An Interview with Romila Thapar
6 May 2016
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 here, here and here.
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.
TC: So if that’s the case, why are those who believe in secularism called “pseudo-secularists”? For close to 20 or 30 years now, there has been a consistent attack on journalists, lawyers, academics and public intellectuals. Political parties such as the Congress are supposed to be carrying the historical burden of bringing in secularism to the Indian polity, but are putting out a poor intellectual defense for it. As a nation, is there some kind of conceding of ground?
RT: I would like to make two points. Pseudo-secularism, as far as I remember, started with [LK] Advani saying that the so-called secularists are bending over backwards to appease the minorities and that that was their definition of secularism. So it was not genuine secularism that requires all religions to be treated equally. This is what they meant by a pseudo-secularist. This was really to try and undermine any kind of concession that some may have wanted to make to the minorities, not realising that the critical issue is that if you are a true secularist—as some of us think we are—you really have to be absolutely even-handed towards every religious group. You cannot make concessions. This is where one runs into problems.
What is sometimes referred to as the Indian definition of secularism—that all religions should have equal status—is actually a partial definition. Secularism means a distancing of the functioning of the state from seeking religious endorsements, or even disallowing religious organisations from controlling the social functioning of the state, especially in matters of education and civil laws.
For example, if you say that there should be a uniform civil code, applicable to all Indians, it’s not the same as simply saying that we should disallow Muslim men from having four wives, as is popularly projected. A secular understanding of a civil code would require asking, “What should be the ideal civil code in a secular society?” This would mean removing all religious and caste codes and codes specific to any community, and working out a new code as the one that would apply, and that the application would be universally observed. This becomes a matter of tremendous debate and discussion in a society where many codes are observed and customary law still holds among many communities. What stand should civil law take on local practices, as for example, those of the khap panchayats? If we had been serious about a secular civil code then we should by now have been in deep discussion on its formulation. It is an issue on which there are diverse opinions, apart from those who want a Hindu rashtra, and these opinions have to be discussed. But of course, there is none of this. Instead, what they understand by a uniform civil code is that the Hindu code should remain and presumably other religious codes should be removed. They’re not willing to go through the exercise of saying all codes should be removed and a new uniform, secular civil code should be established. There are, of course, political reasons for why every political party—to a greater or lesser degree—has distanced itself from implementing secular laws, and a major reason is that it would lead to a shift in vote banks.
TC: There is also an additional element, quite apart from the true secularist, which is inherent in our Constitution or in any democracy. Minorities do need special protection and there are certain rights that are specific to minorities, which the Constitution actually does lay out.
RT: There is some of that, yes. But I think that this is partly because when anti-colonial nationalism succeeded and we became independent, there had been much concern for minority rights and the fear of the majority community taking over. But if you look at your society only in terms of majority and minority communities, then naturally, you have to say that there are certain minority rights that have to be safeguarded. Ideally, there can be complete freedom of religion and worship, but as far as the civil law goes, because it is concerned with institutions of society—whether it is registering birth, marriage, divorce, occupational employment or inheritance—there should be uniform laws for every citizen. That is one way in which the possibility of minorities being underprivileged or attacked can at least be decreased, if not eliminated. It is also a question of giving every citizen the same entitlements with basic human rights—food, education, health and social justice—and this being ensured.
At this moment we have got our priorities hopelessly wrong, and human rights do not seem to matter in our way of seeing the priorities of governance. Nor do we give pride of place to citizenship and the protection of human rights that go with it. We see human beings as numbers and speak only of majority and minority. We need to stop seeing people as numbers and start seeing them as human beings. Perhaps then, those who are supposed to ensure the welfare of citizens will become less callous towards the underprivileged.
