Dear Ms Romila Thapar,
First of all, let me apologise to you on behalf of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for the embarrassment caused to you when it sought your curriculum vitae to justify your post as Emeritus Professor. You may ask who gave me the authority to do so. The answer is that nobody gave me any such right but I am a tax-paying citizen with whose money JNU is run. So I have a stake in its running.
Before I discuss the university’s decision, let me tell you why I got interested in the subject. Like you, I was a student of English literature. I enjoyed reading novels, short stories and, occasionally, poems. My knowledge of history was limited to British literary history, which was my subsidiary subject at the graduate level.
I knew more about Chaucer and black verse than Panini and the decline and fall of the Mauryan Empire. At Patna where I worked at that time, I developed a friendship with Prof Imtiaz Ahmed, who wrote a column for the Hindustan Times. I had an occasion to meet his father Prof Quamuddin Ahmed, who was a walking encyclopaedia on medieval Indian history.
When the Patna edition of the Hindustan Times was launched, we asked the senior Ahmed to contribute an article on the evolution of Pataliputra as Patna. I had a colleague at that time, Diwakar, who, like most young Biharis, wanted to become an IAS officer. He had read a large number of books of history.
I learnt about my inadequacies, when I discussed with him contemporary politics. That was the time when the BJP raked up the Babri Masjid issue for electoral dividends. Suddenly, main articles in newspapers were on Babur and why Tulsi Das, who was his contemporary, did not protest against the alleged desecration of the Ramjanambhoomi temple. Politics and history got intertwined so much that one did not know where one began and where another ended. I realised that I needed to know more Indian history.
I asked Diwakar to prepare a list of books that he thought that I should have read. He produced a list for me that contained, among other works, The Wonder That Was India by A.L. Basham and your book on Ancient Indian History.
I especially liked Basham’s writing for his methodological presentation of facts. I also liked the way he discussed how Christianity and Hinduism could have influenced each other as inherent in the similarities in the lives of Lord Krishna and Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea.
I liked the book so much that I recommended it to all my friends, colleagues and students. It was much later that I learnt that Basham was your guide and it was under his guidance that you did your Ph.D. I have been reading you and about you all these years. Last year, I heard a professor attack you left and right for your lack of knowledge of Sanskrit. It was an extramural lecture organised by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
To drive home the point, he quoted Sanskrit verse after Sanskrit verse. I wondered whether anyone from George Duncan to Steve Mason could be called a Biblical scholar if he did not know Hebrew, Latin and Greek. I learnt one thing from his lecture, how some “historians” hated you for your interpretation of events.
I especially liked the way you argued why the Mauryan Empire collapsed. Power was concentrated in few hands and it worked so long as the persons who wielded power were competent. The moment weaker persons came to power because of the accidents of birth, the Empire lost its cohesion and fell like a house of cards.
The Mauryan Empire was in many ways like the present Modi empire where even Cabinet ministers are scared of taking any decision without the express clearance of the Nagpur bosses. Yet, it remains so powerful that it can split a whole state into three parts with the stroke of a pen.
However, they cannot stand the theory that the tribals are the aborigines and Hindus, like Muslims and Christians, are all settlers here. They want to rewrite history to prove that Hindus were not those who settled on the banks of the Sindhu but those who had been here from the days Satyavad Muni saved a fish from the bigger fishes in the river little knowing that it was the Matsya avatar.
Small wonder that we have a Prime Minister who believes that Indians first developed plastic surgery as could be inferred from the origin of an elephant-headed God who is considered a sign of prosperity. And an HRD Minister who wonders why IIT students are not amused when he refers to the Vedic past when the people knew that the world was round, not flat, and there existed a phenomenon called the force of gravitation.
When the JNU bosses asked you to send your bio-data, ostensibly to prove that you deserved to have the status of Emeritus Professor, I recalled a little conversation I had with my friend and Professor Emeritus at JNU, Prof T.K. Oommen. He told me that the status was given for life and it was based on the university’s perception that he had done commendable work as an academic in the field of his choice.
As a sociologist, he had written many books and held several positions, including as president of the housing society where he has a house, which he got accidentally as the invitation to be a member was extended to another Oommen who headed a journalism institute. It was like Hindustan Times sending cheques to one George Mathew who was a journalist, instead of Dr George Mathew who was a student of Prof Oommen. Both George Mathews were contributors to the HT at that time.
