Historian Romila Thapar asked a full house of Delhi’s intelligentsia on Sunday why changes in syllabi and objections to books were not being challenged.
Prof. Thapar was delivering the third Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture here on Sunday, titled ‘To Question or not to Question: That is the Question.”
“There are more academics in existence than ever before but most prefer not to confront authority even if it debars the path of free thinking. Is this because they wish to pursue knowledge undisturbed or because they are ready to discard knowledge, should authority require them to do so,” the eminent historian asked.
Tracing the lineage of the modern public intellectual to Shamanic philosophers of ancient India, Prof. Thapar said the non-Brahminical thinkers of ancient India were branded as Nastikas or non-believers. “I am reminded of the present day where if you don’t accept what Hindutva teaches, you’re all branded together as Marxists,” she added.
“Public intellectuals, playing a discernible role, are needed for such explorations as also to articulate the traditions of rational thought in our intellectual heritage. This is currently being systematically eroded,” she explained.
Prof. Thapar stressed that intellectuals were especially needed to speak out against the denial of civil rights and the events of genocide. “The combination of drawing upon wide professional respect, together with concern for society can sometimes establish the moral authority of a person and ensure public support.”
However she said academics and experts shied away from questioning the powers of the day.
Why no reaction? “This is evident from the ease with which books are banned and pulped or demands made that they be burned and syllabi changed under religious and political pressure or the intervention of the state. Why do such actions provoke so little reaction from academics, professionals and others among us who are interested in the outcome of these actions? The obvious answer is the fear of the instigators — who are persons with the backing of political authority,” Prof. Thapar said.
“When it comes to religious identities and their politics, we witness hate campaigns based on absurd fantasies about specific religions and we no longer confront them frontally. Such questioning means being critical of organisations and institutions that claim a religious intention but use their authority for non-religious purposes,” she said.
Prof. Thapar rued the fact that not only were public intellectuals missing from the front lines of defending liberal values, but also alleged a deliberate conspiracy to enforce what she termed a “Lowest Common Denominator” education.
“It is not that we are bereft of people who can think autonomously and ask relevant questions. But frequently where there should be voices, there is silence. Are we all being co-opted too easily by the comforts of conforming,” she asked.