Romila Thapar is one of India’s foremost historians. In this interview with, she discusses her new book, the rising tide of intolerance in the country, the Modi government, the Sangh Parivar’s reluctance to debate communalism, the ascendency of the religious Right, and its colonial idea of history. To counter the crisis facing India, Thapar says it is important to tell the public about the essential meaning of Indian plurality.

Your book, The Public Intellectual in India, is based on your lecture, 'To question or not to question? That is the question', which you delivered on October 26, 2014. Do you find it gratifying that so many writers have registered their protest against the growing intolerance by returning their Sahitya Akademi awards?
Well, what caused the protest is inexcusable but that there has been a protest by the writers has been so welcome that it has made the book seem somewhat unnecessary (Laughs). I am amazed and delighted that so many people have broken their silence and come out to make a statement.

Your lecture was published and read widely. To what extent do you think the lecture was an inspiration for the writers to return the awards?
I don’t think one lecture can spark off this kind of a protest. The sheer horror of what has been happening and its frequency in recent months has provoked this reaction. It was an expression of outrage.

Do you think this outrage is over the lynching of a person in Dadri, or the killing of Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi, or the general ambience of the country?
Assassination and lynching bring intentions into sharp focus. But there is the general ambience as it is developing these days. We are now a society that fears the terror of extremist groups. It is time we stopped calling them fringe groups. They are terrorists, their function is to evoke terror and spread fear in various communities by killing and threatening people, and their patrons in the mainstream protect them. There are connections within the umbrella of a similar ideological link, which is perhaps why their patrons do not speak against them. The pattern is common to such groups in many parts of the world.

Over the last one year, there has been talk about the new government bringing in development and economic change. We have seen very little of that, at least not change affecting those that need it most. But what we have seen a lot of is what some people have referred to as the underbelly of the government. These extremist groups seem to have decided that it is a now-or-never situation for them. What seems to be happening is that the underbelly is increasingly becoming the dominant factor.

What is your response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling the Dadri incident sad and yet accusing the protesting writers of resorting to the 'politics of polarisation'?
Is sadness the emotion Dadri brings out? Isn’t there a stronger emotion than that?

Like what?
Outrage. But this is obviously not what the government feels since a member of the central government visiting Dadri said, “It was an accident." Don’t they know the difference between lynching and an accident? I believe they do know the difference and, therefore, one is surprised at the choice of the word.

Another central minister Nirmala Sitharaman states that we need to have a debate on communalism. (Laughs) I couldn’t believe it. From the time before Partition till now, in all the social sciences, in films, in arts, in literature, one of the central themes has been the debate on communalism. If you look at the history written since 1947, one of the major strands has been the concern over communalism.

Do these people not read? How can anyone say that we haven’t debated it, when the debate has been going on for almost a century. Of course, the difference is that all those who have entered the debate on communalism have done so with a certain understanding of the problem. But what we get from some elements of the Sangh Parivar is not a counter-debate, but objectionable personal abuse. Abuse is not an argument. If there has to be a debate with the Sangh Parivar – if that is what the minister meant – then it has to stop abusing its opponents.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has called the protest of writers a 'manufactured paper rebellion'.
The word manufactured in this context is meaningless. You can say everything is manufactured. What is the difference between manufactured support and manufactured protest? If he intends to say that the protest is artificially put together then he seems unaware that it was quite evidently spontaneous because large numbers of people have reacted adversely to what has been happening. People have expressed their outrage over these recent events. There is nothing manufactured about it at all.

Jaitley says he wonders why the same writers didn’t protest against the Emergency, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the Bhagalpur riots of 1989.
That is not true, many of us protested against the Emergency. We didn’t carry placards or organise sit-ins at Jantar Mantar. We do remember who protested strongly and who protested meekly, or who remained silent. To tar all with the same brush, or to try and smear those protesting today by saying they did not do so then is, I am afraid, completely untenable and, alas, so predictable. It is anyway no argument to imply that because you didn’t protest against the Emergency, your current protest doesn’t count. The Emergency was in any case, a different situation from the current one.

