Thapar talks on distortion in India

by Samuel Rendall | 11/18/03 6:00am

Guest lecturer Romila Thapar painted a bleak picture of India's religious distortions of Indian history Monday.

Thapar focused her lecture on the "centrality of historiography," and the need for a more analytical investigation of the history presented in school textbooks. She also highlighted the desire of the majority to create a "religious nationalism" that prescribed an "Us versus Them" conflict. Drawing on parallels to American cultural discord, she spoke at length on the shortcomings of a partial recount of history as a way to define a national identity.

Thapar argued that in India, each new political regime has replaced history textbooks by "government fiat," without the consultation of the educational board designed to oversee such decisions. Rather than expanding on the previously used texts, the government has printed new versions that omit historical events not corresponding to the prescribed national identity; texts containing what Thapar labeled "updated, refereed knowledge."

Indian religious nationalists are the latest group to rewrite historical textbooks in an effort to further their ideas of Indian national identity. Their view of "religious nationalism," Thapar claimed, sets up a division between the "self" and the "other," and these terms must then be defined by the narratives of history textbooks.

Thapar elaborated on the cultural and historical context surrounding the Indian national identity, portraying the current regime's view of "self" as India's Hindi majority and the "other" as the Muslim minority, part of which broke off to form Pakistan in 1947.

Thapar argued that the nationalist view of India as a Hindu "monolithic religious community" led to the development of a "Hindutva ideology;" an ecclesiastical belief in which one national religion triumphs --Hindu -- and other religions are considered foreign.

She stated that "politicizing religion marginalizes social inequalities," and criticized Hindutva because "empowerment of the weak has no place in this ideology."

Underlying Professor Thapar's message on the dangers of religious nationalism was the idea that India is in the midst of "post colonialism" defined by the "dissembling of colonial institutions as well as a dialogue with its colonial past." But Thapar did not view India's situation as a dialogue, rather as a "borrowing of the colonial past." That is, India is not learning from its colonial errors, but rather repeating the same mistakes.

Thapar concluded her lecture with a number of caveats. She advised that history "must be rewritten" because it is not a "frozen body of knowledge," and that one must view history "as a process, not a narrative of events."

She closed with the line, "It is not enough to understand what is happening, it is also necessary to change it."

Thapar, who teaches at Jawarhalal Nehru University in India, was brought to campus to deliver this year's Robert F. Allabaugh Class of 1934 Memorial Lecture.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!