‘Our society now openly displays its prejudices’

In an interview following the release of her latest book, historian Romila Thapar speaks of rediscovering the intellectual voice.

Updated - March 24, 2016 09:18 pm IST

Published - October 23, 2015 12:03 am IST

“What frightens me the most is the thought of what will happen to the generation growing up. A government can effectively dismantle an institution in a rush to assert power, but putting such an institution back in place to perform its legitimate function, is a long haul. It takes a generation at least. The habit of independent thinking and questioning disappears. For example, the moment I make even a brief critical comment about the ancient past, immediately abusive emails start pouring in from the expected quarters. The right to discuss and dissent is objected to. Writers are being threatened with violence. We are now a society that openly displays its prejudices. Until recently, the extent of these prejudices was kept relatively hidden but now they are visible. These are prejudices that we will have to counter if we want a reasonably safe society that accommodates the freedom to speak.”

Historian Romila Thapar expressed her dismay and shock at the murder of Kannada writer and scholar M. M. Kalburgi and the lynching incidents in Dadri, Hamirpur and Himachal Pradesh. She was speaking following the release of her new book, “The Public Intellectual in India” where she talks of the role of public intellectuals in giving an alternative voice to the nation.

The Public Intellectual could not have been timed better…

We planned the book a year ago. It was certainly not planned for these times. But it has come to have a particular resonance at this time with all the recent outrageous events.

Prominent authors have either returned their Sahitya Akademi awards or dissociated themselves from the Akademi. This protest follows a period when some intellectuals were happy to play courtier to Narendra Modi.

This rediscovery of the voice should continue irrespective of which party is in power or who is the Prime Minister. Intellectuals have a role to play that goes beyond political parties, in or out of power. In the past also, many intellectuals have raised their voice. Today, we could be helped by the rise and spread of mass media. It could become an effective agency of public debate. Although it is not that as yet, nevertheless it has in recent weeks shown that it has the potential to be so.

The same mass media insists on calling some of the affiliated members of the RSS as mere fringe groups...

You can no longer call them fringe groups. Their activities are front page news and are motivated by a political ideology. They use the violence of terrorist groups. There are degrees of terrorism, from threats to actual physical harm that finally ends up in the killing of people. Where there is the deliberate creation of fear and its taking a violent form such as assassination and lynching, it has to be called terrorism. There is no other word for it. We are now a country that has to contend with terrorists claiming loyalty to Islam, terrorists claiming to defend Hindu values and sentiments, terrorists claiming to defend caste status by burning Dalits, and Maoists claiming to give a better quality of life to tribals. Shiv Sena has a segment that has a terrorist potential. A political party has to be careful that it does not become a party conducive to terrorism.

Isn’t it time for the BJP to introspect?

Yes, very much so. They should assess the behaviour and utterances of some of the members of the Sangh Parivar — not just in present times but over many years. It is inexcusable for a ruling party to be associated with groups that are characterised by acts of killing.

Even as we tackle the onslaughts on freedom of speech and even dietary habits, we discover that there have been attacks too on the way our history has been written. Now, attempts are being made to pass off mythology as history. Is history in danger?

History has, of course, been an item of confrontation with purveyors of non-history for some decades now. Attempts have been made to pass off fantasy as history. There is a deeper problem here. I keep quoting Eric Hobsbawm, who put it so succinctly when he wrote that history is to nationalism what the poppy is to an opium addict.

National identity is constructed in part by drawing on the interpretation of history. Historians in Pakistan, for instance, had to find a point of origin from where their history began. They had to go back before 1947. So would it be the coming of Mohammed bin Qasim, or should it the Harappan civilization? Then there were Buddhist and Hindu roots to be somehow integrated. In the 19th century, the British told us that the history of India was determined by the religion of the rulers. Thus, we had a Hindu period and nation, and a Muslim period and nation, and the two nations were said to be constantly in conflict. That was the 19th century colonial interpretation.

This was eagerly picked up by the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha. History was drawn upon in the creation of Pakistan and the same is being done to support the creation of a Hindu Rashtra. This concept draws from colonial historiography but may also be seen as part of the unfinished business of Partition. So those who oppose the two-nation theory are said to be distorting history.

The 60s were landmark years for the growth of history as a discipline, as it moved away from Indology…

For historians, the interpretation of history no longer drew on the colonial construct. But for religious nationalists, history remains the colonial reading of the 19th century.

But there has been criticism of the writers returning their awards. While some question the motive and the timing of the decision, others argue that the awards are given by the state and not the government.

I don’t see a major distinction between the state and government since the institutions giving the awards are, in effect, controlled by the government. They are not autonomous and are not managed in entirety by the professionals concerned. I see no point in criticising intellectuals for speaking out now, and not in, say, 2002 or 1992 or 1984. Visible protest does not have to be a constant way of life. Protests take various forms, as one has to find different ways of making oneself heard at different times. Yes, there have been challenges to freedom of speech and expression earlier too, but now there is a difference. There is an attack on freedom of expression, it is part of a bigger movement in support of a communalism that incorporates violence, and the ideology it supports is such that it could destroy democracy. One expects people in positions of authority to be much more responsible in their reaction to those who ignore the law and kill innocent people. In the absence of such a response, protests have to take place. These are independent voices concerned about the future of democracy, social justice and the rights of the Indian citizen.

The same level of opposition has not been seen when it comes to attacks on Dalits in recent times…

The media has not fully recognised that brutality against Dalits is as obnoxious as brutality against minorities, whether religious minorities or free-thinking people. Within society, there is an acceptance of social hierarchy and the crimes against Dalits do not get registered so quickly.

Could the intellectuals have voiced themselves earlier?

When the UPA took over in 2004, quite a few of us wrote extensively in the press and to government bodies that all cultural and academic institutions which are government financed and controlled should be made autonomous institutions, run by professionals, as is the case in most countries. But there was no response to the idea. The awards one is talking of today may have been processed through a peer group, but essentially they are government awards. Ministers and bureaucrats have a big say in selections. You may argue that they are state awards but you look at the list of awardees, you can generally guess which party is in power!


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