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It’s essential that right to dissent is not discarded in India

By Romila Thapar

On August 28, the Pune police raided the homes of five activists – academic and public intellectual Anand Teltumbde, lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, retired professor and poet Varavara Rao, human rights lawyer Arun Ferreira, activist Vernon Gonsalves, and human rights activist Gautam Navalakha. Describing them as “Urban Naxals”, the police confiscated their computers and mobile phones and took many of them into custody.

 

Historian Romila Thapar and others moved a petition in the Supreme Court days later asking for the immediate release of the activists. But it was dismissed in September and the activists who were hitherto under house arrest were taken into custody. In October, the court also rejected review petitions filed by Thapar and by Teltumbde.

On November 15, World Philosophy Day, to mark the release of an issue of Women Philosophers’ Journal titled Intellectuals, Philosophers, Women in India: Endangered Species at the Unesco headquarters in Paris, Thapar delivered a video message on the “Urban Naxal” and the freedom of speech and expression, and of the universities.
The full text of her speech and the video is reproduced below.

Let me try to explain the most recent term of abuse that is current in certain circles in India. Liberals and intellectuals are now labeled as “Urban Naxals”.

It goes back to the Naxalite movement of the late 1960s, which was organised by a break-off group of the Communist party and it worked among the peasants of Bengal. Peasants and tribals were mobilised. Those in the movement said that we disapprove of the current state and we would like to replace it with a better state that ensures social justice and the rights of citizens. The movement died down after a while in Bengal, and then came up again in a big way in Central India. It was essentially a village and tribal movement with some students who joined in. So, the term Urban Naxal for those that are urbanites is an oxymoron.

It started with when, quite suddenly, the police of the state of Maharashtra arrested five activists and said that they were indulging in terrorists’ activities of various kinds, were organising riots, and were associated with the Naxal underground in Central India which was part of terrorist and anti-state activities. The police cooked up a story about their plotting to assassinate the prime minister. A few of us petitioned the Supreme Court of India, arguing that the matter should be reconsidered because there was absolutely no evidence for these charges. Unfortunately our petition was set aside, and the activists are now in jail. They are lawyers, academics, writers, poets…people like you and me. And the frightening part of it is that we now have a situation where presumably the police can enter any of our homes any time and arrest us for activities that we know nothing about.

So there is an agitation. Some people are naturally very frightened by this development, and others want to publicly declare their opposition to it. It is a matter of great concern for liberals and intellectuals and particularly for those who are known to be opposed to the religious right-wing political ideologies that are prevalent today. The fault of these five activists is that they are people who consistently supported the cause of social justice and defended the rights of the lower castes, Dalits and people who generally get pushed aside. It was actually very commendable that there were people who were concerned with human rights and civil rights issues. And these are the people who are now being attacked as “Urban Naxals”.

The other, much more insidious change that is increasing, is the attack on educational institutions and more particularly their departments and faculty in the social sciences and the humanities. This is because of what is taught and the books that are written and read.

There is a demand that some of these books be banned or at least be taken off the reading lists. The demand is always from lesser known organisations, which claim to be religious but are, in fact, highly political. The claim is always that the books are “hurting the sentiments of a particular group of people”. Recently, there was a demand that the books of the Dalit author Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd be removed from the reading list of the Delhi University. The academic council [the university’s highest statutory body dealing with curriculum] agreed to do so although there was much resistance to it. His books were asked to be removed because it was said that they were anti-Hindu. Now, how can any one organisation claim that it represents the “entire” Hindu community, and that the “entire” Hindu community says that these books are not to be taught because they are anti-Hindu?

The attack on the social sciences is more systematic. The universities that are strong in social sciences, such as JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University], have been subjected to changes that have virtually destroyed the purpose and functioning of a high quality university such as it had been four years ago. Many recent appointments to faculty positions, made arbitrarily, are of academically substandard people, but such people can be more easily controlled by those that have the right ideological connections. If the quality of learning at university level is reduced to the lowest possible, then I fear that we are going to end up with a generation or two of virtually illiterate people.

The essence of university education is to teach students to ask questions, to enable them to question existing knowledge, and through this process of questioning, to advance knowledge. If you are going to deny that right and instead provide information in the form of predetermined questions and their answers, and that too on topics irrelevant to what is being studied, as is the absurdity of objective-type questions in literary and historical studies, then education becomes a mockery.

One may also ask why the discipline of history has become such a prime target. Those who oppose reasoned and logical analyses of the past are people who have been nurtured, on a particular view of Indian history that they use as a foundation to construct their ideology. Their argument is that history has to demonstrate the greatness of Hindu civilisation and it has to show that the Hindu has primacy in being described as Indian. They are not very happy with those historians who refer to incidents of Hindu intolerance and violence between groups in the past, because their theory has always been that Hindus were entirely tolerant and non-violent and it was the non-Hindus that were violent and intolerant.

The other thing that they are obsessed with is the belief that Hindu civilisation or Hindu culture has to be entirely indigenous, and that the people who created this civilisation have to be born and descended from people belonging to the territory that is called India, geographically ill-defined, and seen largely as British India. Recent DNA analyses which are proving, apart from anything else, that the population of India from the earliest Harappan times, was a mixed population – some locally born and some migrants from beyond the sub-continent – is causing great grief to such thinking.

Dissent from such views is also condemned and this is not in accordance with the early Indian tradition where dissent may not have been appreciated by the orthodox but was prevalent. When one looks at the earliest philosophical tradition and the history of philosophy through the centuries, one finds that the initial turning point was in the 5th century BC or so, in the middle of the first millennium, when two traditions evolved. There was on the one side the orthodox Vedic Brahmanical tradition that incidentally also included the somewhat questioning Upanishadic thought, not entirely in conformity with Vedic Brahmanism. And on the other side there was the anti-thesis as it were of what is called the Shramanic thinking, which included the Buddhists, the Jains, the Ajivikas, the Charvakas, all of whom were opposed to Vedic Brahmanism. Vedic Brahmanism referred to them as the “nastikas” or the non-believers and in turn opposed them. We have to concede that there was a strong tradition of dissent, conflicting with conventional Brahmanical thought although it is the latter that has been highlighted in histories of early India.

This questioning then led to further kinds of thinking and the development of various schools of Indian philosophical thought. The fear today of what might happen to the Indian social fabric arises from the tampering with the educational system, not only in terms of the kind of people who are appointed as faculty, but also the contents of education. The tampering with the textbooks of history that is going on right now, is startling. There are whole periods that are being quietly marginalised or misrepresented because they do not suit the ideology of those who are currently in power. This is a very serious matter. As far as we, the liberals, are concerned, it is absolutely essential that the right to dissent cannot be discarded.