Making sense of the past - and the present - with Romila Thapar

The eminent historian on the practice of the profession in India

| May 6, 2014




With the publication of ‘Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas’ in 1961, Romila Thapar emerged as one of the foremost historians of ancient India. Even after 53 years, this book remains the most authoritative interpretation of the great king and his age. In 1966, Penguin published her History of India Volume I and people realised that history could be written so lucidly too. Soon, it became the standard textbook for anybody who wanted to dig into Indian history. Many more books followed and, as the citation of the Kluge Prize described her, she came to be widely accepted as “the pre-eminent historian of early India”. She has been the target of attacks and hate campaigns by the Hindutva enthusiasts both in India and abroad because of her rational and scientific approach in history as well as her fearless espousal of the secular cause.

After teaching at the Delhi University and Kurukshetra University, she joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1972 as professor of Ancient Indian History. Now, she is professor emeritus there. Thapar is an Honorary Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and has been visiting professor at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania as well as the Collège de France in Paris. In 1983 she was elected General President of the Indian History Congress and in 1999 a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.

Thapar declined Padma Bhushan twice – in 1992 and 2005. In a letter to then president APJ Abdul Kalam, she explained: “I decided some years ago that I would only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not accept state awards.” In 2008, she along with historian Peter Brown was selected for the prestigious Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity. The Kluge Prize was instituted by the US Library of Congress for subjects not covered by the Nobel Prize. She spoke with Kuldeep Kumar about how the Indian historiography evolved over centuries, the tradition of dissent in India and the present-day attempts to stifle intellectual expression. Excerpts from the interview:

Your recent book ‘The Past Before Us’ comprehensively deals with the historical traditions of early North India. However, one wonders why and how the view that Indians lack historical consciousness came to be accepted?
This book that I published six months ago is on historical traditions in what I call early north India – that is anywhere from 1000 BC to 1300 AD. The book is essentially a study of historiography and that is an area of historical writing that we have not paid too much attention to in India, particularly not with reference to pre-modern India. It’s beginning to become very important with modern Indian history but less so with pre-modern Indian history. It is significant as it is the study of the historians and the ideology of the time, which conditions the writing of history. So, it’s history commenting on history writing.

It started off with my wondering why it was said by everybody that Indian civilization lacked a sense of history. I could not understand why a complex civilization could possibly not have had an attitude to the past and relate the past in particular ways. Every society has an understanding of its past and has represented its past in different forms of writing.

Why was it said that Indian civilization lacked a sense of history? I think this has to do with the colonial writing of Indian history.

You mean the Orientalists?
Partly the Orientalists, partly the administrator-historians, as they are sometimes called. They were British administrators who also wrote history, the prime example of which is of course Vincent Smith. But even prior to that in the 19th century, ancient Indian history was viewed as being a history coming from a static society. Nothing changed. The argument was that if a society does not change, it obviously has no use for history because history is a record of change, an explanation of change. So, if you say that a society is static, you are up to a point justified in saying that it does not have a sense of history.

Static in what sense?
That there was absolutely no social change and the structure of the society went on and on in exactly the same way. They then tied that into the concept of time and said that the ancient Indian concept of time was solely cyclic. So, it was just a repetition of the same cycle going on continuously, which of course is technically not correct because even when you read the description of cyclic time, it’s quite clear that the size of the cycle changes and the amount of dharma that is present in each cycle also changes.

In fact, decreases.
Yes, decreases. Therefore, it’s necessary that there must have been some social change to have caused this. But this was not conceded. However, the most important factor beyond that was the fact that a colonial structure, a colonial governance, likes to impose its own understanding of the colony or the colonized society on the people of that society. So, one of the best ways of doing this is to say: “We will discover your history for you and tell you what it was.” And British colonialism did this largely by seeing pre-modern Indian history as that of two religious communities constituting its essence.

The Hindus and the Muslims?
Yes. This goes back to James Mill’s periodization (Hindu, Muslim and British periods) and an absolute obsession with seeing Indian society in terms of these two religious communities.