One of the ways in which we have tried to equalise opportunities is through reservations, and these seem to be running into problems. Many people have debated this issue in terms of assessing its success, the length of its continuing, and how to handle the many new groups demanding what are being seen incorrectly not as equalising processes but as advantages for some. Erstwhile higher castes in Rajasthan and Gujarat and other places are now claiming to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes]. This demand can go on expanding. How do you cope with it? You don’t cope with it by merely expanding the system to accommodate more and more castes. Perhaps the qualifier for reservation needs to be changed and reformulated. Possibly a reservation which is not based on religion, caste or language and instead is based on income might be more effective. Those below the poverty line should automatically be entitled to reservation advantages, at least in education. If carried out with any degree of efficiency, even quality education may gradually become available to many. This cannot be done in an automatic fashion but has to be carefully thought out. This is far from being the case as of now.
I’ll give you a simple example. When the government decides to set up a new school, where do they locate it in a village? They locate it in the upper-caste area. When the Dalit students come there, they’re booed away and if they do stand their ground, they are shunned. Now, if your policy mandates that all your state-run quality education schools will be located in areas that are largely inhabited by people of low income, you force a change in social attitudes and upper castes have to come to terms with having to sit next to Dalits in school. This is the kind of careful thinking that is necessary. If the schooling system can be expanded and improved, to the extent where everybody has a secondary education that is worth having, then some of the demand for reservation will decrease. The two things have to go together. You protect the minorities, but you do it keeping in mind that you actually want to change your educational, healthcare and welfare systems so that communities that have been underprivileged will no longer be so, and communities that have treated the underprivileged with contempt can also no longer do so. That is the social welfare scheme to which we are not paying serious attention. We think we can get by with reservations alone, and we’re just making more and more problems for ourselves.
Of course, this does mean a change in the economic system as well, so as to encourage production and employment. Since the present system seems to be at a standstill, perhaps we need to think of an alternative.
TC: Given that the current debate on sedition actually began with a protest in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the other side of the coin is the freedom of speech and its place in a university. How important is the freedom of speech in higher education, or at any level of education for that matter?
RT: I think it’s absolutely fundamental. A university is the space in which every student or teacher has the right to express his or her opinions and to argue about issues, and also to invite people from outside the university to debate their ideas. The problem comes when you hold an opinion but disallow others from theirs, and in fact beat up the person with a contrary opinion in order to make sure that your opinion has muscle power behind it. The best universities of the world are places for free opinion—except of course under dictatorial systems. In the best universities of the world, there are formal debates where even anti-national subjects are debated in order to make young people think about various perspectives of a subject. This is exactly the kind of function that a university has to perform. It opens up the possibility of thinking beyond the confines within which you’ve been socialised, and expands your way of thinking. That has to be a given. Otherwise, we shall never reach any level of efficiency as far as the purpose of universities is concerned.
We have, goodness knows how many universities—700 or more? Not one reaches a level of all-round excellence on a global standard and only a handful can claim to have a good department in a discipline. Excellence remains an individual enterprise that happens here and there, almost despite the university system as practiced in most universities in India. JNU was the only university that was beginning to approach that level of excellence. But of course, for a government and a party that believes in controlling thought, places such as JNU are dangerous because they encourage questioning existing systems and existing knowledge. They do what a university is expected to do.
TC: Chandan Mitra, the BJP parliamentarian and the editor of The Pioneer, wrote in this context that JNU should be shut down and the Mussoorie Civil Service academy should be shifted to the JNU campus. According to him, the campus was originally meant for training civil servants. You are one of the founding faculty members of JNU. What was its dream?
RT: The dream was precisely to have a university of excellence, yes. I am glad to see that the National Institutions Ranking Framework under the HRD [Human Resource Development] Ministry has given JNU the first rank among universities—this despite the Chandan Mitras of this world!
As regards the JNU campus, he of course has got the facts wrong. The old campus, from where we first functioned, now accommodates all kinds of other institutions that have completely taken over the area that was originally meant for the Mussoorie Civil Service Academy. When in 1970 the campus was ready, the Civil Service Academy decided that it did not wish to shift from Mussoorie, so the buildings lay vacant. The JNU was located there temporarily until the permanent campus was ready. The latter is the campus that we inhabit today.
