She was told off by Mahatma Gandhi, charmed Nelson Mandela and shook hands with Mao Zedong. I suggest there can’t be many others who have hobnobbed with all three. “Not a bad trio,” Romila Thapar jokes. “My claim to fame is simply that I have met these guys!”
Far from it. Thapar, 90, has a claim to be India’s greatest living historian. An authority on thousands of years of India’s past, she has a rare and special perspective on the country it was and the country it is becoming. After her years of scholarship and a lifetime defending secular democratic values, she understands all too well the rise of India’s Hindu nationalists, led by prime minister Narendra Modi.
“History was very important, because you were building an identity,” she says of what inspired her to take up the subject in the early days of India’s independence. “You have to get your history right, otherwise your nationalism doesn’t work. This is [professional historians’] problem with religious nationalism. They [nationalists] have one kind of history, we have another kind of history.”
I had arrived early to our lunch but not early enough, glimpsing Thapar through the window as I walked into Indian Accent, a restaurant off a leafy boulevard in central Delhi. She was engrossed in something on her Kindle. I later learn it was an introduction to the work of an 18th-century Punjabi Sufi poet. She seemed not to notice me. I hover over the table for a moment before pulling up my chair. With the war in Ukraine raging, I am keen to hear her thoughts not just on Modi and India’s history but also on the country’s close ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The ambience at Indian Accent is that of an all-day-hotel restaurant: white linen tablecloths and muzak in the background — which the waiters kindly turn down at my request. But the food is more daring, with dishes from across India given a fusion spin.
The manager recognises Thapar. She used to visit often after developing a rapport with celebrity head chef Manish Mehrotra. She no longer eats chillies, so Mehrotra would craft off-menu dishes for her without them. “I used to eat [chillies] quite happily until about 10, 15 years ago, when my digestive system said, ‘No more!’”
The manager informs us that Mehrotra has just left for New York. Thapar shoots down my expectant mention of the tasting menu (“That’ll just go on and on”). She chooses the sea bass with Amritsari butter and lemon preserve. I order fried prawns with Goan red rice pulao and smoked chilli curry. She also passes on my suggestion of a starter, saying she wants to save room for dessert. The waiter brings two glasses of Chardonnay.
I ask what Thapar makes of India’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Modi has faced sustained international pressure for his refusal to condemn Moscow, India’s cold war ally and most important weapons supplier. Yet in a country ravaged by culture wars, many Indians on both left and right see Russia as one of their more reliable partners, despite deepening ties with the US.
Thapar argues that India’s position has to be seen in historical context rather than as a “knee-jerk reaction”. “These long-term relationships do have some kind of impact on present-day relationships,” she says. Her generation, “because it was anti-colonial, [thought] quite sympathetically about the Russian Revolution”, though she adds they subsequently became disillusioned. “There’s always been this feeling that somehow Russia has been misunderstood.”
Western critics should recognise, she adds, that India’s decision to buy oil from Moscow at a discount, at a time when the west is pushing to isolate the Kremlin, comes as India stands to be hard hit by rising energy prices. She argues that it should not be seen as an endorsement of Moscow.
“Everyone is shouting about, ‘How can you spend rupees on buying crude oil, and you’re buying it all from Russia and you’re supporting Russia.’ In fact you’re supporting your own economy,” she says. “People elsewhere don’t understand how critical the Indian economic situation is. You have to keep that in mind.”
Throughout her long career Thapar has warned against the distortion of history to justify political agendas. In particular she has argued against what she considers the outdated “two-nation” theory, first proposed by British colonial historians before being adopted by religious nationalists, which portrays the subcontinent as a land of perpetual Hindu-Muslim conflict.
These theories, she suggests, have found new champions in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which sees India as a once-mighty Hindu civilisation degraded by Islamic invaders and then British rule. This misreading of history, according to Thapar, is used by the BJP to justify divisive policies and rhetoric that critics say target, harass and marginalise India’s 14 per cent Muslim minority.
