PM’s daughter takes on Marxist view of history

27 06 2008

19 Jun 2008, 0128 hrs IST, Mohua Chatterjee,TNN

NEW DELHI: Just when PM Manmohan Singh has taken on his communist partners over the nuclear deal, his daughter, professor Upinder Singh, has come up with a book which challenges the Marxist version of ancient Indian history.

While praising Marxist historians for uncovering the history of non-elite groups and other contributions, Singh disagrees with them for their reliance on unilinear historical models derived from western historical and anthropological works.

She also delves extensively into ancient India’s cultural past — art, literature, religion and philosophy — in sharp contrast to Marxist historians who focused on “social and economic interpretations”.

Singh, however, is not one to discard the Marxist approach altogether. “Being a student of history in the 1970s, I am a product of the shift from the nationalist to the Marxist view and so I have drawn from both,” the DU historian told TOI, identifying herself as “belonging to the liberal space which is so important”.

Singh’s 704-page A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century is targeted at graduate and post-graduate students and will be released on July 18.

With her keen interest in archaeology, Singh seeks to challenge Marxist historians like Romila Thapar, and provides, for those “writing the new NCERT school books,” more than one interpretation of ancient Indian history, and encouraging them to look for more.

Elaborating on her divergences with the Marxist school which have dominated the campuses since the 70s, Singh stressed the need for students of ancient Indian history to pay attention also to cultural aspects — art, literature religion and philosophy. “Religious doctrines, I feel, are important for students to understand things in context,” she said.

In the introductory chapter, Singh discusses the contributions and flaws of the various schools. “Marxist historiography also contributed towards uncovering the history of non-elite groups, many of whom had suffered centuries of subordination and marginalization. While making these valuable contributions, Marxist writing often tended to work with unilinear historical models derived from western historical and anthropological writings,” she writes.

Sketching out her differences with the Marxist school, Singh notes that shift of population from rural to urban areas did not take place as suggested in the model as “most people of the subcontinent continued to live in villages”.

Asked about likely controversies after the book’s release, she said, “Given that a controversy came up about a book that did not exist, I must say it can really vitiate the atmosphere. History always has a political element, it is always connected with power and power structures, with strong views on it even among ordinary people. But ultimately the book will be judged in the long run by students of history.”

Explaining the purpose in the preface, she said, “It is necessary to expose them to the complex details and textures of history… unresolved issues… have been presented as such, rather than conveying a false sense of certainty. Where there are debates, the different perspectives have been presented, along with my own assessment of which arguments are convincing and which ones are not.”