This kind of remark is so typical of people who cannot accept the fact that there can be an institution in this country where students are encouraged to debate issues, to explore ideas and express themselves. What such people want is rote education and a system of memorising given questions and given answers, the kind of education that is characteristic of shishu mandirs, or many madrasas. This is the kind of education that is parallel to the catechism or question-answer indoctrination required in some religions. A set of questions is given together with their answers, and these you learn by heart, and you cannot change either. This is only a form of literacy and is not what is meant by education. It is certainly not what a university is intended for.
My problem with the education system ever since I came into the field—which was 50 years ago—has been precisely this. Starting from the school-level, we have not done what education is supposed to do. It is supposed to teach the student to think independently and question existing knowledge; to teach the student to understand causal relationships in the pursuit of knowledge; and to teach a student how to examine why things happen. These questions—of why, how, where, when, which—are fundamental questions. We don’t impart this education to students. Instead, we give them ready-made statements that they cannot question, and often do not understand.
TC: Another criticism is that Indira Gandhi [the former prime minister of India] set JNU up because she wanted a generation of socialists in the country.
RT: This is such nonsense. Why would she want a generation of socialists since she herself was no socialist, irrespective of the rhetoric? Again, a little reliable enquiring and thinking would eliminate such statements. We now have a dozen universities that have been established in Delhi without people making these silly remarks about why they were required. Given the population expansion, there will be more to come.
JNU was established as additional to Delhi University, when another university was needed. Since Delhi University has colleges affiliated to it for undergraduate work, it has to handle a huge number of undergraduate students in addition to graduates. The Jamia Millia [Islamia] at that time was not teaching the full range of courses as it is now doing. So, it was decided in parliament after a long debate, that there would be another university. Initially the name suggested was Raisina University, because Raisina was the village on the site of which New Delhi was built. Later it was decided to name it in memory of the first prime minister. So, the name was changed.
In the beginning, when it started functioning from 1970, the question that was raised was: what kind of university would it be and where would its specialisations lie? There was general agreement that it should be a postgraduate university. There was much discussion over whether it should repeat the curriculum of existing universities or break fresh ground and be inter-disciplinary. The latter was decided upon, and the next step was to determine as to how interdisciplinary it should be and in what way. Every other university in those days tended to confine courses strictly to one discipline—to history, sociology, economics, anthropology, literature, or whatever. Remember that in the 1960s, interdisciplinary studies were known to a small section of academia but were new to many universities and unknown to most. These studies were something that the general public was relatively unaware of. Not that there is a much greater familiarity with this kind of knowledge in these times, judging by the recent pronouncements on JNU.
Fifty years ago, the emergence and establishing of the social sciences was almost a global movement creating a new kind of disciplinary approach. This was the same in America, Europe, and Asia. France, in particular, was one of the more intellectually stimulating places. Philosophers were arguing with archeologists about the meaning of civilisation, and anthropologists were in dialogue with linguists on the terms used for kinship relations in practice and in texts, and interdisciplinarity was growing. In India it had roots initially in the work of cultural historians, sociologists and economists, but the orientation changed when it became interdisciplinary. Those among us who read beyond Indian history were aware of these changes, and felt that they should be reflected in the courses taught at JNU. It was particularly important at that time when, in many disciplines, the theories expounded by colonial scholarship in many parts of the world were beginning to be questioned and discarded.
In 1971 when we started functioning as a University, G Parthasarathy was the first vice chancellor. Some of us wondered whether an ex-diplomat would be suitable as a vice chancellor. As it turned out, he was excellent because he had the required intellectual flexibility, which most vice chancellors lack. The initial faculty appointed was told that our courses were to be interdisciplinary and reflective of the methodologies and new ways of thinking in the social sciences, wherever they were relevant. There was no need to repeat what was being taught in existing universities. This is why we don’t have the kind of departments that exist in most other universities. We have centres, which are broadly discipline-based but with courses that emerge out of interdisciplinary studies. The Centre for Historical Studies had two scholars from other disciplines who worked with historians, both in teaching specially designed courses and guiding research. We had a sociologist, Satish Sabharwal, and we had a scholar of linguistics, K Meenakshi, who was well versed in Tamil and Sanskrit linguistics, both of which are extremely useful for ancient history. This brought in one aspect of interdisciplinary studies.
