Friday Q&A Special: Romila Thapar on the history of dissent and how it shaped Hinduism and India

An interview with the renowned historian on her new book, 'Voices of Dissent.

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“[Dissent] is a subject that historians have tended to marginalize and those that write on culture – with a few exceptions – virtually ignore it. Indian culture is presented as a seamless whole, whereas some of its most illuminating aspects have come from moments of questioning. The Upanishads for example are a superb example of the creativity of asking questions…

It is important to the understanding of any culture that its history never was and can never be a narrow restricted movement from the past to the present… When the Shramanas – Buddhists, Jainas, Ajivikas – questioned Vedic Brahmanism, there followed a long period of discussion about the ideas that came out of this questioning. This is reflected not only in the remarkable inscriptions of Ashoka Maurya but also in sections of the Mahabharata that were composed at this time.

There was also more than a hint of it in the subsequent forms taken by Hinduism, as for instance by some of the bhakti sants. When the bhakti poet Ravidas describes his vision of a utopia and speaks of a social equality that had no use for caste hierarchies, he is giving form to dissent. This tells us about the priorities of those that control society and those that question it. But these aspects don’t often find a place in the teaching of social history, they remain religious texts whose implicit views about society are seldom commented upon analytically.”

That’s Romila Thapar, renowned historian and public intellectual whose new book Voices of Dissent from Seagull Books, looks at the way questioning and criticism of the status quo has been articulated in India, from the Vedic era all the way to our present age, when it is easily labeled ‘anti-national.’

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Friday Q&A

Romila Thapar is one of India’s most distinguished historians, whose work beginning in the 1960s has sought to nuance our understanding of India’s past. A recipient of the prestigious Kluge Prize, Thapar has covered a whole range of subjects over her long career and is best known for her scholarly work on the social history of ancient India.
Thapar has also made headlines over the last few decades by being an outspoken public intellectual who questioned the version of history put forth by the Right, which tends to portray the Indian past as a simplistic civilisational battle between Hindus and Muslims.
In her new book, Voices of Dissent, Thapar looks at moments in India’s past when the dominant narrative was challenged, whether through the ‘dasas’ of the Vedic times, the Shramanas – Buddhists, Jainas and Ajivikas – whose views contrasted with Brahmanism, or through Bhakti sants and Sufi pirs in the medieval era.
Thapar writes,
“What we call Hinduism has been a religion that has reacted closely to historical change, causing recognizable alterations and mutations in both belief and in those that identify with it…
To ignore the contribution of dissenting ideas to these reformulations, or their failure to encourage the necessary mutations, is to ignore the impressive presence of dissent in assessing the cultivation of religion in India and in the underpinning of many social forms…
Religions are never static. Societies change, so do the religions linked to these societies, because religious identities never arise in isolation. Some are viewed as heritage and some as a reaction to the Other, be it from within society or from outside.
If the Shaiva Dashnamis and the Vaishnava Bairagis were in disagreement relating to the Puranic religion, so were the Barelvis and the Deobandis in relation to the Quranic religion. What continues, what changes, and why—that is what we are searching for, and the search is perennial.”
The book then draws out this history of dissent to look at how colonial interpretations of India’s past still colour our understanding of religion in the subcontinent, followed by an examination of Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi’s satyagraha as a modern movement of dissent – relying heavily on the moral value of a renouncer figure. It concludes with Thapar’s impressions of visiting Shaheen Bagh and witnessing the women who led the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests there.
“Theirs was a secular articulation of a kind that one associates with the rights that should come with citizenship. I felt after many years that I was witnessing a form of dissent that was somehow taking off from the roots of anti-colonial nationalism. There was no mistaking its all-inclusive character. It took me back to the 1940s and to my very youthful participation in anti-colonial nationalism!”
I spoke to Thapar about situating dissent in Indian history, how modern labels colour our understanding of the past and what misconceptions she frequently has to combat.

