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Getting to know the past better
By Romila Thapar
Historian Romila Thapar
Apart from new sources,
let me give you an example of the kinds of changes in interpretation that I
am talking about. Prior to this period it was frequently said that major
changes in northern India were the result of invasions. The Indo-Greeks were
coming in as were the Shakas, the Kushans, the Huns, the Turks, and so on.
Invasion, it was held, lead to conquest and the imposition of the
conqueror's culture. It also meant that some people became rulers and some
were subordinated by these rulers. But now we ask another set of questions,
a wider set of questions, in addition to what was asked earlier, namely, who
accepted the invasion and who resisted it and why was there this difference?
What form did the resistance take and what form did the collaboration take?
Were there negotiations required? If there were, who negotiated with whom?
Invasion is not just a sudden one-time, overnight event. It is a gradual
process and adjustments between those who are invading and those who are
invaded are complicated adjustments. Does the invasion have the same impact
on all levels of society? We all know about how ruling classes change very
rapidly during the course of an invasion. But what happens further down in
society? What happens for instance, to groups of traders? How do they accept
an invasion? What happens to artisans and labourers? What happens to
peasants? Were their lands devastated as a result? All these become
important factors linked to the event. What I am trying to suggest in a
nutshell is that in asking such questions history began to be subjected to
what we today call "critical inquiry".
This has been a crucial development. It is what differentiates pre-1947
history from post-1947 history. Not that the older kind of history has
ceased to exist or become unimportant, but the new kind of history has
opened up more stimulating ways of examining the past. Consequently, the
'60s and the '70s were a period when there was intense discussion and
debate, and the vigour and liveliness of the discipline of history became
There were a number of new areas that came to be investigated. Among these
has been the evolution and structure of the state in early times. The focus
shifted from just looking at the state as a static entity, to examining the
process by which a state is formed. There are periods in society when there
are no states, when the organization is based on clans, and kinship is
significant in determining access to power and resources. Gradually, there
is a shift towards what we call state formation - when kingdoms emerge, when
power and authority is concentrated in one family and the appurtenances and
paraphernalia of the state begin to get referred to: the king, his
ministers, his capital city, his treasury, the army, laws of punishment and
alliances and diplomatic connections, and so on.
These were all the constituents as it were, of establishing a state; and it
is clear how there is a transition from the absence of references to these
compared to when references are made in the texts, and when states came to
be established. This then also leads to asking the question of
whether ideologies were in conflict, and the one that is often discussed
relates to social ethics and war.
In certain schools of Brahmanical thinking, warfare was justified. It was
argued that the king had to protect his subjects as also the aristocracy so
they had to go to war. But there were other schools of Buddhist and Jain
thinking that maintained that war was not always necessary and that
persuasion was a better alternative. This was interestingly reflected in the
inscriptions of the king whose name many are familiar with - the Mauryan
emperor Ashoka, who made a point of
saying that war should be forsaken and people should be persuaded to adopt a
peaceful life. It raises the issue of how conflicts were resolved when there
were conflicting interests.