“It’s always very convenient to have [a scapegoat],” she says. “So who’s the enemy? The enemy is the one community that is the largest of the minority communities, so you pick on the Muslims. And you build up on the colonial theories of these two antagonistic societies constantly [in conflict].”
This line of argument has landed Thapar squarely in the crosshairs of the BJP and its allies, whom she accuses of trying to “silence” historians. While she is a hero to many liberals, she has been denounced by politicians, received death threats and been subjected to vile abuse.
“The trolls started with attacking the history that we were writing,” she says. “Then at some point it became sexist. And there I was as the only woman in this galaxy of historians . . . And so I was attacked in pornographic, sexist terms, quite openly. And that continues to this day. It’s tough being a woman historian in this country.”
As we speak, the waiter brings us amuse-bouches: tart and medallion-sized blue-cheese naan followed by a miniature mug of cauliflower soup sweetened with saffron.
We sweep back to her early life at the end of the Raj. Thapar’s family was from Lahore, modern-day Pakistan, but her father was posted across British India as a military doctor. It was in 1944, when she was studying at a convent school in the western city Pune, that the precocious 13-year-old began attending meetings hosted by Gandhi, recently released from house arrest.
When she approached Gandhi for an autograph, he noticed her salwar kameez, made in the widely available fabric churned out by colonial textile mills. The leader, who advocated boycotting the colonial economy by wearing homespun cotton, gently rebuked her. “He said, ‘Never wear mill-made cloth. You must always wear khadi. Go back and tell your parents that they must dress you only in khadi.’
“I rushed home and said to my parents, ‘I will only wear khadi now’ . . . And they smiled and said, ‘Yes, all right, we’ll get you a couple of dresses made in khadi,’” knowing she’d soon go back to wearing other cloths.
In 1947, with India on the cusp of independence, her optimism was marred by “a sense something terrible was happening” as the departing British rulers hastily carved up the subcontinent. Partition prompted a bloodbath, in which as many as 1mn people were killed and 15mn displaced, poisoning the relationship between the newly born India and Pakistan.
“My grandmother and aunt arrived in Delhi from Lahore with one suitcase each. And my father said, ‘Why haven’t you brought more things?’ And they said, ‘Oh no, everybody said it’s a matter of two, three weeks. It’ll settle down and we’ll go back.’ That was the understanding.” They never went back.
I am chomping away as Thapar speaks. The prawns are succulent, the red rice textured and the gravy rich and delicious — all tangy tamarind, hot chillies and sweet coconut milk. Yet I’ve thrown so many questions at her that I belatedly notice she has not taken a bite, teeing up chunks of sea bass on her fork only to put it down again as she begins another answer. I suggest I should let her eat.
After her thesis on Buddhist emperor Ashoka at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Thapar would go on to spend decades teaching at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She says she’s written about 20 books, though I mention that others put that figure considerably higher. “That was nice of them,” she says. Among the most recent is a memoir of her travels to China in the 1950s to work on Buddhist archaeological sites. It was then that she was briefly introduced to Mao at an Indian embassy function.
Most of her work covers ancient India, such as the Indus valley civilisation, which flourished from around 2500 BCE, and the subsequent Indo-Aryans, composers of the sacred Vedas, who many historians argue migrated to the subcontinent from central Asia. They were followed by long lines of dynasties practising forms of what we now call Hinduism or Buddhism, before Islam spread to the subcontinent, first through trade, then through conquerors such as the Mughals, who ruled for 300 years until the 19th century.
Thapar’s analysis of Hinduism in historical terms has for decades brought her into conflict with religious nationalists, who look to India’s ancient past for evidence of a pre-Islamic golden age. Many, for example, see Indo-Aryans as the original Indians and reject that they migrated or were preceded by other societies. Groups including the BJP for years campaigned against school textbooks Thapar first wrote in the 1960s that included references to mistreatment of lower castes and the Indo-Aryans eating beef, now taboo among many Hindus.
