A historian-intellectual



Romila Thapar is a major figure in the intellectual history of contemporary India. However, many within and outside India consider her first and foremost, an expert on the history of early India. Yet, behind Romila Thapar’s multifaceted work, starting from her research on Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas to her last book on Voices of Dissent, one finds a strong intellectual figure with
a system of thought, who has profoundly marked  Indian historical thinking and beyond.

Certainly, Romila Thapar studied history less as a curiosity about what was there before her, rather than trying to trace a pattern. As she points out in Talking History: ‘The intrinsic link between the past and the present – and the fact that the present grows out of the past and, therefore, the patterns of past societies are important to our understanding of present-day societies.’ In other words, what we can learn from more than half a century of Professor Thapar’s work is that one studies history not only to understand the past, but also to comprehend the present. During 60 years of research and writing, Romila Thapar has contributed to the comprehension of history as an intellectual adventure, by bringing this discipline to the centre of the Indian public sphere.

As she explains: ‘The question I ask myself, and which is common to many like me, is partly an attempt to evaluate the quality of the history I have written, and partly whether I have contributed to the furtherance of knowledge in the discipline, to the comprehension of history as an intellectual discipline. The other level has been my attempt to try and bring the discipline of history into the public sphere, so that a larger number of people may have an understanding of what it means. I can only leave it to others to judge this.’

Undoubtedly, Romila Thapar has been an important transmitter of culture and a significant animator of ideas in Indian society. As such, her mission as a historian has been more than just writing about Indian history. Her task as an engaged intellectual has also been that of speaking truth to power, enlightening Indian public opinion on issues such as Aryanism and taking a critical stand as a dissenter in Indian society. What Romila Thapar’s work attests to is that every piece of historical analysis is a manner of engaging in the present and regarding the past. This is how she approaches a historical fact.

As she underlines in Talking History: ‘A historical fact refers to an event in the past. It has to be read and put into a context. Readings may differ in terms of explaining what an event means. The “why” and “how” also must be considered in a discussion of a historical fact and this makes it complicated. If a fact refers to what happened in the past, then its having happened has to be certain and this requires that the reliability of the evidence be checked; possible comparisons with other similar situations can be used in analysing the fact.’



However, Romila Thapar’s interpretation of historical facts of ancient India maintains a critical distance from all ideological generalizations which can obscure historical debates in the Indian public sphere. As such, by calling into question the dogmatic and fanatic foundations of historical interpretation and analysis in India, Thapar forces Indian society to confront its own prejudices and discriminations. As she writes in Voices of Dissent: ‘The study of dissent is essential to understanding how civilizations evolved for there cannot be any advance in knowledge without a questioning of the world we live in.’

It is always difficult for a historian to step back from her practice and reflect on the present state of the historical discipline and its emerging developments. But if for Thapar the writing of history takes shape in critical reasoning, it is because she speaks not on behalf of the established power, but in relation to the historical truth. Romila insists on the capacity for openness of history writing, while she highlights the numerous possibilities of which the past is the bearer. The result is a sharp distinction between Romila Thapar’s critical historiography and that of the historian-ideologues who remain prisoners of their religious or sectarian dogmatism. In other words, for Romila Thapar, historical knowledge does not take place in relation with a given political, ideological and normative horizon of expectation.

Thapar does not reduce her historical questioning either to a philosophy of history, or to a writing of history as an affirmation of the Self in opposition to the Other. On the contrary, her intellectual sensibility as a dissident and dissenter brings her to ask the question of the interface of an established society and religion with the Other. According to her, a historian should be attentive to the changes which appear in the identities of the Self and the Other. Therefore, it is clear that a historian-public intellectual like Romila Thapar has never searched for readymade answers in her historical approach to Indian society.