The most positive aspect of the new courses was the student reaction. They were intellectually stimulated and took an almost inspired interest in reading around the subject. Our student body was more mixed than that of other metropolitan universities. Well before the reservation quotas we had worked out our own system of admitting a percentage of students from economically disadvantaged groups. The resulting interface between students from different backgrounds and between faculty and students, gave JNU a special character.
It was also in the 60s—and more so perhaps in the 70s—that there was a considerable interest among many universities across the world in the study of Marxism. There was a presence of Marxism in the social sciences because of the kind of questions that social scientists were asking at that time. What is the nature of society? What is the structure of society? How did it come about? When did the state emerge and what was its form and how did this form change over the centuries? Who controlled the resources and who provided labour? What kind of role did religion play? Was it purely a matter of belief and worship or were religious organisations also controlling social institutions? What kind of role did kinship play? Why were there different kinds of kinship rules—not everybody married according to the same rules, not everybody inherited property according to the same rules. All these questions were being discussed. Many theories involved in answering these questions—other than Marxist—were also brought into the discussion. It was important to understand theories of explanation and this was a new aspect in the study of social sciences. These were not the questions that were asked in most history departments at the time, but they are now more regular in the better departments. There were some centres of research in the social sciences such as the Delhi School of Economics that were active in such studies. However, these are still new to the general public whose understanding of the disciplines that are now included in the social sciences remain as conventionally taught.
Because we encouraged discussion, there was much of it. Students were reading theories of explanation of every kind and arguing about them. That was when it began to be said that we were all Marxists. To which I would always reply that if a head count was to be taken of which academics at JNU were Marxists, their number would be a small fraction of the faculty. The accusation that JNU was a Marxist university was made more frequently by those who did not know about the courses taught, nor their intellectual content, nor why they were taught the way they were. There is still little understanding among most people as to why history is part of the social sciences and how the questions that historians now ask have changed from those asked 50 years ago.
We were also concerned about relating these questions to the understanding of Indian society. Obviously, in such enquiries, conventional views would have to be examined afresh. Conventional understanding can become out-of-date in the light of contemporary research. Understanding a society means comprehending it from as many perspectives as the evidence allows. Explanations again depend on how the evidence is analysed. An approach that tries to co-relate multiple evidences is obviously different from one that focuses just on one perspective.
TC: A more sophisticated version of Chandan Mitra’s charge is that JNU was a “closed institution” and that certain teachers favoured certain students, there were coteries involved, and that it was impossible for outsiders—especially for the right wing—to break in.
RT: This has now become a kind of chorus. One keeps hearing about how the left-wing intellectuals hogged all the institutions and kept out the right-wing intellectuals. I don’t know why that is said because I don’t see a regiment of right-wing intellectuals all waiting at the gates of JNU and other institutions, unable to enter. This is factually not so. In the centres that I got to know, there was a greater presence of non-Marxists. But Marxism was not a taboo word as was the case in many other universities. In the social sciences, there were open differences that were discussed and written about between Marxists and others, and among Marxists of different hues, as for example, the debate on feudalism in medieval Indian history, which had its genesis in the JNU.
There is of course the perennial problem with those who have not studied Marxism and cannot therefore differentiate between liberal thinking and Marxist thinking. Even academics sometimes confuse the two. I have had problems with historians who regard any reference to economic factors in historical explanation as Marxist history. They don’t recognise that Marxism implies a specific method of using economic evidence, so anyone who refers to economic factors cannot automatically be called a Marxist. Some non-Marxists have been among the more renowned economic historians of Europe and other parts of the world.
