Increasingly of late, Prof Romila Thapar is required to assume the nearly impossible role of Emperor Akbar, who, according to the official plaque at his tomb near Agra, had “created a nation out of a mob”. To her credit (and sorrow), the ageless historian stands firm among a handful of public intellectuals left in India who have refused to be pulverised by the rise of right-wing Hindutva mobs.
Indeed, the more the lumpen hordes seek to turn what remains of Nehruvian India into a veritable mob, running amok at academic institutions, in art galleries, bookstores, movie halls, and other assorted areas of public discourse, the more worriedly Prof Thapar’s liberal devotees seek her out for help.
The state-backed hordes pose a clear challenge to India’s hard-won democratic spaces. What can an erudite historian do to check the slide? On the other hand, with the entire political opposition swamped by its ceaseless failures to thwart Hindutva, does she have a choice but to yield? Prof Thapar’s mantra to tame the threat, I noticed at her lecture on Sunday, primarily if not exclusively lies in invoking India’s questioning spirit, which she fears may have sadly gone adrift.
“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,” she lamented to a packed hall of listeners at the third Nikhil Chakravartty memorial lecture. “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 previous two lectures in honour of one of India’s most respected journalists were addressed by professors Eric Hobsbawm and Amartya Sen.)
The state-backed hordes pose a clear challenge to India’s hard-won democratic spaces.
To put it in a nutshell, Prof Thapar’s strategy to face the grim challenge derives its force of logic from her large canvas of historical evidence. Around the fifth century before Christ, when Socrates was made to drink poison for harbouring what seemed to be a subversive rejection of deities and tenets of justice of his time, in India, another man, separated by a forbidding physical distance from the Athenian thinker, was questioning the dominant Brahminical axioms. He was Buddha.
A sacrificial contest sponsored by Prajapati, the Lord of Life, formed what Prof Romila Thapar has described in her book on early Indian history as the “charter myth” of Vedic ritualism. Buddha discarded the Brahminical narrative and offered his own notion of early society. It was a pristine utopia in the beginning, which he said was eroded with the rise of the family from within the human cluster and a consequent quest for ownership of land and resources. Buddha had preceded Marx and Engels by more than 2,000 years though his concept of utopia matches their notion of ancient communism.
Centuries before Galileo or Copernicus challenged the Biblical orthodoxy in Europe, with their evidence of our heliocentric universe, to which mortal earthlings were perpetually and inevitably bound, Indian mathematician Aryabhata had upset royal astrologers at home by positing his own startling conclusions on the matter. It was the earth that went around the sun, not the other way, he said.
The tradition of questioning a dominant authority, be it religion or the state, continued with Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau and others. However, the notion of the public intellectual as opposed to philosophers emerged in the 19th century and was linked to what came to be called the Dreyfus affair.
A Jewish captain in the French army was wrongly imprisoned, charged with leaking secrets to Germans. Those opposing the action argued that the general staff of the army, in league with the politicians, had unjustly punished Dreyfus. This accusation written by Émile Zola carried the support of writers, artists and activists. All of them jointly came to be called intellectuals.
The meaning of the intellectual, according to the professor, crystallised along the notion that such a person need not be a scholar but had to be someone who had a recognised professional stature and who sought explanations from those in authority even if such actions involved critiquing the authority.
Indian Marxists had the questioning spirit in their quiver but apparently failed to put it to use when needed. “Doubt everything,” Karl Marx had exulted when an American journalist asked the communist guru to state his life’s motto. In a way, Prof Thapar has followed the dictum scrupulously, by shunning Mar¬xism as a dogma while not altogether discarding the useful tools of scientific analysis it spawned, primarily to study history, chiefly ancient Indian history.
The modern public intellectual was akin to the non-Brahminical thinkers of ancient India, who 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.”
Even as the history lesson was on my mind drifted briefly to Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, in which the two tramps, for want of something better to do, start abusing each other. You moron, vermin, cretin — the crescendo comes with one of them finally hurling the ultimate abuse at the other: you critic!
If Marxists are today’s bad boys, it was the Charvaka ideologues of ancient India who annoyed the Brahminical order. The quasi-philosophical Indian school of materialists rejected the notion of an afterworld, karma, the authority of the sacred scriptures, the Vedas, and the immortality of the self.
That questioning Indian spirit has gone perceptibly limp today. Prof Thapar wonders why academics and experts shy away from questioning the powers of the day. “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 wants to know.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2014