Could you specify the difference?
To put it at its simplest, the Emergency was not aimed at creating a Hindu Rashtra. It clamped down on freedoms and the protest was against that. What is happening now is again a clamping down on freedoms but added to this is that these are accompanied by attempts to assert the control of Hindu organisations over civil society, and this has introduced a strong communal content into their activities. This wasn’t the case with the Emergency where one was objecting to the denial of freedoms but these were not necessarily accompanied by communal prejudices.

Different people protest against different things. You can’t judge those who protest today on the basis of what happened four decades ago.

You say in the introduction to The Public Intellectual, 'The majority of current politicians are characterised by little, if any, vision of the kind of society they wish to construct, barring those that come with the limited concept of extreme religious nationalism.' Why is it that those with a limited concept of extreme religious nationalism have a vision, not the others?
When I was teaching in Delhi University in the sixties, the conversation at the Coffee House was about the kind of society we were building. Many of us in those days had a vision of what was our workable if not ideal society. Today, people sitting in university coffee houses are not discussing this. They are talking about where the next buck is to be made and when the next promotion is coming – these are genuine concerns, legitimate issues. But let’s go a little further and talk about what is happening around us?

Earlier, it used to be the people close to the extreme Left who believed they had a vision of what society should be, where citizens had equality and there was a guarantee of social justice. But today, the people who vociferously propagate the vision of their ideal society are those who want to establish a Hindu Rashtra, identified by religion and unequal rights of citizenship. It is they who have a clear idea of how they want to go about it. The vision of others tends to remain in the shadows.

Why is it that the followers of Hindu Rashtra have remained steadfast, not others?
Perhaps it is partly because no political party is galvanising people who are, so to speak, politically of the Left or are liberal, in the same way as before. This is less so with the Right-liberal, except that it can’t always keep a sufficient distance from the religious Right. The latter is a group that is fully galvanised at the moment.

As I argue in The Public Intellectual, the watershed in India was 1991, when we decided to switch to a market economy and neo-liberalism. That brings about substantial change in the nation. For one, your sights cease to focus only on the nation you belong to, and you begin to see the global scale impinging on the national. At the same time, you are also not too sure where the nation is on the global scale.

Second, your expectations soar. You think you will have an astonishing change incorporating social and economic mobility. Since that hasn’t happened, you now have extreme insecurity. This insecurity leads to desperation. Since the problem can’t be solved by economic changes as had been hoped, the other alternative is to say, that we Hindus have a special stake in the country, and we must assert our priority.

This is tied into the question of thinking as a liberal, a democrat or secular democrat. In a way, this loosens the conventional vision of society and allows the freedom to think of alternate visions. There cannot be just one vision; and the vision of a Hindu Rashtra isn’t going to run away in a hurry. But people do need to gather together to discuss more openly, and concretely, what kind of society they want. This is not a decision that is once and for all. History records social change, and as a society changes there are bound to be modifications of the original vision. There has been an assumption over the last 30 years or so that we will somehow have secularism, that somehow we will have a democratic system, and that somehow this country will carry on as it always has. This assumption needs to be revisited if it is to approach reality.

Don’t you think one failing of the public intellectuals is that they have vacated the religious space, leaving the Sangh Parivar to appropriate the role of being the principal interpreter of Hinduism?
I tend to think so. Many of us had argued that religion isn’t important in a society, that it is a personal matter. Yes, religion is a personal matter. I lecture and write on secularism, trying to make people understand that secularism isn’t anti-religion. What it questions is the more socially fundamental condition, namely, the hold that religious organisations have over the functions of civil society. It is these that we as social scientists did not analyse in sufficient depth.

