Romila Thapar’s Marxist Rant on ICHR nomination

Posted July 22, 2014 by Dr Koenraad Elst in Academic Negationism

Retired historian Romila Thapar has written an opinion piece (“History repeats itself”, 11 July 2014, India Today) giving the standard secular reaction to the appointment of equally retired historian Y. Sudershan Rao as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. It gives the predictable (indeed, predicted, see K. Elst: “A Hindutva historian in office”, 11 July 2014) show of indignation hiding an inside reaction of satisfaction at the BJP’s renewed display of incompetence in reforming the field of history.


“The appointment of a historian whose work is unfamiliar to most historians shows scant regard for the impressive scholarship that now characterises the study of Indian History and this disregard may stultify future academic research. Given that the writing of history in India over the last half-century has produced some of the finest historians, recognised both nationally and internationally, one is surprised at the appointment of Professor Y. Sudershan Rao as chairperson of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR). Professor Rao’s work is unfamiliar to most historians, with little visibility of research that he might have carried out. He has published popular articles on the historicity of the Indian epics but not in any peer-reviewed journal, and the latter is now a primary requisite for articles to be taken seriously at the academic level.”

Here we have, at some length, the usual status-mongering. It says, in short, that Prof Rao is not “eminent”. It is a rather sophomoric argument: outsiders (such as politicians) and beginners imagine that academic status has a whole lot of meaning, and that you can’t be a serious scientist unless you have this kind of status. Insiders, however, have a far lower opinion of this academic status. Sometimes, indeed, it is only given to people of exceptional merit. From these highly visible cases, outsiders extrapolate to all others. But in many more cases, it is the mediocre minds and the faithful followers who get promoted, while the really talented people are blocked or are encouraged to seek more lucrative employment outside academe.

The mechanics of the presence or absence of status is as follows: the Indian Left jealously guards its power position in academe and decides who gets status within the Humanities, or who is blacklisted and kept out. Then the politicians select their sources of authority or their interlocutors by the status they “have” (i.e. which the Left has conferred on them), which is turn enhances their status. And then the India-watching circles abroad go by the status which individuals turn out to have acquired in India, and further increase their “eminence”. Thus, Romila Thapar’s own nomination to American chairs after her retirement in India crowned her career of being an ever more eminent historian in India.

The focus on status is a long-standing practice of the Indian Left, and for a good reason. As Sita Ram Goel already remarked in his anti-Communist days, the Indian Communists made sure to create status for those loyal to them. If you were a writer, they would arrange for you to be invited to a writers’ conference in Moscow and get an award there, and then you would be introduced in India as an “internationally acclaimed writer”. This was all the more important because people in general base their judgment on status, but no one more so than the Hindus. Indeed, the fabled Hindu moneybags will rather sponsor an enemy with status than a friend without it. The BJP will rather nominate a “secularist” with status than a proven Hindu loyalist without it. So, in the case of our Communist writer, they will honour him for his status, not realizing that this status has purposely been created for him by their declared enemies. And they will shun a pro-Hindu writer because he has no status, ignoring or disregarding the fact that he has been denied any avenue that might have led to status. The last thing they think of is to make an effort and create status for people who are perceived as belonging to the Hindu camp.

The BJP role in education

To be sure, there are provincial universities where the Leftist lobby’s power in limited. Education is largely a matter for the States, so BJP State Governments control a fair number of second-rank but nonetheless real nominations. Indeed, if they had meant business, they could have created a centre of excellence developing a more objective counter-narrative to the dominant Leftist version of history. Still, they do get to fill vacancies for history professors once in a while. These do not confer the kind of status that Jawaharlal Nehru University can offer, but they should at least be sufficient to groom a set of historians outside the Left’s sphere of influence. And indeed, even as an outsider, I can off-hand enumerate a handful of credible and competent non-Left historians, among whom a new ICHR chairman might have been picked. India is a big country, and non-Left historians may be seriously underrepresented, but in absolute figures they are still a force to be reckoned with. Prof. Rao himself is a veteran of one such little-known university in Andhra Pradesh.

As for the process of peer review, upheld by Romila Thapar as a key to academic status, it has come under criticism for being highly susceptible to corruption. Thus, Indians might think of Northwestern Europe as much cleaner than awfully corrupt India, but right on my doorstep, Tilburg University in the Netherlands has been through a sensational fraud scandal in 2011-12. Social psychologist Prof. Diederik Stapel had built a whole career on much-applauded papers, nicely peer-reviewed, and in their conclusions very welcome among the “progressive” crowd. But then it transpired that he had a long-standing practice of making his research data up, so as to suit his preconceived “conclusions”. The investigative commission appointed for the case not only discovered large-scale fraud affecting the work of other researchers as well, but specifically reprimanded the reviewers who had okayed Stapel’s work so often. This was but an extreme case of a general phenomenon: papers get easy acceptance from peers if they support the dominant view, but are held to far more demanding standards if  they are at odds with it. In India, just imagine what it would take for a history paper with “communal” conclusions to be accepted by a Leftist-controlled review panel. So, of course Prof. Rao cannot boast of many peer-reviewed publications, but that says little about the quality of his work.

