The Indian government’s war on what it calls “anti-national” elements continues to assume ever more preposterous forms. Some recent incidents have crossed over from the tragic to the farcical — such as the case of Nafeesa Attari, the Muslim schoolteacher in the Indian state of Rajasthan who was forced to resign from her job for supporting the Pakistan cricket team in the last T20 tournament (apparently it was a family joke!).

This is not to say that India is the only culprit in the neighbourhood — Pakistan is dealing with myriad forms of hyper-nationalism as well, and has a sad history of intra-national racism, which was at least partially responsible for the secession of its eastern region in 1971.

Nevertheless, the manner in which secular India has, over the last decade or so, overturned the vision of its founding fathers is unprecedented. Dissent was always problematic in Pakistan, not least because of the repeated impositions of martial law, and/or the existence of civilian governments beholden to the powers-that-be. But India has a democratic tradition to be proud of — and this is something unique among developing nations. For a secular, democratic nation to own the hyper-nationalistic, borderline fascist notions that are currently in vogue there is truly incomprehensible.

Amongst the ‘truths’ being supported by the right-wing in India is that there existed a mythological golden age — definitely pre-colonial, but also largely pre-Muslim rule — where the Indian peninsula was a haven of peace and harmony under a benevolent social order defined in the Vedas, the collection of religious texts originating in ancient India. As per this view, dissent in India is an import of the West, or specifically of the colonial era. It was only after India came to be ruled by the British crown that dissent in various forms became an issue.

Romila Thapar masterfully exposes the Hindutva fallacies that dissent is a colonial import into the Subcontinent, and of a golden age before that of peace and social harmony

Even a casual reader of history or an amateur sociologist would be able to see through this argument. But its fallacies have been definitively exposed in Romila Thapar’s masterful recent book, Voices of Dissent: An Essay.

Thapar is one of India’s leading historians, specialising in the first millennium AD. She is also a prominent and vocal public intellectual, who has been especially critical of the communal slant in the way Indian history is being taught or referred to under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime. In this essay, she takes on Hindutva ideology and traces a history of dissent in the Indian Subcontinent from ancient times to the present day. As she puts it in the prologue: dissent in India has a “historical continuity although the forms have changed.”

Thapar’s essay revolves around three examples of dissent, ranging over time from ancient India to the 20th century. Her first example dates from the second millennium BC, or from Vedic times, when a dominant group, the Arya, became prominent mainly because of their use of a particular form of Sanskrit used in the Vedas.

However, numerous other groups are mentioned in the annals of the times, notably the Dasa, who have a complicated relationship with the Arya. In particular, it was not always true that the Arya were dominant and the Dasa subject to the former. In fact, there were instances of some sons of Dasis being elevated to the status of Brahmins.

There were many other groups distinguished by a variety of features, notably their use of different forms of Sanskrit, and their varied rituals. Thapar’s second example relates to the early centuries AD, when another prominent group, the Shramans — who included Buddhists and Jains — became prominent. Shramans were opposed to Vedic Brahmanism and sometimes clashed with the Arya. Society, in short, was as complex as it is now.

For Thapar, the origin of the Shramans is an example of the Other arising from within the dominant group — initially adherents to the traditional scripture, but then increasingly beginning to question the basis of the scripture, as well as the beliefs of those upholding the same.

Thapar’s third example relates to a situation where the Other is not self-declared, but Otherness is imposed on different groups. There are various bases on which groups morph into the Other — sometimes this Otherness is imposed on occupational groups, sometimes on those following another religion.

An interesting example is that of the adivasis, or forest dwellers, who are now considered amongst the Scheduled Tribes in India. These were fairly egalitarian communities up to the beginning of the first millennium AD, and were largely independent of wider society. Over the centuries, as agricultural land began to encroach on to forest areas, these communities were pushed further into remote forest lands and were targeted by agriculturists wanting to take over their land.

Through a series of complex social interactions over many centuries, they came to be seen as lower caste or subordinate, their main resource having been appropriated. Here, Otherness was imposed for economic reasons. There are examples of this in modern Pakistan as well, where cases of blasphemy accusation have been traced to attempts to take over property belonging to minority communities.

Thapar devotes a part of the essay to a discussion on satyagraha, or Gandhian non-violence, as a modern form of dissent, and speculates on whether the support for satyagraha was rooted in a long Indian tradition of dissent, notably the tradition of dissent through renunciation.

Voices of Dissent ends on a strong note, with an account of Thapar’s visit to the (mainly Muslim) women protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh in December 2019. Her thoughts on the nature of citizenship in a modern democracy, and the difference between democratic governance and governance uninterested in the concerns of the marginalised, are relevant to much of South Asia.

As long as dissent is not violent or destructive, it must, as per Thapar’s thesis, be heard and responded to by the state. To write it off as the result of foreign influence is disingenuous and patently wrong.g

The reviewer is a researcher and policy analyst

Voices of Dissent: An Essay
By Romila Thapar
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834310
150pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 30th, 2022

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