Indians not ‘more’ or ‘less’tolerant or violent than others

In a new book, Talking History, historian Romila Thapar in conversation with Ramin Jehanbegloo and Neeladri Bhattacharya, dwells on myths around India’s tolerance and non-violence

 Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint via Getty Images
Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint via Getty Images

Ramin Jahanbegloo

An intellectual biography of Romila Thapar has been long overdue. Thapar is one of the world’s foremost experts on the history of early India. Her multifaceted work, from her early research on Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas to her classic studies on the lineage system in India, her questioning of the dominant paradigms of historians, both from the colonial era and from the more recent nationalist era to even more recent reflections on the role of a public intellectual in India, have made her one of the most frequently read, discussed, and cited historians of our time.

Let us not forget that Thapar is not just a historian, but also a Socratic gadfly who stands by her examined life and reasoned arguments, and is ready to intervene at any moment in the Indian public sphere as well as in the global civil society. She is rightly fascinated by the Socratic dialogue as well as the matchless political debates à la Camus. They both entail a fundamental trust in the criteria of excellence that Thapar stands for. It is in this spirit of civility and the pursuit of truth that this book of conversations took shape.

I have known Thapar for nearly twenty years and our intellectual friendship has been a blessing for me. Over the years, I insisted to do a book of conversations with her and she refused. But, as we discussed the project, a new dimension of confidence and serenity emerged. We agreed to a book in three voices. Therefore, Neeladri Bhattacharya, a Professor of modern history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and an ex-student of Thapar, joined us for some of the sessions.

Ramin Jehanbegloo: From the point of view of some, India has always been the country of non-violence, where you have this incubation of the concept of ahimsa. As you say, ‘This is redefining a tradition which might not have been there because there are elements of violence in Indian history’. (But) …many people around the world continue to have this romantic view of India as a country of non-violence.

Romila Thapar: Which we push, because it’s to our advantage to do so. Tolerance and non-violence. And goodness knows, it’s been no more or less tolerant or violent than other societies.

RJ: Who is this ‘we’? Because it’s certainly not you.

RT: Not me, but a more general opinion.

RJ: Is this part of Indian nationalist history writing?

RT: It is part of Indian nationalist history writing. Indian nationalist history writing took up these issues in order to differentiate Indian culture from European culture, and to take the stand of being, and having been historically, tolerant and non-violent. They were defining themselves against the colonial power, and assuming superiority over the colonial power on the issue of these two ethical principles.

NB: Would you say that there is a distinction between those who are tracing a long lineage of non-violence and those who are tracing a history of tolerance? Many of us constantly return to the resources of tolerance in order to confront the violence of the present. Would you not see these two forms of return to the past—one to track a history of non-violence and the other to trace the history of tolerance—differently?

RT: Yes, slightly differently, but, on the other hand, the way in which both concepts have been used has been highly politicised….

NB: True, but everyone is implicated in this politicisation … not just the nationalists, not just those who celebrate the tolerance of Hindu civilisation, but also the secularists….

RT: Yes, also some secularists. My complaint is always that even though we keep talking about the need to secularise society, we haven’t debated in depth the definition of what it means to be secular, going beyond just tolerance. What in the twenty-first century would it mean to secularise Indian society? That exercise has not been done. It’s said, ‘We have a potentiality for secularism because we are non-violent and we are tolerant’.

Particularly, ‘We are tolerant’. Are we really tolerant? And if we are, are we more tolerant or less intolerant than others? What are the reasons for it? They cannot be just religious–philosophical reasons. There has to be something in the way societies function.

Some have read it as discrete caste groups which allowed tolerance because each person knew their place in the social scheme and couldn’t do anything to change it; and that religion was frequently confined to smaller social groups, where a sect drew on a small cluster of castes. This negated the identities of huge monolithic religions. Relations of tolerance and intolerance were, therefore, determined by the relations between these smaller caste groups.

Yet the very definition of what constituted a discrete group was based on extreme social intolerance of the lowest by the highest. And every religion in India internalized this intolerance and had its category of Dalits. But even history, the kind of history I’ve done, demonstrates that there were groups who opposed such intolerance and others that referred to it, but did nothing. So where does this question of tolerance come from?

NB: As you rightly say, violence is internal to the structure of caste, it is an intimate part of the everyday social life of the past. So, any effort to characterise Indian civilization and culture as essentially non-violent is unacceptable. It represses the intimate histories of violence. Nor can anyone homogenize the past as tolerant. But can one talk of building on the resources of tolerance—accepting it is only one of the many different traditions we inherit?

In any case … going back to your earlier point … we are only talking about a small segment of the society in the past … we’re leaving out large sections of the population which are not part of this culture … who live differently….

RT: Which are not conforming to it.

NB: Yes, those who have been marginalised by caste society and are not part of the Sanskritic culture, those who experience exclusion and oppression … not tolerance….

RT: I think this is part of the reason why today their resentment is surfacing in such a big way. The crisis also arises from the non-marginalised thinking that, ‘These people on the margins are not like us, not like the mainstream, so what do we do with them?’ Yet they know perfectly well why there is a difference.

These extracts have been taken with permission from Oxford University Press. 338 page

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Published: 30 Jul 2017, 9:00 AM
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