Falsehood Through Half-Truth: Why Romila Thapar Can Be Safely Accused Of Academic Sleight Of Hand 

Aravindan Neelakandan

Sep 03, 2019, 04:48 PM | Updated 04:48 PM IST

Indian historian Romila Thapar. 
Indian historian Romila Thapar. 
  • Many examples can be given of Romila Thapar misrepresenting facts, distorting them, or of ignoring them altogether.

    One such example is written about here.
  • One of the important achievements of Romila Thapar, that cult-goddess of Marxist historiography in India, is that she could pass off as the voice of the subaltern, while all the time, actually being the ‘colonial masters’’ voice.

    She could arrange factoids in a manner that they would superficially suggest what she wanted her reader to perceive, and in this, she trusted her readers’ gullibility to not get to the sources — particularly Indic sources — for verification of her claims.

    Thus, she is, in a way, a master of Indian historiographic bamboozlement, thriving on the willed ignorance of her followers.

    One example of this follows.

    Here is an extract from the transcript of the lecture The Aryan Question Revisited delivered by the eminent historian on 11 October 1999, at the Academic Staff College, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

    On the Indian nationalist side, it could be argued that the upper caste Indian who has always been regarded as “the” Indian, that was the creator of the Indian civilization, is Aryan and is related in fact to the coloniser, to the British. And there is one statement which I am very fond of quoting. I quote it in everything that I write, which is Keshab Chandra Sen talking about the coming of the British to India being the coming together of ‘parted cousins’ which in a sense gives you an idea of part of the reason why there is the interest in this theory.

    Now this implies the following:

    • Indian nationalists were very conscious of their upper-caste mentality and they wanted to rationalise it.
    • Towards this end, Indian nationalists used the theory of Aryan race and sought through it, identification with the colonial administrators.
    • Keshab Chandra Sen was a typical representative of such nationalists.

    Was Keshab Chandra Sen a representative Indian nationalist?

    The career of Keshab Sen was that of a social reformer (a failed one at that), who according to Britannica Encyclopedia, ‘very nearly converted completely to Christianity’.

    And even he did not make that comparison to rationalise his caste superiority through racial identity.

    On the contrary, in that particular lecture he was giving, he was justifying the British rule in India as ‘not a chapter of profane history, but of ecclesiastical history’.

    The quote was taken from a lecture Sen delivered in 1877, which in itself was urging Indians to be loyal to the British. He did talk of Europe now turning to ‘the priceless treasures which lie buried in the literature of Vedism and Buddhism’ but he did not in any way speak of any upper castes as being Aryans.

    “The more loyal we are, the more we shall advance with the aid of our rulers in the path of moral, social, and political reformation”, Sen said among loud cheers from the audience, mostly derived from the ruling class.

    After announcing 'the advent of the English nation in India’ as ‘a reunion of parted cousins’, he declared that ‘they had met together under an overruling Providence, to serve most important purposes in the Divine economy.’

    Now, this in any way cannot be construed as the voice of Indian nationalists or rationalisation of any ‘upper caste’ position. But note how she juxtaposes the words ‘Indian nationalist side’, ‘upper caste Indian’ and ‘Aryan’ together and makes Keshab Sen quote to provide authenticity to the association.

    So the gullible student is put under an academic hypnosis to think of Indian nationalism, which is usually associated with Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, both of whom used the word ‘Arya’ frequently but in an entirely different context and meaning, as an upper caste phenomenon that sought identity with colonial rulers to justify the social position of nationalists.

    Of course, she would not mention the other side. Like four years before 1857, Marx was writing of ‘a certain nobility’, ‘even in the most inferior classes’ and not to mention ‘the type of ancient German in the Jat and the type of ancient Greek in the Brahmin.’

    It is interesting that the presentation of Keshab Chandra Sen in England of that period particularly emphasised that in him manifested ‘a pedigree as long as that of any Norman noble’ and that he exhibited ‘the marks of good blood and gentle breeding’ and ‘the easy inborn dignity of a well-bred man of high European birth'.

    Note that despite his notion about ‘long parted Aryan cousins coming together’ justification of British rule, Sen never dwelt into any ‘inbreeding’ or bloodline claim to earn acceptability, but in the England of that time, the importance was on the physical features derived from ‘good blood and gentle breeding’.

    Yet, Thapar would want her audience and students to believe that Indian nationalists sought racial identity with the colonialists through Aryan theory (with all the historical baggage of the term and its horrible racial history.)

    Now, let us just see what the actual progenitors of Indian nationalism have to say about Aryan race theory and its implication to caste and also about caste itself — particularly Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo.

    Of course, there were among the educated Indians who would rather identify themselves with their colonial masters and would imitate them — then in dresses and manners and as now in academic polemics. But they were the elite and not the Indian nationalists.

    And towards them, this was what Swami Vivekananda had to say:

    When I see Indians behaving like Europeans, the thought comes to my mind, perhaps, they feel ashamed to own their nationality and kinship with the ignorant poor, illiterate, down-trodden people of India! Again the Westerners have now taught us that those stupid, ignorant low caste millions of India clad only in loincloths are non-Aryans! They are therefore no more our kith and kin!
    The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Vol.IV., ‘Modern India’, Udbodhana, March 1899

    Sri Aurobindo during his vigorously nationalist period of life, had written about caste prejudices existing in the Hindu community.

    He did not rationalise it on racial terms.

    On the contrary, he criticised it while not falling into the trap of seeing it as a Brahminical ploy. To him such attacks were cheap. In his criticism of caste system, he was clear:

    The nationalist does not quarrel with the past, but he insists on its transformation, the transformation of individual or class autocracy into the autocracy, self-rule or Swaraj, of the nation and of the fixed hereditary anti-democratic caste organisation into the pliable self-adapting, democratic distribution of function at which socialism aims.
    SriAurobindo, ‘The Unhindu Spirit of Caste Rigidity’,Bande Mataram,September 20,1907

    In that very same article, Sri Aurobindo further points out that Indian nationalism must by its inherent tendencies move towards the removal of unreasoning and arbitrary distinctions and inequalities.

    And what did Sri Aurobindo think about the Aryan theory itself?

    He warned about ‘most far-reaching political, social or pseudo-scientific conclusions' if we continue building on these 'falsehood' of 'hazardous speculations' (Sri Aurobindo in his Secret of the Vedas).

    In conclusion, one can see how Romila Thapar can pack in a few words distortions, misrepresentations and false suggestions that would necessitate a student to go into the original sources , if she wants to find out the truth.

    However, that could not be expected of a student at an undergraduate level. For that matter, the Nehruvian state patronage through which Thapar has become an authoritative voice suppresses such quests even at the level of researchers.

    In fact, one can see this particular falsehood of Thapar repeated on her authority by several researchers to show how ‘upper caste Indians’ of ‘Indian nationalist’ side used the Aryan race theory to rationalise their social position.

    And if this is just one of the distortions she packs into a few lines of her lectures, then imagine the kind of damage she should have done through decades of her unquestioned power and authority.

    Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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