(Text of Talk Felicitating Romila Thapar at “History and the Historian” event honouring the eminent historian on March 15th 2018 inIIC, New Delhi, India.SudharshanSeneviratne. Emeritus Professor. University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.CHS/JNU Alumnus 1973-1980)
Good morning friends,
It is said, to understand history, first, understand the historian. So, we have gathered this morning to redefine history and history unfolded by the historian – Professor Romila Thapar. Ladies and gentlemen, she is guru and mentor, professional historian, and social activist who upholds freedom of expression reading the past. Professor Thapar has left a benchmark reading history beyond a mere source of information. Historiography, for her,is a prelude to understanding history as a form of knowledge. If this axiom is not recognized, Hobsbawm cautions, history becomes the raw material for fundamentalist ideologies and if there is no suitable past, it can always be invented, and memory expunged. If memory is lost, then as Lowenthal remarks, “The Past is a Foreign Country.”
This primordial mind-set was identified by Professor Sarwapalli Gopal as the ‘Fear of History’. To liberate that mindset, Professor Thapar drove home the need to decolonize our minds and from other parochial ideologies that emerged during the Colonial period and continue to be embedded in the post-Colonial period. It is not simply the dilution of historical consciousness or our collective memory loss, but a deliberate falsification of history on Who Owns the Past.
I vividly recall my 1970’s decade in New Delhi. Our generation had its baptism by fire to the discipline of history at the Centre for Historical Studies at JNU and the profession of reading the past, under siege. Professor Thapar, we were inspired by you and your like-minded colleagues at JNU and elsewhere, who did not compromise intellectual freedom. Instead, all of you called for a paradigm shift.
We idealized you as the ‘intellectual social-activist’ who gave us the insight to read the Past without Prejudice and excavate truth. It was a valued lesson on how to combine strong empirical data drawn from the texts and ancient material culture understanding human behavior patterns, social formation, and cognitive responses.
It was also a reflection on how to situate history of humanity beyond imagined communities by de-mythifying the image of Arya, Dravida or super races narrated in Colonial historiography. We were urged to look beyond the narrow confines of linear and symmetric histories and the dichotomy between the ‘civilized’ and the ‘barbarian other’.
We were also instructed how not to be enmeshed in anthropological clichés and populist historical rhetoric and the need to situate histories beyond theoretical boundaries of Post Modernism and neoliberalism. We were cautioned of individuals who subvert history, equipped with complex theoretical arguments and made inroads to seats of higher learning and are today engaged in the enterprise of cannibalizing our sacred space of knowledge – that is JNU.
To date, you have countered successive regimes, parochial and narcissistic professionals, charlatans and predatory amateurs who aggressively usurp the legitimate space of professionals reading the past. In doing so, as Saket Suman noted in your March 5th interview, “Romila Thapar’s life has been one lived amidst sustained hate and criticism”.
Yet, undeterred, you continued your struggle on behalf of professionals and public intellectuals reading the past and urged them to redefine their intellectual space to safeguard the enterprise of knowledge harvesting the past. You have given a wake-up call to the next generation on diversity and plurality as a value-added humanistic endevour. As such, our pledge needs to be a futuristic intellectual vision-plan beyond boundaries of parochialism and contours of inverted political agendas.
Professor Thapar, you are very precious to us! Your students, colleagues, and well-wishers have gathered this morning to greet you and your thoughts on dialectics of the Past in the Present and Present in the Past. It is a testimony to the universality of your thinking. In the next three days, as a collective, we will celebrate you and honour your ideas on Alternative histories.
Professor Thapar, on behalf of all those gathered here, may I wish you years of contentment in life and intellectual inspiration disseminating the spirit of uninhibited inquiry understanding the past, as your perpetual gift to the next generation!
Friends, thank you so much for gracing this occasion and sharing intellectual, emotional and nostalgic sentiments with us.