A serious look into his output, however, reveals that he is indeed not the man from whom we can expect an overhaul of the Indian history sector with respect for the normative methods of history scholarship. Here we have to concur with Romila Thapar: “Rumour has it that since he is working simultaneously on various projects, a recognised monograph has still to emerge. The projects are linked to spiritualism, yoga, the spiritual contacts between India and Southeast Asia, and such like. Whatever connections there may be between these themes and basic historical research, they are at best tenuous, and it would require a mind of extraordinary insight and rigour to interweave such ideas.”

For a professor teaching lessons about historical method, it is rather poor to base herself on “rumours”. I have remarked before that the dominant scholars are often “fishwives”, who believe and then propagate mere gossip. Nevertheless, an internet search and our limited findings there give a first confirmation of her impression.

Historicity of the Epics

According to the eminent historian: “The two issues that he has highlighted in his statement to the press as the agenda for his chairmanship are also prominent in the Hindutva view of Indian history. One is that of proving the historicity of texts such the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and establishing the dates of the texts and their central event.” At least in the case of the Mahabharata battle, we are on fairly solid ground in assuming that it was a historical event. The same is true of the Trojan war, although Ilias enthusiasts also have had to struggle against skepticism before this was generally accepted. On the other hand, many embellishments as well as unrelated stories and discourses are of other dates.

She observes: “This is a subject on which there has been endless research for the last two centuries. Indologists and historians have covered the range of possible investigation discussing philology, linguistics, archaeology, anthropology and even astronomy to try and ascertain a definitive chronology for these texts. But to no avail, as a precise date eludes them. To go over the ground again in the absence of new hard evidence would merely be repeating familiar scholarship- but it may not be familiar to Professor Rao.”

The available investigations have brought us much closer to a serious chronological assessment than she seems to assume. Only, it does not favour the historicity of “the” Epics. They confirm that traditions were collected and expanded over centuries, and additions made even after a redaction meant as “final”. Only believers treat the Epics as a divinely revealed text that has to be dated as a single whole. From the wording in the newspaper’s rendering of the interview, it seems that Prof Rao belongs to the believers rather than to the historians, but then again, most Indian papers are not above manipulations.

After her defeat in the Ayodhya controversy, she still uses the present ICHR discussion to fool the world once more with her negationist thesis: “Professor Rao’s other statement to the press of there being archaeological evidence to support the theory that there was once a temple where the Babri Masjid later stood, is largely a political statement as the report of the excavation at the site in Ayodhya is not publicly available. Those few who have had the chance to read the report may not agree with the statement.” Are we to suppose that her own interventions in this debate were not political? The negationist stand against the pre-existence of the Ayodhya temple was an extreme example of how the Humanities often serve to provide a scholarly veneer to theses that arise purely from political motives.

The ICHR’s chairmanship

An interesting point is this: “Again, according to what was published in the newspapers, Professor Rao’s second comment was regarding his objection to the introduction of Marxist tools of research by the ICHR during the chairmanship of Professors R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib. Professor Rao should be more familiar with the ICHR since he was appointed to the Council by the first BJP government of 1999-2004. He should know that for the most part of its existence, the ICHR has been under the chairmanship of non-Marxists such as Lokesh Chandra, S. Setter, MGS Narayanan and so on. So if they had wanted to remove the so-called ‘Marxist tools of research’, there was nothing to stop them from doing so.”

The ICHR chairmanship is largely a ceremonial and administrative post. If the holder of the title is not particularly dynamic, not much power inheres in it. That is why the Left didn’t mind giving it to non-Leftists once in a while. They themselves are interested in real power, i.e. the power to change things according to one’s own designs, whereas most Hindus are only interested in office. (I thank Arun Shourie for correcting me when I once parroted the usual complaint that most politicians “only want power”. The right expression was: “they only want office”.) Office means you get all these photo opportunities and TV appearances, a fat salary and glittering perks to show off. A child’s hand is easy to fill.

I doubt that the enumerated ICHR chairmen ever had the instruments to remove the Marxist influence from their institution. But at any rate, there is little signs that they ever tried. The Marxists, by contrast, only desire office to the extent that it is an avenue to real power. Indeed, the history of their acquisition of cultural and educational power is one of a division of labour: Congress politicians, originally around Indira Gandhi, would get the glamorous offices, whereas their Communist allies would do their long-term moles’ work in the less conspicuous cultural-educational sector.

The good element in this sobering assessment of the ICHR chairmanship is that Prof. Rao may perhaps not be the best historian, but he can still do a fine job is what the post in meant for: put the right people in the right places and inspire them to do the research needed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for having a low opinion of diplomas and having more respect for achievement. That is why he nominated Smriti Irani, underqualified but a proven hard worker, to the Human Resources Development ministry, who in her turn thought of Prof. Rao as the right choice for the ICHR. Let us hope that she knows of qualities of his that we have yet to appreciate.

