Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Interview with Romila Thapar: “What Has Been Happening in Recent Times Could Well Develop Into Fascism”

For over five decades, the historian Romila Thapar has been at the vanguard of research and writing about ancient India. The author of 20 books including seminal titles such as A History of India and Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Thapar is also the author of history textbooks for the National Council for Research and Education (NCERT), used widely in schools across the nation. She is an honorary fellow at Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford, and professor emerita at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, with which she has been involved since its inception, and where, from 1971 to 1990, she was professor of ancient Indian history. She has been a visiting professor at Cornell University, and holds honorary degrees from institutions such as the University of Chicago, Oxford University, Edinburgh University and the Universities of Calcutta and of Hyderabad. In 2008, she was awarded the Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of the Humanities. 

Throughout her academic career, Thapar’s focus has been on understanding history not as mere factual inquiry but as questioning a cultural and ideological phenomenon. Her oeuvre has transformed the understanding of the Indian subcontinent globally. Thapar has also been a consistent and vocal advocate for education through rational, evidence-based inquiry and research-oriented approaches. In February 2016, soon after students from JNU were arrested and charged with sedition, The Caravan met with Thapar. They discussed the historical evolution of sedition, the significance of secularism and approaches to higher education in India. Published below is an excerpt from the interview. This conversation is a part of ‘Notes on Nationalism,’ a series being published by The Caravan that considers various aspects of the public discourse around sedition, nationalism, and Indian identity. You can read other pieces in the series are herehere and here.

The Caravan: Where has the notion of sedition come from?
Romila Thapar: It’s a notion that came with the colonial government. In the pre-modern period, there were no references to sedition. There were no nations in those days, so opposition would only be to the ruling authority. But once the idea of the nation came to be established, then the question of making comments hostile to the nation or to the colonial government became a reality, especially with the growth of nationalist sentiment. Sedition was brought in by the British Indian government and made into a law for governing India. The dictionary meaning of sedition draws a distinction between advocating the overthrow of the government or violence, and inciting the overthrow of the government or violence. It is the inciting which is seditious, not just talking about it. This is a differentiation that is extremely important. Unfortunately, it is a distinction that people have forgotten because of the way in which the word has been tossed around these days. 

Most people don’t realise that the emphasis really is on inciting violence and inciting people against the state. The British used it against most of the major nationalist leaders, preeminently [the social reformer Bal Gangadhar] Tilak. Whenever they felt that someone was making a statement that was somehow injurious to British colonial rule, they would invoke the law of sedition. Secondly, the historical situation has changed. Sedition was introduced at a time when India was a colony and was governed by an alien power. Now we are an independent nation with an elected government. It’s a democratic parliament. So, the situation is entirely different. Is it, then, legitimate to have sedition as a punishable offence?

TC: You have said that for India, sedition is akin to blasphemy in Europe—since India doesn’t quite have the concept of blasphemy that religious or political powers can invoke easily, sedition became our blasphemy. 
RT: The thought that crossed my mind was that what they’re trying to suggest about sedition vis-à-vis the nation in India, is becoming somewhat like blasphemy in the context of religion. As far as the Hindu religion goes, there cannot be anything really close to blasphemy because there isn’t a regular creed and a regular belief system that every Hindu has to conform to. There are all kinds of Hindus, who have all kinds of beliefs, and they are counted as Hindus under this umbrella term. Therefore, blasphemy is very difficult to define in a religion of this kind.

On the other hand, if you want to attack certain people, then you can accuse them of being hostile to the nation. The nation then takes the place of religion and criticism is seen as a kind of blasphemy against the nation. This is just an idea that I had, I haven’t thought about it very much.

In recent times there has been much talk about people being anti-national. Those who make these complaints often don’t work out what is national, and what is anti-national. They turn to slogans and insist that articulating slogans is the test of being nationalist. An example of this is the recent discussion of whether saying “Bharat Mata ki Jai” is a test of loyalty to the nation. This has no special sanctity as it is a slogan invented a century or so ago. In any case, is sloganeering a test of anything? Surely, nationalism requires a serious commitment to a nation, defined as every citizen having access to human rights, and recognised not just by territory but also by reliable and just governance. 

Nationalism is not expressed merely by raising a flag or shouting a slogan, but by safe-guarding rights and ensuring good governance. Questioning or criticising the government is not anti-national. This is quite normal. Political parties when in opposition routinely do this, as do the [Bharatiya Janata Party] and the Congress when not in power. In every society there are people who criticise or complain against various activities within that society. To dub such criticism anti-national means that there is something more at stake in the mind of the accuser. The accusation of being anti-national then becomes one of the mechanisms by which an attempt is made to try and imprison or silence people.

TC: Does this mean that, as a people, we are too fragile or too sensitive to criticism? Are we politically insecure as a democracy?
RT: I wouldn’t say that as a people we are politically insecure. I think we’ve certainly proved ourselves to be a viable democracy in times of crisis. The relative smoothness with which we have changed governments is really, very impressive. But what it does suggest is that those politicians who almost routinely accuse particular persons of being anti-national, they are the ones who are insecure and lack self-confidence—or at any rate, the confidence to rule.

