The Question of Communalism in the Writing of Indian History

The Discussion Map charts important debates from the pages of EPW.

In 1968, at a seminar hosted by All India Radio, three papers criticising the communal approach to Indian history, written by Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia and Bipan Chandra, were presented and discussed. The papers, which concern the obstruction of the study of Indian history due to communal interpretations, were later published as a book titled, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History in 1969. 

In his review of the book, Sudhir Chandra stresses the need to differentiate between writing that communalises Indian history and writing that glorifies the Hindu past. Beginning with Thapar’s paper, Sudhir Chandra wrote that in order to undo a communal interpretation of the past, Thapar gave rational explanations for events that had a religious context. He also disagrees with Thapar’s point that a communal approach to writing history produces poor-quality history. According to Sudhir Chandra, “Modern historians” were not poor quality, they were nationalist, and were working at a time when the discipline of writing history was not as advanced. Their work then went on to become material for communal historians, therefore, they should not be condemned for it. For Sudhir Chandra, Bipan Chandra alone among the three authors distinguished between communalism and the glorification of the past. However, he does not agree with Bipan Chandra when the latter contended that nationalism was a correct representation of an objective reality as people did develop a common identity against foreign forces. Sudhir Chandra believes that communalism was also a correct representation of an objective reality.

Thapar Mukhia and Chandra responded to Sudhir Chandra’s review and wrote that he had “seriously distorted” their arguments. They begin with Sudhir Chandra’s charge against Thapar and Mukhia for writing off the role of religion in historical events. The authors argue that they did not deny the existence of religion as a motivating factor, but they wanted to situate its place in history and study the roots of its role. They continue that one of the major weaknesses of the past had been to look at everything from the perspective of religion, while it should have been from a total historical setting. Further, they write that it is a historian’s job to point out the weakness in the interpretation of history by earlier historians, but that does not mean they were condemning them. Bipan Chandra’s theory of vicarious nationalism was not offered to justify communalism but to explain how a communal approach to history originated.

Replying to the rejoinder, Sudhir Chandra wrote that he accepts the connection between the writing of Indian history and communalism but could not accept the magnified claims such a linkage holds in the writings of the three authors. His submission is that the glorification of the Hindu past was not necessarily a result of communalism. He argues that Mukhia substituted historical evidence with logic. While Sudhir Chandra does not object to a rational explanation of history, he does not support the exclusion of religion as a factor. He further wrote that he does not accept Bipan Chandra’s claim that nationalism is the correct manifestation of an objective reality. For Sudhir Chandra, nationalism is a myth whose existence at a point in time does not validate its “correctness” or “reality.

A few other works that are broadly related to this discussion:

  1. Teaching against Communalism, Ananya Vajpeyi, 2002
  2. Role of Revisionism in History, Nigel Harris, 2002
  3. Institutional Communalism in India, Pritam Singh, 2015
  4. Compelling Anatomy of Communalism and Power, Harsh Mander, 2016
  5. Fallacies of Hindutva Historiography, Romila Thapar, 2017
  6. Whose History Is It Anyway? Kumkum Roy and Pankaj Jha, 2021


Ed: To contribute to a more comprehensive discussion map, please share links to other relevant articles in the comments section or write to us at with the subject line—“History and Communalism”


Curated by Anandita Chandra []

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