Real Marxism

The eminent historian, who is not known to have protested when Tom Bottomore’s Dictionary of Marxism describes herself as a Marxist, takes issue with the loose use by Prof. Rao and many others of the term Marxism: “It is perhaps worth pointing out that the kind of history that is often dismissed by Hindutva ideologues as Marxist is not actually Marxist but bears the stamp of the social sciences. The distinction between the two, despite its importance to the interpretation of history, is generally glossed over by the proponents of Hindutva. This is largely because they have scant understanding of what is meant by a Marxist interpretation of history and therefore fail to recognise it. For them, a Marxist is simply someone who opposes the Hindutva ideology. Consequently, a range of historians unexpectedly find themselves dubbed as Marxists.”

It is not just Hindutva ideologues who point to the preponderant influence of Marxism on India (which is simply a fact), and neither is it only them who use the term Marxism a bit inaccurately. And here, she does have a point. What she calls “the social sciences” is her name for the scholarly veneer that the Leftists in academe give to their own ideology, but that ideology is indeed not always Marxist, and these days less and less so. Marxism was one specific school of thought in the Leftist spectrum, and after it has been abandoned in the Soviet Union and more gradually in China, it has had to give way in India too. Nothing ever dies in India (as Girilal Jain observed), and Indian Marxism will take a long time to wither away, but it is a fact that postmodernism, potcolonialism and other forms of egalitarianism are taking over where Marxism once flourished. To the average Hindutva observer, whose understanding of these ideological distinctions is blurred at best, these remain all the same.

Let me give a single example of the difference between Marxism and the more current forms of Leftism, one that Prof. Thapar will certainly recognize. The Marxist historian Shereen Ratnagar asserts: “if, as in the case of the early Vedic society, land was neither privately owned nor inherited by successive generations, then land rights would have been irrelevant to the formation of kin groups, and there would be nothing preventing younger generations from leaving the parental fold. In such societies the constituent patrilineages or tribal sections were not strongly corporate. So together with geographic expansion there would be social flexibility.” (in Romila Tapar, ed.: India: Historical Beginnings and the Concepts of the Aryan, National Book Trust, Delhi 2006, p.166)

Nowadays it has become fashionable to moralize about the caste system, with evil Brahmins inventing caste out of thin air and then imposing it on others; Neo-Ambedkarites give a lead in spreading this view. But hard-headed Marxists don’t fall for this conspiracy theory and see the need for socio-economic conditions to explain the reigning system of hierarchy or equality. In particular, it is pointless to lament the inequality of “feudal”, pre-modern societies, as the socio-economic conditions for equality didn’t prevail yet. Socialism (or, to name a fashionable instance of egalitarianism: feminism) simply couldn’t exist or emerge in a feudal society. However, the pastoral early-Vedic society did have the conditions for a far more equal relation between individuals. In the later Vedic period, the caste system emerged, first with mixing of castes (caste was passed on in the male line, but the father was free to marry a woman of another caste, see the Chandogya Upanishad or still the Buddha), then with endogamy. So, the Marxist, materialist and “scientific” analysis is quite distinct from the “petty-bourgeois” idealistic view.

Real history

Prof. Thapar feigns bad memories of the AB Vajpayee government, when the established historians laughed without end at the sight of the Hindutva crowd’s incompetence: “During the BJP/NDA government of 1999-2004, there was a frontal attack on historians by the then HRD minister M.M. Joshi. (…) The present HRD minister, who unfortunately is unfamiliar with academia beyond school level, gives the impression that in this case she may be doing what she perhaps was appointed for: Carrying out the programme of the old history-baiters of the BJP who now have a fresh innings.”

It should not surprise us that the august professor, in spite of her Marxism, so openly disdains the proletarian HRD minister. It is the old glorification of status all over again. While her Marxist school has waged a very long attack on real history, so that a lot is to be cleaned up now, she is right to have a low opinion of MM Joshi’s tenure and initiatives. Marxists were at least sophisticated in their distortions, and hence could win over most of the India-watchers abroad, but the Hindutva history-rewriters were clumsy and disdainful of quality control. It is as yet too early to know whether Mrs. Irani or Prof. Rao are willing and able to do better.

Her final point sums up her judgment of the new situation, and I need not comment on it: “Again, rumour has it that the ICHR did send a shortlist of its recommendations for chairmanship to the HRD ministry. The list had the names of historians who had helped construct the ICHR into a viable research body. But that list seems to have conveniently got lost in the ministry. Therefore, a different name was pulled out of another hat and the person appointed. If this is so, then the prognosis is both predictable and drear.”


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Belgian Author and Orientalist :A Graduate in Philosophy, Chinese Studies and Indo-Iranian Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. He frequently returns to India to study various aspects of its ethno-religio-political configuration and interview Hindu and other leaders and thinkers. His research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism earned him his Ph.D. in Leuven in 1998. He has also published about multiculturalism, language policy issues, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and the Aryan invasion debate.