The Mahabharata was traditionally categorized as Itihasa. Was the Indian way of looking at the past very different?
When one looks at the texts from early India, it is possible to see some texts that are reflective of some aspect of history. British colonialism argued that the only text that reflected history was the 12th century text of Kalhana from Kashmir – the ‘Rajatarangini’. They said that it was an exception. However a closer look at the texts suggests some interesting aspects. For example, some texts are described as ‘Itihasa’. The word did not mean ‘history’ as it means today. It simply meant ‘this is what happened in the past’. If you take the word ‘Itihasa-Purana’, it means this is how we think things happened in the past. But what is important about that is that there is a consciousness of a kind of history, even if it is not historically accurate. That is something I am interested in.

So I have argued in the book that there are three aspects of the question that have to be investigated. Firstly, which are the texts that demonstrate a historical consciousness, which we need not take as historically accurate but that are suggestive of people who are thinking a little bit along those lines. Then there is what I call the historical tradition where there is a deliberate attempt at taking whatever data, narratives and so on that are available about the past and shuffling this material into a pattern. And I am arguing that this is available in one book of the ‘Vishnu Purana’ where it describes the past as a narrative – beginning with the mythical Manus, then giving the descent groups, the lineage groups, the clans in the middle period, and finally listing the dynasties and their rulers. What is of significance to the modern historian is not necessarily the question of historicity – which persons and events are for real – but that the narrative reflects two different forms of societies and historical change.

The Ikshvakus?
Yes, some of the lineages descended from Ikshvaku and others from Ila. Basically this is a form of clan society different from the dynasties.

Subsequent to this, that is, in the post-Gupta period, the forms change and there is a clear and conscious writing of a narrative that is claimed to be of events as they actually happened. And these interestingly consist of, first of all, the Buddhist and the Jaina narratives. The Buddhist and the Jaina traditions have a very sharp sense of history probably because their teaching and thinking are based on historical figures who actually existed. One can place them very clearly in history. On the other side, the post-Puranic Brahmanical tradition sees three kinds of writings that are records of the present and the past and are therefore conducive to historical writing. One is the biographies of the kings – the ‘charita’ literature – the ‘Harshacharita’ and the ‘Ramacharita’ and texts of this kind. The second is inscriptions that virtually every king issued. Some of the inscriptions are very lengthy. They give a little potted history of the dynasty and the activities of the individual kings. If all these inscriptions from one dynasty are put together in a chronological order and read from start to finish, the result is a kind of history of the dynasty. Many of our studies today of what happened in the post-Gupta period – at least the chronology and dynastic studies – have been largely based on these inscriptions. And more recently these inscriptions have also provided evidence of changes in the political economy relating to land relations, labour, and hierarchies of power.

Even the Ashokan edicts show a sense of history. He issued these edicts for the immediate purpose of giving directions to his subjects but posterity must also have been in his mind.
Yes, very much so. In some of them he even says that he hopes his sons and grandsons will discard violence and even if they cannot that they will be merciful in their punishments. So, that sense of recording for posterity is there and I think it is particularly evident in inscriptional literature. Why take the trouble to engrave it on a stone or on copper plates, and on a specially constructed pillar or a rock face or a wall of a temple? It is done because of the wish that it should continue to be read many generations down.

The third form of history writing was of course the chronicle. The ‘Rajatarangini’ is a chronicle of Kashmir and is brilliant and of a high standard. But there are many other smaller chronicles that were also maintained, even not as brilliant as that of Kalhana.

In the medieval period, there is a continuation of the chronicle in the courts also of the epic literature, the ‘Ramayana’ and the ‘Mahabharata’ in new versions and later in the newly emerging languages.

