German nationalisms in the 19th century, in 20th century Israel and many other new countries. India is no exception. India can, however, boast having given the world one of the best 20th century historians, a great writer, an innovative scholar, and a true patriot. She is now paying a heavy price for the courage she has demonstrated during her entire life.


Gérard Fussman ( is emeritus professor at the College de France, Paris.


1 Religious truths as transmitted by human personages.

2 Hindu codes of laws.


Thapar, Romila (2013): The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India, Raniketh: Permanent Black.

Updated On : 14th Feb, 2018


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