Who owns the nation state?
In her new collection of essays, historian Romila Thapar casts a clear eye on India's contentious past and political present
For more than half a century, Romila Thapar has been an inspirational scholar and a genuine public intellectual, someone who knows what she’s talking about and who has evidence to support her solid and persuasive arguments for how we might read the past. In a voice that is clear and steady and devoid of rhetorical flourishes, Thapar continues to engage with the world as it changes, even as she broadens and deepens the study of her own field of expertise. Her work has been recognized and lauded by reputed historians here and abroad, and, over the last few years, more and more of her collected essays and lectures are being published, usually under a unifying rubric or theme. In this volume, Indian Cultures As Heritage, we have the opportunity to consider some of her essays on the interrelated ideas of cultures, civilizations and heritage.
To begin with, we are called upon to acknowledge that we must speak of “cultures" and “civilizations" in the plural even when we are talking about a single nation or a single language group (which are the usual parameters for designating a shared culture or a civilization). Most certainly, we need to pluralize these terms when we speak of them in relation to “heritage"—what we get from the past and what we claim as our own in the present and for the future. Obviously, Thapar is concerned with these definitions and understandings at this very particular moment in the history of India as a nation state, a moment in which the state itself is busy constructing a single national culture and religious heritage for the “Indian" citizen. However timely, this collection of essays is hardly time-bound. The earliest essay is from 1999 and the most recent from a lecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2017—they demonstrate not only how consistent Thapar’s intellectual position has been but also how the battle against a false consciousness in public discourse about the historical past and the political present is far from over.
Thapar has always been interested in, and has drawn our attention to, how our idea(s) of the past inflect the present. By bringing these essays together under the umbrella of “Contemporary Pasts", her central concern is foregrounded in a number of ways—for example, through a discussion of science, or discrimination, or women reading and constructing culture. In each case, we are reminded that the ownership and definition of “culture" has always been the prerogative of elites, be they colonial elites or indigenous ruling classes. In the case of India, we must add upper castes to the list of those that control and disseminate ideas of “legitimate" culture.
Thapar’s voice, along with those of scholars from other fields of study, such as A.K. Ramanujan, Wendy Doniger and G.N. Devy, leads a chorus that directs our attention away from the classical and the unitary and towards the so-called folk and plural. Older distinctions like the “great" and the “little" traditions, marga and desha, the oral and the written, the Sanskrit and the vernacular, are examined by these scholars and found less than useful. Such binaries, almost oppositional in nature and content, formed the bulwark of Orientalism and Indology (as opposed to the current episteme of Indian studies).
As early as the 1980s, Ramanujan insisted that we accord the same value to riddles, folk tales and women’s songs as we did to court poetry, he read Tamil and Sanskrit as complementary and sometimes mutually contentious expressions of a dynamic, shifting power structure, he demonstrated that bhakti poetry was formally complex and structurally related to classical literature. In short, he made us see that the cultures of the subcontinent were always in conflict and in conversation with each other. For him, to speak of cultures in the plural was not simply the politics of inclusion, it was also an emphatic statement about aesthetics itself.
In 2014, Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), called the wrath of the Hindu right down upon her head. Among the many things that she brings together in the book, she discusses where Dalits, women and animals have been placed in a cultural history of Hinduism as reflected in literature, for example. The subtitle, “An Alternative History", takes aim at the idea that there can be a single narrative for a culture, a religion, a civilization. Doniger speaks fully and freely of the changes that Hinduism underwent in historical time, responding to other religions and new allegiances that appeared on the subcontinent. As Thapar takes time to speak of classical Hinduism in the period of Buddhist and Jain dominance, so Doniger explores the changes in Hinduism during the colonial period.
Devy has worked incessantly to establish the linguistic diversity and numeric strength of subaltern cultures in India. In a politically resonant statement during a public lecture last year in Bengaluru, he said the most beloved stories of mainstream Hinduism start in the mouths of Dalits. It is a suta, both charioteer and bard, who speaks first in the Mahabharat, the Kathasaritsagar claims an older and longer text written in Paishachi, the language of either ghouls or tribal people, as its source. Sanskrit plays are presented to their audiences by actors, an occupation that was always placed low in the scale of social hierarchies. Even the sage Valmiki, composer of the first Ramayan in Sanskrit, is claimed as a member of a Dalit caste by later traditions. Centuries later, when bhakti emerged as the theological fulcrum of Hinduism, it was men and women from Dalit castes who transformed their local languages into literary ones through their poems and songs.
Ramanujan, Doniger and Devy (among others) argue that resisting structures of power and talking back to hegemonic traditions are indigenous to many cultures. While we may choose to understand them in the vocabulary of modernity, they are, in fact, much older and more widespread. Thapar, too, is critical of modernity and nationalism being regarded as handmaidens and, therefore, as the natural and, in the case of colonized cultures, the “imported" locus of resistance to entrenched power elites. In the last essay, titled “Knowledge As Heritage", she argues that in ex-colonial (rather than postcolonial) societies, “nationalism does not mean going back to old identities or selecting the identity of the majority and calling it ‘national’." Placing this narrow understanding of nationalism in the context of globalization, she says, “has led to ideologies that propagate a wish to revert to the imagined utopia of the past that would allow national cultures to be described as unique and incontestable. What it actually upholds is the reinvention of what is believed to have been the society and culture of a past golden age." Without pointing any fingers, Thapar has reminded us that in our current environment, the hegemonic Hindu right seeks to construct an uninflected Indianness that is predicated on the very ideas of culture and civilization that were generated by the colonial powers.
In the first two decades of the 21st century, many of our existential and cultural battles have centred around the politics of identity. As we seek to define ourselves with greater precision and comfort, we reach for more nuanced and, simultaneously, more aggressive expressions of such traditional separations as gender, race, caste, class and sexuality. The lines between the known “us" and the perceived “them" are being drawn darker and deeper. How we integrate the past into our present, what elements we choose as part of our narrative and what we reject as not our history are now more important than ever, for these choices will determine the alliances we form, as well as the content of our resistance. They will equally determine whom we see as oppositional and who it is that we exclude from our experience of the present and our vision of the future. Thapar sees hope in the fact that “cultures can be changed and if there is enough determination to make a positive change, that change is not out of reach". Sadly, though, at this critical juncture of rethinking India itself, it is not clear whose definition of “positive change" will prevail.