Noted historian and academic Romila Thapar recently had a round table meeting with members of the Indian Cultural Forum, a group that matters of concern to artists, academics and cultural practitioners. In the five-part session, Thapar spoke about the traditions of dissent in India, on the historical roots of nationalism, and why questions are needed to build a robust democracy and create knowledge.
Thapar, who is not a stranger to intolerant attacks, began by going back to the dissent by those who did not accept “vedic Brahmanism”, highlighting the dissent of poets such as Kabir. “Today to say that this rational tradition did not exist is partly out of ignorance, and partly out of ideology,” Thapar explained. “An ideology that prefers everybody to conform to a certain kind of thinking, which has been invented in the modern period.”
About nationalism, Thapar says, that it is usually a “historical phase” that is borne as a counter to either colonialism or capitalism or the “identity of people coming together”.
But, she added, today’s nationalism is ahistorical. “We are at the moment today when nationalism means territory,” Thapar said, adding, “We are all nationalists in our own way and that debate on nationalism in a post-independence nation like ours is yet to be broad-based and public.”
“Critical inquiry is the route of knowledge,” Thapar said about the need for questioning in society. “You cannot have knowledge unless you ask the question ‘why’, ‘how’, ’when’. Questioning is fundamental. For ministers to get up and say ‘you cannot ask questions’, is the most ridiculous thing I have heard in years.”
The academic referred to kautuhalashala, a place for questions dating to 500 BC. “What today’s universities need is the kautuhalashala,“ Thapar said.