A history of dissenting ideas

We live in times when any form of dissent in India is marked as anti-Indian, suggesting that the very concept of dissent has been imported into India from the West. It is an argument made by those who visualise the Indian past as free of blemishes, making dissent superfluous. But as Romila Thapar explores in Voices of Dissent: An Essay, dissent has a long history in the subcontinent, in forms that have evolved or changed through the centuries.

In a two-part conversation with Salim Yusufji, Thapar talks about the essay, the multiple strands of dissent, the Shaheen Bagh movement and more.

The following is the first of the two-part conversation.

Salim Yusufji (SY): Your choice of theme, tracing patterns of dissent in Indian history, is both heartening and counterintuitive. It would have been more conventional to investigate the roots of our present crisis. How did you decide on this very different course, a hope-instilling take on history? Did you deliberately reject the other option?

Romila Thapar (RT): I wouldn’t describe it as counterintuitive, not at all. On the contrary I was using examples to show that dissent is not something that we are inventing—or should I say ‘constructing’—in our times. This counter-narrative, or counter-culture that I had hinted at some decades ago, clarifies that the notion of an entirely harmonious past does not represent the past. I am not arguing that we should delve deeper into our past to solve our present troubles, but rather that we should ascertain the practice of questioning as it existed in the past. I am not saying that we should do as the past did but suggesting that understanding how dissent was articulated in the past may perhaps give us some insight into how it can be used in the present. I have tried to explain the success of the satyagraha of Gandhi by arguing along these lines. If we get an insight from this it may help us to better understand the present. Those of us who argued for asking such questions were dismissed as being ideologically prejudiced or imposing modern ideas on the past.

Understanding how dissent was articulated in the past may perhaps give us some insight into how it can be used in the present.

In modern Europe there was an awareness of the history of dissenting ideas presented in various debates.  It was therefore assumed that established ideas can and often do meet with dissent. This is commonly the case in many societies, India included. What we have come to call ‘the Indian heritage’ in its broadest terms, was during the last three centuries, being constructed, as was also much that was described as the Indian past. This was first enunciated by colonial perceptions of this past and then by nationalist opinion that tended to accept many—but not all—of the main colonial perceptions. Dissent as a procedure in philosophical thinking was noted, but there was doubt if not denial, in recognising its presence in religious and social thinking.  Nationalism further discouraged the suggestion that there might have been some conflicting strands in religious and social thought. Early India was projected preferably as a seamless harmonious whole endorsed by the entire society.

I first started writing about dissenting ideas in early India half a century ago. I was mainly interested in dissent as articulated by various groups of Shramanas, such as Buddhists, Jainas and Ajivikas and also by the Charvakas. I argued that renunciation (among other features) was a form of positing an alternate society or at least a society that had different ethical and religious ideals from those characterising Brahmanism, taken as the prevalent religion. One has to indicate the presence of dissent before one can examine the process of how it gained legitimacy.

Also read | Altering ideas of the Self

SY: You have charted the progress of dissent in multiple strands, and of a mainstream engagement with it that used varying tacks—appropriation, contest, damnation, much in between. Yet the way you characterise the mainstream in ancient India, the Self, is centred upon Sanskrit sources. Why not Prakrit Selves, with Sanskrit as the imposition, the Other? Right down to the modern period, expressions of conservatism and dissent in your telling are largely religious or framed by religious concepts. Why is it so?  

RT: My intention, as I have said in the book, was not to write a history of dissent in India or to discuss the entire range of dissenting views. That would take many volumes and require many authors. My concern was limited to indicating that there has been an expression of dissent in relation to various views taken as established, even in earlier times. It would help if we recognised this and understood it. I therefore chose just a few diverse examples, in fact the more obvious ones that reflect dissenting ideas but where these have not been sufficiently recognised. I was illustrating the point through these examples and placing them in a broader historical context.

When a religion is not limited to personal worship alone but also constructs institutions that seek to control society then dissent becomes more likely.

These were the more obvious forms of dissent but have not received the required attention. They lay in the interface between religion and society. They are significant because when a religion is not limited to personal worship alone but also constructs institutions that seek to control society then dissent becomes more likely, as happened in India. Such dissent may in part be questioning theology but more importantly it also links its questions to social concerns. Shramanism for example, was at one level a theological disagreement with Vedic Brahmanism, but it also raised questions relating to the social ethic of Brahmanism and to presenting another perspective on society. As I explain in the book, as long as it was a theological dispute the brahmanas objected to the shramanas as nastikas, non-believers. When the shramanas built institutions such as monasteries and intervened more directly in social functioning, the dissent took on other dimensions.