You note at various points in the book that dissent has a very Indian history, situated here, rather than as something brought to India from afar. Is that what drove you to write this book ?

Dissent is not specifically Indian but is present in India as it is elsewhere. My argument is that dissent is present in every society and civilization and relates to ideas, theories, practices and beliefs. There is of course a more obvious consciousness of it in activities associated with the exploration of knowledge and philosophical discussion. The latter in the Indian past almost began with inquiries about the views and opinions of ‘the Other’ before coming onto the views of the proponent of an argument.

This was characteristic of most ancient cultures and was not absent in Indian culture. Nor was it imported from the West in colonial times as is often assumed, dissent being linked to European philosophy. Dissent was intrinsic to Indian thought as it was to ways of thought and behavior in all civilizations. It was and is an essential step in the advance of knowledge. Research and discovery in the pursuit of knowledge is dependent on questioning the explanations that we are given about the world we live in, when we are not convinced about the given explanations, or when we are additionally curious.

The consciousness and role of dissent it seemed to me was not sufficiently recognized in studies of the Indian past coming up to the Indian present. I had referred to it in some of my earlier research but this time round I wanted to make a statement about the recognition of the concept as significant to various schools of thought and activity in the Indian past, as a prelude to its being significant to the present.

It is a subject that historians have tended to marginalize and those that write on culture – with a few exceptions - virtually ignore it. Indian culture is presented as a seamless whole, whereas some of its most illuminating aspects have come from moments of questioning. The Upanishads for example are a superb example of the creativity of asking questions.

Why is it important for us to situate dissent in the building of Indian culture? Is that something you think our broader understanding of history – even in academic spaces – lacks?

Dissent is many faceted. I have only spoken of it in its manifestation in a few aspects, and that too limited to a very few traditions in the examples I have discussed. Since it is both in dialogue with and parallel to, what is maintained by established authority, a full treatment would require many volumes. In any case my intention in writing this essay was to show with a few examples, as to how it arises, and the creativity that results from its dialogue where it disagrees with existing thought and practice, or else how it carries forward ideas that may seem dormant. It opens out much more in the present.

It is important to the understanding of any culture that its history never was and can never be, a narrow restricted movement from the past to the present, and that at no point was it questioned by those who were part of it. When the Shramanas – Buddhists, Jainas, Ajivikas – questioned Vedic Brahmanism, there followed a long period of discussion about the ideas that came out of this questioning. This is reflected not only in the remarkable inscriptions of Ashoka Maurya but also in sections of the Mahabharata that were composed at this time.

There was also more than a hint of it in the subsequent forms taken by Hinduism, as for instance by some of the bhakti sants. When the bhakti poet Ravidas describes his vision of a utopia and speaks of a social equality that had no use for caste hierarchies, he is giving form to dissent. This tells us about the priorities of those that control society and those that question it. But these aspects don’t often find a place in the teaching of social history, they remain religious texts whose implicit views about society are seldom commented upon analytically.

The book sketches out dissent as it played out in the religious landscape in ancient and medieval India before moving to anti-colonial dissent and then the sort of criticism of the government that is now labeled ‘anti-national’. Why did you draw on this path, rather than say looking back primarily at political dissent in Indian history?

The idioms in which a society expresses itself change in history. They are not identical from one period to the next. This is in part why researching and writing the history of thought is intellectually so exciting. It’s the unfolding of ideas in relation to society and their mutual impact. I chose the idiom of religious ideas for evident reasons.

Firstly, there are more texts from the past focusing on this aspect than on most others, so one can get a fair amount of information. There are not all that many texts from pre-modern India on theories of explanation relating to society and politics. Commentaries were written on the dharma-shastras, or there is the much-quoted text on political economy the Arthashastra. Some of the ideas in the latter have been linked to notions of causality and logic in stating explanations, but these are incidental to the description of a political economy with which the text is primarily concerned. These subjects tend to be discussed in small, scattered segments.

