Siddharth Varadarajan: Is critical thinking in India somehow under threat? In posing this question, I had in mind not just overt or covert pressures from the state, or political figures or political authority, but also, in a sense, public attitudes. The growing tendency for the public to acquiesce in the state’s own intolerant attitude towards dissent, towards difference, the ease with which the middle class buys into hero worship, cult of personality, excessive valorisation of the nation; these are all very much a part of present day India.
If you look at the election of Donald Trump, or if you look at political trends in Europe, then clearly this may also be a global phenomenon. Of course, the ‘closing of the Indian mind’ has been going on for some time – I would say for longer than the tenure of the present government, you can trace it back a decade or longer. But there is a sense in which these negative trends have accentuated or sharpened over the past two and a half years. In 2015, we saw the debate over tolerance and intolerance – when artists, writers, cultural personalities mounted a critique of the government’s own toleration of violence, and its failure to act when minorities were being targeted – and the prickly way in which government ministers responded. And then in 2016, the attack seems to have shifted to the university. We saw the way events unfolded in Jawahar Lal Nehru University. I would say things have since moved on – we have a very toxic media environment where excessive jingoism seems to have become the norm and you have a situation where the executive branch of government is encroaching on virtually every countervailing institution this country has: the judiciary, parliament, the central bank, the media etc.
In this kind of an environment, where critical thinking is under threat, how do you see the role of public intellectuals? What should they be doing?
Romila Thapar: Well, you raised a host of issues. Before I get on to the ‘public intellectual’, let me just say that I have been disturbed like all of us have been disturbed, by not just what has been happening in our country, but worldwide, and the election of Trump was certainly a startling wake up call. I think it does raise a couple of questions which need to be answered, like why are we losing the sense of critical inquiry that we always appreciated? It is true that the idea of a critical inquiry is usually associated with the middle class, and there is an element there of very conventional thinking, largely, but there is also an element of dissent, and I think one should really look at what is happening there as well. Admittedly, it is true that the dissent has not been as vocal as one would have thought, which does add to the notion that there is a decline, and there is in fact a decline of critical inquiry. But I think that the two issues it does bring up very strongly: one is the question of the institutions and structures of democracy, have we come to a point today, where we have to rethink what those institutions and structures should be? We have always based ourselves on elections, representation- how to represent people and opinion and so on, the articulation people’s ideas, the whole question of majoritarianism and so on. Is this sufficient or do we have to go beyond this now and consider the fact that there seem to be all these people coming into power on really a minority vote? I mean, one-third is hardly a majority vote, and the process is such that they have to come to power. Even Trump’s vote is not such an overwhelming vote.
Varadarajan: In fact, he lost the popular vote.
Thapar: So I think there is a need now, for people to say right, democracy means these basic institutions, but how do we make them effective? How do we make them more representative, how do we allow people to participate much more, and determine in a sense, other than just giving a vote, the one man one vote, I think has been now overplayed. I am not suggesting that we take away the vote, but how do we strengthen that vote, how do we do something to make that vote much more effective and encourage people to come out and vote, because there is a lot of sitting back and saying “I don’t like the system, I’m not interested, I won’t vote”. That’s one set of questions we have to address.
The other, I think, came to me very strongly, was that America was always presented as not just the democratic system but also a highly educated society, and by all accounts it is a highly educated society. What went wrong with the education? What is it about the content of education, that we need to now consider much more seriously than we’ve done before, and this applies to India equally, or much more even, because how many people ask the question “what are you actually teaching the child?”. You’re giving the child information, you’re expecting the child to repeat that information, and all this about objective questions and this, that and the other is really the old catechismic style of you’re given a predetermined question and you’re given a predetermined answer, and that’s what you produce. Now, for me, the essential qualifier in any kind of educational system is teaching a child to think critically and ask questions. We are not doing that. In fact, we have ministers who say, “you can’t ask questions”.
Varadarajan: Or it is anti-national to ask questions, or if you ask questions about black money it is because you have black money.