Could you provide examples of what you are saying?
Take the state schools. We tried to encourage the use of history textbooks that were not religion-oriented, that were secular. By this I mean that all of history was not explained only by the religious policies of the rulers. But simultaneously religious organisations and politico-cultural organisations ran schools where students were taught the reverse of what was in the more secular textbooks. Many of us requested the [Education] Ministry to do an evaluation of the contents of all the textbooks used, but this did not happen. Nobody has tried to examine what these textbooks contain. All that is required is to have professional economists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists and professionals in other disciplines, to evaluate the widely-used textbooks in their disciplines. Are these textbooks of quality? Will these books teach students to think independently, which is what education is about? Do they reflect the plurality of our cultures in a fair manner? Or are these textbooks some kind of catechism – a set of questions is given and an answer to each and that is all that the student needs to know. Every child must know the answer provided, and that suffices as education.

The kind of control over civil society that is exercised by the organisations of all religions is what the state has to investigate. That control has to be decreased to the point of permitting the student to question the knowledge that is taught. A school can teach religion or impart religious knowledge, but in a secular society, the system has to be open to discussions from other perspectives.

I realise this is a very difficult objective to achieve. The United States had the Monkey Trial in 1925, and the debate between the evolutionists and creationists has continued in some states, and now, the proponents of Intelligent Design have come in. This is a debate that will go on. But one does not want a single point of view from this debate to be the controlling factor. This is where secularism plays a very important part.

My second contention is that religion in this country, as against religion in Europe, has been deeply entwined with caste. The social and the religious have often evolved together. Religion in India was never expressed in huge monolithic unities. It was always expressed through sects. Every religion – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, you name it – spoke through sects and all these had relationships with each other. The sects were often geared around a cluster of castes, if not a large caste. This relationship has not been studied closely, neither by historians nor by sociologists of religion.

This relationship between caste and religion complicates the study of the past.
When you quote a chronicle from the medieval period that says, “Fifty thousand Hindus were converted”, what do you mean by the phrase 50,000 Hindus, apart from the fact that this number itself could be dubious? Which caste and occupation did they belong to? And when they were converted, what was their status in the new society they created?

Keeping in mind that every religion in this country observes caste, that every religion has discriminated against the Dalits – you have Hindu Dalits, Muslim Dalits, Christian Dalits, Sikh Dalits – it becomes important to understand whether it was a purely religious relationship (in the sense of saying ‘I observe this ritual and belief but continue to live my usual life’), or whether there were other considerations of routine existence which were perhaps equally or more important, and that were affected by the change – assuming that there was a substantial change. My contention is that we haven’t looked at the reality of what the relationships were between people belonging to different sects. This would give us a different perspective on religion in India.

You say, 'Democracy without its complement of secular thinking falls short of being a democracy.' What exactly do you mean by secular thinking?
We have a democracy today, but we still have majority and minority communities identified by religion. These have privileges of one kind or another and the lesser ones have safeguards through this system. All citizens are not equal before the law and the continuance of privileges and safeguards becomes crucial. Is this a democratic way of functioning? We have inherited this from the colonial regime, as we have also inherited so many laws that we should dispense with if we are to call ourselves a secular democracy.

In a democratic system when an issue comes up for discussion, people of different views come together and take positions. The majority view that emerges usually takes precedence. The same process is repeated for every issue. This means there is no permanent majority identified by religion or caste or anything. The majority is created each time an issue is discussed. That is not what is happening in Indian democracy. What we have now are vote banks identified by religion and caste.

Today, when a public issue comes up, it is seen in terms of the opinions of the majority and minority communities and the views of political parties. It is not discussed primarily in terms of what it means to society as a whole and what is the majority opinion cutting across the existing identities of community. The media, for instance, seems unconcerned with assessing the actual majority opinion and merely projects the opinion of the existing divides.

You define liberals thus: 'Being a liberal is an attitude of mind that determines the fight for space in a society when that society resists ethics and reasoned thinking.' Is India’s democracy increasingly becoming illiberal?
It is becoming increasingly illiberal by leaps and bounds. You have all kinds of bans – on books, food, clothing, and censorship of creative expression. It is said that women are raped because they don’t behave properly, they don’t dress properly, they go out after dusk. Apart from actions, can such explanations be seen as evidence of a liberal society? Is this a liberal society? We are willing to suppress half the population through these diktats but are not willing to consider a change of the male mindset.