This may be the point at which we historians should move on to researching socio-political dissent combing through a range of texts. Secondly, because of the close inter-twining of religion and caste, exploring the religious idiom incorporates to some extent the exploration of the social and political as well. These dimensions are often more apparent in dissenting ideas.

Photo: Sujaan Mukherjee

Considering how pervasive the binary Hindu-Muslim conception of the Indian past came to be in the colonial era, do you think it was inevitable that the post-colonial state would continue to grapple with these religious nationalisms for decades after?

No I don’t think it was inevitable. I think we should have anticipated it. Hindu nationalism as a concept comes directly out of one among the tenets of the colonial understanding of India, namely, the two-nation theory. The link should have been shown for what it is. Hindutva, as many people argued a few decades ago, and some still do, is not Hinduism. We needed dissenting opinion to explain the difference. Nor have the successor nations understood the fundamental historical change that came with independence.

I am referring to the emergence of the nation-state, embodying the rights and obligations of the citizen and the state, as embedded in the constitution. What we are moving towards however, and some would say we are already there, is a nation that prioritizes those that are of the religion of the majority and those that assert citizenship rights through their wealth and status. So up to a point what has come upon us was predictable.

I remember from my late ‘teens and just after independence there was so much animated discussion on the form that Indian society would take as a free nation. It was a vision of social equality and freedom from poverty for all. We are still far away from that.

You mention a few open questions about the past like why there was an upsurge in Krishna bhakti in medieval north India, including among highly placed Muslims. What do you think understanding this better might tell us, particularly about how we use labels and understand the past?

We have to learn not to impose the present on the past and to recognize how the past looked at itself at various points of time. Let me give you an example. We speak about the larger medieval society and make generalizations referring to ‘the Muslims’ did this and ‘the Hindus’ did this, and then we draw conclusions from these generalizations about Muslims and Hindus.

Our ancestors however, were far more precise than we are in identifying the communities they were speaking of. They would refer as I have said, to Yavanas, Shakas, Turushkas and Sufis, keeping in mind their patterns of living, and far less often to ‘the Muslims’. Similarly they referred to Shaivas, Vaishnavas, Shaktas and nastikas, and so on, keeping in mind similar indices, rather than calling them ‘the Hindus’, which was in any case a term that came into use quite late.

We have to understand that communities within larger configurations acted in diverse ways. It is the diversities that frequently throw light on how we comprehend people. It is not that all Muslims became Krishna bhakts, but only some, and among them a few were highly placed and others were of lower castes. The point I was making was that here was a category that was distanced from both the brahmanas as well as the mullahs and qazis, because it was dissenting from orthodox practice.

Yet today when the poems of such Krishna bhakts are sung as part of the repertoire of Hindustani classical music, few are aware of this dimension and of all its contemporary nuances. These we don’t speak of. That they were part of the upsurge, albeit a small part, implies that there was more than an upsurge in religion and we have to track how it affected society in a variety of ways.

One thing that occurred to me as I was reading the book was how much the ruling majority in India uses the grammar of this dissenting past albeit against its own villains, imagined or otherwise – the liberal elite, the deep state, Western powers, Islam, etc; with Modi as the renouncer. Do you think the Right is tapping into the same tradition that you see existing in the Indian populace?

No, I don’t think the Right is aware of the dimensions of the tradition in the way that I am referring to them, and is therefore not tapping into it. There isn't much of a well-defined secular Right in Indian public life today, and the religious Right, largely supporters of Hindutva, have little use for the renunciation that I am speaking of. They tend anyway to confuse it with asceticism whereas I am making a distinction between the two as I have discussed in the book.

When they combine the symbols of renunciation with politics, as they occasionally do, public attention gets directed to the political activity rather than the other, as is demonstrated by the yogis, sadhavis, etc. who are active members of a political party, and whose political role is what matters. The political support that is given by the heads of Hindu institutions is a far cry from the tradition of the renouncers.