How do you look at the two epics---the Ramayana and the Mahabharata? Hindus in general think that whatever is described in them happened in the same way. Excavations were conducted at Hastinapur and Ayodhya to ascertain the historicity of the epics.
The historian has two problems in handling the Indian epics. In some ways it is peculiar to India because epics elsewhere have not necessarily become religious texts. They have remained poetry describing the heroes of ancient times. But here they have become sacred or semi-sacred texts. So, we have two problems. One is a very fundamental problem that is surfacing all the time now with much greater presence than it ever had before. That is the demarcation that we have to make between faith and history. There is a tendency to assume that if as a historian you are studying the ‘Mahabharata’, you are doing it because you are treating it as sacred literature. But you are not. As a historian you are treating the text in the context of its society and you are analyzing it in a secular, rational fashion.

This creates problems because for the person of faith, these are events that happened and these are the people who actually lived and taught and so on, whereas for the historian whether the persons and events are historical is not the prime historical concern. What matters is to ascertain the broader historical context that the texts describe and their function as literature encapsulating society. We have no actual evidence that these people lived. Till we find that actual evidence, we can’t make a judgment on it. These are two separate realms but unfortunately what is happening today is that there is a tendency on the part of people speaking for faith – not everybody but a small fraction – to demand that the historian concedes historicity to that which the people of faith believe to be history. This the historian cannot do. History today has to be based on a critical enquiry, not on faith. 

This is why demands are raised for changes in history textbooks.
Yes, absolutely. What is very interesting, for instance, is that the debate on the NCERT textbooks that we wrote –all the way through ancient, medieval and even modern – the criticism and demands for change came from religious bodies and religious institutions. They didn’t come from other historians. This is a very important indication of how faith is, in a sense, trespassing in the domain of the historian.

Secondly, one has to ask the question: Is this only faith, or is there a political element in what is described as faith? Because the organizations that put up these demands do have political links. In any case, any organization with a dominant voice in a society has to have a political attitude, using the word ‘political’ in the widest sense. So, the impinging of faith on history is not just a confrontation of religion and history. It is also a confrontation with a certain kind of politics.

These days, everybody’s religious sentiments are eager to be hurt. Do we have a tradition of dissent? To what extent was dissent tolerated or allowed in ancient India?
Certainly, we had a tradition of dissent. Let me illustrate this. When people from the past, particularly outsiders, wrote about religion in India, they most frequently referred to two major religious groups – the Brahmanas and the Shramanas. Whether it is Megasthenes in the 4th century BC or Al-Biruni in the 12th century AD, they all talk of Brahmanas and Shramanas ; as indeed also does Ashoka in his inscriptions when referring to sects.

Is it the differentiation between Vedic and non-Vedic?
Well, more than that. Because by the time you get to Al-Biruni, there are brahmanas teaching the ‘Vedas’ as well as the ‘Puranas’. The Hinduism based on the ‘Puranas’ was the more popular as is illustrated in sculpture and painting and some genres of literature. And the Shramanas consisted of the Buddhists and the Jains, what the brahmanas called Nastikas. Possibly the term might have included other sects not conforming to Vedic belief, such as the occasional Bhakti teachers. Now what is interesting about this dichotomy is that Patanjali, for example, in his grammatical study of Sanskrit, refers to the two as being antagonistic and thus similar to the snake and the mongoose. So, it does mean that there was severe dissent from the Brahmanical tradition.

Did it turn into strife?
Yes, in some cases it did. Kalhana in the ‘Rajatarangini’ mentions that Buddhist monks were attacked and monasteries were destroyed at a certain period of time, around the middle of the first millennium AD. Then, Tamil sources refer to the Jains being impaled. Inscriptions also mention differences between the Shaivas and the Jains and between the Shaivas and the Buddhists and so on. But, what does not happen is that there is no jihad or crusade although incidents of intolerance are certainly recorded.

The reason for this may well have been that in pre-modern Indian civilization the discrimination was less of a religious nature but took the form of those of caste treating those without caste as less than human. This was characteristic of every religion in India whether indigenous or coming from elsewhere.    

