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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Sandip Roy Show

What makes people tick? What are the stories they carry with them? In a world of shouting heads, veteran journalist, radio commentator and novelist Sandip Roy sits down to have real conversations about the fascinating world around us and the people who shape it. Catch these engaging interviews every other Sunday

Episode 60 October 4, 2020

Romila Thapar on dissent in India from Vedic Brahmanism to Shaheen Bagh

Acts of nonviolent civil disobedience and dissent are often termed ‘anti-national’ by trolls armies. Some would say that these ideas are rather alien to us, borrowed from western liberal democracies. But one of India’s best known historians, Romila Thapar, says that dissent is as old as Indian civilisation itself. In this episode, Sandip talks to Thapar about her new book, Voices of Dissent, which looks at the history of dissent in India, from Vedic Brahmanism to Shaheen Bagh.


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Romila Thapar on dissent in India from Vedic Brahmanism to Shaheen BaghActs of nonviolent civil disobedience and dissent are often termed 'anti-national' by trolls armies. Some would say that these ideas are rather alien to us, borrowed from western liberal democracies. But one of India's best known historians, Romila Thapar, says that dissent is as old as Indian civilisation itself. In this episode, Sandip talks to Thapar about her new book, Voices of Dissent, which looks at the history of dissent in India, from Vedic Brahmanism to Shaheen Bagh. You can follow us and leave us feedback on Facebook and Twitter @expresspodcasts, or send us an email at podcasts@indianexpress.com. If you like this show, please subscribe and leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts, so other people can find us. You can also find us on https://www.indianexpress.com/audio.
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Transcript:
Sandip Roy
October 2nd was Mahatma Gandhi's birthday. Observed as usual with gravity, garland and 'vaishnava Jana To'. Sometimes it feels like the more we put Gandhi on a pedestal, the less we have to engage with his message. Especially at a time when acts of non-violent civil disobedience can quickly be called 'anti-national' by troll armies. But it is intriguing to wonder, what Gandhiji might have made of the current swirly debate around dissent? And how far a state should even tolerate dissent?

Some would say these ideas are rather alien to us, borrowed from western liberal democracies. But one of India's best known historians, Romila Thapar, says while the nation state might be new, dissent is as old as Indian civilisation itself. Her latest book is called Voice of Dissent and it looks at the history of dissent in India - from Vedic Brahmanism, all the way to Shaheen Bagh. And though she claims to be technologically unsavvy, we reached her over Zoom at her home in Delhi.

Romila Thapar, welcome to the show.

Romila Thapar
Thank you. Good to be here.

Sandip Roy
Maybe we should start by some definitions. How do you define dissent as opposed to, say, disagreement?

Romila Thapar
I would begin by saying that all of these dissent, disagreements, looking at it a different way, opposite opinions, it comes out of something very basic, which is the act of questioning. Questioning is at the root of thinking about the world that we live in. Every aspect of it.

And it is from that questioning that you either get an acceptance or agreement of what was going on or you get someone saying, no, I don't agree, I think it should be done differently and so on. So it hinges on this issue of questioning, which I think is extremely important. It's important also when one looks at philosophical schools right through the world, from ancient times to now, there have been procedures involving how you present dissent.

For example, one of the procedures that is discussed in Indian philosophy is that you, first of all, give the point of view of the opponent as carefully and neutrally as you can. Then you give your own point of view, the Purvapaksha, and the Pratipaksha. And it's in that contestation of points of view that you may get some accommodation of ideas emerging which is called the Siddhanta. Or you may just leave it as open.

My point is that, in fact, there cannot be any advance of knowledge without the questioning of the existing knowledge. So dissent for me is very much tied into asking questions about the world in which we live and the way it is being organised, run, instituted.

The second point I'd like to make about dissent is that either it comes from within a tradition. This is very often the case with dissent in religions. When you have breakaway sects. Or alternatively, it can come when people meet up with the ideas that come from other people. And that leads to a questioning of one's own ideas. I'm actually in this book looking at the idiom of religion through which dissent is expressed. Largely because it is very rich in continuity and in dissent.

