Emeritus professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, historian Romila Thapar, 83, is perhaps the best known authority on ancient India. In this interview, Thapar, whose essays feature in the recently released anthology, The Public Intellectual in India, speaks about the growing intolerance in India, the need to dissent and what defines a public intellectual:
So, just who is a public intellectual?
A democracy is based on the executive, legislature and the judiciary, but it also requires people arguing, agreeing and disagreeing with decisions that are taken. We have a slightly skewed democracy because we still maintain the reality of permanent majority and minority communities. In a fully democratic system, a majority consists of people with varied opinions who get together over an individual issue to form a majority, and it changes from issue to issue. There cannot be a permanent majority identified by religion or caste or whatever. Such a majority will only weaken democracy. It is necessary to have people who will speak out on issues and comment on democratic functioning. So the public intellectual has to be someone who is willing to speak out, who is preferably from a profession or a discipline because that generally leads to more disciplined thinking.
Do you think the polarisation we see in today’s India goes back in time?
To answer this, let’s turn a little to historiography, to how we acquired various definitions of the concept of a nation. It begins with colonial scholarship and it begins with James Mill who wrote a book periodising Indian history into the Hindu, Muslim and British periods, and introducing the two-nation theory. It has been fundamental both to the movement leading to Partition and to the present possibility of India being turned into a Hindu rashtra. The two-nation theory sought to legitimise two extremist religious nationalisms. Pakistan was created in response to Muslim extremist nationalism, therefore, it was argued, that the Hindu equivalent would be the Hindu rashtra. Such an argument opposes the validity of a secular state for India. If the secular is denied, then it subtracts from democracy.
The concept of the Hindu rashtra was argued in the 1930s. Despite the refutation of these readings by later Indian historians, the concept has not changed. What we are experiencing today is in part, the attempt to establish a Hindu rashtra. I think that this election has brought in a feeling amongst the supporters of the Hindu rashtra that it’s a now or never situation. So it means essentially going back to the teachings of the Hindutva ideologues of the 1930s. The pitribhumi and the punyabhumi was the home of the ancestors and of the religion of the Hindus, who are the privileged primary citizens of such a nation, the boundaries of which are those of British India. Much of what is happening today is to create an atmosphere where such a nation would be acceptable. If it involves terrorising people, then so be it.
It is interesting how the other day somebody said, ‘why do we have to have secularism in the Constitution?’ This may appear to be a passing remark, but it was not said in passing, because it’s an essential step to get rid of the notion of secularism if a religious state is to be established. What we are witnessing at the moment is less a turning to Hinduism and more a turning to Hindutva — and I make a distinction between the two. The first is religion, the second is a political ideology drawing on religion. Hinduism was never intended to be the vehicle supporting a religious state, therefore, Hindutva is the reformulation of the religion aimed at enabling this change. The religious revival we are witnessing is not just a revival of worship and belief, there is also a political project involved, to bring a particular kind of state into existence.
In your book, you speak of public intellectuals in India — Buddha, Eknath…people who spoke out.
These people I mention were not public intellectuals in the sense in which we use the term today. They were intellectuals who were willing to question the orthodoxy of every religion and all ideas. They were, therefore, ancestral to the public intellectuals of today and I was trying to emphasise that we should be aware of this tradition of thought in India. Vedic Brahmanism had to confront what it called nastikas — the Shramans, Buddhists, Jains, and other monks — and they, in turn, had to confront the charvakas or materialists. Religion was not seen as a monolithic entity but rather as a series of sects shading from one to the other, from the orthodox to the heterodox. This was a pattern adopted by incoming religions as well. One of the obvious reasons for this is the intermeshing of sect with caste. All religions have internalised caste to a greater or lesser degree. This is also shown in the discrimination against Dalits by all religions.
Differences between the orthodoxy and those who questioned it existed in ancient India too. How were they resolved?
The differences were not always resolved — as they never are in any vibrant culture — but many were negotiated partly through dialogues between each of the sects. Differences of opinion were accepted and debated and we have many texts recording some of these discussions. One of the most interesting is the 16th century text of Eknath, a Maharashtrian brahman who had dissenting views and wrote about Hindu-Turk religious accommodation in a delightfully bantering manner. Of course, where there was competition for royal patronage, the relations became acrimonious. Some Buddhist monks were killed in Gandhara in the mid-first millennium AD and a few centuries later, some Jain monks met the same fate in south India. But there was relatively more accommodation among ideological groups in India compared to Europe where Socrates had to drink poison or in medieval Europe, where, under the supremacy of the Catholic Church, books were banned and authors burnt at the stake, or made to recant. Interestingly, what is happening in India today with free-thinkers and rationalists is amazingly similar to what the Vatican did to the same kind of people in medieval Europe.
Have the economic changes in India shaped the current ways of thinking?
Very much so. I think this turn in thinking comes to its fruition in India in 1991. This is a watershed in post-independence India. The fallout effect of this attempt to change the economy is that there is now a middle class with aspiring young people, who have been through a lousy educational system where they have learned nothing worthwhile. They have not learnt how to think, how to read more than the bare essential. Even information often comes from hearsay. The young feel they have been cheated, there is insecurity arising from a severe competition for jobs for which they are ill-equipped. To flavour this inadequate education with mythologies of various kinds rather than knowledge is to further insult their intelligence. Such a situation with the youth creates a catchment area for the extremism of all religions to recruit followers.
You write that public intellectuals need to be open-minded, but can’t there be conservative public intellectuals?
There can be, provided that the public intellectual has a vision of the kind of society he/she wants and is willing to debate it and be open to debate. A public intellectual is not expected to be dictatorial and insist on a single answer without seriously considering the argument of the others. Negating discussion is negating a fundamental right to freedom of speech; as also an Indian philosophical tradition, which was, that a debate begins with presenting the opponent’s point of view as correctly and fully as possible, this is then refuted, and out of the proposition and refutation, an accommodating point of view may be found. This implies knowing and studying the opponent’s point of view. Without sounding arrogant I would insist that a certain intellectual investment is needed for debating an issue.
In recent days, three scholars of a certain vintage, rationalists, have been killed. What’s the role of a public intellectual in an atmosphere like this?
I think the role is to come out in the open and oppose this very strongly, as I think has been done extremely effectively recently by the writers who have returned their awards and made statements explaining their action. I think this is excellent — this is exactly what public intellectuals are supposed to do, to express disagreement where they think necessary and discuss it. Neither assassination nor lynching is the answer.
Public intellectuals can reflect on things but can they influence society?
If public intellectuals take a position, the least that happens is that more people begin to think about what’s happening. They may not immediately agree but a little thought, a little doubt enters the mind. Public intellectuals are not a political party, they are not going to change the government, but they might help change the perception about how we are being governed.
Some see this as a conflict between the elites and the aspirational ‘new’ classes…
One of the basics that we have missed out on is that we have ceased to educate our people. This is an enormously major lacuna, as frighteningly large as the number of people who are at or below the poverty line. This has not been recognised, not even by the public. There is disparity in wealth but the elite is a money elite and not an intellectual elite. I wish it were! To posit intellectuals versus the economically poor is a political ploy, where the claim to help the poor is often made by those most distanced from them.