Considering reasoned thinking is a benchmark of liberal thinking, what is your response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi claiming that plastic surgery, cloning, aviation technology, etc. were known to sages in ancient India?
One’s initial reaction is: why is he making these fantasy statements? He doesn’t have to. He is after all the prime minister. Nobody expects him to know about ancient Indian science.

But the next reaction as a thinking person is: Why are these statements being made, not just by him alone, but by a number of people? These are the people who don’t understand the functioning of science. In fact, science is something which evolves – you start with the germ of an idea, then it develops into a further idea, which undergoes fresh development, and by the time you get to the object you are envisaging or talking about, sometimes in the form of a new technology, you have been through a long period of discussion, stage by stage, to get there; a discussion controlled by logical, rational thinking.

For instance, take the aeroplane. A reasonable person would say that if we had the aeroplane in 3000 BC, we should have texts on aerodynamics, which is a fundamental necessity before machines can fly. Similarly, take plastic surgery. There are references in the Indian medical texts to people whose nose had been cut and a flap of skin was grafted on. To say that an elephant’s head was sutured to a human neck or shoulder is going far beyond plastic surgery. It is going into an immense degree of fantasy.

All these fantasies make for nice fairy tales. But the more important question is: Why do people believe and propagate these tales? One is that they don’t understand science, because if they did, they would not simply go to the end product, but examine the stages through which the end product is arrived at. These they would not find in the ancient texts.

The second aspect of this, which is equally disturbing, is where is the need for us to make these claims unless it is that we are a society that lacks self-confidence.

Do such statements spring from an inferiority complex?
They come from a deep inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West and vis-à-vis those members of the society who understand science.

What are the roots of this complex? Is it because of the colonial experience?
It starts with the colonial experience. We were called an inferior culture. The nationalists reacted by saying that we may be materially inferior but we are spiritually superior, and that spiritual superiority overrides material superiority. That is at the root of it. From there it goes on. Since we are unable to become the superpower we keep talking about, we therefore have to say that all the current inventions of the West that we admire, are actually not new to us because we had already invented all of them in ancient times.

In part, this is common to all nationalisms. It is not typical to India. As Eric Hobsbawm put it very nicely, “History is to nationalism what the poppy is to the opium addict.” All nationalisms have to have a golden age to which they can constantly refer. That becomes their utopia, which they want to recapture. This strengthens national identity. So statements about how we were scientifically much more advanced than the West is today, ties into extreme nationalist feelings as well. This is not the normal nationalism we all endorse but extreme nationalism. I think all of this comes into play.

But has any nationalism used history to justify retribution in the present, in the manner the Sangh Parivar seems to?
One of the essential tenets of the Sangh Parivar’s idea of Hindu Rashtra is to give primacy to the Hindus. To achieve this, it is preferable to downgrade the minorities. This is a complex matter because there has also been an emphasis on Hindu victimisation so those that tyrannised in the past were the people who mistreated the Hindus. I am amazed that there is so much talk about Hindus having been through a thousand years of slavery, tyrannised by Muslim rule.

Once again one has to ask the question: Do opinion-makers not read any more?

Leave aside the issue of whether or not Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony, an issue that historians have discussed at length and will continue to do, taking into account the complicated intricacies of these kinds of relationships. Let’s just look at what happened to Sanskrit and Hinduism in the second millennium AD, when supposedly there was a victimisation of Hindus by Muslims. How does one explain then that it was a period of great efflorescence in Hinduism.

There were a range of philosophical schools and compendia composed on their views that stretched from the Charvaka materialists to the Vedanta type idealists, such as some groups discussed in the Sarva-darshana-sangraha of Madhvacharya; there were commentaries on the Vedic texts such as Sayana’s commentary on the Rig Veda; there were commentaries and digests on the social and legal codes incorporating new social laws and observances to accommodate changes in society such as the work of Kulluka; and some of the finest literary works and religious texts in Sanskrit, Prakrit and the regional languages were composed and known in these times.