As she argues: ‘My attempt is to try and understand why a certain kind of Other received such a ready and substantial response from the public, both in the past and in modern times. The reason for this response is worthy of further thought. The dissenting message of these kinds of Others was recognized and frequently supported. This may tell us more about the role of dissent in Indian cultures, a role that we tend to dismiss or to interplay.’



According to Romila Thapar, history as a social science is far from only being a collection and analysis of information. It is also the art of asking new and pertinent questions about the process of human civilization and our contemporary societies. If we consider Romila Thapar as a historian-intellectual, it is because she is more than just a pillar of modern Indian historiography. She is certainly among those rare historians of ancient India who has given us the sensibility and the objective gaze of looking at an archive or a monument, while asking us to think freely about historical research. Thapar certainly considers history to be mobile, which changes from generation to generation, and every generation asks questions that the previous ones did not.

So, as we can see from her work, she knows quite well the moment of passing from reading a historical document to analyzing it as an intellectual moment of writing. For her to go from the document to writing is to start from an isolated episode or event and to look for its meaning within a context, a moment of historical life. One of the reasons why Romila Thapar writes history is to be with the rhythm of her time. That is why she tries to make sure that her writing is neither anachronistic, nor linear.



As she argues, ‘It’s up to the historian in interpreting a particular body of evidence, to prioritize what she thinks is the most significant and what is less so, and while doing so to explain the basis of that prioritization. It cannot be arbitrary and determined only by the likes and dislikes of the historian. In that process lies the creation of the historical fact – in the sense that the historian is drawing attention to something that happened, which others didn’t take seriously or were not aware of, and the historian points out why it is significant. The historian gives reasons for its being important. Yes, to that extent I would say that part of the historian’s business is to draw out the importance of a fact and explain its historical significance.’

Romila Thapar is also the historian-intellectual who introduces a reflexive practice of history, where the historical truth is not veiled, masked or manipulated and distorted. This is a work of demystification in history and in intellectualism that she practised away from the established powers. As an intellectual, therefore, she often had to stand in a posture of denouncing imposters and engaged in the re-evaluation of Indian democracy and its democratization. Yet, Romila Thapar, as a historian-intellectual has always been conscious of the fact that it is in the shelter of the critical function of the intellectual that his/her historical irresponsibility can function to the full. Even if Romila Thapar does not give in to an anti-intellectual tradition in India, she intends, however, to break with the fantasy of absolute power that some Indian intellectuals can convey.



In this Romila Thapar is not a thinker who has set herself up as a self-proclaimed guardian figure of Indian history. As an intellectual, therefore, she often had to stand in posture of denouncing historical falsifications and engaged in the re-evaluation of Indian democracy and its democratization. She takes a distance in her historical-intellectual work from all those who consider themselves as spokespersons of either ancient or modern Indian history. In the same way as Elias Canetti, Romila Thapar’s work attests of her acute awareness about the close link between the status of the intellectual and the imaginary of absolute power. In this respect, we can put forward the hypothes that Romila Thapar is a historian-intellectual who is divided between her Nehruvian sense of Indianness and her radical Jawaharlal Nehru University academic legacy, and who intensely feels the need to think of them together in her work as an Indian public intellectual.

Though a child of her time, Romila Thapar remains a historian-intellectual who knows how to liberate herself from the lies, delusions and falsifications of history, but also from those of her own time. Never has this been more important in Professor Thapar’s work than when she reaches to the deepest source of an intellectual’s responsibility: that of ‘the question of asking questions.’ As she points out in a collective book entitled The Public Intellectual in India, ‘[A] society like the one we live in needs its public intellectuals: people who can ask the right questions at relevant moments. Any such question has to begin with a doubt: one can’t begin to question without that.’

The question of ‘doubt’ is at the heart of Romila Thapar’s nobility of spirit as an intellectual engagé and as a historian who has always taken part in history. As we know, there has always been tensions and contradictions between the work of a historian and ideologies. But Romila Thapar resolved these tensions by choosing to move away, not from fidelity to her ideas of justice and equality, but from active militancy in Indian political parties. In other words, what Romila Thapar learned from history and what her historical-intellectual work teaches us is that a historian cannot be an armchair thinker. She needs to continue to denounce and fight the evil, because the world cannot heal all by itself.



