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Romila Thapar-Interview

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“When BJP is in power, strength is given to the RSS interpretation of history”


Since the BJP came to power in 2014, several issues like attack on minorities, communal violence, love jehad, re-engineering of public institutions, caste atrocities and attacks on public intellectuals by the brigade of hardline fringe Hindutva forces have occupied public debate.

After protests by writers, artists, scientists and filmmakers, several historians have expressed concern about the “highly vitiated” atmosphere prevailing in the country. All this in the space of a month.

Historians maintain that the current trend is particularly worrying. “What the regime seems to want is a kind of legislated history, a manufactured image of the past, glorifying certain aspects of it and denigrating others.” India’s foremost historian ROMILA THAPAR, who has recently come up with her latest work, The Public Intellectual in India, talks to MURALI KRISHNAN about the outburst against intolerance and what this means for India.

It seems as if the government is not doing enough to rein in these elements that seem to have run amok. Is the menace of cultural intolerance growing?
There has been a concern over some years now about the kinds of threats that various fringe groups have been making to people who make rational and sensible statements about the way society should go. Some of us have been protesting all over lives over various things which we regarded as “illiberal”.

There has been an increasing sense in the last two years that the space for liberal discussion in the country is getting narrowed. This has become very acute in the last one year, as there has been incident after incident, of threats, assassinations, lynching, of banning of books or suggestions for burning books. In a sense what we have experienced is what people called the tipping point—that it just accumulated upto a point where suddenly people could not hold back anymore.

The government does not seem to be bothered by the attacks on the intelligentsia or their protests. They are calling it a “manufactured rebellion”.
That is a rather confused expression. Why do I say this? Manufacture is something which you make with your hands. It’s solid, it is tangible. There is nothing ethereal about it. It is absolu-tely there. A protest which is spontaneous and comes from every part of the country and virtually every profession cannot be manufactured.
It has ignited people’s feelings.

Also, to call it a rebellion is very absurd because a rebellion is essentially against the state. You want to change the state. We are protesting, we don’t want to change the state. We are protesting against the conditions of society which have come about because of a weakness of governance. We appealed to the president to do something to salvage the situation and make Indian society again without fear, violence and civilized.

Do you see a pattern to these attacks? Is there an orchestrated move on the part of the government to allow these elements to have a free reign?
I don’t know, I can’t speak for the government. I do argue that from the kind of election results of 2014, it’s clear to bodies like the RSS (BJP’s ideological mentor) and the Sangh Parivar that it is now or never! They are not going to have this great opportunity soon again. So they are going to make the most of it, doubtless.

Now, if they are going to make the most of it, they will convert a population of people, who would otherwise have to be critical thinkers, into followers of one ideology. History has seen this in other parts of the world. And the analogy that I can think of is the Cultural Revolution in China. It was exactly the same. The ideology was handed out and you had to conform to it. There were dissidents but they were quiet and silent. Twenty years later, when the Cultural Revolution was overthrown, it took about a generation for people to return to thinking in a free, liberal way. And my fear is that is precisely going to happen if there is success in imposing a single ideology.

Do you see civil society convulse further and more protests breaking out if freedoms are curtailed?
I think it depends on what activities these fringe groups indulge in. If their activities continue to be what they are
at the moment and we have these weekly dramas of what is going on, then I think there will be greater protests. People will get increasingly fed up. They will think that here is a government that we have voted for and which we support and there was this great promise of development. And everyone is waiting for that development. If that development does not take place and is replaced by repeated incidents of a very uncivil kind, there will be people who will get up and say, where is the governance?

How do you view the rewriting of history and the “cleansing” of institutions with the so called “cultural pollution”?
As a historian I have led two lives. One is writing reasonable, rational and sensible history based on facts and evidence and arguments that are logical. And the other is fighting against these elements who keep on saying the most absurd things about Indian history and this specifically applies to ancient Indian history. When you have people believing that we had airplanes in 3000 BC and plastic surgery and stem cell therapy… you have to say somewhere it does not work like that. There is a problem here. We have been fighting this battle over history ever since I started teaching in the 60s’ and it has been an ongoing battle.

MUMBAI, APR 9 (UNI):-    Shiv Sena workers protest outside of Celebrity writer Shobhaa De recident for her criticism against Maharashtra government’s move of making screening of Maratha films mandatory for multiplexes during prime time,  in Mumbai on Thursday. UNI PHOTO-90U

When the BJP comes to power, strength is given to the RSS interpretation of history and when it is voted out, we come back to a normal historical procedure. But this does not stop the RSS and its followers from abusing us in the most venomous and horrible terms. But we have accepted this abuse, set it aside and gone on to write history that is viable.

You make a case for cultural and academic institutions which are government financed and controlled to be made autonomous institutions run by professionals, as is the case in most countries. Why?
This has been going on for a long time. Many of us have felt that ever since these councils, academies and institutions were set up there was just too much governmental interference in what is the research being done and what are the theories being produced. And so in 2004, when the Congress party came back to power, a whole group of us got together and agitated very strongly, saying these institutions must be made autonomous. They have to be run by professionals concerned with that specialization.

This was totally ignored by the Congress party and it was totally ignored by the BJP. But the crux of the matter is if your research institutes are going to be controlled by political ideologies whether from the Left or Right, then you are saying goodbye to research.

You talk of the role of public intellectuals in giving an alternative voice to the nation. Can you elaborate?
This was something I wrote a year ago, when there was silence on the part of public intellectuals. And it was in some ways ironic that my book The Public Intellectual in India was published the very week when these protests started. So people began teasing me, saying my book had become redundant because what you were asking for has actually happened!

http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/10-filmmakers-to-return-national-awards-citing-threat-to-freedom-of-expression-1237428
Filmmakers return their national awards protesting against threat to freedom of expression

What I meant was that in all the institutes, people did not demand from the government autonomy that they should have. There was a complete acquiescence in whatever was being handed out to them.

The result was that you had isolated pockets of researchers who were doing independent and excellent work and a large body of people who were sitting quietly and following what was required of them. This was what angered me a year ago and I made this plea that would make public intellectuals speak up, break their silence and occupy some kind of liberal space.

What will happen if nothing is done to stop these hotheads and stop such a drift?
If nothing is done I see two areas where there is a big crisis coming. One is education. What kind of education are you going to give students and children? We understand by education that it is the ability to acquire information and the ability to critically inquire into existing knowledge. This is not being done by any means.

If it continues like this, we are going to produce a generation of people who will not be thinking about the essentials of education.

The second area where I suspect trouble is the area of civil laws because people are going on saying that what needs to be attended to is the uniform civil code in which the Muslim Personal Law will be annulled. But my position is if we were to have a uniform civil code and if we were to go by the constitution, we have to reconsider all religious caste laws as they exist in the country.

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