One of the themes that I emphasise in the book, is that Indian religion was misunderstood by colonial scholarship. I am not referring to the complaint that it should have been lauded for what is associated with most religions such as spirituality, tolerance, non-violence, and so on, but which need not necessarily be characteristic. I am referring to its close interface with social forms that provided it with a forceful social imprint, which appears to have been more affective than in other religions, and which was exercised in varied ways including the multiplicity of sects and their dialogue as well as their links with caste groups. This was overlooked in colonial formulations of what was described as Hinduism. The religion was presented as yet another unitary, monolithic, belief system. However, it was not another version of the Abrahamic religions. It had diverse intentions and ways of functioning that need investigation.

Among these was the interface of religion and social functioning where the particular characteristics of each were significant. The obvious example is the weaving together of caste and religious belief and practice. This is present interestingly in almost all the religions practiced in India, even if it is absent in the practice of those established elsewhere in the world such as Islam and Christianity. In giving attention to dissent in a religious idiom I was not using religion as an isolated entity in itself, but as an idiom of many aspects of Indian society, as I have explained in the book.

Dissent does not depend only on the people at the forefront of questioning the world they live in.

In more recent times my interest surfaced from observing the form of dissent in the Indian anti-colonial movement, and in particular of Non-Cooperation, and of Civil Disobedience, incorporating the need to protest in a non-violent manner by affecting the functioning of governance and by focusing on the centrality of freedom. I was therefore interested in earlier forms of dissent and enquiring whether this form had antecedents. This stemmed from Gandhi using satyagraha. Much intellectually evocative and sensitive writing has described the sources that influenced his thought and how he put his ideas together. But that was not my central concern. I was asking another question: namely, why was there was such an immense and spontaneous response to the idea of satyagraha as encapsulating protest. Dissent does not depend only on the people at the forefront of questioning the world they live in. It also requires a response from those who support the questioning and this draws on the form of dissent that is being advocated. So part of my attempt was to examine the components of non-cooperation and see whether they are present in earlier times and who were the people that supported them. That is discussed in the last third of the book.

On the question of the language of the sources that I have referred to, the first example of the dasi-putra brahmanas uses Sanskrit sources.  The second example of the Shramanas as dissenting groups is as I have said based on the Pali texts from the Buddhist tradition and the Prakrit texts of the Jainas. In my third example the compositions I refer to are largely in earlier forms of modern Indian languages, such as Braj. In the extensive use of vernacular languages from the fifteenth century onwards, the role of the Persian language and its texts is more complicated.

It would be difficult to locate a period of history when Prakrit was the language of the Self and Sanskrit the language of the Other, for obvious reasons. In the first millennium AD Buddhists and Jainas also wrote in Sanskrit, in part responding to  philosophical debate.  The Prakrit or even Pali tradition was not consistently against the Sanskrit Self as it had the Self within its own traditions to contend with, as I have mentioned. It does not help if we ascribe languages to the status of the Self or the Other, as obviously the status of languages and their use depends on many factors such as, what is being written in the languages, who do the authors represent, who are the audiences, and what is the social and historical context of the subjects at issue.

SY: Part of the weirdness of our time is not an absence of dissent but almost an embarrassment of it. What would you say to the view that the prospects of social consensus, of society as a functioning unit, are under threat—rather than dissent?

RT: If you are suggesting that dissent is becoming fashionable then perhaps it has to be defined once again in the contemporary context and brought centre-stage. That would be another story.  If society as a functioning unit is under threat then those that recognize the threat and object to it are dissenting, and they are disagreeing with the action of those who are doing the threatening.

What we fought for in our struggle for independence is currently under threat.

If you are stating that there is an embarrassment attached to the practice of dissent and that this is then used as a weapon against dissent causing more embarrassment, etc. etc., this cannot be taken as a bare statement and has to be further investigated. How do we know this? Is it based on news that, given our present technology can be authentic or fake? Is it representing the truth of the one masquerading as a dissenter?  Needless to say such questions were also asked in past times as indeed they are asked whenever claims are made to representing the truth.

Let me add that I have empathy for the idea that what we fought for in our struggle for independence is currently under threat. We have therefore to be clear as to what it is that we are dissenting from and why. For me what is encouraging is the knowledge that there is an evolving and intuitive practice of dissent that has had a visible presence in our history and we can derive courage and strength from this presence. This gives me hope.