And there are many examples of both categories – coming within a tradition and coming from extraneous circumstances affecting that tradition. Now, within that tradition, I think one of the most interesting examples is when what we call the Shramanas, that is the Buddhists, the Jains, the Aajivikas, some people would also add the Charvaka philosophers, when the Shramanas begin to question Vedic Brahmanism. I'm talking about the middle of the first millennium before the common era.

The Shramanas are questioning Vedic Brahmanism because of the belief in deity which they don't accept. They don't accept the Vedic compositions as divine revelations and they don't accept the efficacy of worship through sacrificial rituals. Now, this questioning that comes largely from the Buddhist and Jain sources in turn leads to the Buddhist tradition splitting. You have the earlier Hinayana Buddhism and, the somewhat later, Mahayana Buddhism.

So you have within the tradition, first of all, the split between the Shramanas and Vedic Brahmanism and then you have a split within the Shramamas groups. The Buddhists have this double thing, the Jain's split into the Svetambara and the Digambara, and amongst the Hindu, what we call the Hindu sects, you have the Shaivas, the Vaishnavas, and later on the Shakteya.

And then as it goes on, each of these develops a multiplicity of other sects as well. So what one is really looking at is a kind of genealogy almost of sects splitting and going off in a different process.

Sandip Roy
It's like a family tree of dissent.

Romila Thapar
A bit yes. It's like a family tree, you're right. And the same thing happens in the second millennium BCE, after the the common era, when the Bhakti sants what are sadly called Saints, but should really be called Sants. When Bhakti sants in various parts of the country, distanced themselves again from Vedic Brahmanism, they are closer to what we call Puranic Hinduism. And they split on the issue of devotion being the supreme form of worship rather than performing sacrificial rituals, where the object of worship can be any deity or can be any abstract idea even. And they tend to ignore the rules of caste as given in the Dharma Shasthra.

Sandip Roy
I wanted to ask you what we know about how the mainstream, that the people were dissenting against, whether it is Vedic Brahmanism or Hinduism, how did they deal with or accommodate dissent? Was it encouraged? Was dissent in a religion like Hinduism or Brahmanism different from dissent in monotheistic Abrahamic type religions?

Romila Thapar
Well, you know, there is no single answer to that question because as with everything in history, and especially cultural history, it depends very much on the context. The first example that I discuss in the book, for instance, is very much that of how Brahmans react to an alien culture. If you take the Vedic compositions, for example, they refer to a category of persons, not very prominently, but very distinctly called the Dasiputra Brahmans. The Brahmans who were the sons of Dasis. And who are these Dasis? They are the women from this alternative culture and community called the Dasas. It's regarded as alien and is potentially dissenting because it's different. But it's not treated with contempt. This is one very major feature, small in number. And the question is why were they inducted and then incorporated into the Brahmin varna. Was it to appropriate the knowledge that they had? Which was kind of hinted at or was it to prevent them from dissenting?

The interesting thing is that in these texts, you do have this attempt to try and find out who these people were, what knowledge that they have, and then appropriate that. At least that is one way of looking at it, I don't know. As a contrast to this, in the Mahabharata for example, you have one case of what is exactly a Dasiputra Brahmans, that is Vidura. Who is the son of a Dasi and his father is Vyasa himself. Now, the treatment of Vidura is familiar and friendly but there's no question of accepting him into the varna. He's always the son of the Dasi.

So it varies very much from period to period, from occasion to occasion, and what the purpose is. One can't generalise.

Sandip Roy
And what examples have you found in terms of dissent, in terms of caste?

Romila Thapar
This comes through, very interestingly, in the teachings of the various Bhakti teachers. For example, they in many ways break the rules. They talk about the fact that the deities are multiple, but the worshipper can choose a particular deity and focus or concentrate on that deity. Also, it is determined by the act of worship, which traditionally was through rules of caste. But in the case of the Bhakti sants, they invent their own acts of worship. Largely in the form of prayers and hymns of praise and so on.

