The American Historical Association – the largest group of professional historians in the world – has written to Jawaharlal Nehru University Vice Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar, arguing against his administration’s review of Romila Thapar’s status as emeritus professor.

The association’s President John McNeill wrote to Kumar on October 7, citing Thapar’s contributions and achievements. It reminded the vice chancellor that the historian was named an AHA honorary foreign member in 2009 in “recognition of her standing as one of India’s most distinguished historians”. It expressed concerns about the university’s decision.

“Professor Thapar is a distinguished scholar, deeply respected by historians on many continents,” wrote McNeill. “Considering her extraordinary record of scholarly achievement, the association believes that there is no need to review her richly deserved position as emeritus professor.”

McNeill noted that in the 2009 award citation the association had noted that “Professor Thapar’s work is the bedrock of all scholarly study of the early South Asian past”.

An emeritus position is an honour conferred by the university on a retired professor in appreciation of their past work. Once chosen, an academic typically continues in the post for life. In September it was reported that the university had asked Thapar to submit her curriculum vitae so that it could decide if she should continue as professor emerita. Thapar retired from the university in 1991 and was made professor emerita two years later.

Writing in Economic and Political Weekly, economist Prabhat Patnaik said any periodic reassessment of emeritus professorship was out of the question. He said Thapar had responded to the JNU administration by reminding them what it means to confer an emeritus professorship.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association asked the administration to apologise to Thapar, terming its move “politically motivated” and a “deliberate attempt to try and dishonour those who have been critical of the current administration”.

Thapar specialises in early Indian history and has been a teacher and researcher for nearly six decades. She taught at JNU from 1970 to 1991. In June, she was selected for membership of American Philosophical Society. Thapar was also awarded the prestigious Kluge Prize of the United States Library of Congress.

She was among the eminent citizens who moved a petition in the Supreme Court last year demanding the immediate release of a group of activists arrested for alleged Maoist links.

Also read:

The Laugh Ascending (in honour of Romila Thapar)

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