We carry below the Prologue from the book Voices of Dissent: An Essay by Romila Thapar*
The genesis of this essay lies in two memorial lectures that I gave in 2019 in Delhi. The first was the Nemichand Memorial lecture on ‘The Presence of the other: Religion and Society in Early India’, given on 16 August 2019. The second was the V M Tarkunde Memorial lecture on ‘Renunciation, Dissent and Satyagraha’, given on 6 December 2019.
…I have in the past written on aspects of dissent in early India, but the circumstances of present times made me feel that the subject requires a more systematic perspective. The latter part of the essay is an attempt not only to relate the past to the present but also to suggest that some forms of dissent are continuities from the past.he genesis of this essay lies in two memorial lectures that I gave in 2019 in Delhi. The first was the Nemichand Memorial lecture on ‘The Presence of the other: Religion and Society in Early India’, given on 16 August 2019. The second was the V M Tarkunde Memorial lecture on ‘Renunciation, Dissent and Satyagraha’, given on 6 December 2019.
I have tried to place the subject in a bird’s eye view of a historical perspective. In doing this I am trying to argue that locating dissent is not sufficient as the historian has also to indicate why such dissent had acceptability and by whom. This implies looking at forms of dissent that had public response. My focus is therefore on the question of whether this response has been fairly consistent in certain expressions of dissent. The study of dissent is essential to understanding how civilizations evolved for there cannot be any advance in knowledge without a questioning of the world we live in.
Delhi, September 2020
Is Dissent Necessary?
Dissent is, in essence, the disagreement that a person or persons may have with others, or, more publicly, with some of the institutions that govern their patterns of life. People have disagreed since time immemorial; they have argued, or agreed to disagree, or eventually arrived at an agreement. That is all part of life, of living. Most institutions that have an influence on our daily lives tend to have long histories; many have evolved in variant ways, and we are only now beginning to recognize that the questioning of how they function is not as recent an activity as we were imagining it to be—in fact, it has been practised for centuries.
Dissent is part of a larger body of varieties of differences that arise out of questioning and critical enquiry or just by giving vent to another experience. In writing about it, I am not downgrading other forms but trying to look more closely at those that we have neglected in our construction of the past and its culture, that which we claim to have inherited and which we acclaim in present times. Given that we continue to construct the past, the concepts we use to do so are also undergoing a similar construction. In order to explore these, it is necessary to take up leads old and new. A fuller investigation of dissent would have to examine situations where the dissent leads to protests, violent and nonviolent. My intention, however, is to make audible—symbolically— the voices of nonviolent dissent.
Dissent is not a modern concept, but recognizing it in its various forms is new, as is the fact that, in a truly liberal, democratic society, such questioning is not frowned upon but, rather, encouraged and explored through discussion. The right to question is now public, open and can be exercised by any citizen. Earlier, only the powerful had this right, but today it extends—in theory at least—to all citizens. In earlier times the right was often argued over but did not always become a public issue as it can in our times. This in part places a responsibility on us to recognize and understand the centrality of dissent. Implicit in having these rights is the exercising of dissent where we think it appropriate. This has a historical continuity even if the forms have altered. I would like to explore the continuity through a few examples.
There should always be, invariably, in every modern society, the right of the citizen to dissent as part of the right to free speech. This right has been contentious yet crucial to the continuity of societies. However much we may wish otherwise, Indian society—as indeed every other society—has not been a seamless harmonious entity, with little or no contradictions. We too have had our share of intolerance and violence and the clash of ideas. Dissenting voices have been many, and have had a much wider articulation in the past than we are willing to concede.
In historical terms, social relationships were encapsulated, as they often still are, in the binaries of those who had power and ownership—be it of land, property, rituals or whatever gives power—and those who did not. We know this relationship through conjugations such as raja and praja, the feudal lord and serf, the factory owner and employee, the colonizer and colonial subject. A couple of centuries ago, this gave way, through an overwhelming historical change, to a society that speaks of industrialization, capitalism, the middle-class control of new technology, the workers who provide the labour, the peasants on whom agricultural production depends, and such like. One of the factors that was intended to bind this new society together was nationalism, or the sense of people belonging to one nation, therefore nationhood. The massive change implicit in this, it is assumed, would be the evolving of a different relationship that determines the functioning of society. In the functioning of a nation, what matters is the relationship between the people as citizens and what they have created jointly—the state. The rights of the citizens vis-à-vis the state have therefore moved centre stage.