The renouncer has to locate himself/herself outside society or on its borderline, which no one from these organizations does or probably would even consider doing. When the renouncer plays an active social role his moral authority has to be acknowledged, not his political or administrative office. Gandhi had the moral authority of the renouncer, hence his effectiveness in the techniques of dissent that he adopted.

This kind of Right would not follow the tradition that I am referring to as it is neither committed to conceding the equality of all Indians – and that implies the utmost tolerance – nor to refraining from violence against those with whom it differs. In the tradition of dissent that I have written about, no one, but no one, would demand that those seen as ‘the Other’ should be shot dead.

You point out that curiously for India, dissent rarely turned into revolt. Why do you think that is? And does that also tell us something about why, as a counterweight to the CAA protests, we did not see major agitation in response to the pain of demonetisation?

I can only suggest possible answers. One may be that the population being demographically small and land being available, it may have been thought that it would be less troublesome to migrate to a neighbouring area outside the jurisdiction of the existing government than to organize a revolt. The earlier period was one in which there were fewer intermediaries between the peasant and the government. This seems to change by medieval times.

By the same logic an increase in the population would have pressurized the peasant, combined with a larger number of intervening intermediaries, and a greater encroachment on fertile land. But the question raised by a colleague of mine is that it is perhaps uncertain as to whether in most cases the peasants did actually migrate or was migration used as a threat. Mention is made occasionally of the discontent of the peasants and sometimes of urban craftsmen.

Discontent leads to sporadic and spontaneous outbursts. But for it to turn into revolt requires much more, such as organization, leadership, finance and readiness to use violence. Propagating an alternate system of social and economic equality can be a galvanizing force. In many historical cases, such as the Peasants’ Revolt in England the initial demand for a dialogue was ignored, which encouraged its turning into a revolt. The recent agitation over demonetization in India remained only as discontent.

What misconception in our understanding of dissent in India’s past do you find yourself most frequently combatwing?

As a historian I would say that what my generation of historians has been trying to combat, and which has been revived in the last few years, is two things: one is the insistence on converting Indian history into largely the history of the majority community; and two, a constant dismissal of incorporating into the study of history new information from various sources and new methods of inquiry and analysis.

The intellectual requirements for a serious study of history are dismissed and history remains an uncertain narrative. For example, most events of medieval history are explained as based on religious hostility between Muslims and Hindus, with a closure on any other explanation that might disprove this.

So we are back once more to repeating the colonial interpretation of Indian history, something that we had begun to question and discard in the last phase of colonial rule. The general anti-intellectualism that is being currently encouraged will inevitably result in discouraging the asking of questions and leave us with a poverty of thought.

There is a need to intellectually nourish the rich, diverse, complex and sophisticated explanations that historians have been providing in the last half-century, in a variety of new ways of thinking. Nor will this closure be restricted to historical writing. We are all well aware of what has happened in parallel situations in other countries.

What three readings would you recommend to someone interested in the subject after having read you book?

Three books is very limiting as ideally I would like to suggest starting with the Upanishads and with Socrates and continuing from there But I think this is not just a matter of knowing which texts and which thinkers were focused on asking questions articulating dissent as we go through history. It is both explicit and implicit in a variety of texts. I have provided readings for each section of the book and these are largely the works I consulted. However, it is equally important to understand how the idea of dissent has evolved and why it has become so central to contemporary thought and activity in many parts of the world. To understand this I could suggest a variety of books that approach the subject rather differently and each is thought-provoking in its own way.

Maybe a start could be made with Edward Said’s book, Representations of the Intellectual. But let me add that I am not suggesting this book as an explanation of the presence of dissent, but rather as the kind of book that even though it broadly observes the tradition we are familiar with today, is also helpful in suggesting related and unrelated areas that can be explored.

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism analyses in particular two societies where dissent was disallowed, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. There are many stimulating studies of the articulation of dissent in relation to various other activities, as in the writings of Franz Fanon, Berthold Brecht and Dario Fo.