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The Past and Prejudice by Romila Thapar, 1972

"It is a strange paradox that the historian, who is concerned professionally with the past, plays a crucial role, in the future of the society which he is studying. The historian's interest lies in trying to understand the emergence and the evolution of a society in a historical perspective, where the term society includes every aspect of a people's life. As a result of his investigations, the historian creates a picture of the society. In his handling of the evidence from the past, he is often influenced by his own contemporary setting. Historical interpretation can therefore become a two-way process - where, the needs of the present are read into the past, and where the image of the past is sought to be imposed upon the present. The image of the past is the historian's contribution to the future. For, this image can be used by his contemporaries for political myth-making. Such political projections of a society seek intellectual justification from the theories of historians and other social scientists. to mention two recent and rather obvious examples, the theory of the superior Aryan race came in very useful to Hitler and the Fascists; and that of the Hindus and Muslims constituting two separate nations was used to justify the creation of Pakistan - a theory which has been recently exploded by events in Bangla Desh. Such supposed justification impose the present on to the past and a generation is fed with distorted images.
But over the years, with changing methods of investigation, the discipline of history has been made more precise and more analytical. New evidence and fresh interpretation enable us to reassess the past in more realistic terms and proceed in new directions. Historians, too have become, as it were, self-conscious, both about the nature of the evidence and about the social and political function which historical writing has played in the past. Now, more than ever, the historian, without compromising his scholarly integrity, has much to contribute to society. "

Romila Thapar starting off her Patel Memorial Lecture on January 12, 1972.

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