This historical phase also marks an alteration in the forms of governance—the earlier kingship is replaced by the emergence of democracies. Democracies can only be secular since every citizen has equal status. Their institutions have representatives from all sections of society, each having rights of equal status. This helps to integrate the secular, the democratic and the national. In a true democracy, the right to dissent and the need to meet the demand for social justice are core concepts. Since it includes all citizens and they are legally of equal status, a democracy cannot be other than secular.
These broad historical changes have been taken as among the markers of modern times. I would like to begin, however, by discerning more general features of dissent, in terms of how dissent is recognized. Those dissenting do not always proclaim themselves as dissenters; sometimes, they may not even be fully aware of the degree to which they are dissenting. One of the more obvious ways of recognizing dissent is to mark the presence of ‘the other’ in society. This facilitates recognition and juxtaposes it to dissent.
But before I write about this, I would like to clarify why I disagree with what is now often said by those who are in fact opposed to democracy but won’t admit to it openly—it is said that dissent itself was imported into Indian society from the West. This is an argument made by those who visualize the Indian past as free of blemishes and therefore not requiring dissenting opinions. Such notions arise from wishful thinking. They were and are also exaggerated by descriptions of what have been called civilizations and ‘high cultures’, as magnificent achievements, free of fault and entirely acceptable to all those who contributed to their creation.
Civilization is said to be a moment of rare sophistication when a society virtually surpasses itself in the acme of its achievement, having followed particular paths for some centuries, guided by nascent forms. The dominant culture epitomizing civilization was thought to be superior to preceding ones. The claim maintained that there has been a prevailing acceptance of this culture by all, in a period of harmony and little contestation, both in the realm of ideas and in social activities. The characteristics of a particular civilization focused on the territory in which it was rooted, in the single dominant language in which the best of its literature and thought was written, in the single religion that gave it an identity, and in the laws that gave a structure to its functioning. This was the happy picture that the nineteenth and early twentieth century painted of world civilizations.
There were some who hinted at this being not quite accurate. While conceding the existence of ideal civilizations, they wrote of challenge and response as the pattern that created and upheld civilizations. Others wrote of the rise and decline of civilizations in inevitable historical cycles. This was not the same as dissent and disagreement but carried a hint of it. A few others suggested that when a culture achieved what could be regarded as its high point of cultural articulation there then arose alternate views about its founding features. Alternate views can take the form of indirectly supplementing what exists, or can question it. The latter can be disagreement with or dissent from the existing conventions. In whatever way one may define a culture, recognizing that there is the presence of dissent within it as the view of ‘the other’ is crucial to an insightful understanding of the original.
Historians spoke of the fact that despite its having been colonized by the British and reduced to the status of a colony in modern times, India in the past had hosted a civilization with all the required characteristics. The most preferred period for this was that of the Guptas and immediately after. Indian civilization was described as a unique society of peace-loving, nonviolent people, tolerant of all and devoted to the highest ideals. There was little mention of dissenting voices. Yet, judging by the many occasions when there have been appeals for nonviolence and tolerance in the Indian past, we should recognize that Indian society also had its measure of violence and intolerance as has been the case elsewhere too. This of course is an image of the past common to many nationalists everywhere in the world of their respective homelands; or of a special quality that a particular community quotes as defining its culture—such as the concept of Negritude that gave direction to earlier African nationalisms.
What is of interest is that the knowledge on the basis of which civilization comes into being is knowledge that is frequently contested. What is conventional and conservative gets questioned, and there emerges a discourse of divergent views. This becomes clear even from just a juxtaposition of different schools of thought as they existed in the ‘golden ages’ with the various achievements of the civilization of that period. This can also be described as a period of classicism. But classicism is not an innovation; rather, it is the culmination of a process that often begins in a previous age but its after-effects surface in a later—the period described as classical. It is not altogether absent in other times and in other contexts; it simply happens to come together or is brought together more prominently in a particular age. One could well ask whether it is characteristic of such an age that there is a dialogue between those dissenting and those in authority. This is precisely what is required to advance knowledge and provide a foundation for what may still be called a civilization.
I would therefore like to look at the articulation of dissent, so essential to all societies, and consider it at various times and in varying contexts as part of the Indian historical experience. How does the Other mark its presence in Indian society in relation to ‘established’ society or ‘the Self’, to borrow a thought from Edward Said? We also need to ask about the perspective of the Other when viewing the world. I would like to regard it as a set of intertwined themes: one, the recognition of what we have begun to call the Other; and two, the interface of this other with established society and religion, which latter is the Self. This, because it assumes the dominant position in the society that it claims it is defining. The interface naturally covers an unending range of activities but I shall take up only a few examples, focusing on inter-relations between religion and society, and the diverse relationships between the Self and the Other.