Thapar: This is an absurdity which I think needs to be torn apart, because the whole purpose of education is to train people to ask questions, and unless you produce a citizenship that is questioning, it’s going to be very difficult to have intelligent debates on the representation of people in a democracy. That is very important, and it is all very well to say that America has very good schools, but what are they teaching? Are they, in fact, teaching this, or does this critical inquiry element come in at the university level, and even then for the majority of the Americans it doesn’t exist. So I do feel very strongly that there are these institutions that we take for granted in a democratic system which maybe we need to look at now, more critically, and question the effect that they’re having on the whole issue of the kind of governance that is coming our way. Now this is something, that yes, educationists and other people need to think about very carefully and certainly the public intellectual plays an important role in this.
When I say the public intellectual plays an important role, how do I define the public intellectual? The public intellectual is a person who is in a profession, a professional person, and a person who is respected in his profession. It is not just anybody, not just any journalist but a journalist who has a reputation of being good or a social scientist or a scientist, somebody who is respected. The person is respected for the fact that the knowledge that he tries to convey to the public is reliable knowledge and not fantasy. He is not just getting up and spouting, but knows what he is talking about. Thirdly, a person like that must have a sense of ethics, and that is something that we are rapidly losing, in the practice of politics, in the practice of governance, in the practice of education, and so on. The bringing back of, not saying this is good and this is bad and being moral about it, but the sense of asking this question each time: is this ethical or not, which is a question we have ceased to ask of late. So I think that that is very important in the making of a public intellectual.
The relation of the public intellectual to society is that the public intellectual must have a concern for civil society, must have a concern for the duties, the rights, the obligations of citizens to a state. Wherever this is not being brought to the fore, they must help to bring it to the fore. And finally and very importantly, the public intellectual is there to protect the rights and the obligations of the citizen. That protection is fundamental, especially in situations where people get by with all sorts of gimmickries and dishonesties, and it is terribly important that there be a scatter of public intellectuals: visible, audible, saying “sorry, this is not the way to do it” and to protect those rights.
The crisis in education
Varadarajan: If you’re right in tracing some of the recent developments that people find unfathomable to problems in the way the university systems function, that would suggest a reason why zeroing in on universities is so important for the current dispensation in India, and why universities have emerged as a frontline for official interference and action as well as resistance. What has been remarkable over the last two and a half years, beginning with the film students at FTII, Pune, to the agitation of students of the University of Hyderabad over Rohith Vemula’s suicide, and in JNU and other campuses, is that students and faculty members don’t seem to be taking this assault on their autonomy and right to think critically lying down. Do you think this holds some promise for the way the situation may evolve?
Thapar: Well, I think up to a point it is logical. We have had an element of two things: we have had an element of suggesting that education means critical thinking, and in universities like JNU from example, from day one we have said to students “you have got to ask questions, think about what you’re reading and writing, enquire into what you are reading and writing”, so that has been an element in some institutions. What is interesting is that the institutions that are picked on, are the institutions that have had a trace of critical inquiry. I mean they are not picking on any university and any institution, they pick on those where people have learnt to think slightly independently. In addition to that, you have got the other feature, which is terribly important, and that is that in any kind of democratic system, and I think up to a point we have been developing this in the past, that there are certain institutions that can claim autonomy, and universities and research institutions of a higher level are amongst those. They must not just claim this autonomy but also protect it.
I think part of this problem has been precisely that people have seen that the autonomy of the university or the institution is being infringed in a very serious way. It is important to maintain this autonomy because you cannot have a democratic system in which the government controls absolutely everything. You have to have some institutions that are beyond government control, that are autonomous. Take the case of textbooks, many of us have been arguing for the last decade or more that the agencies that produce textbooks should be: a) handled only by professionals; b) they should be autonomous of the government. So agencies like the NCERT should be autonomous bodies manned by social scientists and scientists who supervise the writing of textbooks and this doesn’t mean that every time the government changes, the textbooks change.
Varadarajan: This is what happens now.
Thapar: This is what happens now, we have reduced it to an absolute joke. No one takes them seriously. I get ten phone calls from parents saying, “What do I tell my child who’s sitting for the CBSE exam, did Akbar marry Jodhabai or did he not?”. History has been reduced to those kinds of questions. So I think the autonomy of institutions must be underlined and protected, and this is one area in which public intellectuals do play an important role in addition to the professionals. Professionals as a group in this country, tend to argue that because the funds are coming from the government, we have to listen to what the government says. But when you have changeability in government policy, surely it is the right of the professional to say “this is the policy that we require”, and this is the change that has to come from professionals and not from a bureaucrat or a politician who has a whim or a fancy that it should be done in a particular way.