There is one thing that must be recognised that ties up with what I was saying earlier. The emergence of the social sciences was virtually an international movement in the latter half of the twentieth century. It introduced new kinds of thinking into conventional disciplines, and this change has taken place internationally. It just so happened that, at that time, students and faculty members were also interested in new and challenging ideas often expressed in different varieties of neo-Marxism, structural Marxism and so on, as much as in a variety of non-Marxist theories. The classical theories were being developed in various ways, leading to some impressive intellectual debates. A range of translations became available. The works of Antonio Gramsci [the Italian Neo-Marxist theorist and politician], Georg Lukacs [the Hungarian Marxist philosopher] and others, that would in earlier times have been inaccessible, were now accessible through translations and widely read and debated.
Many in JNU were attracted by this array of ideas. They were different from what had been written by both the Indian left and the Indian right in the past. In fact they were helpful in understanding both these categories. A couple of decades later the interest in some historical circles was shifting to [the historian] Hayden White, [Michel] Foucault [the French philosopher and historian], and [Jacques] Derrida [the French philosopher], who by no stretch of the imagination can be called Marxists, or to quite unconventional Marxists such as Slavoj Zizek. They were required reading.
The right wing in India has yet to produce an impressive body of intellectuals. Liberals there are, but it is hard to name academically renowned historians, for instance, as distinctively from the right. The point is that, as it happened, at that time, many bright people were of the left, or were left liberals—they were not of the right. We have many respected liberals but they can hardly be called right-wing.
Before calling JNU a “closed shop,” it might be worth doing a checklist of faculty appointments in terms of appointing products of the JNU, and compare it with a similar list for example, from Delhi University. It is unlikely that there would be much difference.
Let me also add that I don’t understand the hysteria about JNU. It is one university out of a few hundred. Surely there are enough right-wing academics in all these universities to hold their own against the single JNU. It might be more to the point to analyse why the quality of right-wing thinking and writing, with a few exceptions, is not taken more seriously.
TC: The recent activism around nationalism seems to ignore entirely, the tradition of debate in ancient India.
RT: The tradition of debate in the Indian past was impressive. The opponent’s view had to be known and represented in detail. This was followed by the presentation of the proponent’s view. Subsequent to this there was a debate and perhaps a solution. Leave aside following these principles; we have not even learnt to argue with those of an opposite point of view. Those with the most vehement and extreme views often resort to abuse. This is a sign both of not being educated and of being arrogantly ill mannered.
There is also a widely held belief that the tradition of Indian thought was conservative and idealist. In fact we have inherited a range of philosophical schools from materialist to idealist philosophy, and yet there is a popular tendency to treat Indian philosophy as idealist rather than investigating the reasons for divergence. I grew up on the cusp of Independence and went to college in 1948. In college, courses in philosophy essentially meant repeating what had been said by [the Sanskrit scholar] Surendranath Dasgupta and [the philosopher and statesman] Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Idealist philosophy was what was mainly taught. So it was a revelation later, to read other books with different ideas, to discover that there were scholars that questioned conventional ideas.
I recently developed a marginal interest in a couple of texts written in medieval times, more specifically in the fourteenth century. This was the time during the last thousand years when, according to the theory being popularised, all Hindus were slaves, and were oppressed by the Muslims. One of the texts was a commentary on the Rigveda written by a medieval commentator and scholar called Sayana. It’s a fascinating commentary because some of it is a reasoned explanation of the meaning of the verses and some of it is a resort to the imaginary. I wonder why there is this mix from someone who was clearly a scholar. Till date, I have been waiting for a good Sanskrit scholar in India to do an analytical commentary on Sayana’s commentary. Imagine a twenty-first century scholar commenting on a fourteenth century scholar commenting on a text of the second millennium BC. What an intriguing lineage. We keep talking about these texts, but few take the next step—that is, to analyse the text and attempt to place it in the context of its culture and history.
The non-Indian Sanskrit scholars in universities abroad, who work on such texts, do attempt this, but have now to be careful not to be critical for fear, not of the quality of their work being questioned, but of being abused for even daring to try a reasoned analysis. The recent petition against Sheldon Pollock [a scholar of Sanskrit philology, Indian intellectual and literary history], put together by what would in today’s terms qualify as intellectuals of the right, demands his removal as editor of the Murthy Classical Library of India because he is not an Indian and because he signed a petition in support of JNU. The attack is not on the quality of his scholarly work, which is generally rated as among the best.