Dissidence takes an interesting form in the sense that there are dissidents also within each of these traditions—Brahmanical as well as Shramanic. This is also evident by the recommended procedure of debate and discussion. First the opponent’s view is presented fully and dispassionately; then the proponent’s contradiction is given at great length; subsequently there is agreement or disagreement. The point is that dissent is recognized and debated. There are references to people being triumphant or defeated in a debate in the court of various rulers.

And the opponent’s viewpoint – the poorvapaksha –was honestly stated.
Yes, because the debate was a public event.

Even in writings?
Yes, even in writings. As in all good scholarship, if you want to condemn something, you must first understand it thoroughly otherwise it will be called superficial. This is the essence of good scholarship and it obviously existed then. The other way of dealing with dissent, thought to be effective, was that the Brahmanical tradition simply ignored those that disagreed. The tension between the Brahmans and the Buddhists and the Jains is interestingly reflected in the ‘Vishnu Purana’ where the Buddhists and the Jains are described as “mahamoha”­­ – the great deluders. And the story is that they invented a theory explaining the universe, which was a delusion and took people on the wrong path. So, they are condemned for being deluders. This is another way of dealing with dissent.

It is commonly said that Shankaracharya was the one who defended Hinduism. But I find this argument unacceptable because he also appropriated some ideas of the Buddhists and more than that there were multiple other reasons for the decline of Buddhism. It is interesting that the system of establishing ‘mathas’, which did not exist earlier in that form, seems to parallel some of the monastic structures of the Buddhist and the Jain monasteries. The impact was that when organizing and propagating a teaching on a large scale, there has to be an institution to back it. 

In any case, Shankaracharya used to be dubbed as a ‘prachchhana Bauddha’, a crypto Buddhist.
Yes, he was. But I think this was because he took on certain characteristics of how to organize a movement from the Shramanic tradition and it’s something we don’t concede. It is interesting when examining ideology to see what is being picked up from the opposing tradition and being appropriated.  

What is your view on the multiplicity of the Ramakathas? There are so many variants of it in the Buddhist and Jaina traditions.

People had their own versions of these stories. The Ramakatha was and is a popular story. And in the Buddhist Jataka stories, little snippets of it turn up at various places. What is called the ‘Dasratha Jataka’ is only part of the story. Rama and Sita go into the exile, return and jointly rule for 16,000 years. The major difference is that in the Buddhist version, Rama and Sita are brother and sister. The Jain version, the ‘Paumachariyam’, is entirely written in a Jain ethos. They (Dashratha, Rama, Sita and others) are all Jains. Clearly this is the taking over of a major story of a major hero figure.

In this version, Dashratha renounces the world in the end….
Yes, Dashratha renounces the world and Sita goes into a convent. She is not banished nor taken away by Mother Earth. Interestingly, it is the ‘Paumchariyam’ that claims historicity and says these events did happen and we will tell you how they happened because other versions are not correct. So, it is countering the other versions. It is also a text in which Ravana and other Rakshasas are described as members of the Meghavahana lineage associated with the Chedis, for which we have an interesting historical parallel from the inscription of Kharavela of Kalinga who also calls himself a Meghavahana and mentions the Chedis. The major argument of ‘Paumchariyam’ is that these Rakshasas have been demonized in other versions of the story. Ravana does not have ten heads. He is wearing a necklace of nine large gem-stones in each of which his head is reflected. The attempt is to offer rational explanations for the fantasies in the Valmiki ‘Ramayana’ and other ‘Ramayanas’.

Why are there so many Ramayanas? This has to do with the nature of Hinduism and this is what fascinates me most as a historian about Hinduism. It is so different from other religions. It is not based on a single historical teacher, on a single sacred book, on congregational worship, on a creed and a uniform belief system, and all the other things associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s in fact a conglomeration of sects. You can believe in virtually anything you like as long as you perform the rituals. And the rituals are very often caste-based. You could earlier see a ritual being performed and more or less guess that this is Brahmanical or non-Brahmanical, this is lower caste or upper caste, depending on the objects used, the offerings given, the prayer recited. So, I think caste is a very important aspect of the relationship to sect and if a religion is essentially based on the juxtaposition and co-existence of a number of sects, the versions of belief and ritual will vary.  

