India and the plurality of dissent


Is dissent not “Indian”? This apparently facetious question is indeed a sign of our times. A new anthology from the publisher Speaking Tiger, India Dissents: 3000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument, offers rich evidence from history, literature and current affairs to remind us of the many voices of doubt and contestation which make dissent in India. In his Introduction to the volume, poet Ashok Vajpeyi frames this varied legacy of argumentative viewpoints and narratives.



Bow to him who is the word
both occult and manifest,
his glory revealed by the power
of the independent mind.

—From Subhashitavali, an anthology of Sanskrit verse compiled in the fifteenth century by Vallabhadeva (translated by A.N.D. Haksar)

It can be reasonably argued that in India, from the beginning of its civilisational enterprise, nothing has remained singular for long; in fact, nothing has been, in a sense, allowed to be singular for long. Whether God or religion, philosophy or metaphysics, language or custom, cuisine or costume, every realm is marked by plurality. It is not accidental that in many Western languages the word India is plural—‘Indes’, meaning ‘Indias’.

It is impossible, therefore, to talk about the Indian tradition: there are multiple traditions, all authentically and robustly Indian. Even within a single major religion, Hinduism, there are four Vedas, millions of gods, eighteen Upanishads, six schools of classical philosophy, two epics (and numerous versions of both), four purusharthas or goals of life. It can be easily claimed that India as a country—and, equally, as a civilization—is an unending celebration of human plurality. This is how it has survived through millennia.

Central to the plural tradition, or sensibility, is the notion that there are many ways of looking at and living in the world. Plurality accommodates differences; and differences, in their turn, embody and enact dissent. When the Vedic seer ordains, ‘Aano Bhadrah Kratvo Yantu Vishwatah’ (Let noble thoughts come to us from all directions), what is being sanctified is the idea that there are many different ideas and truths spread all over the world and they are all welcome. Another Vedic saying, ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (The world is one family), embraces all humanity, and therefore every idea, emotion, lifestyle that exists. Such openness and acceptance, or, at the very least, accommodation, is the core of the Vedic cosmic vision. Through the millennia, many dilutions and distortions may have occurred in real life and practice, as would inevitably happen everywhere, but Indian tradition and civilization never lost this remarkable, largely inclusive vision.

Dr Amartya Sen has pointed out in his book The Argumentative Indian that the ‘Nasadiya Sukta’, the Hymn of Creation, a major verse in the Rig Veda, ends with radical doubt:

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the
creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has risen?
Whence this creation has risen—perhaps it formed itself, or
perhaps it did not—the one who looks down on it, in the highest
heaven, only he knows—or perhaps he does not know.

This is evidently the beginning of Indian scepticism. Nothing, not even the creation of the universe, or the supremacy and omniscience of God, is taken for granted. It may be noted that the hymn is also clear that the gods came after creation—they are, in that sense, no different from fish or trees or human beings. Into a major sukta of perhaps the oldest and one of the most important texts of Hinduism, then, the Vedic seers inserted a deeply metaphysical note of dissent.

A similar note was struck by a rishi named Kauntya, who declared that if what had been said in the Vedas could not be communicated in any other language or in any other way, the Vedas must be meaningless. This was pure blasphemy since the Vedas were held to be inviolable, ‘apourusheya’. But Yaska, an ancient grammarian and commentator on the Vedas, includes this view in Nirukta, his compilation of Vedic interpretations which became one of the central texts of Sanskrit scholarship.

In these and other passages from the earliest texts of Hinduism, there is ample evidence that the Indian traditions begin with enquiry, doubt and challenge—the hallmarks of plurality.

These traditions continued and grew with the other major religions that arose in India—Buddhism, Jainism and, later, Sikhism. Their founders, Buddha, Mahavir and Nanak, dissented from the ritualistic and caste rigidities of orthodox Hinduism to discover new paths of spirituality, metaphysics, social organization and liberation. Here was religious plurality being created through religious dissent. Buddhism and Jainism were particularly radical faiths; they were not posited on the notion and existence of God, and they rejected completely the scriptures of Hinduism and many of its foundational concepts like the eternal soul and the four goals of life. The rejection was forceful, fearless and rooted in intellectual inquiry and debate.

Buddha, the great challenger, was later included as one of the ten avatars of God—Dashavatar—in classical Hinduism, along with Rama and Krishna. Here, too, was proof of India’s irrepressible plurality and genius for accommodation!