The other fourteenth-century text that interested me is the Sarva-darsana-sangraha, which is a compendium of philosophical schools. The opening chapter is on the Charvaka [the ancient school of Indian materialism]. The author does not endorse Charvaka philosophy and states that it does not have the same status as some of the other schools, but it is one that has had some influence, thereby warranting a discussion at some length. He proceeds to discuss it after this qualifier. To me, this kind of thinking is symptomatic of two things. Firstly, that you express yourself in the accepted format of debate and discussion as I described it earlier. Secondly, that when you are putting together the schools of philosophy, you do include the school that you may disagree with, but which nevertheless, for some others has philosophical integrity and an identity. This, to me, is the essence of philosophy.
What is current today is the complete opposite, in the kind of attitude that says, “Shut it [JNU] down.”
People like myself are abused daily on the social media, on e-mail and elsewhere, by those for whom abuse is the only language that they seem to know. I am of course not the only one, as many of us believed to be Marxists—or “commies” to use their favourite expression—are abused. We are called the filthiest, dirtiest names. The abuse of these people follows whatever one says in public. They get rattled because we don’t give in and keep silent. So, some have been silenced by a bullet. It does make one wonder what is being planned next.
Part of the problem with those who attack us for being critical of some aspects of ancient Indian history, is that they do not read what we write and build attitudes towards us through hearsay and the political opinions of the extreme religious right. If they read even an iota of comparative history for instance, they would know that building extravagant theories about the golden ages of the past, has now, more often than not, been discarded. Every major culture has its points of high achievement as also its manifestations of degradation. If we speak in praise, rightly and justifiably so, of the Sanchi stupa, the Brihadishvara temple at Tanjore and the Taj Mahal, we cannot ignore the fact that they represent a civilisation in which a large category of humans were treated as polluting and were discriminated against. They provided the labour required by these signatures of high culture.
The Greeks were hardly better, for they too built some of their high culture on the backs of slaves. Two-thirds of the population of Athens were slaves and excluded from claiming any rights. Yet, we maintain that Athens laid the foundation of democracy. Every society manifests different qualities at different stages and at different levels. We have to try and understand this and explain it, instead of nurturing our make-believe vision of everything being unblemished in the earlier past. The latter comes in the way of the debate on how complex cultures were formed and about what societies inherit from the past, on which inheritance we create the present. There can be no dialogue with those who have closed their minds.
TC: This strain of nationalists also become nearly hysterical as soon as somebody who is living outside this country approaches ancient texts. What the person says does not matter. How damaging is it in the long run, to have this attitude towards scholarship? Are we going to have two parallel streams?
RT: We already have two parallel streams. There is scholarship on India carried out in India and there is scholarship on India carried out outside India. New ideas or departures from the old can become controversial. These are discussed in centres of scholarly research. But there is a large body of people, most with little or no claim to scholarship, that constitute the more vocal NRI and Hindutva groups. These are opposed to anyone who may be even slightly critical of Hinduism and what they regard as ancient Indian culture. They object to using the methodology of current scholarship, which they regard as “western.” They have yet to find an indigenous methodology.
There is a history of fine scholarship in India on which we build, and we try and maintain a dialogue with scholarship on India that is taking place abroad. It becomes difficult when any kind of critique is pounced upon without being understood, and its author abused. Those in dialogue with scholars abroad, through publications, lectures and conferences at non-Indian universities, are dismissed as merely repeating western views on India. They would prefer that Indian scholarship remain completely isolated and single-minded.
Mind you, their own understanding—the Hindutva understanding of India—is rooted in colonial theories which they try and project as the “indigenous understanding” of the Indian past. Among these are the theories that Indian civilisation originated with the Vedas, that of Hindus and Muslims having been antagonistic towards each other, and that Hindus were victimised under Muslim rule. Given these beliefs, the observances of the Vedic Aryan model of society are advocated, even for contemporary times—or at least what they think was such a model. And revenge must be sought for the tyranny of Muslim rule. These are ideas that come from nineteenth-century colonial writing and have little to do with indigenous views. The colonial writers who authored these ideas are well known in historical scholarship.