Specifically on the question of caste, it's very interesting that it is the one tradition where the actual Bhakt, the devotee, could be of any religious background. No formal conversion to any particular religion was required. And this is interestingly shown up, for example, in those really quite highly placed Muslim members of society who become Krishna bhakts or Ram bhakts. I'm thinking of people like Raskhan who came from a wealthy zamindari background. I'm talking about the 16th century here, the Mughal times. And Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana, who was a Ram bhakt. Plus, Khan was a Krishna bhakt. And there were some Sufi sects that were in very close relations with these Bhakti movements and some with, for example, the Sufi sects of North India that were very closely interested in what was being taught and what was being worshipped by the Nath yogis. So that these people would be dissidents in the eyes of Islam, but they are not dissidents in the eyes of the Bhakti sants.

Sandip Roy
You said that you looked at dissent through the lens of religion because it is such a rich field. So in that sense, would you say that what we now call modern Hindutva or Hindu nationalism? Is that also a formulation of dissent?

Romila Thapar
That's an interesting question. My answer to that would be that it is a kind of inversion of dissent. Partly because from its very invention, which took place in the 1920s and the first book on the subject was written in 1923, there is a link between what is intended of reformulating Hinduism as a religion to political mobilisation. This is quite clearly stated. Now, this is a major departure. You do not get this kind of linkage so clearly stated in the earlier forms of the reformulations of Hinduism.

I would say that it is not a form of dissent because its intention is not what is the usual intention of dissenting groups, namely to suggest an alternative society which underlines social ethics of equality. This was extremely important to all the Bhakti sants. There is in Hindutva an implied return to the utopia of a Hindu past. There's a great consciousness of the golden age of Hinduism, Hindu politics, the domination of Hindu ideas in society, and it's not surprising that the invention of Hindutva was in the context of a group of Brahmins who came together and brought up this theory. It gives a new definition to the Hindu. The Hindu is now defined according to Hindutva by territory. He has to belong to a particular territory. His ancestry has to be an Aryan ancestry.

Therefore, it's very important that all Aryans were belonging to this territory as well and did not come from outside. And the culture was expressed in the language of Sanskrit. And it is influenced by the Abrahamic religions, to a considerable degree, because it carries the imprint of a monolithic religion. Hinduism has to be a monolithic religion if it is going to play a part in political mobilisation. In fact, it is the pirot of political mobilisation.

It aims at intensifying the established Hinduism by reformulating it, but not through dissent from the established religion but through upholding certain of the more, shall we say, orthodox established features of the religion. The ultimate aim being that it must be politically effective. And therefore I think that it is really not a dissent group as such, but its an attempt to try and convert the idea dissent into ascent.

Sandip Roy
And the irony, of course, is that from what you're saying that even while political Hindutva brings up this vision of this utopian golden Hindu past, from what you're saying that past was actually rich in dissent.

Romila Thapar
That's right, yes. That is, in a sense, the contradiction. I mean, you know, my argument of course would be that, in fact, there is a continuous richness of ideas contesting ideas right through Indian history. But, yes, this golden age that they talk about is the age of great philosophical ideas and debates and discussions and so on. Anyway, we're constantly being told in the royal courts of the great rulers, they were public debates in which dissenting groups and Brahmans would come together and they would debate their ideas. So if it's a period of high philosophy, then implicitly it is a period of questioning in which there are dissenting views of different schools contesting with each other. Has to be.

Sandip Roy
Well, we talked about religion and dissent, let me talk a little bit with you about civil society and dissent and what we can learn from history. In your book, you do talk about texts like the Arthashastra. What does something like Arthashastra have to say about dissent?

Romila Thapar
Well, the Arthashastra doesn't have too much to say about dissent. And I suspect that the assumption was that a properly governed kingdom will not produce dissenters. People will appreciate it and people will carry on and do what they're told to do. Nevertheless, there is a consciousness. For example, we are told that when a king develops a new area for settlement, and moves people in to settle in a new area, the king should deny entry to renouncers. And clearly, the renounces were recognised as the dissenters. The renouncers here be the monks, the Buddhists, the Jain monks, and people like that.

