Eminent historian Dwijendra Narayan Jha died on Thursday. He was 81.
Jha retired from Delhi University and was a reputed scholar of ancient Indian history. Of his many books, the one on beef eating in ancient Indian dietary traditions earned him a firestorm of threats and abuses, while his expansive research, on what he would call “the distortions of Indian history” often made him the centre of political controversies.
“He was a stickler for historical facts, for empirical evidence,” historian Harbans Mukhia, who taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told The Indian Express. “He wouldn’t make any statement without sound empirical basis.”
Jha graduated in history from Presidency College in Kolkata, and did his post graduation from Patna University. In a career spanning over three decades, he constantly worked to dispel communal readings of ancient and medieval history.
In an interview with Scroll.in in 2015, Jha spoke about the obsession of right-wing historians with the Rigveda and how it had “much to do with their anti-Muslim stance”. “Since Islam came from outside they demonise Muslims as the other,” he had said. “And if they are the other the Hindus have to be the original habitants of the land. From this it follows that the authors of the Harappan culture, the oldest culture of the Indian subcontinent, have to be Hindus. Hence the laboured attempt to project the Harappan culture as Vedic.”
He was one of the three historians who prepared a famous document in 1991, arguing that there was no substantial evidence to prove that the Babri Masjid was built after demolishing a temple at the site. The conclusions were made in the Ramjanmabhoomi-Baburi Masjid: A Historians’ Report to the Nation, which Jha had co-authored with Suraj Bhan, Athar Ali, and RS Sharma.
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In his personal life, Jha was “easily accessible and sociable,” his colleagues told The Indian Express.
“I have always been impressed by Dr Jha’s scholarly work, integrity, and strength,” Audrey Truschke, associate professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University, told the newspaper. “One of his legacies is to pass on a continual pursuit of knowledge and scholarship.”
Vishwa Mohan Jha, who teaches history at Delhi University and wrote the foreword to a recent re-publication of Jha’s 1967 PhD dissertation, said he would always be remembered as an original outstanding historian. “Whatever he had written is ‘history’, as they say,” Jha said.