The Indian government’s war against what it calls “anti-national” elements continues to take increasingly absurd forms. Some recent incidents have turned from tragedy to farce – such as the case of Nafeesa Attari, the Muslim schoolteacher from the Indian state of Rajasthan who was forced to quit her job for supporting the Pakistan cricket team during the last T20 tournament (apparently it was a family joke!).
This is not to say that India is the only culprit in the neighborhood – Pakistan also faces myriad forms of hyper-nationalism and has a sad history of intra-national racism, which was at least partially responsible for the secession of its eastern region in 1971.
Nevertheless, the manner in which secular India has over the past decade overturned the vision of its founding fathers is unprecedented. Dissent has always been problematic in Pakistan, particularly due to repeated impositions of martial law and/or the existence of civilian governments beholden to the ruling power. But India has a democratic tradition to be proud of – and it’s something unique among developing countries. For a secular, democratic nation to possess the hyper-nationalist, borderline fascist notions that are currently in vogue there is truly incomprehensible.
Among the “truths” upheld by the right in India is the existence of a mythological golden age – certainly pre-colonial, but also largely pre-Muslim – when the Indian peninsula was a haven of peace and harmony under a benevolent government. social order defined in the Vedas, a set of religious texts originating in ancient India. According to this view, dissent in India is an import from the West, or more precisely from the colonial era. It was only after India became ruled by the British crown that dissent in various forms became a problem.
Romila Thapar masterfully exposes Hindutva misconceptions that dissent is a colonial import to the subcontinent and from a golden age before that of peace and social harmony
Even a casual history reader or amateur sociologist would be able to see through this argument. But its errors were definitively exposed in Romila Thapar’s recent masterful book, Voices of Dissent: An Essay.
Thapar is one of the leading historians of India, specializing in the first millennium AD. She is also a prominent and vocal public intellectual, who has been particularly critical of the communal tilt in the way Indian history is taught or mentioned under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime. In this essay, she discusses Hindutva ideology and traces the history of dissent in the Indian subcontinent from antiquity to the present day. As she says in the prologue: dissent in India has “historical continuity although the forms have changed”.
Thapar’s essay revolves around three examples of dissent, spanning from ancient India to the 20th century. Its earliest example dates from the second millennium BCE, or Vedic times, when a dominant group, the Aryas, came into their own primarily due to their use of a particular form of Sanskrit used in the Vedas.
However, many other groups are mentioned in the annals of the time, including the Dasa, who have a complicated relationship with the Arya. In particular, it was not always true that the Arya were dominant and the Dasa submissive to the former. In fact, there were instances where some sons of Dasis were elevated as Brahmins.
There were many other groups distinguished by a variety of characteristics, including their use of different forms of Sanskrit and their varied rituals. Thapar’s second example relates to the early centuries CE, when another important group, the Shramans – which included Buddhists and Jains – came into prominence. The Shramans were opposed to Vedic Brahmanism and sometimes clashed with the Arya. In short, society was as complex as it is today.
For Thapar, the origin of the Shramans is an example of the Other coming from the dominant group – initially adhering to traditional scripture, but then beginning increasingly to question the basis of scripture, as well as the beliefs of those who defend the same thing. .
Thapar’s third example concerns a situation where the Other is not self-proclaimed, but where otherness is imposed on different groups. There are various bases on which groups transform themselves into the Other—sometimes this otherness is imposed on professional groups, sometimes on those who practice another religion.
An interesting example is the adivasis, or forest dwellers, who are now considered part of the Scheduled Tribes in India. These were fairly egalitarian communities until the early first millennium AD and were largely independent of society at large. Over the centuries, as agricultural land began to encroach on forest areas, these communities were pushed further into remote forest lands and were targeted by farmers wanting to take back their land.
Through a series of complex social interactions over several centuries, they came to be seen as lower castes or subordinates, their main resource having been appropriated. Here, otherness has imposed itself for economic reasons. There are also examples of this in modern Pakistan, where cases of blasphemy charges have been traced to attempts to appropriate property belonging to minority communities.
Thapar devotes part of the essay to a discussion of satyagraha, or Gandhian nonviolence, as a modern form of dissent, and questions whether support for satyagraha was rooted in a long Indian tradition of dissent, notably the tradition of dissent through renunciation.
Voices of Dissent ends on a strong note, with an account of Thapar’s visit to (mostly Muslim) women protesting against the citizenship law at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh in December 2019. Her reflections on the nature of citizenship in modern democracy and the difference between democratic governance and governance disinterested in the concerns of the marginalized, are relevant for much of South Asia.
As long as dissent is not violent or destructive, it must, according to Thapar’s thesis, be heard and answered by the state. Canceling it as a result of foreign influence is dishonest and patently wrong.g
The reviewer is a researcher and policy analyst
Voices of Dissent: An Essay
By Romila Thapar
Folio Books, Lahore
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 30, 2022