Further, we are told when he is talking occasionally about categories of women, he has very little use for nuns. Partly again because they came from dissenting groups. The nuns were all from Shramana organisations. And he actually says that they can be used to spy. The government can employ them as spies. The trouble with trying to find out about civil society and what they thought is that one has to turn not to documents focusing on civil society, which are very few, but to other kinds of literature. Drama and biographies and that kind of thing. And culled from that literature, references to what may be regarded as the views of civil society on dissenters, there isn't too much. There is a little, but there isn't too much.

Sandip Roy
But there's not also examples of large scale persecution of dissenters either?

Romila Thapar
There are some references. Yes, there are some references. I think it's also partly that a few of us have actually looked for this because the assumption has always been that 'Oh, the Indian society of past years, and particularly of ancient times, was a completely homogenous society which had everybody agreed with everybody and it was tolerant and it was non violent'...The usual thing that is said and therefore the...

Sandip Roy
Sounds like 2020 India...

Romila Thapar
Sounds like 2020 India. Absolutely, yes. But the thing is, one really hasn't sat down. What we have to do is, the literature, the sources all come to us from a certain category of elites who were not very receptive to dissenters, but who did occasionally refer to the dissenters. I mean, we do have references, for example, to the Buddhist monasteries being attacked and the monks being killed in Gandhar and the region of northwestern India during the time of Han rule. We have references to Jain monks being ill treated in parts of Tamil Nadu at different times. These are rather incidental references and they have to be collected and collated and seen as – what are they telling us about dissent? I mean dissent has never really been taken all that seriously by historians working on early India.

Sandip Roy
What about in early India? Were you surprised that unlike, say, China or Europe, that violent peasant revolutions or revolts were largely unknown?

Romila Thapar
There are references to peasant discontent, and the solution generally was that the peasants migrated. They moved from where they were to the neighbouring kingdom and settled down to a new life. And this was feared by the rulers because it meant a loss of revenue. But yes, there is very little of actual revolts. There are some references to assassinations. In theory, for example, we are told that an evil ruler can be assassinated, but preferably the assassination should be done by someone appropriate. The appropriate cast, such as a Brahmin, who legitimises the rule of kings. And in Buddhist texts, it's usually the God Indra, who is called upon to do the assassinations. But there are historical references. There is, in fact, this textbook case of the end of the Mauryan rulers, the last Mauryan ruler Brihadratha, while he is reviewing his troops, his commander in chief, Pushyamitra Shunga, who is a Brahmin, assassinates him and usurp the throne and starts the Shunga Dynasty.

There's one very controversial discussion of a revolt that took place in Bengal during the Pala period in the 11th century of a group of people known as the Kaivartas. And the controversy is that some historians say it was a peasant revolt because you had peasants with spears and lathis, riding buffalos and that kind of thing. And another group of historians who say, no, it was the inferior feudatories, the lower level Samantas, who were rising up against the king.

Sandip Roy
So, when we come to more modern times, how did Mahatma Gandhi change our idea of dissent and why did it catch on? Because if, as you were saying, our civil society didn't have that many examples of large scale civil dissent.

Romila Thapar
My interest in this case in looking at dissent through history was to come up to the point of asking the question – why did Gandhi's major articulation of dissent, non-cooperation and satyagraha, receive this huge public response? It was at one level a continuation of the ideas of dissent because he was questioning and objecting to certain actions of the British Raj. The objection being expressed in a non-violent way. And my argument is that the acceptance of these forms as a way of expressing dissent was familiar already to Indians. It was readily recognised as dissent, and it was certainly recognised as having been part of something that had been practiced for centuries. Therefore, I argue, he did have an immense response partly because of his charisma, partly because of the issues he took up, and partly because what he symbolised in his method of dissent was known, was not alien, was recognised.

