The dissent of Shaheen Bagh was visible and non-violent: Romila Thapar

The historian traces the long history of dissent and questioning in India and their centrality in shaping civilisations

October 10, 2020 04:02 pm | Updated October 11, 2020 11:13 am IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

In her new book, Voices of Dissent: An Essay , eminent historian Romila Thapar explores the larger context of dissent, in various forms and at different times, in the Indian past, and relates it to the fractious present. She discusses here the necessity of questioning the world we live in. Excerpts:

How have dissent, disagreement and difference of opinion contributed to creating new idioms and building civilisations?

Let me explain it with an example: major dissent arose when various sects of Shramanas — Buddhists, Jainas, Ajivikas in particular — expressed disagreement with the premises of Vedic Brahmanism and questioned some of the theories it promoted. For instance, they questioned the belief in deity, the Vedas being divinely revealed, and the efficacy of the sacrificial ritual. Thus, a dichotomy came about between the believers and the non-believers. The Brahmanas referred to the Shramanas as nastikas — non-believers. I try to show in the book that these two became parallel streams of belief.

The major institution of the Shramanas — the monk-renouncer and the monastery — was new to society. Other religions were also inspired by the idea of establishing institutions that would enhance religion but also play a social role. How religions controlled societies through institutions becomes apparent through the history of viharas , temples, ashramas , khanqahs and gurdwaras, as well as through charting the patronage to each. These were both places of worship and institutions exercising social control.

A 16th-century CE Sanskrit text segregates the Shramanas and the Turushkas — a term used for Muslims — into a joint nastika category, and labels them mleccha . The recognition by those well-established in society of others who did not agree with them is an excellent example of dissent. New questions are asked, new institutions are founded and new forms of patronage emerge. The social process can encourage dissenting groups to become orthodoxies. Religion is not limited to a laudable body of texts; it also shapes society and is shaped by it, attracting dissent.

Can there be any advancement in knowledge without questioning the world we live in?

No. Disallowing questions is a way of destabilising society and dismantling institutions.

That dissent was an essential component of civilisation is evident from the histories of civilisations. They register a high point in philosophical thinking, new visible forms, new literature. This process draws on questioning what is known — accumulations from the past — and providing creative solutions.

It was earlier thought that civilisations advanced in isolation. Now we know to the contrary that cultures tend to be porous. The cutting edge of knowledge requires extensive interaction across civilisations. For example, in the late first millennium CE, there began an impressive exchange of knowledge among astronomers and mathematicians across Eurasia. This encouraged new questions with improved explanations, often leading to new technologies that introduced social change. The astrolabe for instance, was invented as a result of questioning, and it eased maritime navigation, which in turn impacted trade in Eurasia.

Should voices of non-violent dissent, like those of the women of Shaheen Bagh, be more audible? Why does it remind you of Gandhi?

Voices of dissent are more powerful if there is no accompanying violence, to prevent the dissent being dismissed along with the violence. Violence, whatever its source, breeds terror and escalates into uncontrollable disaster. Dissenters generally draw on moral authority rather than violence. When those representing the state lose their moral authority, they may resort to violence in trying to silence dissent. We faced it in the time of the Emergency. Many ask whether it is surfacing again.

I think of the 11 ‘activists’ accused of inciting riots in association with the Bhima-Koregaon meeting, nine of whom were jailed two years ago; a few more have joined them now. There has been no trial. There is no habeas corpus . They were not present at the site and gave no public speeches. They worked a long distance away in support of social justice where required. Yet, others known to make public speeches urging their audience to shoot dead the citizens of a particular religious identity remain untouched by the same upholders of authority. Discrimination breeds greater fear of authority.

You ask me why today I am reminded of Gandhi and his times and consequently of my youth. Fear of authority evokes earlier occasions. Gandhi and the other leaders had to dispel people’s fear of the British Raj. They provided an alternative way for people to assert their presence in the form of satyagraha. We used to attend the public meetings of anti-colonial nationalists. I still thrill to the slogans that resounded at these meetings — ‘ inquilab zindabad ’ and ‘ le ke rahenge azadi ’. Dissent had to have visibility, but had to be non-violent. The dissent of Shaheen Bagh was visible and non-violent.

How did colonialism impact religion?

The colonial formulation of Hinduism and Islam differs from the pre-modern. All except the Muslims and Christians were thrown together as Hindus. The history of Hinduism was constructed as a harmonious whole functioning as a uniform monolithic religion. That the experience of religion may have evolved differently in India, articulating a rich diversity of belief and commitment, and incorporating links between caste and sect, was given little attention. That the cultures of India had variant belief systems that were attuned to this diversity, and whose richness lay in how it was negotiated, accommodated or set aside, was not of central interest. Now this colonial reconstruction has taken deeper root with the attempt to reformulate Hinduism as Hindutva, an ideology that moulds the religion to suit a political agenda, namely to legitimise a Hindu Rashtra.

How have you not let uncertainties overwhelm you?

I have to keep reminding myself that there was a time when we were a society with a strong sense of ethics and a concern with the human condition — implicitly to make it better for every one of us. This comes through in remembered conversations since the last half-century, or even as recently as a few years ago. Dialogues on these matters ensured their primacy. We now live in a different world. The violence of the herd is at our fingertips, notions of justice are conditioned by expediency, the tentacles of corruption capture the law. In these uncertain times, I turn to the perspective of the long duration of the past to justify my faith in the future. We have a long lineage of persons who have argued that love should replace hatred and that compassion should disallow violence in all social behaviour. Today, these have become the voices of dissent. But whatever the future, may these voices continue to be heard.

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