The discovery of the Indus civilisation, because it predates the Vedic period, became problematic for those arguing that Indian civilisation originated with the Vedic Aryans. So either the Vedic Aryans have to be taken back to the time of the pre-Indus civilisation, or else the Harappans have to be called Aryans. But there is considerable diversity between the two cultures and the diversity cannot be brushed aside. Many scholars have in any case stopped bothering about the origin of the Aryans and are now pursuing more interesting aspects of the early cultural scene. But for the more vocal it is a political idiom that has to be established, so they continue to hold to these theories. Those that disagree are abused as ignoramuses, and we in turn merely switch off from their abuse. The difference in historical interpretation and areas of research as of now, from that of 50 years ago, is quite remarkable. Ancient history has become even more of an intellectually challenging subject—in the best sense.
TC: It is not just the religious right that is attacking the idea of India. There are also members of corporate India, such as Mohandas Pai, who are saying that, “We can support your education, but not your politics.” How do you see these attacks?
RT: How does one separate education, and higher education especially, from politics? Any study of the environment, of the constitution and democracy, of modern sociology, modern and contemporary history, economics, demography, hydrology, genetics—all these have a political edge and some are tied into politics in the broader sense, since that plays a role in how they are viewed and questioned in the course of study. There is some degree of politics in the understanding of knowledge that has to be recognised. Those who object to politics, object to only some kinds of politics and not to all. Then, there are political interventions at all levels in every institution. Administrative appointments in educational institutions, such as vice chancellors and registrars, are not devoid of political patronage. How is this intervention to be controlled? One way is to give the institution autonomy in making such appointments, but this no government is willing to do. And let’s face it: the corporate sector, in its own way, is just like the government, and would like to have pliant students, because the pliant student will then become a pliant member of the corporate sector.
It’s a question of whether we want thinking people who will question and critique our institutions in order to improve them, or do we want those who will go on perpetuating the institutions that exist and allow them to back-slide into virtual non-existence. I don’t see much contradiction between the government wishing to control universities and corporates wishing to do so. The private universities established by the corporates aren’t exactly islands of freethinking. It’s also a question of the mindset. There is a mindset that says we will support education, provided the politics that goes with it is also what we want. Is that what is meant by education without politics?
If there are going to be students who are, for example, active in saying you can’t start a mining industry in this area because it’s not feasible environmentally, then obviously those wanting to establish a mining industry there are going to object to that student and to the university that is producing such a student. This is then called politics, whereas in fact it comes from being educated to understand the different perspectives of the environment. This comes from an awareness of the world around us. Learning is not limited to using teachers’ notes and made-easy guides for passing exams. Learning means being able to look at the world with an intelligent understanding of what the world is about and how it works. This approach towards learning fosters the kind of student who will question all varieties of ideas—not just those of the corporates and those of religious enterprises, but others as well.
The question is asked about how much money is being spent on our students and what is the result. Could we please divide it up into categories of expenditure? What I mean by this is that the most expensive items in any university are the laboratories for teaching and research in the sciences, and libraries that are up-to-date with books and journals. The latter are more often than not neglected, but labs are taken more seriously. You cannot say that educating every student costs Rs 3 lakh each. You have to make a distinction between the language student, the social science student, the science student, the amount of money being spent on the books in different fields in the library, and the amount being spent on the laboratories for the science student. There’s a striking difference. Laboratories don’t come cheap. If you are trying to keep up with the sciences, you will have to spend an absolute fortune. Why don’t we compare it with what is being spent in the various advanced institutes of the sciences and technologies—the IITs [Indian Institutes of Technology] and the Institutes of Science. That would not be just Rs 3 lakh for every student but much more. This kind of arithmetic doesn’t make too much sense.
TC: How worried are you about what is happening?
