‘Voices of Dissent’ by Romila Thapar: An Excerpt

Written by one of India’s best-known public intellectuals, Voices of Dissent has immense relevance. It is essential reading for anyone who contemplates not only the Indian past but also the direction in which society and the nation is headed.

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An Excerpt

Dissent, disagreement, difference of opinion have all not only been present in the Indian past but have also, through their interaction with existing ideas and practices, contributed to creating new idioms that have been crucial to the making of what we today call Indian civilization, patterns of living, cultures, traditions—call them what you will. To recognize forms of dissent and observe their interaction with society is essential to understanding the outcome of conversations both of the past and of the pre- sent that hover around the Self and the Other, and speak of conservatism and dissent; to encourage us to look at how we envisage the present and what it portends of the future; to validate the political roots of our attempts to establish a secular democratic society and, above all, a just society.

I have tried to argue that in earlier times dissent was often, but not always, expressed through various forms of renunciation, or by establishing a new sect with an alternative message. In pre- modern times, this frequently involved a religious idiom as it was easily recognized and had a social outreach. We should learn to read not only its religious message but also what it wished to convey in a wider context.

Modern times have experienced the coming of nationalism that is part of an elemental change in society. Inevitably, dissent today expresses new aspirations, although the avenues of dissent may remain familiar or may take new forms. The coming of the nation-state, the struggle for its autonomy and the replacing of slaves, serfs and subjects by the free citizen with full rights introduces a new vision of the present and the future. Dissent no longer needs to use the idiom of religion and can now use the idiom of civil society, and the subject at issue is that of the rights of citizens. This historical mutation has to be understood, recognized and appreciated both by those governing and those being governed. Dissent can still use some of the older recognition in the last century. But it must also introduce the new avenues necessary in the changed context.

We have to learn to expect and accept dissenting views and discuss them—not silence them. Dissent in our time must be audible, distinct, opposed to injustice and supportive of democratic rights. The articulation of dissent does not mean a violent revolution. It is a civilized discourse on disturbing questions that need answers.

Forms of dissent are not imports into Indian thinking from the West as has been and is argued by those unwilling to explore the implications of dissent in a society. Nor does dissent ride in only on the backs of rational philosophies. Its origins lie in a multiplicity of ideas that come from diverse ways of thought and from manifold lived experiences. These ideas range from the many debates in the Indian philosophical tradition to the teachings of those who mingled with the populace and preached what they envisaged as living worthwhile lives.

I have taken three historical examples to illustrate my thoughts, each separated by a millennium, and each initially projected as a category of the Other. As such, they implicitly formed epicentres of dissent. From the simple duality of the first example, there was a contrast in the second and the third with layers of Otherness and their multiple manifestations addressing a range of those articulating the views of the Selves. [. . . ] Some ideas were opposed and rejected, some were subsumed into the thinking of the dominant society and some were accommodated as yet another juxtaposed sect, whether willingly or not. We need to know what social relationships emerged from these procedures. How were they viewed? Equally important is the question that we rarely ask: How did the various sects on their part view these social relationships? What would be the view of these historical moments from the perspective of the Others?