Sandip Roy
But given all of that, when India becomes independent, the new Indian government's first amendment to the Constitution actually curbed freedom of speech and expression. So what do you think history has to teach us about a government or a ruling establishment's fear of dissent?

Romila Thapar
Well, I think that all governments were and are apprehensive about dissent. And one of the major things that any government at a period of time, perhaps more so now, nowadays, the one thing they have to learn is how to relate to dissent. The usual kind of thing is, of course, to try and control it by curbing freedom of speech, freedom of gathering, etc, etc. But this is only a temporary measure because if there is genuine dissent, then it cannot be curbed in this kind of way.

But remember, of course, that we are dealing with a very changed situation in modern times. Previously, people, the population, was regarded as the subjects of a ruler. The praja, the children. Today, it's a question of a nation state. They are not the subject of a state, they are citizens and people have the rights of citizens. It's not only the citizen that has rights, the state also has rights. But there has to be a mutual dialogue between them in determining what these rights are and what the nature of the rights is.

And remember that rights are not God given. They have to be struggled for, and once they're there, they have to be guarded. And you have to make sure that they don't get swept away. And this is where institutions involved in the governance of a society play a central role. And as we all know, political theorists have talked about the three major aspects of governance – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Now, all these three have to be groups that honor their autonomy and preserve their autonomy, which they have to have vis-a-vis the state. Otherwise they merely become an arm of the government, whoever happens to be ruling at that time. We have a particular problem, I think, here because we have inherited a colonial system. And I think one of the problems, one of the mistakes that was made in the early years of independence was that we didn't sit down and restructure these three wings to make them much more autonomous.

The police, for example, and the administrative service must be made very conscious of the fact that they are not dealing any longer with the inferior subjects of the British Raj. But they're dealing with their own fellow citizens and the rights that their own fellow citizens have. Now, these rights did not exist in pre modern times. They come with the coming of the nation state and the function of governance then is to propagate and defend the rights of the citizen, not to decimate them. And that's what democracy is all about, defending the rights of citizens. And so if you close the channels of dialogue, inevitably, the understanding will be that you lack the confidence to defend the rights of the citizens.

Sandip Roy
Well, you went to Shaheen Bagh, which you write about in the book as well, and you were very moved and enthused by what you saw there. But now, looking back, what do you think that dissent achieved in India today? I mean, some of the dissenters from that movement faced chargesheet running into lakhs of pages, while people who shouted 'Desh ke gadharoka, gooli maro saalo ko' are moving around with relative impunity.

Romila Thapar
Let me go back to explaining why I was enthused by my visit to Shaheen Bagh. Let's go back a couple of paces. I saw it as an expression of dissent by one of the most oppressed constituencies of India, namely the women. They were not upper class, they were not upper caste women. These women were all part of the essential hardcore of Indian citizens. And I must confess that as an Indian woman, I felt proud of the way in which they were articulating their dissent. I was impressed by their nonviolence and their civilised behaviour in word and deed. And one of their demands was for a dialogue on the issue on the issue that troubled them. This demand for a dialogue is surely not an unacceptable demand. It's certainly not unacceptable in a democracy, however unacceptable it may be in a dictatorship.

And then a little later, we got what you have referred to. The vulgarity of another, slightly later gathering in another part of the city. And the questions that came to my mind at that time were, is this how we are going to protect our citizens? Asserting the fact that every citizen has a right to be protected by the institutions that are governing. Is it now acceptable in our society that a mob of Indians can wilfully shoot dead other Indians simply because they identify with another religion?

We are at a kind of crossroad in determining our future. I think we have taken a directional turn and we have to think about this. And this ties up with your question of what does one do in a situation of this kind. My tendency would be to go back to the tradition of dissent and gather, cull from that tradition. The methods by which one can say we are unhappy. That this is the kind of thing that we did not expect happening. That we do think that the freedom of speech and expression made in a nonviolent way, based on our own present situation, is perfectly legitimate. But as is often said, Gandhi's satyagraha came out of a situation, a particular historical situation, of a kind of colonialism, of a kind of anti-colonialism. That is not the situation today. And we do have to look for a different set of answers, but we do have to look for answers.