RT: I am extremely worried. I’m extremely worried because I have not seen a situation with this potential for authorities and what we euphemistically call “fringe elements” to clamp down on, or terrorise, people and institutions. It is happening repeatedly and it worries me enormously. In the past, we have had the Emergency and it is mentioned fairly often these days. The present time is not like the Emergency but is seems to be carrying shades of that time. An academic from JNU was invited to give a talk at another University but was debarred from entering the University and the person who invited him was, I am told, suspended.. I went to give a talk in the premises of a college affiliated to Bombay University and had to have a police escort since the police feared that I might be physically attacked, as had happened to a speaker a few weeks before. People have been picked up by the police for making critical comments on Facebook about the actions of those governing us. Then, in the course of a teach-in at a University, a statement is made concerning the matter under discussion, and the next thing one knows is that the person who made the statement is declared to be anti-national and accused of sedition. People who express a critical opinion can be taken for questioning and accused of anti-nationalism and sedition, but some politicians and their associates, can make horrific hate-mongering statements about lesser communities or persons, with absolute impunity. There is the constant fear that all this will lead to the mind just closing. At the best of times the mind should not be closed but at this stage, for our society to develop a closed mind would be a disaster.
TC: The “F” word of fascism often comes into this discussion. Even the social science community is quite divided on this. You have on one hand, people such as Ashis Nandy, who once interviewed the current prime minister in his youth in the 1980s and called him a “classic, clinical case of a fascist.” On the other hand, historians such Ramachandra Guha would say that the BJP is clearly not a fascist party, because it doesn’t fit in the standard definition.
RT: Fascism does not arrive suddenly as fully-grown and ready to take over governance. There can be fascistic trends that either weaken or else become stronger. Let’s not forget that the initial organisers of the RSS were most impressed with the Italian fascists. BS Moonje [a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha] spent time with [Benito] Mussolini and the Italian fascists and the RSS was modeled on the Italian Facsist organisation. There must have been similarities of thinking among both.
What is called “history” is of course, central to their thinking as it is for all varieties of nationalism or near-nationalism. History for them consists of the glorification and success of Hindu culture in the ancient period, the victimisatiuon of the Hindu by the Muslim in the medieval period, and the hope of creating a Hindu rastra in modern times. The obsession with victimization persists even though those that propagate this version of history know that some of the finest developments in the Hindu religion took place precisely in this period and occasionally in association with people of other religions. Indoctrination is a method of teaching people to think in a confined way. The certainties that are projected when there is an easy answer for every question would appeal to a generation coming into adulthood, but unemployed and insecure.
In a sense, what has been happening in recent times could well develop into fascism unless it is controlled and a new way of envisioning the Indian future is worked out. I am extremely worried when I see the police pick up a student and put him in jail, despite his stating that he did not utter the anti-national slogans he is accused of having shouted, and the recorded evidence confirms this. It is frightening, and one’s doubts about the police being there to protect the citizen, increase.
To have the police stand by and watch students and teachers being beaten up by a group of lawyers in the premises of the law court is shocking. Neither of these actions create confidence either in the government’s control over those supposedly maintaining law and order, or in the custodians of law. It does create a sense of fear.
What also worries me is the systematic way in which attempts are made to dismantle institutions. Universities have come under attack and doubtless there will be more such incidents, and each time some people will again shout, “Shut it down.” There is now a discernable pattern that is becoming predictable. For those of us who are old enough to remember, anti-intellectualism carries whiffs of McCarthyism, and is not too distant from [the English novelist] George Orwell’s image of the future in his book entitled, 1984.
Among the major promises that were made two years ago was that there would be development of the economy that would provide jobs for many if not for all, and that the extensive corruption that prevails would be brought to an end. Neither of these has begun to happen on any effective scale. The resulting disillusionment may be difficult to stem.
TC: What do you think would be the end goal of this ideology? When would they be finally happy?
RT : I think their basic aim is to bring in a new constitution—enabling the establishment of a Hindu rashtra. If they can do that, then they will have gone far in their ambition.