Varadarajan: Here, in a way, you’re battling an older legacy issue, which is the over-bureaucratisation of education, where even to change or update a syllabus requires several committee meetings and perhaps going various levels higher than the immediate faculty in order to reach that.
Thapar: The fact that this can be done much more simply is something that we demonstrated when we started JNU. It was a university that did not follow any other syllabus of any other university. We talked about it, we discussed it, we debated it, we worked it out very carefully and we made a bid for that, and it worked. Those of us who are in academia are really frightened that the autonomy to think, the autonomy to work out a syllabus and a curriculum and teach it – that may go.
To ask or not to ask, that is the question
Varadarajan: For some time now you’ve been zeroing in on the importance of asking questions. Now this is the fundamental problem of our times. Academia is of course the one arena where this has to take place, but a questioning attitude has to be adopted by the media too. And it’s quite alarming to me as a journalist to see how the practice of journalism has shifted from a profession where one took pride in being adversarial against those in authority to one where big media today prides itself in being the conscience keeper of the state, of the ‘nation’, egging the state on to battle in a more determined fashion against ‘enemies’, be they external or internal. How troubled are you by the way in which media culture in this country has evolved? I don’t know how much of a television news watcher you are, but there’s a lot that’s pretty horrid out there night after night.
Thapar: Oh, I think one of the reasons why I’ve ceased to be a television news watcher is precisely because I find it absolutely indigestible. I mean, you sit there and look at what is being presented and you say, how can they do this? In many cases, in many channels, it is a deliberate misleading. In other channels, it is a refusal to ask questions. You have a crisis, for example, which involves the adivasi community, whether it is worship of their sacred mountain, whether it is the demand for a better life that is going on in central India and Bastar and so on, how many news channels have actually gone to adivasi villages and asked the adivasi people, why they are supporting or opposing the Naxals? Hardly ever. You get people from Delhi who are commenting on this all the time, but go ask the people who are actually involved in it. You don’t do that. With the exception of one or two channels, by and large, there is a tendency to have pontification from certain predictable people on every issue and that is really not what is the media’s role, at least as I see it. There might be people who say the role of the media is only to entertain, which I don’t accept, because I think if the media is, in fact, the medium of communication, then it has to do much more than that. Then it has to do things like having serious discussions. Every time I talk to television or media people and say why don’t you raise the level of your discussions, or have a half-hour discussion every evening by people who are professionally equipped to talk about the subject, they say we lose our viewership, and I don’t buy that at all.
Varadarajan: So this whole alibi – that ‘we are giving our viewers what they want’ – doesn’t work for you.
Thapar: No, I think you can change a readership’s demands by giving them something better. French television, for example, is a lovely case of where years ago they started a programme of half an hour or 40 minutes, of book reviewing. They take one book, and they get three people to discuss that book, and it became one of the most popular programmes in France. Now, France is not an extra highly educated country, it is normal like any European country. I think the point is that you have a variety of people who are looking in, and you give them that variety of programmes, but somewhere you make sure that the quality of the variety you are giving them is a little higher than the lowest common denominator, and that is where I think the media doesn’t really reach out. When there is a problem, it doesn’t really reach out to the people who are concerned with that problem, and ask questions about why they are concerned, what their concern is, what the problem is. You can’t generalize sitting at a distance, you have to go out and that going out is not enough.
Varadarajan: This shift in official discourse, if [governments] were confronted with an uncomfortable point of view in the past, the obvious tactic would be to ignore it or to starve the department of funds, or to ensure that in future, hiring took place in a different kind of way. Today, the government or the people in authority seem to have successfully mobilized a section of the media to actually assist them in the attack on university autonomy, critical thinking, differences of opinion. Showing clips of a bunch of kids shouting slogans, or a professor giving a lecture – the media showing clips in order to incite public sentiment, is something very new and dangerous.
Thapar: Well, I think it’s the use of media now not to communicate the reality but to propagate ideology. This is a different use of the media altogether. I was struck by the idea that in 2015, when we had this outburst on intolerance, various TV channels asked me to do interviews, and I did some, and those were shown, even though I said things in a very direct fashion. Two important channels invited me, we fixed the day and the time and then I was rung up and told that “we are very sorry, we were not given permission”. And I thought to myself, that if for a simple interview of 10 minutes you have to take permission from jo upar baitha hai, then really, where is the autonomy of the media?
