Romila Thapar speaks out
When BJP leader L.K. Advani said of the Indian media during the Emergency that “when asked to bend, they crawled,” he rightly received widespread praise from the secular intelligentsia.
Today, not just the media, but leaders in education, culture, healthcare and law, are crawling before the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh without even being asked to bend. They include the University Grants Commission chairman, Delhi University vice-chancellor, and many serving and former bureaucrats.
These were among the 60 luminaries who met RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat over lunch on October 12. Reports say some tried to ingratiate themselves to the head of an organisation which spawned the BJP -- an act unworthy of their positions.
Sangh Parivar functionaries are trying to radically reorganise government programmes and have held two long, structured meetings with ministers. They want to purge textbooks of secularist “misrepresentations.” Delhi University's Sanskrit department, which lacks expertise in history, is demanding that history textbooks show that the Aryans were indigenous to India, and not migrants, as most historians believe.
Media articles are appearing glorifying a fiction called “Vedic mathematics,” based on a 1965 book by Bharati Krishna Tirtha, which provides no evidence that his sutras (formulas) exist in the Vedas.
Meanwhile, there are strident calls for banning/burning books that advance non-Hindutva views. Fanatics are rampaging through colleges, bookshops, theatres, art-galleries and cinema-halls. Everything from political belief, cultural identity to personal morality is being targeted in hysterical campaigns; dissenters are branded “un-Indian.”
Intolerance for the right to dissent, palpable in all regions, is now backed by the BJP. Other parties, including the Congress, regional outfits, or even the Left, also don't fully respect the right.
However, they aren't as viscerally and viciously anti-dissent as the BJP/Sangh Parivar. This is in keeping with the profoundly undemocratic culture of the RSS, which long ago discarded the “cumbersome clap-trap of internal democracy” and embraced Ek-Chalak-Anuvartitva (unquestioningly following a single leader).
Yet, the right to dissent and express dissenting views is at the core not just of democracy -- without which it would become a despotic majoritarian system -- but of knowledge production itself. Without dissent, there can be no progress in the natural or social sciences, and no dissemination of knowledge through education, dialogue and public debate.
Professor Romila Thapar, one of India's greatest historians and internationally respected scholars, emphasised this theme in her third Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture on October 26 in Delhi. The other two lectures were delivered by economist-philosopher Amartya Sen and eminent British historian E.J. Hobsbawm.
Chakravartty was a doyen among India's post-Independence journalists, who edited the weekly Mainstream. He was long a Communist Party of India member. Yet, he sharply criticised the Emergency -- which the CPI then backed -- and had to shut down Mainstream temporarily.
Thapar's lecture was a tour de force covering many epochs and continents. It was at once a rigorous, scholarly analysis of the evolution of critical intellectual traditions over 2,000-plus years, and a passionate appeal to reason and the spirit of questioning authority.
Thapar traced the relationship between dissidence and science from Socrates and Galileo in the West to the Buddha and Charvaka schools in India, and showed that scientific principles and methods were common to all civilisations, from Athens and Arabia, to India and China.
In South Asia, we had the Buddha espousing agnosticism, and many materialist schools which questioned karma and the immortality of the atman (soul), and spurned Vedic rituals.
If Aryabhatta hadn't opposed contemporary royal astrologers, he wouldn't have been able to show -- a thousand years before Galileo -- that the earth goes around the sun. The key to this lay in the primacy he gave to logic and rationality, not faith or religious dogma.
The method was to postulate a hypothesis linking observed phenomena to their causes, and test it through experiments; the results would be tested against future observations and refined to establish scientific laws.
Thapar showed that rational thinking and logical explanation were always opposed by religious bigots. Buddhist ideas were described in Brahminical orthodoxy as “delusional,” and different schools like Charvakas, Ajivikas, atheists, materialists and rationalists, were all lumped into “one category – nastikas.”
Thapar says this reminds her of “the Hindutvavadis of today for whom anyone and everyone who does not support them are Marxists!”
Numerous streams of thought coexisted in ancient and medieval India, which “questioned beliefs and practices upheld by religious authorities.” They included women like “Andal, Akka Mahadevi and Mira, flouting caste norms …” Amir Khusrau is best known as a poet-composer, but he also studied astronomy; his sun-centric universe “distanced him from orthodox Islam.”
Later came social reformers with modern-liberal progressive values, like Ram Mohun Roy, Phule, Periyar, Syed Ahmed Khan and Ambedkar. Indian society has since been undergoing major changes, which need “insightful ways of understanding” social and economic conditions and relate them to culture and politics.
Public intellectuals are needed to explore these connections and “to articulate the traditions of rational thought in our intellectual heritage.” Thapar said there are “many specialists in various professions, but many… are unconcerned with the world beyond their own specialisation.” These professionals are not identical with public intellectuals -- because “most prefer not to confront authority even if it debars the path of free thought.”
Public intellectuals must take positions fiercely independent of power, and question received wisdom. In addition to possessing a professional status, they must have a concern for citizens' rights, particularly “issues of social justice;” and be ready “to raise these matters as public policy.”
Thapar ended with an analysis of why India's public intellectuals are in decline and what they can do to become more effective. She didn't speak a day too soon.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.