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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2014 > December 2014 > Why The Right To Dissent Is Indispensable: Romila Thapar Speaks (...)

Why The Right To Dissent Is Indispensable: Romila Thapar Speaks Out

Monday 1 December 2014, by Praful Bidwai

When Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani famously said of the media during the Emergency that “when asked to bend, they crawled”, he received widespread praise from the intelligentsia and even from people opposed to the BJP’s ideology—because he spoke the truth about the loss of independence and professional integrity on the part of the Fourth Estate and other institutions.

Today, not just the media, but leaders from the fields of education, culture, healthcare and law, are crawling before the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh without even being asked to bend. They include University Grants Commission chairman Ved Prakash, Delhi University vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh, AIIMS director MC Misra, additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta, serving and former bureaucrats, and cardiac surgeons Naresh Trehan and KK Aggarwal, and dancer Sonal Mansingh.

These were among the 60 luminaries who met RSS sarasanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat over lunch in Delhi at the Punjab, Delhi and Haryana Chamber of Commerce and Industry on October 12 at the invitation of RSS Delhi prant chief. Although many of them said they attended the lunch “only to listen”, it’s amply clear from media reports that some were ingratiating themselves to the unelected head of an organisation which spawned the party in power—an act unworthy of their official positions or duties, as well as democratic propriety.

Curiously, there has been a thundering silence in the media and political parties on this—in contrast to the furore raised by the attendance of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research director-general RA Mashelkar at the RSS’s platinum jubilee celebrations at Agra in 2000.

This is happening when the RSS, BJP and their affiliates are trying to radically reorganise government programmes and have held two long, structured meetings with ministers. They demand changes in educational curricula along Hindutva lines, including purging textbooks of secularist “misrepresentations”. Parveen Sinclair, the upright director of the National Council for Educational Research and Training, has been forced to resign.

Delhi University’s Sanskrit department has begun a campaign demanding that history textbooks show that the Aryans were indigenous to India, and not migrants, as held by most historians—although these Sanskritists have no expertise in history, and although ancient Indian history covers much more than the “Vedic Age” and “Aryan Culture”.

Articles are appearing in the mainstream media celebrating a fiction called “Vedic mathematics”, based not on an ancient text, but a 1965 book by Bharati Krishna Tirtha, which fails to provide evidence that the sutras (formulas/algorithms) he cites are found in any of the Vedas. (For refutation of these claims by scientist CK Raju, see

Meanwhile, calls for banning and burning books that advance non-Hindutva (although not Marxist) views have become strident. Their proponents have been emboldened by Dinanath Batra’s successful intimidation of publishers to pulp scholarly books. Fanatics are rampaging through colleges, bookshops, theatres, art galleries and cinema-halls, baying for punishment to dissidents. Everything from political belief, cultural identity, and personal morality is being targeted in hysterical campaigns demanding conformity; dissenters are branded “un-Indian”.

Intolerance for the right to differ and dissent is now palpable in all regions and strata of Indian society. Worse, it’s now backed by the ruling party and state. This is not to exonerate other parties, including the Congress, caste-based regional outfits, or even the Left, which too don’t fully respect the right to dissent and practise censorship in varying degrees.

However, they are not as instinctively, viscerally, and viciously anti-dissent as the BJP/Sangh Parivar, which regards dissent as “betrayal”, and wants to put it down by the harshest means. This is in keeping with the profoundly undemocratic culture of the RSS, which long ago decided to dispense with the “cumbersome clap-trap of internal democracy” and opted for Ek-Chalak-Anuvartitva (unquestioningly following a single leader, or the Fuehrer Principle).

Yet, the right to differ, dissent, and express dissenting views is at the core not just of democracy—without which it would be impoverished to a majoritarian system, and even a despotic-authoritarian one—but of all knowledge production itself. Without the right to dissent, there can be no progress in the sciences, whether natural or social, and no generation of new knowledge and its dissemination in society through education, dialogue and public debate. Dissent is vital to a healthy public sphere.