There was also a strong and multi-layered tradition of disagreement and debate in the fields of thought, conduct, knowledge and morality in pre-modern India. Two aspects are easily noticeable. First, no one could propose a new concept or insight or theory without first faithfully summarizing the existing body of reflection on it. This was ‘poorvapaksha’, and only then could there be ‘uttarpaksha’—the thinker or debater proposing that which he or she claimed to be different or new, delineating it in meticulous detail. This was the standard intellectual practice.

Secondly, any new or different idea, theory or insight had to be publicly debated and accepted before being given a place in the scheme of things. The institution of shastrarth—philosophical contests—was well entrenched and there are many examples of this. The most celebrated instance is of the great thinker Shankaracharya having to engage in a shastrarth with Mandana Mishra and his wife Ubhaya Bharati over several days. There are many examples of such discussions and debates between Shaivites and Vaishnavites, Hindus and Buddhists, Buddhists and Jains; between different schools of philosophical and ethical thought; between agnostics and believers. The interrogative and dialogical ethos also finds place in literature, and the epic Mahabharata is full of such dialogues and debates. It is apt of Dr Amartya Sen to have called us ‘argumentative’ Indians: these age-old conventions of dissent, dialogue, debate and disagreement are ample evidence that India created a civilization which was marked by curiosity and quest, by questions and doubts, by accommodation and acceptance of contrary viewpoints.

It cannot be denied that India had a very restrictive, indefensible caste system and many elements of a feudal structure. But simultaneously it also had a republic of the imagination in which ideas and wisdom had a democratic remit. Almost everything, including God, gods, spiritual ideas and practices, metaphysical and philosophical concepts, notions of morality and political structures, has been brought into the realm of debate and interrogation. When in 1950 we declared ourselves a democracy it was, in many ways, a culmination of some age-old ideas of the democratic spirit.

Whether in traditions of creative expression or in the repertoire of intellectual articulation, in India dissent from faith or from the State has always not only been acknowledged but has also been allowed to grow. The vital condition of plurality has often been strengthened and expanded through dissent. For instance, when the tyranny of classical Sanskrit was questioned and subverted, the many modern Indian languages we speak today came into being. The vernacular did not demolish the classical, or even aspire to occupy the hallowed space of the classical; instead, it became a dissenting parallel. Every modern Indian language embodies and sustains a world-view that deviates from the classical world-view of Sanskrit. The presence of nearly a thousand versions of the Ramayana in India, ranging from Santhali and other tribal versions to retellings from the Jain point of view, is evidence that the dominant narrative and the world-view it enacted and expressed was creatively challenged and transformed. A Kannada Ramayana or a Hindi Ramcharitmanas deviate quite substantially from the original in Sanskrit by Valmiki, and all of them had validity.

It is also interesting to note that Buddhism and Jainism, born as religious and radical dissent, also got divided into different sects over time. The Mahayana and Hinayana sects in Buddhism and the Shwetamber and Digamber sects in Jainism can, arguably, be seen as dissent within an overriding structure of faith.

In Sanskrit drama, a lot of which has been preoccupied with the ironies of life and fate and the celebration of gods and regal heroes, there was, too, the irrepressible vidushak, the fool, the court jester, who not only provided comic relief but also sarcastic comments on kings, gods, fate and so on. He spared no one and his utterances were never censored or objected to. This tradition seems to have continued in more earthy and robust ways in folk theatre across the country. In many of these popular forms, watched night after night by thousands of faithful viewers, sometimes it is the narrator who assumes the role of the vidushak, just as he or she also enacts the hero or other heroic or divine characters.

The easy morality of the pious was also challenged—or ignored altogether. In the twelfth century, Jayadeva composed Geeta Govind, a bold erotic poem which depicts in vivid detail the love and lovemaking of Radha and Krishna. Apart from occupying a central place in the classical dance form Odissi, this masterpiece of the Bhakti movement is still sung daily in temples across India, from Kerala in the south to Manipur in the north-east.

