Most seminars based on a broad theme shed some light and create some obscurity. This one is no exception. Planned as an open-ended discussion, it studies movements of protest and reform in India over the centuries, directed against things as disparate as ‘slavery, untouchability and colonialism’ (in the words of a participant). The essays are arranged chronologically, but can be grouped under four broad categories—protest by social groups or classes, dissent or reform expressed through the medium of the arts, protests in the sphere of religion, and Gandhi, who is sui generis.
The first few essays discuss the theme-terms in an interesting but highly abstract manner, and their bearing on India is at best marginal. Badrinath, in a characteristically provocative piece, points out that the theme-words are European in origin, and were initially used in the context of religion. He is sceptical about their utility in any study of an Indian subject. By the end of the seminar we have progressed so far as to be dissatisfied with the use of the word ‘religion’ S.C. Dube states that there is no equivalent in any Indian language for the word ‘religion’ as used in the West.
The discussions are generally more stimulating and illuminating than the prepared papers. Some of the contributors find the attempt to mould their raw material into the necessary format an unequal struggle. There are frequent and perhaps unnecessary—attempts to interrelate the papers and see issues against an All-India and an all-time perspective. But the points thrown out by Dube about the Great and the Little Traditions and the coexistence of various religions which characterizes India are not developed because the Buddha, Kabir, Nanak and the Arya Samaj are, too widely separated in time and place to make this possible. One valuable byproduct is that because the discussion of religious dissent is chiefly in the situation of a Hindu society, stereotype like ‘the Hindu’ are realized as being as unsatisfactory as ‘the Indian’.
Gandhi gets somewhat inadequate treatment in the three essays that deal with him—a simplistic one on untouchability, one on satyagraha which does not have anything new to contribute, and one comparing him with the Buddha on the question of ahimsa; this last does not rise above the level of stating that the difference between them is ‘a difference between a person devoted to politics and a person devoted to religion’. That ‘the Buddha was indifferent to the question of political freedom’ introduces a consideration which is irrelevant unless one is able to spell out political freedom where and against whom. More illuminating are the references to the Buddha in Romila Thapar’s analysis of the appeal of Buddhism to the mercantile community and in Pratap Chandra’s article which shows the Buddha as a liberal who accepted the hierarchical society but wanted the Kshatriyas to challenge the dominance of the Brahmans.
S.C. Misra’s excellent article on the Nizari movement in Gujarat shows how the stratified social system evokes protests in the form of religious dissent by middle groups but how this, far from leading to any fundamental change in the social system, gets blurred by the renewed startification of society. The concept that ‘the medieval period was one of intense religious feeling’ may, however, be open to debate. In so many respects features of the ‘medieval period’ are still with, us today. Ravinder Kumar and T.K. Oommen have good papers on rural protest. The first of these, being a general survey, deals chiefly with resistance against the British, and does not go into any instances of tension between the privileged and unprivileged sections of rural society. He ends with the warning that ‘if the attempt to’ resolve the problems of rural society through the parliamentary process (does not succeed) … it shall be ‘the fire next time’.
That the seminar traces contiguous circles and not one large circle does not matter. What one could wish for is that some of the essays had been more analytical, and the treatment had been concerned with problems more than personalities. Many of the ideas thrown out are stimulating and it implies no criticism of the contributors to say that they are not able to provide answers to all of them.
Narayani Gupta is Lecturer in History, Indraprastha College, New Delhi.