TC: In this context, would you say that this approach, this labeling of people as anti-national, would always be a systemic part of any ruling dispensation in which the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has a major say?
RT: Well, you said that, I didn’t say it! Yes, I think there is an ideological, historical background to this that we have to understand. The ideology of the party in power today is that of the RSS. What is the RSS ideology? There are two things that I think they regard as central. One is to convert India into a Hindu rashtra [nation]This goes back to our experience of the varieties of nationalisms that we have had. Our major nationalism was anti-colonial nationalism, which was an inclusive nationalism. Everybody was brought in and the intention was to throw out the colonial power and to be an independent nation. But in addition to that, in a relatively lesser role at that time, in the early twentieth century, there were organisations such as the Muslim League that was arguing for an Islamic state, and the Hindu Mahasabha that was arguing for a Hindu equivalent. Some label these two as religious nationalisms, some call them communalism, and some describe them as being influenced by fascism. Whereas the anti-colonial nationalism had a nationalist agenda in that it was opposed to colonial rule, and worked towards a secular democracy, the other two communal organisations were not essentially anti-colonial, and their aim was to inherit a Muslim and a Hindu oriented state, after the departure of the British. Their role in the anti-colonial movement was therefore minimal. Secular democracy was not how they envisaged the future.

There can be a debate about these two communal movements since these are really movements pertaining to religious communities—they’re not national movements. They don’t involve people across the religious spectrum, and each is concerned only with a particular community, with a particular religious identity. Now, Islamic extremism, Islamic nationalism—call it what you will—succeeded in establishing a state—Pakistan. Therefore, the Hindu version of that ideology is still anxious to have a Hindu rashtra, and is anxious to convert the Indian state into a Hindu rashtra.

Therefore, the ideological battle today is at two fronts. One is to establish a Hindu rashtra irrespective of the aggression between religious communities needed to do so. There are incidents of aggression involving what is described as “majority communalism and minority communalism,” especially in the predictable rise of riots prior to elections. The needling of the latter by the former, sometimes followed by a retort, is a common occurrence both in speeches and actions, as we have experienced in recent times. The second is the confrontation between communalism and secularism—specifically a choice between a Hindu rashtra or a secular democracy. To support the former, communalism is being revived, presumably as a strategy. The attempt is to change the mindset of Indians to support that ideology. Intolerance of the views of others and anti-intellectualism are on the rise. In this confrontation, universities and the educational system are, and will continue to be, obvious targets. Education can easily be converted into indoctrination.

It is also important to remember in relation to the RSS ideology that it works with a distinct definition of the Hindu. If it’s going to be a Hindu rashtra, then the Hindu has to be defined. Based on the colonial idea of majority communities and minority communities, the Hindu forms the majority community. The Hindu has to be the primary citizen as far as citizenship goes. He is the primary citizen because the territory of British India—which is the territory that the RSS holds to be the territory of India—this territory is his pitribhumi, the land of his ancestors, and his punyabhumi, the land in which his religion originated. The Muslims and the Christians, and to a lesser extent, the Parsis, are said to have come from outside this territory and their religions originated outside this territory, so they don’t have primacy. There is a sense in this ideology, of the coming together of territory, religion, and language that makes the Hindu more easily identifiable as national, as it were, than the others. Needless to say, in actual fact, the vast majority of Muslims and Christians can certainly claim India as their pitribhumi, but this was not conceded.

The debate on anti-nationalism routinely recurs each time there is an RSS-linked party in power, but it recurs in different forms. For instance, in the 1960s and 70s, some of us historians wrote textbooks for the NCERT [National Council of Education Research and Training] that were used in state schools. But, when the Morarji [Desai] government came to power in a coalition with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh [in 1977], an anonymous letter to the prime minister stated that these textbooks were anti-national and anti-Indian, and therefore, they should be banned. The debate about whether these books were anti-national or not went on back and forth in the newspapers. Then, in about three years, the government fell and the textbooks stayed in place.

This is the story of textbooks as far as the NCERT is concerned. Each time the government changes; attempts are made to change the textbooks. Then, the government falls and the old textbooks come back. Governments make a joke of education. Then again, when the first National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 1999, Murli Manohar Joshi, as the education minister, conducted a heavy attack on the textbooks from 2000 onwards. He referred to us, the authors, as anti-Indian and anti-national, which meant anti-Hindu, and all this resulted in a demand that “academic terrorists like us, worse than the cross-border variety” should be immediately arrested.

This makes their concept of nationalism very clear. It involves an unquestioned adherence to a certain territory. However, Pakistan and Bangladesh broke away, so it’s no longer the original territory of British India. It is important to maintain the notion that the nation is a Hindu nation, that it is a Hindu rashtra in which inevitably the Hindu will have a primary position. That is a major component of the idea as far as its origin is concerned, irrespective of after-thoughts, if any. Many of us object to this. What we think of as the nation is a secular nation with multiple religions, where the primary identity is not of any religious, caste or language group, it is of the Indian citizen. What we want is the recognition of the rights of the Indian citizen.

TC: This belief in the primacy of the Hindu in the RSS ideology. Is this belief reconcilable with the Constitution of India?
RT: I think the Constitution is quite clear about the fact that whatever constitutes the Hindu is something apart and is not a priority for being the Indian citizen. The Indian citizen draws on many more identities... Read