The Bhakti period, beginning in the sixth century, saw a great and golden flowering of poetry and many other arts. While making God or gods accessible to all, without the negotiating instruments of priesthood, mosque, temple or holy books, this poetry democratized religions and spirituality. Most of the poets belonged to the lower classes (for instance, Kabir, a weaver; Madara Chennaiah and Ravidas, both cobblers; Soyarabai, a Mahar; Namdev, a tailor) and their poetry liberated devotion and poetic expression from the stranglehold of the Brahminical class. This poetry, widespread and popular till today, has been the most eloquent and passionate articulation of dissent, subversion and interrogation.

It may be recalled that during the freedom struggle, important political leaders recalled the work of Bhakti and Sufi poets to evoke a spirit of freedom and forge a unity of purpose amongst the masses. This was done most crucially and effectively by Mahatma Gandhi. In the prayer meetings of the Mahatma in Sewagram and elsewhere, the devotional poetry of all the major religions of India and the rest of the world was sung. These prayer meetings became a unique forum of political dissent vis-à-vis the colonial power. We may also recall that the Mahatma was shot dead while going to a prayer meeting by a Hindu religious fanatic a few months after Independence: a blinkered, exclusivist vision had announced itself through murder almost at the very moment of the birth of free India.

As we come to modern, independent India, there is no doubt that while many towering figures played a role in shaping it, the central figure was Mahatma Gandhi. In many ways, he epitomized radical dissent in the twentieth century. He articulated and practised the concepts of civil disobedience, satyagraha and non-cooperation. While all over the world empires have been demolished through armed revolution and wars, Gandhi, dissenting from them all, took to truth and non-violence. A deeply religious man, he also maintained that all religions were true but that all of them were also imperfect, thereby suggesting that they needed to learn from each other. He went to the extent of proclaiming that if it was proved that the Vedas supported untouchability in India, a form of racial and caste apartheid, he would reject the Vedas.

The fact that it was at Gandhi’s behest that the brilliant iconoclast B.R. Ambedkar, who often opposed him bitterly, was included by Nehru in his cabinet and assigned the job of drafting the Constitution of India is yet another instance of the Mahatma’s respect for dissenting voices.


In 1950 India chose to become a democratic republic and adopted a Constitution that guarantees every citizen, among other freedoms, the freedoms of life, faith and expression. This was entirely in keeping with the millennia-long Indian tradition of creativity, reflection and fearless articulation. The Constitution also prescribed that any infringement of these basic freedoms by the State or anybody else would be legally actionable and an independent judiciary would be charged with the task of protecting them. However, it has not been easy to ensure these freedoms, which are also organically related to the right to dissent. Unfortunately, the conduct of the State, our political parties and other institutions has been often hypocritical, even cynical. While they zealously guard their own right to protest, they all resent and endeavour to suppress dissent and interrogation among others, especially individuals.

In recent years these paradoxes have assumed violent and murderous dimensions. It began with the assassination of the Mahatma himself. Since then, self-styled ‘armies’ of upper-caste landlords have slaughtered the dispossessed who have dared to ask for what is rightfully theirs. The Naxalites have killed innocent civilians who did not follow or support their violent means. And in many parts of the country—Kashmir, West Bengal, Assam, Manipur, Bastar, to name a few—the State, insurgents and communally furious groups have taken to annihilating those who oppose them.

Democracy’s one glaring failure in India has been that it gives the elected representatives of the people unbridled power and sanction to crush or curtail the people’s right to question, differ and disagree with the government and official narratives. The Emergency, imposed by Indira Gandhi’s regime in the mid-1970s, was the first clear evidence of the danger that democracy reduced to mere numbers in Parliament could pose to liberty and human rights. The judiciary, which should have acted to check the excesses of a government that had turned dictatorial, also failed in its duty.

Forty years after that dark period in Independent India’s history, the spirit of democracy is being undermined and subverted again. A political party—the Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—that was elected with less than 32 per cent of the total votes polled, has been in power since the summer of 2014. In just over three years in office, it has either directly suppressed dissent, especially on the university campus, by terming it anti-national, or has kept quiet when Dalits and minorities have been attacked, often brutally, by social outfits affiliated to it. There are open attempts to punish dissent by raising the bogey of beef-eating, religious conversion, ‘love jihad’, national security or ‘hurt sentiments’.

All these actions are throwing India into social turmoil. If you disagree with or question the government, you are branded an enemy of the country. The distinction between the State and the nation is being blurred. A large majority of Indians—almost 68 per cent—did not vote for the BJP in the 2014 national elections. But that has not prevented the party from arrogating to itself the right to decide what Indian society should be, what we can hear, see, eat, wear, speak, read or think. The Narendra Modi regime appears to have convinced itself that it has the democratic right to crush all dissent, disagreement and opposition, even independent thought.