So, there will be a multiplicity of stories. And it has a lot to do with the social layer from where the author is coming. In some folk tales, for example, marvellous tales that are told in the countryside in many parts of peninsula India, Sita takes the lead often even in battle, which is symptomatic of women having their own version of the story.

This is legitimate with any story anywhere. Look at what happened to Christianity in Latin America where every region it went to, the local people transformed the story in terms of their own traditions. That really is the sign of a great sensitivity of a story that it catches the imagination of the people and they turn it around.

I asked about multiplicity and plurality because these days these things are simply not tolerated. In your view, what went wrong in the development of India as a democratic society that we have come to this pass?
Well, again I may sound as a baiter of the colonialists but much of this is based on the 19th century thinking. Colonial scholars and administrators were puzzled by Hinduism because it did not fit in with their experiences of Judaism or Christianity. So, they tidied up the sects placed them in a linear tradition and invented a single religion out of all of them which they called Hinduism. The beliefs and rituals had their own history but the idea of conformity to a single format was new. Some of the additions probably existed very much earlier. For example, the Shakta-Shakti tradition – the Tantric tradition – gained greater currency in the sources from the 7th or 8th century AD. Yet, the ritual and thinking might have existed very much earlier among certain categories of people. Generally, people say that it was probably the religion of the non-Vedic people, the people of the lower castes and so on.

How did their depiction in sculpture etc. get a place on the walls of the temples at Khajuraho and Konark?
As society and its history change, the components of the elite also change. We were all brought up on the idea that caste was absolutely rigid and frozen. But in fact one finds now that the political arena was more open. Given the right circumstances, groups within castes could manoeuvre their way to a higher status.

And, for that, they had to manufacture genealogies.
Yes, you are quite right. A person or a family can move into a position of authority and power, and still worship the deities that may not belong to the Puranic pantheon, as for example certain goddesses. But because they are now patronized by the new elite they can be introduced into the pantheon and become part of Puranic Hinduism. This is why the study of Puranic Hinduism is both fascinating and highly complicated because you don’t know what is coming in from where. But it is historically a very interesting situation to try and track down where these different elements had been flourishing and how and when they were brought into the mainstream religion.

When I referred to the 19th century colonialists, I was trying to draw attention to the creation of a single religion Hinduism that has certain well-defined characteristics. When politics begin to determine the form and content of religion, this introduces the phenomenon of communalism. It’s very easily done with Muslim communalism because it is already a historical religion with a founder and his teachings, etc. Together with this comes the parallel of Hindu communalism. The two are counterparts. So Hinduism has to be reformulated in a way that makes it possible to use the religion to mobilize people politically. Hence the question of historicity becomes very important. If you decide that it is Rama who is going to be the founder of the religion, you have to prove that he existed historically as did all the others like the Buddha, Christ and Muhammad. There is no controversy about them. Ashoka put up a pillar at Lumbini recording that the Buddha was born there. Roman historians have written about Christ’s activities and the Arab historians have written about Muhammad.

So, there has to be a historical founder and a single sacred book. When the law courts were first established in Bengal, the judges asked around from the pundits as to which book they would swear on. Which is your Bible or Quran? So, some people said the Ramayana, others said the Upanishads, and yet others said the Gita. This controversy remains. Gandhiji gave a lot of emphasis to the Gita, so a lot of people started assuming that it is the sacred book. But it need not be so. It was one of many sacred books. Similarly, Rama was one of many ‘avataras’, one of many gods if you assume that he was a god.

Then there has to be an organization. If the religion consists of multiple sects, how are they to be brought together? So, in a sense, the Brahmo Samaj, the Prarthana Samaj and the Arya Samaj and so on, were initial attempts at trying to organize the religion in a way that that organization would speak for the whole community. Now, that didn’t happen. So, with the failure of these different attempts in the 1920s and 1930s there was the emergence of Hindutva based on the colonial understanding of Hinduism and the attempt to create out of Hinduism the kind of religion that can be politically used. Therefore, what is required? The Hindu has to be defined as the only indigenous person because his religion originated within the territory of British India.  And all others were aliens. So religion defines the right to citizenship or the definition of an alien. It becomes politically very important. This is a very major transition and is based entirely on the 19th century thinking – both colonial thinking as well as the Indian reaction to it.

