Neeladri Bhattacharya (NB): Let me move from your engagement with the colonial and nationalist to the communal. In the decades after Independence, the critique of the communal frame seems to have been inspired by the democratic, secular, socialist vision of the time. There was a desire to see a secular India, inhabited by citizens who were secular and democratic. This was the dream of liberals and socialists. Could one say that this search for the secular framed your vision of the past?

If communal and colonial historians focused on community identities, secular historians were searching for articulations of secular identity in the past. If communal historians saw in the past only violence between communities, secular historians tended to underline the long tradition of togetherness and harmony – people living in close proximity, celebrating festivals together, participating in common rituals, sharing beliefs, respecting each other. Instead of discord you have concord, instead of confrontation you have amicability.
Romila Thapar (RT): Not quite. First of all let me say that in countering communal history, one is continuing the countering of colonial historical writing, except that the application of communal history is different. What is being said about the past is very similar as it is based on the same premises. So in a sense the critique of colonial interpretation continues. I don’t make too sharp a distinction between the two although the end purpose may have been different.

I would concede though that this was not as clear to me until the 1970s when I began investigating historiographical aspects. Over the years, this has become something that I’m more and more convinced about. Second, I think the communal interpretation is not concerned with the history of communities as such. It is concerned with the history of the majority community, and its relations with the chief minority community. The present frame, going back to the 1950s and 60s, has been moving away from what we were brought up on.

We are not arguing that society was harmonious rather than confrontational, but rather that the analysis of relationships, whether confrontational or harmonious, is what the historian is concerned with.

I began with questioning the theory that the history of the last thousand years has been continuously confrontational. Such a history would have been entirely different. It would have been a history of unstoppable angst and anger. But on investigating this history, one discovers that many of the ideas, achievements, activities, and social codes in use today of what we call the Hindu community are the articulation of those times in all their richness and creativity. They are not the articulation of a constant confrontation.

So what was the relationship between the communities? We need to look at the reality of the relationships and the features that went into the making of that reality. Let me illustrate this by taking up an interesting and popular example.

The Battle of Haldighati is often projected as the Hindu resistance to Muslim rule. In analysing who was involved in the battle, one discovers that Rana Pratap had as a principal ally, Haakim Sur, a high-status member of the family of the Muslim ruler Sher Shah Suri, whose interest in defeating the Mughal army was to get back his patrimony. So he, although a Muslim, joined Rana Pratap together with his troops.

The Mughal army bearing down on Rana Pratap was led by the much respected Rajput Raja Man Singh, the most trusted general of Akbar. Neither side saw it as a Hindu resistance to Muslim rule. The projection of Rana Pratap as the Hindu “national” hero who resisted Muslim rule is a modern construction of Hindutva “history”. The politics of the event are not focused on a simple Hindu-versus-Muslim conflict but have to take account of Rajput–Mughal relations that were both political and matrimonial, as well as the politics among various Rajputs who supported two different contenders.

Can we, therefore, describe the Battle at Haldighati as that of Hindu resistance against Islam? In realistic terms the politics of the contenders have to be investigated. Various groups of Hindus and Muslims were confronting each other on both sides. This is not so much a matter of religion but of hardcore politics.

The historian has to explore the politics of the event before declaring it to be Hindu resistance. Or was it perhaps the attempt of a Rajput ruler reclaiming his patrimony? It is a politically complicated event that cannot be dismissed in terms of religious identities.

NB: I agree it is very complicated. I also entirely agree that a history of over a thousand years cannot be characterised as one of persistent confrontation and conflict. We need to explore the complex interrelationship between communities. But what if I was to say that in critiquing such ideas in the 1960s and 70s, there was also a tendency to secularise the politics of past times, and that this is problematic?

Of course, Hindus and Muslims were not always confronting each other as bearers of specific religious identities – there were many political, pragmatic, and strategic considerations that governed their actions, and all that needs to be shown – but the question is also whether religion as such played an important part in the politics of past times. And the question is whether secularism as a category can be used for premodern times.

Can we look at the complexity of politics without adequately exploring how political and pragmatic considerations are mediated by religious politics? Wasn’t there a tendency in the 1950s and 60s amongst nationalist historians to track a long lineage of the secular, to see much more of the secular than the religious, at a time when the idea of the secular itself probably did not exist? Wouldn’t you say today that we need to explore the problem of using modern categories for understanding the “premodern” pasts?
RT: To some extent I would agree with that because I think the pressure in the 1950s and 60s was on retaining the secular values of the national movement and there was a tendency to say that these were not always confrontations. There are secular explanations pertaining to political, social, and economic issues to explain conflicts.