Sandip Roy
It is fascinating to me that we are at a point where the national anthem and the national flag are actually being used as symbols of dissent.

Romila Thapar
This is why, I think that in a sense, we're also connecting up with anti-colonial nationalism. I think that that struggle was fought against the British, and won. But the internal struggles that began in the 1930s, that were not addressed sufficiently in the last 70 years. And in a sense, that is where we're taking off now.

Sandip Roy
So do you think the present discomfort that we see from with dissent of any kind, it might be a student speech or a journalist or an activist questioning the political regime, do you think that has anything to do with a larger disregard for learning and intellectual inquiry?

Romila Thapar
This actually is something that I am deeply concerned about. It seems to be so. I would like to be proved wrong, but so far I have been proved wrong. And I've been thinking about it. You see, we now have a middle class, a large part of which, barring a very small section, has really stopped thinking and inquiring. It is content to pick up what is dished out to it by the media of various kinds and especially the illiterate opinion of an army of trolls that constantly jump up all over the place. And anti intellectualism is also evident in a variety of ways, and there isn't enough consultation with people who have other ideas. There's been a systematic suffocation of universities and institutions doing new kinds of research. And of course, there's been this dramatic imprisoning or charging, charge sheeting of lawyers, academics, writers, which has been going on for a couple of years now. Many of them are in jail without a trial.

Let me take my discipline, history, where really one feels it naturally, most closely. The official history that is now being introduced is being written according to the requirements of the Hindutva ideology. And the Hindutva ideology, if examined historically or to put it in with greater position, historiographically is rooted in colonial readings that were abandoned by academic historians a century ago. We gave up on these colonial readings and explained why they were incorrect. But this ideology is there. So marginalising or negating the history written by historians or even burying it, this may happen. But actually this is a pointless exercise. There will still be some intellectuals in India and elsewhere seeking answers to complex questions. Who will read the historians' histories of India. Even if they are being written surreptitiously and saved on iCloud.

And I think that one of the things that will emerge out of this confrontation, because it is a confrontation between the academic historian and these popularisers of a particular kind of ideological history, the outcome will be to reiterate what many of us have been saying throughout our working lives – that politicians have to be reminded, certainly from time to time, it's not constantly, that it is not they who make history, as they fondly assume, history is made by historians. It is the historian who selects what is to be remembered, how it is to be interpreted and gives a variety of interpretations. So despite the wish to replace history by fantasy, history will actually remain reasonably secure. And a very easy example, a very facile example of this, which we had in the last century, is the Nazi attempt in Germany to write German history as that of a pure Aryan race. Now, today, this kind of history of Germany, as history, has been trashed. So what I'm saying is that the attempt to try and suppress intellectual thinking, opinions, so on is self-defeating. Because you may do it for a short while, you may put people into jail and you may hope that they all get COVID-19, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, whatever it may be. But there is always a foundation to intellectual life which will continue however much people may try and suppress it.

Sandip Roy
So do you think Romila Thapar that now dissent, too, will have to be reinvented? I mean, can it be possible without the moral authority of a figure like Mahatma Gandhi?

Well, I think that the moral authority helps. It helps enormously because then you're able to pitch moral authority against physical authority and institutional authority. But figures like Gandhi don't come up all the time. Of those that feel there is a need for dissent, there needs to be a certain exercising in trying to find ways in which this can be articulated. Not violent ways, because those in a sense are easy and thoughtless. Non-violent ways, ways in which you are really talking about replacing certain kinds of social attitudes by social ethics, by attitudes that are ethical, that are concerned with the questions that concern all of humanity, but that concern us, particularly as Indians in 2020. And I think that this is going to take a lot of doing. It's not easy. It's not something which we just get up and say, well, I'm writing this or I'm speaking this and so on. I think it needs a lot of thoughtfulness and hopefully in this crisis of wanting to think of a solution, something may emerge.

Sandip Roy
Romila Thapar, thank you so much for joining us today.

Romila Thapar
Thank you.

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