Varadarajan: Right, exactly. The media has always had problems in this country. I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, and have worked in media organizations in a situation where we’ve had six prime ministers: Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Inder Gujral, Manmohan Singh, and now Narendra Modi, but the climate today is really quite different, in the sense that media proprietors are far more risk averse, far less willing to have their people ask questions, and far more willing to clamp down on an interview, or a debate topic, or an op-ed. There’s a sense in which certain kinds of questions will not be tolerated, and I think this is really what’s alarming – that you still have media and academic freedom for all intents and purposes, but important areas of enquiry are shut out.
Thapar: You see, there are two reasons for that. One is that you shut it out because you don’t want anyone to have a dissenting opinion and you want everybody to agree to what is going on, but you do that because you have a sense of insecurity. You yourself are not confident and secure enough to say “it doesn’t matter, we can have a discussion where some people will take an opposite point of view and some people won’t”. But when you’re frightened of opposition and dissent, then you resort to the idea of shutting people up or not allowing people to speak only.
The rising salience of the ‘nation’
Varadarajan: One of the aspects of present day politics in India is that you have a ruling party, the Bharatiya Janta Party, and its parent organisation the Sangh Parivar, and a host of affiliated bodies which give the RSS and the BJP plausible deniability. When they act and do things that are quite terrible, the government or the ruling party can say “well, we have nothing to do with them” – but they all essentially sing to the same broad tune –Hindu nationalism and Hindu chauvinism, or Hindutva. Today, the Sangh parivar has latched on to the idea of the ‘nation’ and the ‘nation under threat’ as being a far more potent vehicle for their kind of politics. We’ve seen in the campaign against JNU, where they accused students of being ‘anti-national’; on the basis of shouting slogans, they accused them of being seditious. Then you had this whole controversy where people must say “Bharat mata ki jai” and if you don’t then somehow you are being anti-national. Then, of course, the entire discourse over terrorism, the so-called surgical strikes, the campaign against black money, is all being cast in the language of the nation being in danger, and if you don’t stand with the government at this time, then somehow you are being unpatriotic. Most recently we have seen that even the Supreme Court of India passed a judgment making it mandatory for the national anthem to be played in movie halls.
Why have the nation, nationalism, Bharat mata, acquired so much of salience today? You have TV channels now, I don’t recall this happening earlier, referring to every soldier killed as a ‘martyr’. The whole language of public discourse has become very overtly nationalist, which leaves me a little bit worried as a journalist and I’m sure it worries you as a historian. How do you explain this new found salience that the ‘nation’ has acquired?
Thapar: Well, I think it hasn’t become overtly nationalist, it has become overtly nationalist of a particular type. One of the problems is that nationalism is a stage in history, it’s not something that goes back to the Vedic period or the Gupta period or the Mughal period. It is a change that societies undergo when they start turning towards industrialisation, capitalism and so on and the middle class emerges as the most important. I mean this is just simple history, but there it is. Nationalism emerges as a way of restructuring different communities into a new identity and value system, and the identity is that of the citizen. You move from being a subject of a kingdom to being the citizen of a nation. The nation is one category among a whole series of states. You’ve had clan societies, kingdoms, monarchies, empires and now you have a nation state where the state is a nation. What has happened in this process is a form of disguising nationalism to mean the community you wish to give priority to. This happened in the Indian case where you had an all-India nationalism that talked about the coming Indian citizen in colonial times, and you had a series of other nationalisms, pre-eminently Islamic or Muslim nationalism, Hindu nationalism, that talked about the coming of the state of a religious kind. You had Pakistan on the one hand and the Hindu Rashtra in the 1930s being defined. The difference is that a general nationalism of the nation brings all the communities together, gives them a new identity as a citizen, and the new identity is the equality of everybody: equal rights to social justice and the law, equal rights to resources, distribution and so on. Human rights are guaranteed in the course of being a citizen. But what happens in the case of varieties of nationalisms whether it’s religious or caste or linguistic, a particular group is to be given priority.