Religious factors may not have been absent in some cases as one among a larger range of factors, and more often than not they were not primary, as they were made out to be in the earlier historiography. The range of possible factors was neither sought nor examined in depth.

I think that the reason why we’re into a backlash at the moment is that we didn’t sufficiently underline what was meant by the secular in historical terms in the 1970s and the 80s. We took it for granted that since it made eminent sense it would automatically become basic to the study of history.

The other problem was the ease with which we spoke of the composite culture. Once again we did not examine it sufficiently to discover whether it was a composite culture on all counts or if there were differences of degree in the various ways in which it was articulated. What were the actual motivations for different cultural articulations?

Culture is created by the needs and values of a society and it does not have an independent origin. The question of why a society creates a particular culture has to be ascertained. Why, for instance, is there an emphasis on the need for a harmonious culture?

When I was working on Aśoka in the years when it was said that ancient Indian society was innately harmonious and tolerant, I kept asking myself that if that were so, why would Aśoka continue to advocate the need for harmony and explain how it could be achieved? This does not suggest that there was a constant prevalence of harmony among people.

NB: Harmony coexisted with disharmony...
RT: I recognised that frequently there was a condition where more than just two religions or cultures were interwoven but this did not exclude other less frequent situations of confrontation. I felt both needed greater explanation. There must have been some incidents here and there that were confrontational. This would have been expected in any society with multiple communities and cultures. This is not the same as constant confrontation accompanied by tension and fear.

Clearly the relationships between communities needed to be researched in greater depth from various perspectives to determine their nature. There were obviously many other reasons of a social, political, and economic nature that influenced relationships and the prevailing reasons for harmony or otherwise.

It is equally necessary to trace the complexities of non-religious kinds that determined relationships. These were in any case generally not between Hindus and Muslims as monolithic religious groups but were complex relations between various religious sects with a range of belief systems and forms of worship.

NB: Can one say, from what you are arguing and from what one feels about the historical analysis of the 1960s and 70s and even later, that often in writing history there was a slippage between intention and practice? What was stated in didactic texts as what ought to be, how the society should be – the norms laid down, the rules mapped, the edicts inscribed – were read unproblematically, and they were seen as evidence of what the society was? This slippage constantly happened because of which the canonical texts and the statement of rulers were seen as proof of social practice.
RT: You are right. And this really goes back to colonial scholarship because that is exactly what colonial scholarship emphasised. If it is written in a text it is taken as evidence often without sufficiently analysing what is written, why it is written, who is it written for, what is the occasion; in other words, asking the questions that we would ask now.

The legacy of colonial scholarship was also picked up by nationalist scholarship and later by other historians. The two areas that I think were crucial but which we didn’t analyse sufficiently, and were therefore misled, were the way we understood religion in premodern India and our comprehension of caste and gender in earlier periods.

We think differently about both in recent times largely because of the work of social historians and anthropologists and sociologists, who all pointed to the difference between statements in the texts and observations of practice in field studies. When a comparison is made of these two sources, there are problems.

For example, a critique of my work on Śakuntalā from some Sanskrit scholars objects to my saying that most women were subordinated in the ancient past. The evidence quoted to support a generally favourable status for women are references to the couple of women philosophers in the Upaniṣads, to queens who gave grants of land, and so on. Few mention the dāsīs, as has been pointed out by Uma Chakravarti and other historians.

Even in the normative texts, some of what is stated about women in the Manu Dharmaśāstra makes a dismal picture. Nevertheless, such statements were not discussed; they tended to be passed over. The three categories that we are concerned about today – women, Dalits, and Adivasis – are categories that were subordinated or marginalised in many textual descriptions. This was characteristic not just of early India but of other ancient societies as well.

It is interesting that even among nationalist historians and some of the early post-nationalist historians, the writings of Ambedkar on Indian society are not taken too seriously because he was said to be writing as a politician. His arguments were not discussed until recently.

Even the way colonial scholarship interpreted religion in India was not questioned. Our concept of religions as monolithic categories, for instance, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, etc, are, in historical terms, continuing the readings of colonial scholars. We have little in the way of academic histories of religions in India and particularly not of Hinduism, which is in many ways a distinctively different kind of religion, although attempts have been made to put it into the straitjacket of a monolithic religion.

Excerpted with permission from from Romila Thapar – The Historian And Her Craft: Collected Essays and Lectures, Romila Thapar, Oxford University Press.