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‘Hindutva calling itself a version of Hinduism is problematic’: Historian Romila Thapar

An interview with the historian on her new book, history, Hindutva, and more.

At the vanguard of present day studies of Indian history, Professor Romila Thapar has always recognised history as a dynamic discipline, a continuous dialogue between the past and present. The author of several insightful books, she is now the subject of a new book, Talking History, published by Oxford University Press. In the book Ramin Jahanbegloo and Neeladri Bhattacharya not only explore her personal journey from Punjab to London, but also interview her on a host of issues such as historical methodology, epic literature and Hindu nationalism. Her select writings have also been compiled into four volumes under the title The Historian and Her Craft: Collected Essays and Lectures. True to form as a leading public intellectual, Thapar spoke extensively to Scroll.in about her new book, history, Hindutva and more. Excerpts from the interview:

In your book you speak about the need for public intellectuals in Indian society, who are needed more than ever in times like these. However, one does not get to see many academics, especially in the field of history, participating in public debates. Why do you think there’s so much reluctance?
There are two reasons for this. One is that researchers are not trained to think about the relevance of their research to the rest of society. This is not so prevalent among historians, although many historians also do not make that connection. It is more noticeable for example, among scientists who carry out their experiments, motivated largely by the concerns of their research, and seldom ask about what its effect will be on society.

Whether we are scientists or non-scientists, we are not taught or encouraged to ask such a fundamental question. This is in part because education is still largely in the colonial mould, where such critical inquiry was not encouraged. And these days it is being reinforced by the official ideology that discourages asking questions. We still have not graduated to that level where college courses should begin with fundamental queries.

Those who are aware of the importance of questioning remain quiet because academic institutions and the general public alike do not appreciate questioning existing knowledge. In today’s day and age, there’s the additional fear that if you openly oppose that which is conventional, you will have to face dire consequences, as has happened in universities. This is why many of us were so pleased when a group of scientists recently objected strongly to a Minister from the HRD Ministry trashing Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Epic literature, you conclude, is not be taken as factual evidence. However, despite being a fictional character, Padmini of Jayasi’s Padmavat is constantly presented as a historical character. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are considered part of history by many. How does a public intellectual combat such claims?
By asking many questions. As historians, we need to know whether it’s historical if it’s being quoted as history. We have to investigate its role in the making of a society – does it determine social values, and can it be claimed as a source of social identities? Do people take it as a given truth about the past and do they determine their lives by it, claiming it as a source of their social status and identity? Or do they take it as great literature and an attractive fantasy about the past, but something they don’t have to lay down their lives to defend?

Furthermore, what is the motivation behind converting that fantasy into a believed reality? This has much to do with the relationship of the present with the past, where the past has a lot of relevance today, especially in the area of social identity. In a society of such mixed identities, how can one find a single identity and declare that to be special? One of the ways to do this is to pick up a high status text, even if it is fictional, and to link one’s ancestry to it, insisting that it is historical. Such claims come more often from groups that are socially insecure. Today, ironically, some of these groups are dominant castes because the future is so uncertain. Their erstwhile dominance is under some shadow.

Historians can point out all these different aspects. Equally important is to comment on the text being used not as epic literature from the past but as a political tool in the present.

You pose serious concerns about using memory as a source of history. However, isn’t history largely a collection of memories of historical events committed to writing? Several historical texts that we consider valid sources of history today draw upon the chronicler’s memories. How would you explain such a conundrum?
Let me begin by disagreeing with your formulation that memory is the major source of history. This was so in the days when history was largely a narrative about the past. But now that history draws on and analyses a large number of sources on the past and is an attempt to explain the past, memory plays a rather small role. Other forms of recording the past are much more central. There are public papers, official statements and archaeological evidence that are given more credence than memory.

History derives from a variety of sources and in this interaction the reliability and value of different sources are assessed. Memory, therefore, is treated as a construction and subjected to critical inquiry. We don’t take it at face value. We analyse it, take it apart and compare it with other sources. I would like to underline that whatever the source, analysing it is absolutely crucial and central to the writing of history.

Hindutva as an ideology today is fast gaining ground. Even though its proponents hark back to the Puranas, Hindutva’s idea of Hinduism is the polar opposite of the assimilation that characterises Puranic Hinduism. Do you think the current fashioning of an exclusive, almost Abrahamic Hinduism marks a paradigm shift in the history of the religion?
We have to remember that all religions have a history. Religion is not static and changes with historical change. Religion is of two kinds: one is a personal religion comprising you and your relationship with the deity you worship; and then there is the public manifestation of religion where religion, as a social enterprise, tries to control society. This takes form after the religion becomes powerful and gains many followers. It sets up organisations that participate in, and determine the direction of, social activities.

Now Hindutva, constructed in the beginning of the 20th century, has had less impact on personal religion, and it does not attempt to redefine Hinduism as a religion per se. But it redefines the social controls exercised by the religion. So there is congregational worship, councils that lay down laws of social practices linked to Hindutva, belief in the historicity of the religion and its main figures as in the Abrahamic religions, etc.; in short the entire paraphernalia of an organisation comes into being which was not there earlier. Earlier, each sect had such concerns. But Hindutva is trying to make Hinduism uniform, by incorporating all the sects so that it becomes a monolithic religion.

An interesting difference between Hinduism and other religions is that Hinduism expressed itself historically through the creation, existence and growth of different sects. This enriches the religion and makes it open and plural. In the old days the openness of Hinduism was celebrated and the narrowness was limited to caste observances. Hindutva is trying to bring the narrowness into the religious observances too. The emphasis is on social organisation and political mobilisation through drills and Sunday Schools and such like. That is why I have referred to Hindutva as “Syndicated Hinduism”. Hindutva calling itself a version of Hinduism is problematic as it is a departure from traditional Hinduism.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.