It was an impressive flowering of religion and literature. Various Hindu cultures moved in diverse directions – for instance, the Ramananda sect and the worship of Rama, the Krishna bhakti movement focused on Vrindavan, the rendering of the Rama-katha in Hindi, in Tulsi’s Ramacharitamanas, and in many other regional languages. Hindustani classical music, the Dhrupad, which is a combination of musical trends suffused with religion, emerged during this time as did Carnatic music given shape by the three great gurus. The extensive Bhakti movement in the North, that had propagators and followers all over, is entirely of the second millennium AD. Some of the major works in Sanskrit were translated into Persian under the Mughals and travelled westwards as well. There was a tremendous amount of interlinking, interfacing with new cultural developments in Eurasia.

We should understand that this was also a period of acclaimed achievements in the study of astronomy and mathematics, and also medicine. Astronomers writing Sanskrit works were well-known in major centres elsewhere, such as Baghdad and later Samarkand. Their theories are quoted and are subsequently developed further and eventually some of them, it is thought, may have found their way to Europe.

Is this the culture of a people enslaved? What are they talking about? Have they not read history? Or have they only read a selectively written history for purposes of propaganda? Don’t they take the trouble of reading other histories and asking that if it is claimed that Hindus were tyrannised by Muslims and victimised, what explains this flowering of Hindu cultures, religious sects, and the sciences in the last thousand years?

But people like Indian Council of Historical Research’s YS Rao keep insisting that there can’t be one history, that…
Of course, there isn’t only one history. Why did we counter the colonial history, or even aspects of nationalist history? That was because we were moving history from Indology into the social sciences. In the 1960s, ancient history that had been very much a part of Indology, began to familiarise itself with the methods of the social sciences. History eventually was recognised as one. Therefore, new sources became evident and new questions came to be asked. Hindutva history on the other hand remains rooted in the 19th century. Their understanding of history is that of the 19th century, with its single explanation for everything.

Whereas today, we don’t deny that there can be different explanations of a historical situation creating variant versions of history, but we do insist that each such explanation must be based on reliable evidence and must be argued by using logic and rational thinking and the methods that accompany such analyses. Each version has to be evaluated before it can be accepted. And some of us would argue further that these explanations have to be seen in an order of priority.

The important point is to debate these versions. For the last 50 years, professional historians have been doing so. Unfortunately, the entire debate has been dismissed by the other side who condemn it, saying, ‘Oh, they are all Marxists’. Being a Marxist is now used as a term of abuse, in the same way, interestingly, as it was also used by the McCarthyites in the USA in the 1950s. Needless to say none of the people who use it as abuse have any idea of what Marxism means. But if they were to read what has been written they would discover that contradictions of historical interpretations have been present within the Marxist tradition, not to mention non-Marxist traditions.

Give an example of a contradiction in the Marxist tradition.
The dismissal of Marx’s Asiatic Mode of Production by most Marxists is an example, but more to the point is the debate on whether or not there was feudalism in Indian history? The first time it was seriously discussed in the sixties was by Marxist historians. Various people took it up and explored the idea. A major critique of applying Marx’s theory of the feudal mode of production to India, came initially from another Marxist, not from a non-Marxist. The end result was a robust and vigorous debate among Marxists, later joined by non-Marxists, on what is meant by the concept of feudalism, and was there a particular kind of feudalism that characterised Indian society of that time. The exploration has gone into various other aspects of change, and what was once described as the dark age in colonial historiography has now become brightly illuminated.

Today there are international debates on varieties of feudalism and there are also debates on the meaning of the concept. Some European historians deny its validity as a label describing medieval Europe. It is these debates that help us to expand our knowledge of the past and extend the different ways of understanding it. To merely dismiss it and say there was no such thing as feudalism without discussing it, and to describe every attempt at a secular explanation of the past as Marxist, is to demonstrate a lack of understanding the discipline.

Accepting or rejecting theories of explanation in history – and that is what history underlines these days – involves an intellectual exercise. This in turn requires a wide reading of the sources as well as of those that construct theories of explanation. One wants these debates, and one wants these debates to be of certain intellectual quality. I am sorry if I sound arrogant when I say this, but you can’t have a debate with a wall that has no clue what you are talking about, nor can you with those who simply say, ‘You are a Marxist’ and that ends the discussion. Nor can you with those who tell you youare an ugly historian who is distorting the minds of young students, as I was described three weeks ago.

