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Romila Thapar at 90: The Grand Dame of Indian History and Public Intellectual Par Excellence

Romila Thapar at 90: The Grand Dame of Indian History and Public Intellectual Par Excellence

  • At an age when many of her peers have long since hung up their boots so to speak, Romila Thapar is still focused on storming new citadels.

Greetings on her 90th birthday (Nov. 30) to one of our most illustrious scholars, Dr. Romila Thapar. Whether one agrees with their positions or not, it is an indubitable fact that nonagenarian scholars who are still active as Antonio Gramsci’s organic intellectuals are a rare breed. The United States has Noam Chomsky, India has Romila Thapar. It is appropriate that one of Thapar’s recent books is titled “The Public Intellectual” as it describes her to a ‘T.’ This embattled species now faces constant attacks in our homeland, from being fired from their positions to actual death threats. Maverick Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy had even suggested that her books should be set on fire. The recent book is a collection of essays by Thapar along with a few fellow eminent writers and begins with an invocation by the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

“Bol, yeh thoda waqt bahut hai
Jism o zaban ki maut se pahle
Bol, ke sach zinda hai ab tak
Bol, jo kucch kahna hai kah le.”
(Speak, this brief time is ample
Before the dying of the body and tongue
Speak, for truth still lives
Speak, to say what needs to be said)

It is all the more relevant because to speak up at such a critical time is a revolutionary act in itself. It is also reminiscent of the famous quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller during the Nazi era in Germany.

In the book, Thapar discusses the reduction of the national narrative to one narrow stream of thought and asks whether the intellectuals are doing enough: “We are not bereft of people who can think autonomously and intelligently and ask relevant questions. But frequently where there should be voices, there is silence. Are we all being co-opted too easily by the comforts of conforming? Are we fearful of the retribution that questioning may and often does bring? How can we create the independent space that will encourage us to think, and to think together?”

Important questions for all of us in South Asia to consider even as the spaces for dialogue grow narrower. Interestingly, even spaces in the diaspora are now under surveillance by the panoptical postcolonial state, such as the recent conference in the U.S organized by groups such as Hindus for Human Rights. The right to present different perspectives is itself now equated by the right-wing as hate speech.

Thapar completed her Ph.D. in 1958 from the University of London and returned to India in 1961 and joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, in 1970 as a professor of Ancient Indian History. Scurrilous attacks on her scholarship are nothing new but go back to the late 1970s when several members of the then ruling Janata Party demanded changes in textbooks she had penned such as “History of Medieval India” written by her and “Communalism and the Writing of Indian History,” which she wrote along with fellow scholars Harbans Mukhia and Bipan Chandra. She refused then and continues to do so today, to bow to authoritarian bullying. Her stance has had consequences too, such as her removal from the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) in 1999, less than three months after the current ruling party the BJP came to power the first time.

Thapar has faced numerous attacks in the recent past, from attacks on her scholarship to the attempt by her home university of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to remove her from her as Professor Emerita, a position that is usually for life, by demanding that she resubmit her curriculum vitae for re-evaluation. This call was made to arguably one of the most eminent historians of our era who holds honorary doctorates from top universities around the world and is the recipient of the Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity in 2008, equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the Social Sciences. Thapar took it as a warning from the powers that be “to show that unless we all bend at the knee, we will be subjected to public ridicule.” The university authorities have since backed off, following a barrage of outrage from scholars in her country and across the world.

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Dissent is indeed the theme of much of her recent work. “Voices of Dissent” was published last fall when she was 89. In it Thapar looks at the articulation of dissent with a special focus on nonviolent forms, pointing out that it has a long history in the Indian subcontinent. From Vedic times she takes us to Bhakti saints of the 15th and 16th centuries, culminating in Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha of the last century. She also focuses on the public response to specific forms of dissent such as the recent protests against the citizenship law. At an age when many of her peers have long since hung up their boots so to speak, Romila Thapar is still focused on storming new citadels. Happy 90th, Professor Thapar!

(Top photo, courtesy, Bildnachweise,

Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal is Professor of International Feminist Studies at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where she teaches in the Department of Ethnic & Gender Studies. Her doctorate is in Media Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Before she arrived in the United States, she worked as a News Correspondent for the Indian TV networks based in Mumbai, India, and has also done in-depth news reports for CNN International. Her journalistic work focused on the struggles of women and indigenous people in the postcolonial nation-states. Her work has been published widely, in academic journals as well as newspapers and feminist magazines such as Ms. in the U.S.

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