In the Hindu rashtra, you have the Hindu citizen being a notch higher because he has the territory of British India as his ‘pitru-bhoomi’ and his ‘punya-bhoomi’, which is Savarkar’s thesis and is what BJP’s, Sangh Parivar’s and RSS’s thesis is based on. There is, therefore, a contradiction here, a tension between what many of us understand as nationalism as such, and what they understand as nationalism, which is Hindu nationalism. It’s not the same thing at all, and in a democratic setup where you’re talking about the representation of everybody, every citizen, you cannot say some citizens are a notch above. You cannot give priority to some citizens, everybody has to be absolutely equal. What do you do then, in order to get around this question of defining nationalism as the ideology of the citizen which means equal rights, observing of laws and slightly edging in a religious or linguistic or caste group. You do it through slogans. When you look at the slogans they’re giving you, the slogans all deal with the superiority of the Hindu, they’re not slogans which deal with the citizen as such, the a-religious citizen.
Varadarajan: They in fact negate that concept.
Thapar: This kind of nationalism is suggestive of another problem in democracy, which is dependent on being secular. You cannot have a democracy where you have pre-determined majorities of whatever kind. In a democracy, an issue comes up, and the majority comes from every part of society and takes a decision and the next issue that comes up has a totally different constituent of majority. Therefore, how do you ensure, without saying that you are a Hindu state, that these little indicators are going to give an identity to the citizens. This whole vigilante activity, as it is called, which is meant to create terror in the country –
Varadarajan: By people who are formally outside the state but who are fully implicated in it –
Thapar: They’re doing precisely this, they’re bringing this element into the definition of what is the nation.
Secularism and majorities
Varadarajan: When the BJP or the RSS says it embraces genuine secularism, and criticises others as being pseudo-secular, what they do is question the democratic state’s need to act in defence of sections – linguistic, or religious minorities – who are disadvantaged in some way. They would decry that as appeasement or pseudo-secularism. Such protections are very Gandhian in any philosophical sense, but they would hold those as somehow subverting the concept of citizenship.
Thapar: But in fact, it’s not, because your own concept of the nation is not supporting equal citizenship fully and your programmes are not supporting equal citizenship. If your programmes were supporting equal citizenship one would say “yes, it’s alright”, but you can’t allow a situation where some people are more vulnerable than others and yet talk about equal citizenship. This also ties in a little bit with our definition of secularism, where we keep on talking about the coexistence of religion. I’ve been trying to argue that it’s more than that, it’s not just the coexistence of religions but the equal right of every religion to human rights, constitutional laws etc. Secondly, there are certain areas of social functioning where you don’t allow religious organisations to call the shots. They have to be through secular institutions and should not be governed by any religious organization. In a sense, education is also one of those issues which is going to come up in a big way if we do move on to being genuinely secular.
Varadarajan: If the rise of the concept of citizen and citizenship is central, along with the need for equal rights and equal claim to resources is central to the idea of the nation and the way it historically evolved, it’s ironic that in today’s hypernationalist times you have valorisation of the nation happening side by side with attempts to convert the citizen back into being a subject. You will stand up, you will surrender your money and if you don’t do what we say, then somehow you are against the nation. So in the language of nation and nationalism, the citizen is stripped of…
Thapar: You see, again, to me it seems, there is an element of insecurity there, where you have to tell the citizen, that you will do such and such to prove that you’re a good national.
Varadarajan: They take out ads in papers saying these are your fundamental duties, they don’t do it for rights.
Thapar: That’s it. They don’t talk about rights and don’t concede that the citizen has the right to say “I’m sorry, I would like that the issue of Kashmir, Bastar, the adivasis, the dalits, the burning of churches, or whatever the issue is, I would like it discussed publicly. The media should be taking up these discussions and saying that there are different points of view and there is nothing anti-national about it”. But again, if it is a sense of insecurity, then you start saying “you have to do this”.
Varadarajan: Some liberals and intellectuals respond to the excessive nationalism of our times by, in a way, rejecting the idea of the nation. How should the public intellectual negotiate her way around this question? Is the discourse of the nation still an essential part of public discussion or is it a category that no longer enjoys the salience that it once did?