He told me that it did not entail any remuneration or any power. Of course, nobody would question him if he visited the JNU library to read or to do research on any subject. In fact, Prof Oommen contributed some money to JNU on the day he retired from there.
In his autobiography, “Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs: Life and Times of a Sociologist”, Prof Oommen writes, “Ladies and gentlemen, I promised to be brief... I am closing my response with an announcement. I propose to donate a small amount of Rs 1 lakh for the Centre for the Study of Social Systems to create an endowment. The interest accrued from that amount may be utilised for instituting an annual prize/medal for the best MA student of that year... I have been given three awards during my three-decade-old career at JNU.
“These are the VKRV Rao Prize in Sociology in 1981, the G.S. Ghurya Award in Sociology and Social Anthropology in 1985 and the Swami Pranavananda Award in Sociology in 1997. The monetary value of these awards is measly, even as their symbolic significance is substantial. I have kept the award monies in fixed deposits and added a little to round them off, to Rs 1 lakh”.
Prof Oommen is the recipient of Padma Bhushan. He was a member of the Sachar Committee who drafted a major portion of the report, which exposed the myth propagated by the Sangh Parivar that the Muslims were the beneficiaries of appeasement. Their condition was slightly better than that of the Scheduled Castes.
In the book he recalls an incident when the Sachar Committee went to Gujarat for an interaction with the state administration. Chief Minister Narendra Modi agreed to meet the committee. However, he said at the outset that he was opposed to studying the conditions of one minority community alone for he knew it would expose the falsehood he and fellow party men were spreading about Muslims that they had an extra share of the national resources.
Prof Oommen wanted to walk out of the meeting but it was Justice Rajinder Sachar who persuaded him to stay on.
Like you, Prof Oommen has also decided not to respond to the JNU authorities’ demand to send his bio. It appears they have no idea of the concept of Emeritus Professor.
In the 2000-year-old history of the Catholic Church, there is only one Emeritus Pope. He is Pope Benedict who announced his renunciation in 2013. Though there was another case of Papal abdication in the 15th century, Pope Gregory XII did not call himself “Pope Emeritus”!
Now, imagine, how ridiculous it would be if the Roman Curia of the Holy See were to ask “Pope Emeritus” Benedict to send his bio-data so that it could decide whether he deserved to be called “Pope Emeritus”! Recently, the JNU authorities have received an excellent suggestion from a BJP MP in Delhi that the university be renamed after Narendra Modi.
Since they are illiterates who may not have heard anything about you, they could have asked the Registrar to provide them your brief particulars. If they had asked the librarian about you, he/she would have sent them a large number of books written by you and written on you.
Alternatively, they could have done a Google search on you. I am sure Google Guru would have thrown up page after page listing your accomplishments and the recognition you have received from universities like Pennsylvania University, not to mention Delhi University, Kurukshetra University and Panjab University. No, what they wanted was an excuse to remove the title of Emeritus Professor from you.
You never know how a maverick functions. He can one day demonetise all high-denomination currency notes and on another day convert a state into several Union Territories. What they do not realise is that the withdrawal of the Emeritus tag will not affect your stature.
Even after you become persona non grata for the JNU authorities whose vision for the university is limited to the size of the tricolour they want to hoist on the campus, you will remain the great daughter of a great father who headed the medical corps of the Indian Army and the sister of a great brother whose journal “Seminar” remained one of the journals which did not suck up to the regime of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency.
No matter what happens, students of history like yours sincerely will remain in awe of your thoughts which remain profound even decades after they were first articulated. For the entire academic community in the country, you are not just a historian but a valiant fighter against obscurantism, intellectual shallowness and peddling of falsehood as truth.
Take the case of the Battle of Haldighati, portrayed as the Hindu resistance to Muslim rule. In a recent interview, you picked holes in the interpretation of the war.
Let me quote you, “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”.
We need historians like you to question the deeds of the Hindutva brigade which has been busy creating communal history which is different from colonial history in the sense that it seeks to portray Muslims and other minorities as children of the invader Babur, not the valiant, warrior Ram. Let me conclude wishing more power to you and your pen.
Yours etc(Published on 09th September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 37)