The sign reads beware of the dog, but none materialises. Romila Thapar is surrounded by books in her study, where is she ensconced in them—from literature, to music, to art history, even fiction. She reads fiction at night, “so I can have good dreams,’’ she smiles. The grand old lady of Indian history—witty, eloquent, wise and elegant—has found herself in BJP times, on the wrong side of it; always. The 'right' side doesn’t permit argument or reason. Her scholarship is dismissed, and she is anti-Hindu. The hate campaign is relentless, petty and vicious. She declined the Padma award in 2005; she doesn’t accept an award from the state. Her latest book The Indian Public Intellectual in India, based on the history of the public intellectual in India, urges people to come out and speak.
Nayantara Sahgal said this is the darkest hour since the Emergency.
Yes, because I think the current activities and the potential damage that will be done by such activities are far greater than what we have previously experienced. One does not know how far this intolerance and violence is going to be taken. It is essentially political, and we know that such moves can go to what some see as their logical extreme, thereby terminating what we regard as civilised values. As has been said by some others, the essential religious plurality of India, that marked it out from other religions, is really what is at stake.
You talk about not wanting to set off alarm bells earlier. Do you really think we are as secular as we believe or is this an idealist view of us in India?
I think we should have been much more alarmist at that point because that was a crucial period in the making of the Indian state. In 1960s and 70s, we were discussing economic growth and ways of ending caste discrimination so as to emerge as a strong nation. That was the point at which we should have improved our attempt to establish, as firmly as it was then possible, a secular democracy.
Secularism and modern democracy are inter-dependent. By secularism I do not mean negation of religion, but negation of the control over social activities and politics by religious organisations or other groups that claim to be concerned only with religion and culture, but are actually political in nature.
Plurality in religion also needs to be defined. It means giving people enough space to debate their acceptance, rejection or adjustment to the ideas that are propagated by various others. What we don’t recognize is the fact that in the past, which we keep referring to all the time, there was a healthy tradition of questioning orthodoxy and conservatism, and debating ideas and actions, whether it was in philosophy, religion or cultural forms.
Why has history as a subject in universities only been about colonial struggle? Why hasn’t it moved beyond academia to the general public?
Over the last two centuries, we have been brought up believing that the only correct version of the past we can know is the colonial one. Although, anti-colonial nationalist opinion made some changes to it, but the ideologies of religious nationalism reverted to the colonial version.
History is treated as the story of the past so everyone adds a story of their liking to it. But this is the nineteenth-century view of history. Today, it is considered social science with methods and procedures of investigation. The telling of stories from the past is no longer the definition of history. Most people in India still write history as if they are telling a story. So those with a strong ideology tell the story in a particular way so as to support the Hindutva version of history, moving towards establishing a Hindu rashtra. Historians so far are free to contest this as many do.
Secularism has not become part of the idea of democracy. What do you think will happen?
When this government came to power, the talk was all about ‘development’, without much clarity on what it actually meant. Then activity of another kind started. What we euphemistically call the ‘fringe groups’ when we should be calling them terrorist groups slowly moved upfront. This under-belly, but no longer so, is now calling the shots–literally and metaphorically..... Is it enough for them to make a general appeal for Hindu-Muslim unity? Shouldn’t there be severe punishment for those that create fear and terror and those that abet them in doing so, irrespective of whether they are party members or are those that are meant to be protecting the citizen?
One is apprehensive about an increase in terror—breaking into cellphones and computers, taking action against those making remarks in private conversations, banning books, food, clothing and assassinating those that think differently.
Why hasn’t there been a strong civil society movement opposing this till now?
Until now, there has been a wish-fulfilling kind of belief that somehow democracy will automatically grow from strength to strength. However, in reality the communal situation is becoming more and more nasty in everyday life. Social discrimination continues despite attempts to negate it. One is therefore anxious to know whether a civil society will emerge strong enough to effectively question all that is happening.
Do you think it is important for academics to come out and speak?
I think it is becoming imperative for academics and intellectuals to speak out. The government may ignore us as some governments in the past have done....Nevertheless, we are addressing others as well, and these are citizens like ourselves.... I don’t think we can have a secular democracy unless people demand it. The demand does not take shape merely by repeating platitudes about every religion respecting tolerance and nonviolence. We have to treat communal incidents as illegal and punishable acts. Those who are formally supposed to protect citizens and ensure their rights have to be taught to do so and not merely be subservient to whoever is in power.
Do you think Hindus should reclaim the space that is being taken over?
Yes, I think all religious spaces should be taken back from terrorists. But, this is not easy to do, given the terror and killing by religious extremists. When such groups become barbarians, people prefer not to oppose them out of fear. This only strengthens them. When terrorists become a presence, it is essential in every religion for the other civilized followers of those religions to defend their religion, and to publicly refuse to endorse terrorist tactics. Extremists claim to be speaking for the entire religious community, and if this is not challenged then this makes the entire community responsible for acts of terrorism. Is that what the community wants? The religious community must be clear as to what glorifies the religion and what sullies it.
Many people may not understand what terror is about. What, for example, does the ban on eating beef mean? The ban has a political effect as well as economic there are people who live off herding cattle and exporting meat, quite apart from its symbolic meaning to upper caste Hindus. We cannot just focus on one aspect and not consider the rest.
These are the critical questions faced by all religions today. Followers of these religions have to declare whether or not they wish to defend terrorism as a legitimate part of their religious activities. Terrorism can be instigated over the banning of beef as also over the issuing of fatwahs, as we know from experience.
It isn’t easy to argue with people who won’t allow debate.
It is very difficult precisely because one feels one is arguing with a wall, with someone whose ideology has no space for other ways of thinking, even marginally.…. One’s appeal, therefore, is to others who may hopefully be listening. One is addressing people who are being exposed to threats and terror as well, although not as much as to those who dare to question the ideology. This is where the participation of public intellectuals becomes imperative.
Do you think this is a war?
It is rather beginning to take on the dimensions of a war....
It must be difficult.
There are moments when I wonder which way it will go, as when I fear that it will get much worse before it comes to an end. And as many of us have said, that when institutions no longer function as intended, when people are assassinated and lynched for no good reason, it takes a long, long time to rebuild confidence in institutions and fellow citizens. Sometimes, I wonder whether I will have to go on fighting for the prevalence of reason until I die.