What I refer to as the Other needs explaining. Put simply: it is a person or a group of people who declare themselves to be or are recognized as different because they question some of the views of the Self. The other or others differ from the Self. The degree of dissimilarity varies—it can be a passing recognition of difference or it can be expressed as conscious rejection.
Whatever the degree of difference, the Other has to be recognized as present in every society. This also helps to define the identity of the Self. Like the Self, the Other has multiple aspects. So, in a contradictory way, the Other can delineate what it is opposed to and why—in other words, the Self. Those whom we see as essentially different often help us to define ourselves, both individually and socially.
Identifying people as the Other can be used for various purposes: to marginalize a section of society, to ghettoize it or even to exile it. Multiple groups all over the world in our times have become refugees by being denied citizenship or by being exiled. In the past, these rights of the citizen did not exist but today they are claimed as essential to the functioning of our societies. Treating people as the Other was not entirely unknown in the past, and often resulted in historically new cultures and aspects of a civilization. Historians recognize that what we have called civilizations were essentially porous, and textured from multiple divergent strands. The strands could be local deviant cultures or evolutions within cultures; equally often, they came with immigrants, and to a lesser extent with people of the region going out to settle elsewhere, establishing a kind of outreach or, in a few instances, even a colony. Social distancing between elite and non-elite societies was maintained through different ways of demarcating the social components, but sometimes ideas swirled up or trickled down. Existing cultures underwent change or new ones evolved. Thus, the identities of the Self and the Other could change. But the dual presence is, tacitly or otherwise, recognized in every society.
Who then determines what comprises Otherness? Those in authority generally see themselves as the established Self, and they are the ones who set up the dichotomous identity of the Self vis-à-vis the Other. Generally, it is the one who questions the Self that is described as the Other. This binary determines Otherness, helps crystallize status and power, and distances those without either. It is resorted to in most societies. But these are not permanent labels, and the relationship between the Self and the Other can change over time and move from being distanced to being proximate or the other way round. The recognition of the Other was worked into theories of social functioning over the last two centuries. Its understanding changed with colonial interpretations of Indian civilization, and is again changing now from the perspective of postcolonial times. The historical context, then, cannot be ignored in observing the relationship between the two.
People from different geographies and cultures are not the only ones thought of as the Other. More often, and to a startling degree, the Other emerges from within the same society. Since societies are stratified, socially and culturally, there is divergence—divergence caused by environment and location, economy and technology, systems of kinship and inheritance, concepts of belief and worship, and, in some cases, physical differences. These constituents of what we call culture are also defined as the pattern of living.
Because of these differences, the existence of the Other was and is inevitable. What is historically valuable is to observe how these differences shaped both the Self as well as the other. The relationship was not inherently hostile; in practice it sometimes could be, or it need not be mutually acceptable. Where there is competition, however, the stronger tends to treat the weaker, differentiated one as the other.
The Other was accorded a presence centuries ago in early societies, particularly wherever knowledge was being explored. At times, it lay in the presence of the shaman, the enigmatic person who was both a member of the society and an outsider. His claim was his knowledge of an inexplicable, unknown ‘reality’. This was conceded by some but doubted by others.
But there were other subtle yet more comprehensible ways by which the presence of the Other was conceded. One was through argument, something that delights us all. A procedure seemingly familiar to every philosophical tradition, it hints at something akin to the dialectical method. The view of the opponent is presented; it is then countered by the view of the proponent. This contradiction may or may not give rise to a solution. This procedure is familiar to us in Indian philosophical argument as purvapaksha, pratipaksha and siddhanta. In other schools of thought, such as the Jaina, each is segmented into finer and finer diversities, all revolving round the views of the Self and the Other.
This frame of argument has more subtle uses as well. Projecting the opposing view can also be a means of indicating what a counter-argument involves and the possibility of it being presented—it need not always be an argument that needs to be set aside. If examples of purvapaksha could be collected, we might have a better idea of dissenting views. Knowledge, however, cannot remain unchanging and fixed, since fresh evidence and methods of enquiry inevitably lead to its mutation. Therefore, constant questioning was and is a necessity. Given the impressive advances in knowledge—both in what might be called proto-science and in philosophy— there has been much strong and purposeful questioning in the past.