A central theme through her work has been to highlight the diversity of thought, identity and religion through Indian history, arguing that modern categories of Hindu and Muslim should not be imposed, blanket fashion, on the fluid identities of the past. She tells the story of her grandmother taking her as a young girl to worship at the grave of a Sufi pir, or Muslim saint. Plenty of Muslims would also worship Hindu deities such as Krishna, she adds.
“To say I am a Hindu or I am a Muslim was something which was said from the 19th century onwards,” she explains. “The elite had mosques and temples. Ordinary people worshipped whichever deity they wanted to.”
Thapar suggests the BJP has revived the “two-nation” theory in order to portray itself as the modern-day defender of Hinduism. Modi’s government is, for example, overseeing the construction of a temple at what is believed to be the birthplace of the deity Rama in the northern city of Ayodhya. A BJP campaign culminated in the 1992 destruction of a mosque on the site, which precipitated appalling intercommunal killing.
Yet Thapar says there is no historical evidence for Rama’s birthplace. And she also argues that popular narratives of historic religious conflict, such as of attacks by Muslim rulers on Hindu temples, were first advanced by the British. Before that, such incidents were often understood as political or local disputes.
I ask what has made Modi India’s most powerful prime minister in decades. He has enduringly high popularity ratings and the BJP won key victories in last month’s state elections. Is there an archetype that explains his appeal? “I don’t think there is. I think that’s really where the strength lies. You cannot dismiss him by saying he’s a modern-day ‘whatever’,” she says.
She suggests instead that, in a country long ruled by elite families, Modi’s humble origins and unabashed championing of Hindu identity have made him a hero to the growing middle class. “What you’ve got now is an expansion of the Indian middle class, with a lot of people moving into the lower-middle-class bracket. They’re looking for a leader.”
We move on to the state of dissent and academia. JNU, whose liberal campus is regarded by the right as a haven for Marxists and terrorist sympathisers, has been the site of fierce conflict. Several students were charged with sedition in controversial cases and dozens attacked by an alleged rightwing mob in 2020. The BJP has also introduced controversial policies that critics say dampen academic freedom.
I mention her warning from 2019, before Modi was re-elected for a second term, that his return would mean the “virtual shutdown of the Indian academic world”. Has this happened? “What JNU was noted for was the free expression of students and teachers grappling with knowledge and ideas,” she says. “That has been in a sense terminated, because of this whole fear that if you open your mouth and say the wrong thing you’ll be picked up and sent to jail, as has happened.”
After our lunch, she emails me to stress the point. This BJP ideology “is bereft of ethics and of humanism”, she writes. “It frightens me to see the ease with which a mob can be mobilised to act with violence . . . and when there are public calls for the annihilation of Muslims.”
What’s left of her sea bass has long since gone cold. She says it was nice but had “a little chilli”. She jokes with a waiter about whether she can get a doggy bag (she can’t). Thapar has lost interest in dessert too. “I think not. No,” she says. I had been eyeing the cannoli with mishti doi, a Bengali sweet yoghurt. It will have to wait.
We order two espressos and try to end the conversation on a more cheerful note. We’ve covered Gandhi and Mao; what about Mandela? Thapar beams as she tells me how she met him on a visit to India in 1990, the year of his release after 27 years in prison. They talked so much he asked if she would join him at the table of honour, only for Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister, to quash the idea. “He was an absolute charmer,” she says of Mandela.
As we wrap up I ask her what she’s working on next. “It’s about time I can put my feet up and say enough is enough,” she says, before adding she’s “being badgered” to publish her memoirs. Before Thapar gets up from the table, I ask a final question: what would she like her legacy to be?
“I would like there to be a generation that goes on asking questions,” she says. “Asking those questions freely and exploring the answers to those questions in a free manner. That is what I would want . . . Any society which gets to the point where they’re not allowed to ask questions, it’s a desperate situation.”
Benjamin Parkin is the FT’s South Asia correspondent
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Letter in response to this article:
You can’t blame Modi for policies others introduced / From Randhir Singh Bains, Gants Hill, Essex, UK