Synopsis—Thapar reminds us, familiar with dissent, that “dissent is not imported from the West”, and that Hinduism is not a “single, continuous, unchanging institution” but “a series of reformulated institutions, as with all religions since religions also experience changes with changed historical contexts”.
At a time when dissent is questioned and even branded as anti-national, historian Romila Thapar traces its wide arc in India in her new book Voices of Dissent (Seagull Books). From the disagreement of the Dasi-putra Brahmana in the second millennium BC, to Jainas and Buddhists who dissented from Vedic Brahmanism, to the Bhakti saints and the Sufi pirs who disagreed with orthodoxies, to Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha and the recent anti-CAA protests, we are, Thapar reminds us, familiar with dissent, that “dissent is not imported from the West”, and that Hinduism is not a “single, continuous, unchanging institution” but “a series of reformulated institutions, as with all religions since religions also experience changes with changed historical contexts”. Edited excerpts from an email interview with Charmy Harikrishnan:
Q. In your book you say dissent has been integral to Indian thinking and practices across millennia. Dissent is not anti-national then. It is very much Indian.
A. Dissent is integral to ways of thinking in all the cultures and civilisations across the world. It is, therefore, more than just Indian. It stems from the fundamental act of people asking questions about the world in which they live. This can lead to questioning the explanations that are generally given. Indian civilisation was no exception to this. Dissenting ideas arose in every aspect of life and questioned social rules or political activities or religious beliefs in varying degrees.
Since there were no nations in pre-modern times, dissenting ideas in those times cannot be called anti-national. There could be dissent in relation to political activities, in questioning or disagreeing with, political authority. As such, it is a critique of an act of governance. The same holds for the present. This cannot be described as anti-national since the nation and the government are distinct and not identical. Dissent, therefore, has a historical context.
Q. You have said Hindutva is the most recent attempt to formulate Hinduism. What kind of reformulation has Hindutva done?
A. The idea of Hindutva was formulated in the 1930s as part of the ideology of the RSS. When religious ideas are reformulated with a strong political intention, as in this case, their purpose can be seemingly religious but actually have other functions, as for example, organising a political role for the religious majority. Hindutva tries to give a structure to Hinduism not uninfluenced by the Abrahamic religions. Thus the emphasis on its many deities being manifestation of a single one indicating monotheism, and on the Hindu religion being a single uniform monolithic religion with rules that applied to all, and so on. The intention was to create a single recognisable Hindu identity since this was central to the communal politics of the time, as well as to the projection of India as a Hindu Rashtra. Hindutva defines the Hindu as the primary citizen, born within the territory of India and his religion also having originated in India – requirements that are not endorsed in Hinduism. This identity excludes others and facilitates a move to majoritarianism.
Q. Hindutva, while criticising colonialists, follows the colonial view of history, dividing it into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. How damaging is it?
A. It is damaging at many levels but two stand out. First, it messed up the periodisation of Indian history since these three periods have little historical validity. Changes in the religion of rulers, on which this periodisation is based, took place at varying times in different areas. This periodisation prevented a more advanced study of history. Historical changes were conditioned by far more important activities than merely the religion of the rulers. Second, since religion was posited as fundamental to historical identity, this strengthened the idea that the religious identity was pre-eminent, thus feeding into communal politics. It also gave rise to the kind of public statements that speaks of the Hindu period as a golden age and the Muslim period as one that victimised the Hindus. This, of course, has been disproved by the professional historical writing of the last half-century – which, needless to say, is the history rarely read by most non-historians who constantly pronounce publicly on history! It is ironic that the victimisation of the avarnas, for the last two thousand years, is rarely mentioned, for obvious reasons.
Q. You recall meeting Gandhi in Pune and discarding mill cloth for khadi. While you call his Satyagraha a modern movement of dissent, you analyse the great reaction it generated among the masses and suggest that it could be because Gandhi’s Satyagraha subconsciously tapped several strands of dissent in India. Could you explain.
A. My argument is precisely that. Gandhi’s Satyagraha was not only tapping into the anti-colonial nationalism of that historical moment, but it also drew on many facets of dissent that had already existed in Indian thought and activities in the Indian past. The book is an attempt to illustrate these various facets. Ideas from the past cannot be literally applied to the present as the present differs from the past. But some notion of what might be relevant and be easily understood by using the experience of the past, could make it more relevant.
Q. You say Gandhi’s nationalism was essentially different from Hindu/Muslim religious nationalism – even when they were fighting colonialism. Is religious nationalism a lesser form of nationalism because it excludes/dominates certain sections?
A. Gandhi’s nationalism was anti-colonial and secular, therefore quite different from Hindu and Muslim nationalism. His support was not drawn from the identity of a single religious community. Nationalism is defined as an identity that is all-inclusive and draws in people of all communities. Therefore, some hesitate to use the term when it is qualified by religion, or language, or ethnicity, or any single identity. The religious nationalisms – Hindu and Muslim – kept away from anti-colonial nationalism. Their constituency was not and is not the entire citizenry but only a section of it and as defined by a particular religious identity.
Q. You have warned against nationalism taking the form of majoritarianism.
A. An appeal is made to majoritarian religious nationalism in the ideology of the Hindu Rashtra. When physical violence is used in lynching other Indians or a call is made for them to be shot dead, this cannot be called nationalism. We now have to add to the minorities yet another category – the Indians who are targeted because they dissent. These are generally the better-educated, liberal intellectuals, who are professionals and concerned with defending the rights of Indian citizens. They are not questioning the existence of the nation, they are questioning the decisions of governance. Nevertheless, they have been accused of being anti-national and are in jail.
Q. One of the greatest expressions of dissent in recent times was the protest against the CAA. Why do you say Shaheen Bagh is in the tradition of Gandhi’s Satyagraha?
A. It was non-violent and committed to avoiding violence of any kind. It was dignified and civilised. It was a protest by that section of society which is treated as subordinate, namely, women, and that too women from the less privileged sections of society. That these women should be protesting is most significant. Their demand was not anti-national, nor was it inciting people to riot, nor was it backed by terrorism, nor was it asking the mob to shoot dead other Indians, nor was it making impossible demands. What they were requesting was a dialogue with the government on the anxieties they felt regarding the legislation relating to the CAA, NRC and NPR. There was and continues to be a widespread debate on this subject among many others as well.
Q. What does it mean when the state turns dissenters into anti-nationals? What should the state do when citizens express dissent?
A. I have made a distinction in my book between dissent as an expression of disagreement, and protest that endorses the use of violence to support a demand, and which is not therefore identical with dissent. A request that the government discuss the anxieties of citizens over the legislation in question, is not an anti-national activity. This is the kind of dialogue that is normal to democratic functioning. Governments often forget that they are elected primarily to represent the people and ensure their rights. Where there is disagreement there has to be dialogue.