Buddhist texts mention vivada or contestation, which can come about through a weakness of personality— through selfishness, anger, envy, worldliness and bad intentions. But a more perceptive passage speaks of it as arising from a lack of comprehending the dhamma and vinaya—the teachings of the Buddha. At a simple level, this can mean not following the rules; at a much deeper level, it can mean questioning or contesting them. An absence of contestation would be unlikely in the context of philosophy, which assumes the questioning of the world in which we live.
In another part of the ancient world, the Socratic method suggests similar procedures. Knowledge consists of opinion and argument, and being alerted to alternatives. This leads to investigating contradictions and using reason to arrive at the truth. The method suggested by the medieval philosopher Aquinas hints at this. The original question has to be submitted to arguments both supportive and contradictory so that the question can be reconsidered fully before a reply. In modern times, philosophers changed the order somewhat and spoke of a thesis, followed by an anti-thesis, culminating possibly in a synthesis. This has become familiar to us as the dialectical method. The presence of the Other whether as person or in the form of contradictory thought is normal to the living and thinking of any society. The Other can be accommodated through argument and discussion, and, if no resolution is forthcoming, then there can at least be an agreement to coexist. These days we are impatient with the Other and permit violent confrontation. Our impatience looms over us in many ways, often in the interface between religious and social identities. Currently, in India, it is clearly seen and heard not only in social and religious matters but in politics as well.
I should also like to briefly clarify how some of us as historians analyse the interface between society and religion. It is important to think about this, since the form of our societies and the pattern of our religions the world over were and are never accidental. They are conscious choices and therefore subject to analyses, and we must understand why we made or make these choices.
Religion is expressed at two levels—informal and formal. Informal religion has at its core the choice of the individual as to whom to worship and why and what belief to follow. It is a relatively free and personal choice. I say ‘relatively’ and not ‘absolutely’, because most of the time the decision is made for us through the link between religious and social identity. The caste and sect of the family one is born into frequently determine one’s religious identity, or at least the initial one.
Religious thoughts get formalized when a belief and practice gathers followers who identify with it; it then becomes a sect. That’s when the social complications begin. Founders of the sect have to impose codes of belief and social practices in order to define the sect’s identity, as for example, with reference to the dharma-shastras and the shari’a. Is it the intention of the sect to conform to or to challenge such codes? The successful religion establishes institutions in society that give it authority and increase its supporters. The more obvious institutions train priests and monks, determine what goes into the canon, administer regular places of worship, organize donations, search for a guaranteed patronage, maintain formal rituals and texts, and encourage a crystallization of orthodoxy. This latter becomes the foundation of the religion and the institutions it creates, and is acknowledged by society.
Religion then comes to be seen less as drawing on individual experience and more as the articulation of a social experience or even a community. Individual belief gives way to social conformity, and the latter calls for an almost unquestioning support. At this point, there can be some differences between individual aspirations and social requirements. And this same moment may be appropriate for expressing dissent by those that do not agree with change. This is an ongoing process in the life of every formal religion and even of the larger religious sects.
Religions go through many phases with some mutation and some reformulation. Those that wish to may see it as the unfolding of a largely smooth history with the occasional glitch. In effect, what alters is determined by the historical context that registers changes from the subtle to the obvious. The original teaching, motivated by explaining human existence, can evolve through reacting to dissent or through osmosis from the proximity of other religions.
Religions founded in the name of a historically attested person have a historical trajectory beginning with the teachings of the founder and continues through various phases but with a determining teleology that may shift only slightly. Religions of another kind that are largely a coming together of various beliefs and forms of worship have moments when there is a search for a trajectory. Such searches often result in the emergence of a number of sects with somewhat varying trajectories. If there is enough social and political backing for a sect, it may claim to represent the collective. But this is of course dependent on the historical context of its emergence.
New religions may begin informally and, with increasing support, they may take on formal aspects and establish institutions to propagate their ideas and to mark their presence both in society and on the landscape. That is when we begin to notice the buildings that accompany the institutionalization of religion—viharas, chaityas, stupas, temples, ashramas, mathas, mosques, madrassas, khanqahs, churches, convents, gurdwaras and such like. Institutions change the relationship between a religion and the society in which it exists, and weaken the flexibility of the prior informal religion. The institutions are crucial to assessing the strength of the impact of a religion on society.
