Revisiting Somnath–A Review

I am cross-posting my book review of Romila Thapar’s Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (Verso 2005). This review was originally published on The South Asian Idea in July 2014.   I am re-posting it here because BP readers clearly have a deep interest in ancient “Indian” (or South Asian) history.

In 1026, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni raided the Hindu temple of Somnath (located in the present-day Indian state of Gujarat).  In retrospect, this event has had tremendous repercussions for contemporary South Asian history and is traditionally regarded as marking Hindu-Muslim animosity in the region from the outset. To this day, perceptions of Mahmud continue to be polarizing. While many Indians regard him as an iconoclastic invader bent upon loot and plunder, their counterparts in Pakistan view him as a conqueror who “established the standard of Islam on heathen land.” The Pakistani attitude is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the country’s military has named the Ghaznavi missile in honor of Mahmud.  However, despite this conventional understanding, modern historians are attempting to question the received wisdom surrounding Somnath.

One of the modern scholars attempting to arrive at a new understanding of Somnath is Romila Thapar, considered among India’s most eminent historians. In her book Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (Verso 2005), Thapar argues that the dominant view that Mahmud’s raid caused great psychological trauma to the Hindu community is largely a colonial construction that gained prominence during the British Raj. She goes beyond the Turko-Persian histories favored by colonial historians to examine contemporaneous Sanskrit inscriptions, biographies of kings and merchants, and popular narratives. Studying these sources complicates the traditional view, posing important questions about how one version of the event became hegemonic.

Colonial historians divided Indian history into three periods: Hindu, Muslim, and British.  Study of the “Hindu” period focused on Sanskrit sources while study of the “Muslim” period focused on Persian texts. According to Thapar, this classification scheme was illogical and led to a piecemeal history in which links and connections could not be made. It also discouraged comparative analysis of different sources and an examination of the contradictions and interconnections between them.  In the case of Somnath, historians focused on the Persian sources to the exclusion of others, never inquiring why the event is seldom referenced in the Sanskrit temple inscriptions. In addition, the Persian texts were read at face value, discounting their internal contradictions. Various texts assigned Mahmud different motivations with some emphasizing his religious zeal and others focusing on his interest in plunder.

The dominance of the conventional view of Somnath can also be explained by the retrospective need to justify the 1947 Partition of British India into two nation-states: India and Pakistan. This was justified by claiming that, since the arrival of Islam, the Hindu and Muslim communities had been two distinct “nations” that were largely antagonistic to each other. In this view, the raid on Somnath became “a foundational event that created hostility between Hindus and Muslims since the raid could neither be forgiven nor forgotten” (Thapar 12). Post-independence, the conventional view of the event has become central to Hindutva politics. Thapar notes that the 1990 rath yatra that preceded the destruction of the Babri Masjid began at Somnath. The destruction of the mosque itself was seen as the Hindu reply to Mahmud’s iconoclasm. Thus, the received wisdom about Somnath served not only the aims of the British but continues to serve those of contemporary religious nationalism. Continue reading Revisiting Somnath–A Review

Romila Thapar. Something is missing..

A good, wide-ranging interview with Romila Thapar   (original link is broken, I am not sure what it was, but this video is around the same time (and i posted another one below this post)

I have no argument with a lot of her history writing or the ideal of the neutral, skeptical, inquiring historian.., as far as it goes. But with Romila ji, something is missing; her own vision of what is India and WHY it is India. After all, we could (and did) have multiple polities in this subcontinent and now have at least 2 that explicitly reject their Indian identity and want to be known as either an entirely new people (“pakistanis”) or as Bengali Muslims who prefer their own country. The rest of the subcontinent remains India. For a historian it must be of interest WHY Pakistan is not Indian, but India is. And for India to be, it has to have an identity. What is that identity? In other words, secular democracy is fine and all, but all secular democracies on the planet today have an identity that is not entirely arbitrary. So India cannot expect to somehow do fine as “Indians who happen to be indian bcz that is how the British left them”… there has to be something more than that.

Now it is frequently said (mostly by her enemies?) that her basic framework is Marxism. But as far as I know, she does not explicitly claim this. Is it? and if she does not like to claim it, why not? And even if it is, there are so many subcults within Marxism by now, we may need to know more specifics.. But anyway, let us assume it is some sort of Marxism, then we shoud note that Marxist Chinese and Marxist Russians ended up with very strong (and expansive) nationalist visions of Russia and China. What is her vision of India? and what is that identity based on (what is “India” in her mind? in her worldview?). Maybe she should lay it out more instead of relying on the understanding and sympathy of others who hold equally vaguely Marxist views?

It is not that she has no clue. I am sure she has many, but she does seem to take its existence for granted. Maybe she thinks it doesnt need to be contested, it is so obvious and clear. But I think she should still put her vision out there. Let us judge how solid it is. Maybe it IS very solid. Maybe it will turn out to be rather thin. Or standing on ground that is more “colonial” than her fans would like to admit? My point is that she seem to assume the liberal secular democratic state exists without its own legitimating narrative or common culture. That seems un-good 🙂

And what about the economy? India did not do well economically under the “generation” Romila ji admires. Some of us think this was due to pseudosocialist interventions;  And that her wider circle of supporters and fellow travelers picked the “wrong” economics? does she still think those are the right economics? Maybe she does, but I find that most leftists don’t argue very deeply and firmly about that these days, preferring the easier and more superficial BS about postcolonialism and intersectionality or whatever. This too needs some work..and some discussion.

Anyway, my thought is that she could be right about ALL the factual details of this raja, that monument, that battle…and still have said little that is deep/insightful about how all that evolved into modern India and where it may/will/should evolve next.. That all those kingdoms and Rajahs will not fit into the neat categories and stories of various nationalist or religious parties is hardly a great discovery. In India it is sometimes claimed that Hindutvadis are the main mythmakers about the past, but in reality there are as many mythmakers as there are parties contending. I think she should lay her version out in more detail.

PS: I would prefer a secular democratic liberal Indian state. But even such a state needs a legitimating narrative, , Look at any powerful state: there is a central culture that is in charge and confident of its place (this last thing may not apply fully to all sections of Western academia but still applies far more than “the sky is falling” critics sometimes claim.. though how that may eventually shift is an interesting question) i.e. it presupposes a dominant common culture. Or so I think. Maybe I am wrong. But we may need to debate this more explicitly than she ever does..I am just not sure she has enough to say about the development of that ideal, and the challenges that stand in its way today, in India, in any deep sense. As you may expect, the hindutvvadis have complaints.. 

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