Who made this accusation?
I get these abusive emails regularly from the same bunch of people – some NRIs and some locals – and of course I trash them. But this abuse is milder than what I usually get. I am a target for two reasons – I am not only a historian who tries to analyse the ancient texts that we use as data instead of taking what they say literally, but I also apply these analyses to what are now regarded as the sacred texts of ancient times. I am not the only one doing so, but all of us are dismissed as Marxists. Additionally, I am a woman so I should not be permitted to do such analyses – Gargi and Maitreyi notwithstanding. So all this reduces the debate to the lowest level.

You have written in The Public Intellectual, 'Colonial views on Indian history and society encouraged the emergence of religious nationalism.' Despite so many books challenging colonial views, why has religious nationalism grown in strength?
One fundamental reason is that we are questioning the historical explanations first propounded by colonial scholarship of the early nineteenth century, but people don’t read the histories that were written in the latter part of the twentieth century that contested these views. If they were to read them their ideas would change. The other reason is that if you have a strong political ideology that claims to explain everything and it is not an ideology that is derived from history or political theory, but from other convictions, then you cannot allow yourself to doubt the ideas that make up your explanation. Should you have doubts, you brush them aside, otherwise your belief in that ideology evaporates.

Doesn’t this have a lot to do with the decline in our educational institutions from the time, say, when you were young? Where did you study?
I studied all over the place. My father was a doctor in the army and every third year he was transferred. So my childhood was in the North West Frontier Province, in places like Thal, Kohat and Razmak.

You remember it vividly?
Very much so, those were lovely times and we lived in the forts along the borderlands. Then we were in Peshawar for two-three years, in Rawalpindi for the next two years, and then my father was posted to Pune, which was where I had the maximum length of schooling at one place. I finished my school and joined Wadia College. On my father’s transfer to Delhi, I had to move with him here. I joined Miranda House. I enrolled for Philosophy Hons., but the course was dreadful, abysmal. I wanted to switch to literature or history, but was told that I would have to go to the first year again. Not wanting to spend five years doing my BA, I finally did it from Panjab University. Then I got admission to the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Fine, so isn’t there a huge difference between schools and colleges in your time and now?
Enormous difference.

Isn’t that part of the problem?
Yes, the basic problem is there. At school, the student is meant to acquire information about the world, and even more important the student has to be taught to think independently and to ask questions about what surrounds him or her. We do neither. The information is generally out-of-date. In the absence of any training for the teacher, the teacher is not taught how to think and therefore cannot teach the student. This is particularly marked in many religious organisations controlling civil society institutions. Their schools are not expected to teach the child to think independently. The child is told what the truth is and has to accept it and not question it.

So if you are not teaching the child to think independently, if you are not giving the child an array of information and do not teach her to think about what she is being taught, you are in fact producing a non-thinking person. This suits the kind of people who are ideologically blinkered. For them non-thinking people are always preferable.

You do seem to think India is experiencing a major crisis today.
Very much so.

How does the current crisis compare to the other crises you have witnessed in the past?
For me the most traumatic crisis was the assassination of Gandhi. One had grown up depending so much on his vision of society and politics. And then, suddenly, one day he was assassinated. I was shattered. I kept asking myself, “To whom do we turn now, what do we do?”

Subsequent to that, the crises have been more about political and economic shifts that have occurred. And I suppose, as one grew up, it became a little easier to handle crises.

But what has not happened before is this degree of wanting to alter the very foundations of Indian society. Many of us are wondering whether this crisis arises from the assumption that the basis of our society should be the Hindu Rashtra, an idea not universally acceptable. Therefore, what we need to do is that when we talk of the pluralities of Indian society, we need to discuss these more fully and openly in its multiple aspects. Plurality should not become a mere slogan. We have to try to get across to people the essential meaning of Indian plurality.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.