QUESTIONING PARADIGMS, CONSTRUCTING HISTORIES: A FESTSCHRIFT FOR ROMILA THAPAR
Edited by Kumkum Roy and Naina Dayal
Aleph Book Company (in association with The Book Review Literary Trust), New Delhi, 2019,
pp. 576, Rs. 999.00
Valiant efforts by many authors and discussants, by two skilled editors, and by committed publishers produced this remarkable volume in record time. Based on a conference conceived in 2017 and held in 2018, under the auspices of The Book Review Literary Trust, this large volume honours Romila Thapar and continues her work in a spirit that she expressed in the quote which appeared on conference bags, excerpted on the book jacket: ‘As a historian, I am aware that I too am part of the historical process, as we all are, and that the paradigm will shift in the future …’ The editors introduce the volume by succinctly summarizing each of twenty-seven tightly written erudite chapters, composed by scholars ranging across such a diversity of specialized fields of historical research that I doubt they would ever have joined forces for any other project.
Each chapter considers themes in Romila Thapar’s expansive work, which crosses boundaries among political, economic, social, and cultural history; and, though she has focused empirically on ancient and early medieval India, she has also broadly engaged in global debates in history and social theory, technical and theoretical advances in relevant fields, and current concerns in Indian politics. The collective effort to produce this volume also represents an academic response to a paradigm problem that has worsened dramatically since the first Romila Thapar festschrift appeared, following her retirement from the Centre for Historical Studies, in 1996.
She subtly indicates that paradigm problem in her ‘Response to the Conference’, which concludes the volume with careful consideration of major themes at the conference: for decades, she and her colleagues and students have written scholarly Indian history to educate a secular multi-cultural nation, but their work is now being displaced in public discourse by anti-intellectual propaganda histories, which have forced a painful, even brutal, divorce of critical academic historical scholarship from hegemonic national story telling.
In her ‘Response to the Conference’, we find this pithy sentence to launch critical thought on the paradigm problem (p. 452): ‘The construction of identity is not a reflection of social relations but a platform where social claims are negotiated.’ That idea pertains to reading ancient sources depicting social, cultural, and political identities; but, at the same time, it illuminates history’s current paradigm problem: national identity is a political platform for negotiating claims to historical truth, where contending social forces struggle to control interpretations of the past.
That problem is evident in many countries where national identities are now being radically reconstructed; keywords in that trend are numerous: Trump, Brexit, Rohingyas, Kashmir, NRC, CAA, Xinjiang, and many more. This volume indicates some contributing causes in India, but I would stress the role of neo-liberal globalization, whose global impact has accumulated since the 1990s, increasing inequality, concentrating capital, fostering competitive egoistic individualism, dumbing down education, and making the law and law-enforcement more repressively focused on majoritarian national wealth production, at the expense of minorities.
Enmeshed in these trends, scholars struggle to forge progressive national futures, and Romila Thapar is a leading inspiration, but in that historical process, we might also look critically at the methodological nationalism which underlies our own institutional paradigm. Distinctly modern territorial identities are embedded in national histories, providing leverage for nationalist propaganda and the ‘clash of civilizations’. Questioning Paradigms, Constructing Histories presents an opportunity to question modern territorial boundaries as spatial frames for history.
Imagining pre-modern India territorially is a problem to begin with. There are many indications in this volume and elsewhere that ancient India comprised a vast collection of disparate sites and settlements strung together in open spaces of mobility where all kinds of people and all the elements of culture, politics, and economies travelled routes inland, overseas, and through mountains and deserts that were not barriers but rather filters shaping linear patterns of human settlement in spatial clusters that became more populous and well-documented in fertile plains.
Nevertheless, historians of India have focused most of their attention on territorial formations that appear from ancient times in documentary evidence describing cultural dynamics and social identities inside spaces that conform to boundaries of British India (normally including Afghanistan and always excluding Burma). The result is an implicit paradigmatic assumption that there is a coherent enclosed historical territory called ‘India’, which defines the inside and outside of Indian history, from ancient times. In that paradigm, any crossing of a border from outside represents the arrival of foreign cultural elements. This same territorial imagery is also rampant in other national histories, notably in China, Persia, and all over Europe.
By focusing instead on all kinds of mobility and their spatial configuration, rather than assuming the existence of territorial enclosures that imply the antiquity of national space, Romila Thapar and many authors in this volume modify the national paradigm by describing diverse collections of constituent territorial elements, based on local evidence of many kinds. It is the details of historical dynamics rather than their aggregation into modern cultural, political, and territorial frames, that make this work so creative. These chapters show ancient India was a shifting collection of territories formed by various political processes (Part I, Chapters 1-6), by diverse symbolic activities (Part II, Chapters 6-9), and by inventive literary images (Part III, Chapters 10-16), all wrapped in complex spaces of mobility and settlement. There is no overarching national narrative for ancient history, but rather a more true-to-life collection of historical moments, locations, and processes.
We can however imagine an open spatial frame for that history. From pre-historic times, mobility of many kinds—travel, herding, migration, trade, settlement, and conquest—brought countless people across the Steppe and then south into warmer, wetter, monsoon climes, across the Hindu Kush and Pamirs, and into the peninsula. Most famously, these were prehistoric Dravidian and Indo-European language speakers (Part IV, Chapters 17-20), mid-first millennium Kushans and Hunas, and later first and second millennium Turkic and Persian language speakers. Some of this mobility produced durable evidence; much of it did not, because, as Romila Thapar has argued for Vedic Aryans, these were typically ‘small groups of migrants settling … and spreading out’ over many generations, mingling and combining with local populations (p. 452). Three millennia of overland Eurasian mobility formed a vast differentiated space that we can usefully call Indo-Persia, where many of India’s territorial transformations occurred. India can thus be seen not as a closed territorial entity but rather as an open land bridge connecting Central Asia and Indian Ocean. Modern empires carved that space of mobility into national territories.
Another spatial frame embraces the peninsula and coast from Bengal to Sindh, where coastal settlements and ports occupy spaces of mobility and settlement propelled by monsoons and scattered around the Indian Ocean. Coastal flatlands and sailing ships that hugged the shore also formed spaces of coastal mobility that became favoured routes of travel from Mauryan times onward. Together, overseas travel and coastal mobility produced coastal spaces quite distinct from inland northern interior Indo-Persia. This distinction became definitive during modernity, when British India travelled inland across Indo-Persia, expanding from the coast, to render northern Indo-Persia—notably Afghanistan and Kashmir—contested imperial frontiers. India’s troubled northern interior borderlands thus emerged.
History in India’s national present preoccupies the last set of chapters (Part V, Chapters 23-27), and Romila Thapar’s ‘Responses’. Their common concern is how studies of the past can form intellectual pathways into better futures. This volume points the way by showing that India does not have a fixed ancient heritage but is rather filled with cultures that change, intersect, mingle, travel, and shape one another; and by showing that all kinds of people contribute to history, rather than forming fixed ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, ‘core’ and ‘periphery’, ‘dominant’ and ‘marginal’, ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, native’ and ‘foreign’ blocks.
Historians will continue to struggle with the paradigmatic problem posed by national borders that create foreigners inside and outside the nation, and with the mounting inequity that divides privileged and deprived authors and audiences, adding fuel to fires of conflict, competition, and exclusion, which trouble historical paradigms globally. Looking into the future, facing all these challenges, Romila Thapar concludes this volume with her iconic learned optimism: ‘It is the only thing that the historian can predict, that the paradigm will shift, and that there be new priorities of explanation for us to defend as historians’ (p. 469).
David Ludden is Professor of History, New York University, New York.