This is one of the themes that Professor Romila Thapar, one of India’s greatest historians and internationally respected scholars, emphasised in her Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture on October 26 in Delhi. This was the third lecture in the series: the other two were delivered by economist-philosopher Amartya Sen and eminent British historian Eric J Hobsbawm.

The theme of questioning authority and received wisdom couldn’t have been more appropriate for the memorial lecture. Chakravartty was a doyen among India’s post-Independence journalists, who edited the weekly Mainstream. He had strong Left-wing convictions and was for long a member of the Communist Party of India. Yet, he sharply criticised the Emergency—which the CPI then backed—and paid a price, by having to shut down the publication temporarily.

Thapar’s lecture was a tour de force covering many epochs and continents. It was at once a rigorous, scholarly analysis of the evolution of critical intellectual traditions over more than 2,000 years, and a passionate appeal to reason, scepticism and the spirit of questioning authority while searching for the truth. This spirit is now under ferocious attack.

Thapar traced the relationship between dissidence and science from Socrates and Galileo in the West to the Buddha and Charvaka schools in India, and showed that certain principles and precepts, as well as methods of science, were common to all civilisations, from Athens and Arabia, to India and China. In our part of the world, we had the Buddha questioning theism and espousing agnosticism, and many materialist schools of thought which questioned karma, afterlife and the immortality of the atman (soul), and spurned various Vedic rituals, including animal sacrifice.

If Aryabhatta hadn’t opposed the royal astrologers of his time, he wouldn’t have been able to show —a thousand years before Galileo—that the earth goes around the Sun, not the other way around. The key to this lay in the primacy he gave to logic and rationality, as distinct from faith and religious dogma. The method was to postulate a hypothesis linking observed phenomena to their possible causes, and test it through experiments; the results would be tested against future observations and refined till a scientific theory or law was established that could predict future phenomena too.

Through her panoramic survey Professor Thapar showed the continuity of rational thinking and logical explanation across different countries and periods, which was invariably opposed by religious bigots. Buddhist ideas were described in Brahminical orthodoxy as “delusional”, and a whole range of different schools like Shramanas (Buddhists and Jains), Charvakas, Ajivikas, atheists, materialists and rationalists, were all lumped into “one category—nastikas”, because they questioned the Vedas as “divinely revealed” and rejected caste practices.

Thapar says this reminds her of “the Hindutvavadis of today for whom anyone and everyone who does not support them, are Marxists!”

Numerous streams of thought coexisted in ancient and medieval India. Some “questioned beliefs and practices upheld by religious authorities and by those who governed”. Among them were women, such as “Andal, Akka Mahadevi and Mira, flouting caste norms, who were listened to attentively by people at large…” Amir Khusrau is best known as a poet and composer, but he also studied astronomy; his sun-centric universe “distanced him from orthodox Islam”.

Later came modern liberal social reformers like Ram Mohun Roy, Phule, Shahu Maharaj, Periyar, Syed Ahmed Khan and Ambedkar. Indian society has been undergoing major changes, which need “insightful ways of understanding” so that social and economic conditions can be related to culture, politics and other phenomena. Public intellectuals, said Thapar, are needed to explore these connections and “to articulate the traditions of rational thought in our intellectual heritage.”

As Thapar reminded us, there are “many specialists in various professions, but many among them are unconcerned with the world beyond their own specialisation.” These professionals are not identical with public intellectuals. “There are many more academics for instance, than existed before. But it seems that most prefer not to confront authority even if it debars the path of free thought.”

Public intellectuals must take positions independent of those in power, must be autonomous and be seen as such, and question debatable ideas, irrespective of who propagates them. In addition to possessing an acknowledged professional status, the public intellectual must have a concern for “what constitute the rights of citizens” and particularly “issues of social justice”; and must be ready “to raise these matters as public policy”.

Thapar ended with an analysis of why public intellectuals are in decline in India and what they can do to become more assertive and effective. She didn’t speak a day too soon.

(A recording of her talk is available for non-commercial use at