For Thapar, therefore, the work of a historian is in its dynamic flow as a questioning of the past and the present, and not as a fixed idea in time and space. It should, therefore, be understood that for Thapar, thinking history goes hand in hand with a critical attitude of mind and reasoned thinking against values which are presented to us as absolute and undoubtable. As she argues, ‘One is thankful that there are some who do manage to think independently and creatively despite the system.’ Frankly speaking, Romila Thapar is one of the rare women intellectuals in India who has always walked against the tide. Also, as a dissenter, she continues to show us her intellectual capacity to think differently. Let us be clear, Romila Thapar remains exemplary not because she possesses any special truth in studying ancient Indian history, but because she continues to avoid the dogmatism and fanaticism of mere opinion holders in history.

Thapar could also be regarded as an example of the highest form of dissidence and dissent in the Indian public sphere. As a matter of fact, for her intellectual integrity is not an affair of strict skepticism, but that of moral integrity. Romila Thapar is a powerful source of inspiration for all those who continue to believe in a strong link between moral courage and the vibrancy and livelihood of democracy. Let us not forget that Professor Thapar is not just a historian, but also a Socratic gadfly who stands by her examined life and reasoned arguments and is ready to intervene at any moment in the Indian public sphere as well as in global civil society.



The universal dimension of her ideas in the domain of Indian history and her moral commitment and social engagement in the Indian public sphere are in many ways comparable with
the political attitude of those French historians who supported Emile Zola in the Dreyfus affair. This ethical
vision of historical work in Romila Thapar’s socio-political action is, in many ways, comparable with the acts of resistance of 20th century French historians like Pierre Vidal-Naquet et Jean-Pierre Vernant. One way or another, the historian engages his/her own story in history. Therefore, at the end, the work of a historian supposes a certain detachment to ideologies, and consequently a betrayal of them.

To conclude, we can add that Romila Thapar is not a historian of labels. As she puts it, ‘Instant labels come from those who know little or nothing about the meaning of the labels. There is no one fixed position that determines whether a person is a leftist or a rightist. There are degrees of nearness or distancing that influence what is being said. In making a critique, the intelligent critic must be sensitive to these degrees, otherwise the critique has no value and is merely a label or a term of abuse.’ Truly speaking, when one studies the intellectual legacy of Romila Thapar, one can observe at the same time an effort in her work for a transformed and empowered humanity which can be in control of its own destiny.

Actually, what her work shows us is that if history is subject to change, so is our intellectual attitude as a historian towards it. As the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer says, ‘history is the long, heavy, confused dream of humanity.’ This may be true, but when we look back at 60 years of historical-intellectual work done by an exceptional historian of ancient India and an Aufklärer such as Romila Thapar, we can find in her work the virtue of creating a quality of listening to history and a moment of love of human destiny, shared with her readers and students on a historical journey. As such, every new writing of Romila Thapar is a genuine intellectual event which generates curiosity and admiration. An admiration without which there cannot be a process of transmission of ideas and social transformation.

But more than anything, what we can learn from the intellectual journey of Romila Thapar is the moral courage of an Indian gadfly, who addresses us in the manner of Aeneas to her son Ascanius in Virgile’s  Aeneid: ‘From me, my son, learn valour and the might of stern endurance; what your lot may be, let others teach.’ In short, with Romila Thapar, the teaching and writing of history represent not only a style of thinking and living, but also a tireless defence of humanities combined with serenity and lucidity. All through her life and her work, Romila Thapar has incarnated this culture of theoria, which is born from the astonishment confronted by of the events of life and against all forms of autocratic knowledge making. A wager which she assumes at the age of 90 is in her choices and her challenges.