Thapar: Well, I think that the fact that there is a debate on what is meant by the ‘nation’ and ‘national’ and ‘nationalism’, means that the nation really hasn’t gotten firmly embedded. This discussion will go on, but because it is a historical phase as I see it, I also see that there are some parts of the world that have moved beyond the nation. The European Union was one, I mean if you consider the relation between France and Germany and how deeply nationalism, there and here, is tied to territory, I think this is partly the result of cartography and the ability to draw maps and boundary lines, and the boundary line becomes the firm divider, all of this is part of a historical phase. If this can be changed as it was changed in Europe (though goodness knows, they might be coming back to the idea of the nation again, but at least for a period of time they weren’t) one can think of a possibility of a future, 50 years down the line, when national boundaries may not be so important. Who knows, historians don’t make predictions, but there is an openness about the future. Historically, the idea of the nation is not something that will go from now to eternity, it will undergo some changes, but what those changes will be one doesn’t know.
The cult of personality
Varadarajan: One of the things that alarms me personally is a growing tendency in the middle class to buy into the cult of leadership, to be seduced by vacuous slogans of one kind or the other, wild and completely crazy proposals that politicians make as means of addressing perhaps not even real problems, which is why I feel the pressure on critical thinking and the pressure on the public intellectual comes not just from the state and those who echo its concerns indirectly but also from the shifting terrain among the public. What explains this? Is it a product of political culture, education? What explains the public willingness to go along with a certain kind of retrogressive narrative?
Thapar: Well, it is sometimes explained by the uncertainty and the insecurity of the times we’re living in. Now, I don’t know if this is particular to our times or whether it was the case earlier. If I look back in my own lifetime, I was a child in the 30s and in school in the 40s, one had the feeling that life was secure, it was determined, and yet at the same time the national movement was going on so as one grew a little older and became aware of the world around, one realized that there was an extreme tension which, somehow, one didn’t feel so much. Now, I think, one of the things that has happened is that we have really, especially in the late 20th century, gone through tremendous revolutions of change, apart from actual revolutions, both the Russian and the Chinese, and the aftermath of those which have demonstrated that what was desired didn’t actually happen, creating uncertainty there, and others like the technological revolution. Some of us who were reasonably intelligent and able to handle technology and so on, are still very uncertain about how we are going to handle this because it’s going so fast, and I’m constantly ringing up my grand-nephew and saying “Can you tell me how I do this?” because it is beyond me. That’s very exciting if you can handle that technology, on the other hand if you’re uncertain about it, it creates a certain insecurity, will I be able to manage or not? Everyone says now you have to switch to net banking and I’m sitting there saying how does one do net banking and will someone please teach me.
Then you’ve been living as an isolated nation, you’re very proud of your independence and autonomy and so on, of which your economic growth in the ‘60s and the ‘70s was a very major part, as indeed was the crisis of the ‘90s when you switched into a market economy, where you’re mixing and battling and being friends with all kinds of people, and you’re really a little uncertain because your own economic future is not any longer independent. It is tied with the future of others, which adds to a further kind of uncertainty. I think in all of this, it is very comforting to feel that there is somebody up there who’s looking after you, and if I express my loyalty and faith in this person, slightly like the tendency towards religion, you put your faith in something else and you do it in all honesty and you do it with absolute clarity that that is where you want to put your faith. Maybe an element of that, that when the uncertainty goes or lessens or becomes different, people will begin to become much more autonomous.
Varadarajan: Ambedkar, back in the 1940s, had warned against the tendency to have the cult of hero worship. He was of course referring to Gandhi and Jinnah, but that’s something that could equally apply to modern day India.
Thapar: That is certainly something nationalism does bring – the cult of hero worship everywhere in the world where you’ve had strong nationalist movements because in a sense it is the hero that leads you on and takes you to places and makes a different human being out of you and makes a citizen out of you. We have always taught history from the point of view of the hero, it is only recently that it’s begun to change, that people are talking about the past in different terms. Then there’s this sense of the utopia, that India was great in the time of Ashoka and Akbar. Who knows what the reality was as we cannot go back into the past, but nevertheless there is that faith and so even today you feel that if there is a strong person who’s handling governance, then you put your faith in that person.
Varadarajan: On that note, we’ll end, thank you so much for this conversation.
The interview was conducted for the forthcoming issue of Revue des Femmes Philosophes edited by Divya Dwivedi.