The form of the religion can also change when it has to play a new role in society. When this happens, it is a sign that the function of that religion is not limited to personal belief and worship. It is now in the public domain as a powerful agency involved in social and political policies. At this point the interconnection between religion and society registers immense complexity.
When codes of belief and social practice are established, and orthodoxies come into existence, this is when dissent becomes a possibility, and sometimes even a necessity in the opinion of some. Every formal religion and mature society faces dissenters. Dissent then, in an inverted way, furthers orthodoxy if the latter tries to curb dissent. The other differs from the orthodoxy. It has its own formal belief and organization evolving from this difference. Orthodoxy then has a choice: the supporters of dissenting ideas can be excluded and opposed as the enemy within society, or their dissent can be diluted by treating them as yet another sect among many, or else dissent can lose its identity by being gradually assimilated. Until colonial times, religion as practised in India had a greater propensity for this otherness. The forms it took were more as sects that spoke to large numbers of people rather than the limited social elite. The interface of society and religion therefore became central.
In situations of historical change, these relations could also undergo change, and in some exceptional cases, even be reversed. We should also keep in mind that cultures—by which I mean patterns of living—are never homogenous, unalloyed or static. There is no pristine, pure culture that continues as such throughout history. Every culture mutates either through its own evolving impetus or through the entry of new elements. This is part of the reason why the relationships between Orthodoxy and heterodoxy can also vary and are susceptible to historical change. A religion has multiple roots and multiple branchings-off, and this ensures its immortality.
Historical change can alter these relationships. The history of a religion or a society is never static. In India, religions as practised by people at large tended not to be monolithic or uniform across the subcontinent except at some elite levels. In pre-colonial times, religious identities were expressed more frequently through sects, either based on a large caste or one cutting across castes. These spoke to specific social categories and generally to a wider audience than just the elite. It is crucial therefore to know which section of society a sect is addressing.
All this is by way of a general introduction. Let me turn now to my examples. But before I do so, let me explain why my examples come from forms of dissent that pertain to religions. The public forum for discussion in pre-modern times in India was often discussions on various aspects of prevalent religions. This cannot be attributed to a pre-eminence of religious thought in all things but, rather, to religion being the broader idiom through which much else was discussed, such as the attribution of social status, the legitimizing of political authority and the control over economic assets. In earlier times, some religions did connect beliefs and actions appropriate to the functioning of society, such as the linking of caste to religious ritual. In pre-modern societies, the assertion of power, as indeed also the questioning of power, is often articulated through religious ideas. At many levels these are the agencies of power.
Some have argued that there were no dissenting groups in the history of Hinduism, because it was a tolerant religion and accepted all points of view. The fact that there were dissenting points of view suggests the opposite and there is of course evidence of religious confrontations. I have argued that religious loyalties in India generally draw much more on the innumerable religious sects, some of which have very tenuous links to the more established religions. The immediate identity was more often that of the sect. Tolerance is better measured by observing the ongoing relationships between sects. There is evidence of both casual and sometimes more severe dissent in all religions.
Where religion is closely tied to social status and social identity as through its links with caste differences— and these were prevalent in all the main Indian religions with marginal differences—the fundamental relationship between those with caste status / varna and those without it / avarna raises other questions. Is a religion using double standards if in its teaching it maintains that every human being is equal yet in its practice makes distinctions? Correlating the religious ideal with the functioning of social reality can be problematic. This is so in most religions, and in some the ethical question is posed but remains unanswered.
My focus is not in tracing the ideas that went into the construction of dissent. These have been studied in the philosophical perspectives of various religions of the subcontinent. My attempt is to try and understand why a certain kind of Other received such a ready and substantial response from the public, both in the past and in modern times. The reason for this response is worthy of further thought. The dissenting message of these kinds of others was recognized and frequently supported. This may tell us more about the role of dissent in Indian cultures, a role that we tend to dismiss or to underplay.
I would like initially to take up three differing examples from our pre-modern history, and comment on how the Other was perceived in each and on how dissent was expressed and recorded. I shall restrict myself to northern India with which history I am more familiar, and shall take my examples from three different millennia. My choice has been with reference to religion in a broad sense because religion when used as ideology motivates supporters to also follow a social pattern. The interface between religion and society illumines both. I shall then discuss a modern form that drew from the context of the previous ones. These will also suggest the perceptions that we, as the obsessive present, have of the past, and observe the interface that once existed.
* Excerpt from Voices of Dissent by Romila Thapar. Courtesy Seagull Books.