So, it is politics that raises the demand for banning or withdrawing books like Wendy Doniger’s ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’.
This book published by Penguin is a book that discusses the pluralities that make up Hinduism. It’s about different social sects and the kind of religion they made out of the basics of what was Hindu worship and thought and what they contributed to the making of Hinduism. A book that discusses alternatives and pluralities cannot be allowed to circulate because [....] cannot flourish in the midst of alternatives and pluralities. They have not raised this issue openly because that would not be a very smart political move. So, they have raised issues like how can Doniger say that Rama was not a historical figure. In the world of scholarship, most people would say that it is uncertain if not untrue.

Then she is accused of applying Freudian analysis to the interpretation of Shiva, objecting to some of the statements she makes. The point is that everyone has the right to object, but this has to be done by explaining why it is thought to be incorrect and give reasons for it. You don’t counter it by saying that my sentiments are being hurt, therefore I want the book banned. It is a book that sets forth a thesis. So, you have to do a counter-thesis. That would be in the old Indian philosophical tradition to do a counter-thesis. But, unfortunately, a lot of the people who demand the banning of books on the basis of ‘hurt sentiments’ are people who don’t have the ability to do a counter-thesis.

There is a feeling that a lot of people are writing popular books on history that may not be factually very correct. Charles Allen’s ‘Ashoka’, for example.
Look, history has always suffered from two things. One is, as Eric Hobsbawm very acutely observed, that history is like opium for nationalism. All the glorious worlds of the past and the future are built on history. So, history has always played a very important part in nationalism, and therefore, in politics. You can’t get away from that.

Secondly, because history has in some ways been regarded as just a narrative – unlike sociology, economics, demography and the rest that have their own methodology. People assume that anybody who has read six books on history is qualified to write their own seventh book. But we who are in this field keep saying that history has its own method of analysis. There are all kinds of technicalities involved about the sources that are being consulted. This is a very complex procedure. So, this is the other thing that history suffers from and will continue to suffer from.

So there is a division between historians who are professionally trained and are familiar with the methods of historical analysis, and amateurs who read six books and write a seventh.

Where is the discipline of history now as compared to, say, 50 years ago?
History has undergone huge changes in the last 50 years which the average general readers have possibly not realized. Their notions of history belong to pre-mid 20th century. This is the problem with various NRI groups that project history in terms that they were familiar with from 50 years ago. And they keep repeating it for the next generations while we have moved away from those notions. This is the reason why there is so little communication.

When I first started teaching at the Delhi university in the early 1960s, we had tremendous arguments, sit-ins, discussions and lectures on the need to expand the history syllabus from political and dynastic history to social and economic history. There would be furious arguments and people would ask what this new-fangled social and economic history is. Now, nobody questions it. There is nothing new-fangled about it. Then, we moved on to various other things and in various other directions. There was a big phase of Marxist historical writing. Then there was a lot of interest in what is called the “literary turn”, that is, the post-colonialism with a cultural turn. The historians started looking at the texts and re-examining the texts.

What about post-modernism?
Post-modernism has also come in. So, there is a kind of a whole new arena where some of us take very strong positions. But the point is that you have to be aware of the intellectual changes that have taken place. I don’t want to sound arrogant but I do want to say that today we have a situation where people who are writing in social sciences are writing from a very strong intellectual position. They have read widely, they have theorized, they have tried to understand the past. And, what is confronting them is really a rather elementary position. And it is very difficult, therefore, to have a debate because the very basis on which good historians today are theorizing is not understood very often by even the average reader, and even less by those who don’t read. Any many of them who demand bans or withdrawals of books don’t read the books they want banned.

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