A lot of this is sought to be justified on the grounds that Indian traditions are being wrongly interpreted, and that there’s an urgent need to correct such distortions and prevent a civilisational collapse. In providing such a corrective, bypassing the rule of law is unavoidable, and violence is acceptable, even necessary. Also central to this enterprise is propaganda and distortion of history. A massive cultural amnesia is being spread through biased, unpardonably partisan cultural events, education and media. Majority Hindu communities are told repeatedly that they have been wronged, discriminated against and unjustly treated. Selective facts and figures and downright lies are being brazenly propagated by right-wing groups that have appropriated the right to speak for all

Hindus, and the current Indian State is either complicit or provides tacit support to these divisive forces by its silence and inaction.

When three courageous intellectuals, namely, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi, were killed for no ostensible reason except for the fact that they were rationalists and creative dissenters who questioned religious tradition, it brought the simmering intolerance against rationality, knowledge, reason and creativity into the open. The governments at the Centre and in the states reacted to these murders with callous disregard, and investigations into the killings were delayed for several months. Some of us writers, nearly fifty from various Indian languages, spontaneously decided to protest by returning our Sahitya Akademi awards and other state honours. A statement we issued in November 2015 summarized the situation and our concerns:

We are deeply disturbed at the growing trends of violence, intolerance, and undermining of the age-long plurality of faith, belief, values, viewpoints, etc.; the almost daily assault on amity and mutual trust. We believe that at this juncture of our democratic existence and growth, there is, unfortunately, increasing evidence of the emergence of an ethos of bans and disruptions, physical assault on and suppression of dissent and difference. We strongly hold that Indian tradition, Indian democratic polity and indeed its complex social structure have been sustained and nourished by an innate and deeply rooted sense of multiplicity, mutual respect and trust amongst communities and values of cooperation, social amity and harmony. We are witnessing a socio-political climate in which minorities, whether of faith, belief, opinion or ideas, are feeling threatened. We see that voices of dissent and difference are being increasingly subjected to unethical attacks, character assassination, mudslinging, etc. We also watch that some of the most important national institutions of culture and education are being meddled with, their stature and vision being systematically diluted and devalued. We are forced to conclude that the liberal space, both of thought and action, is fast shrinking. As members of the creative and reflective community of India we have decided to raise our voice in protest and in resistance.

We urge the people of India, our fellow-citizens, who are primarily and ultimately responsible for strengthening and sustaining both Indian democracy and Indian tradition, to pay heed and act in unison to ensure that the divisive forces do not succeed and that both democracy and tradition continue to deepen and nurture our plurality. We call upon the political parties, the Central Government and the State Governments that they actively discourage such trends [and refrain from] supporting or encouraging by deed or in action, by words or silence, institutions and groups which are undermining the cardinal republican values and which are working to spread an atmosphere of hatred, revenge, violence without fear of the law and in utter disregard of the constitutional spirit of India. We wish to remind them that they draw their legitimacy from the Constitution and, therefore, it is incumbent upon them not to bypass or subvert the basic principles and vision of the Indian Constitution. We wish to request our MPs that they should fully and responsibly use their right of free speech in the Parliament in public interest.

We appeal to our fellow writers, artists, intellectuals, academics, scientists and all thinking people across the country to be alive and alert to the threats and dangers that our pluralistic culture, creative and intellectual courage, dissent and difference are facing and offer the divisive forces moral, creative and intellectual resistance at all levels. We must not allow misinterpretations and vested misreading of our culture, our traditions, our religions and forms of spirituality, [and] of our intellectual, ethical and spiritual underpinnings, to go unchallenged and uncontested.

This protest was immediately joined by over 400 artists and art critics, more than 100 historians, social scientists and intellectuals and nearly 500 scientists and technocrats. The President of India, the then Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and a few prominent industrialists and film personalities also warned against growing intolerance. The protest had international resonance as well, and the International PEN passed a resolution condemning violence against the creative and reflective community in India. Even the then President of the USA, Barack Obama, at the end of his Indian visit pointed to the growing religious intolerance in India.

