As opium is to heroin addicts.

ROMILA Thapar delivered yet another magisterial lecture on history last week. Titled 'Our history. Their history. Whose history?', the 91-year-old professor wove the theme around a quote from Eric Hobsbawn whose work has spawned generations of fine scholars and public intellectuals worldwide.

Writing about the abuse of history, in the 1990s in particular, by movements that produced nationalist myths and legends, Hobsbawn cautioned against the threat in the influential volume The Invention of Tradition, which also had essays among others by Hugh Trevor-Roper and Bernard Cohn. 'History is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction. The past is an essential element, perhaps the essential element, in these ideologies. If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented.'

Indeed, as Thapar addressed the gathering at Delhi's India International Centre, Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, was holding forth in an interview published at roughly the same time, presenting the mythical golden age of India's past as historical fact. Given the times we are in, it was Bhagwat who got the headlines. Thapar's lecture to a familiar audience was like the warm towel a pugilist gets to freshen up before the next bout in the ring.

Let's touch base with both, the ever-questioning craft of a professional historian, and the myth-making populism of a right-wing nationalist who claims insights into the past, present and future of a turbulent nation. In broad strokes, the points Thapar made flowed from her study and teaching of history couched as they were in reason and verifiable facts. Bhagwat spoke predictably of a grand past whose grandeur Muslim rulers in the main had interrupted.

Thapar's lecture to a familiar audience was like the warm towel a pugilist gets to freshen up before the next bout in the ring.

Thapar mentioned the Hindu nation-Muslim nation binary injected by colonial historiography, in particular by James Mill who never visited India. It led to her other point. Hindu nationalists extolled the valour of Maharana Pratap in the battle of Haldighati against Mughal emperor Akbar's forces. A closer scrutiny would reveal that the battle for Akbar was led by his Hindu chieftain Mansingh, whereas Pratap's forces were shored up by Hakim Khan Sur who led his Afghan troops in the battle against the Mughals.

Another point: were Mansingh and Rana Pratap not representing rival Rajput...

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