Indian literature in the last seven decades or so, since Independence, has been written, historically for the first time, in a democracy. Equally remarkable, though hardly noticed by political parties or modern sociology, is the fact that this literature has been largely anti-establishment. It has been, both eloquently and subtly, adversarial towards controlling regimes and narratives. It has questioned the country’s political setup and ideological muddle and the established norms of morality. It has lamented or raged against the continuing and growing injustices and inequities in our society. It has protested the tyranny of the market and big business, the shrinking conscience of the elite and middle classes, the imposing zeal of the global, the disappearance of the local and the displacement of the community by the market.

In a manner of speaking, some of the values that informed the freedom struggle, including constant questioning of the State, continue in post-Independence Indian literature. These values are also alive, and often centre stage, in the visual arts, theatre and other forms of creative expression. The nation-wide spread of these values must also be seen as an unbroken continuum of the vital, irrepressible millennia-old Indian tradition of difference, doubt, disagreement and resistance. Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, to name just three creative minds, spoke as Kabir or Akka Mahadevi did centuries earlier, or the anonymous sage-poets who composed the ‘Nasadiya Sukta’ of the Rig Veda. It is a comment on where we are as a society today that unlike the Rig Vedic poets, unlike Akka and Kabir, the three rationalists were killed for expressing themselves.
Despite the challenges and dangers that artists and thinkers have faced in recent times, Indian literature continues to celebrate and nurture plurality, dissent and difference, and remains open to new ideas and insights from all over the world. Three distinct movements can be mentioned in this context: Marxism, feminism and the Dalit movement. Each of these has been born in dissent from the dominant literary and cultural establishments and has brought within the geography of creative expression new experiences, new perceptions, new anxieties, new aesthetic strategies, thus enriching the spirit of plurality and democracy.

When Bheeshma, the sagacious elder in the Mahabharata, lying on a bed of arrows, close to death, was asked about raj dharma, or royal duty, he said that it was the duty of the king to respect the wise men who lived in his domain, not engage foolish and greedy persons in running the affairs of the state, and protect his subjects from all kinds of fears. In Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas, an epic which in north India enjoys the status of a scripture, Rama, after being coronated as the King of Ayodhya, beseeches the citizens to intercede without any fear if they ever feel that he is acting unethically. In the winter of 2015 and later, some of us tried to remind the powers that be of these wise insights contained in our glorious literary tradition. They responded by orchestrating a campaign against us, indulging in character assassination and accusing us of ‘manufactured politics’.

Commenting on the climate of intolerance, the Economic and Political Weekly wrote recently, ‘While Dabholkar, Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi’s murders (as well as the harassment meted out to others like them) are deplorable, what is even more despicable is the silence of large sections of the population and the continuing support of political interests to their tormentors. This lack of response is a clear indication that citizens feel they are not safe if they speak out against entrenched religious vested interests and that the State will not take their complaints seriously. A society that cannot tolerate dissenting views or keeps quiet in the face of a violent reaction to such views is staring at a cultural and intellectual abyss.’

Anticipating the difficult time that is upon us today, the great Hindi poet and literary and cultural commentator Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh wrote nearly half a century ago:

Litterateurs and poets
thinkers and artists and dancers
are all indifferent:
It is all a rumour,
they think.
They are all parasites
of the bloodsucking classes.
They are all impotent
and self-indulgent.
They are all
Superficial, unaware of the way
the oppressors run riot—
a fire here
a firing there.

But we can derive satisfaction and confidence from the fact that there are, in fact, writers, artists, intellectuals, teachers, students, and many nameless brave men and women who have refused to be silent. They have protested and continue to raise their voices against oppression, demagoguery and bigotry. They have stood by the glorious and unbroken tradition of plurality and dissent in India. This collection brings together some the best recorded examples of this tradition, in written and spoken words, over three millennia. It is by no means exhaustive. Readers will find many words here that they recognize, and many words that they have heard or read that aren’t here. Perhaps the latter will find their rightful place within the covers of this volume in future editions. May this volume grow; may the spirit and tradition of dissent in India grow ever larger.

Hopefully, many of us will continue the good fight—the fight, through creative and intellectual means, for the values of freedom, justice and equality enshrined both in our tradition and our Constitution. We owe it to the Indian heritage that we profess to be so proud of.

Also watch Ashok Vajpeyi on social resistance here and on artist Raza here.