Voices of Dissent
Forthcomig in December 2023
Written by one of India’s best-known public intellectuals, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in India’s fascinating history as well as the direction in which the nation is headed.
People have argued since time immemorial. Disagreement is a part of life, of human experience. But we now live in times when any form of protest in India is marked as anti-Indian and met with arguments that the very concept of dissent was imported into India from the West. As Romila Thapar explores in her timely historical essay, however, dissent has a long history in the subcontinent, even if its forms have evolved through the centuries.
In Voices of Dissent: An Essay, Thapar looks at the articulation of nonviolent dissent and relates it to various pivotal moments throughout India’s history. Beginning with Vedic times, she takes us from the second to the first millennium BCE, to the emergence of groups that were jointly called the Shramanas—the Jainas, Buddhists, and Ajivikas. Going forward in time, she also explores the views of the Bhakti sants and others of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and brings us to a major moment of dissent that helped to establish a free and democratic India: Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha. Then Thapar places in context the recent peaceful protests against India’s new, controversial citizenship law, maintaining that dissent in our time must be opposed to injustice and supportive of democratic rights so that society may change for the better.
Read another Excerpt: Romila Thapar on the Intellectual Sources of Gandhi's Satyagraha
‘Dissent, expressed against the state as much as institutional forms of religion, creates traditions of thinking that are always available as a resource. Hence, when Gandhi thinking against colonial violence thinks through the idea of satyagraha, he draws upon a library of dissent with its vocabulary and forms. . . . Thapar does not make an argument for passive inheritance. At each historical juncture, the reimagining of an ethical conception of equality and compassion draws upon a rich vein of dissentient thought. Democracy survives because of dissent. Forms of political and social orthodoxy are contingent; and the battle against them is always ongoing.’—Dilip Menon, India Today. Read the full review here.
‘Where this book shines is in its discussion of how dissent often arises from within cultures, and not from outside, restructuring social relations and enabling mutation of knowledge through the questioning of institutions. . . . The book raises some significant questions, not only for the political establishment but also for dissenters. Does dissent seek resolution of conflict, sharing of power, annihilation of tradition, or merely a recognition of plurality in thought? . . . If dissent gives way to accommodation, is that a win-win situation or a selling out? Can ideological purity coexist with political pragmatism?’—Chintan Girish Modi, Business Standard
‘The book points out that history has always served the function of justifying the present. This is usually done by the people in power who push certain values and ideologies onto our pasts and place the past on a pedestal, all to make history fit their policies. . . . What makes this book of interest to us living in Bangladesh is the fact that it traces the history of dissent from before the subcontinent was divided. This history, therefore, is not just Indian; it is our shared history.’—Daily Star (Dhaka)
‘Even today Indian society fails to accept the enormity of material inequities, fascinated as it is with the metaphysical spirit. In short, the privileging of a highly metaphysical tradition as the public philosophy of India has led us away from the reality of social oppressions and ignoble power. It cannot help us to challenge power equations, let alone remedy inequities. Thapar’s essay propels this very recognition to the centre of our political concerns.’—Neera Chandhoke, Pacific Affairs
Read an excerpt from the book in the Telegraph: Scapegoats are required as a diversion when there is a failure in governance . . .
And another excerpt in the Caravan (behind paywall): Intersecting Sects: On India’s Long Tradition of Dissent
Romlia Thapar speaks to Suchitra Vijayan of the Polis Project in Dispatches, Episode 20
And to Sandip Roy on Indian Express’s Sandip Roy Show: Romila Thapar on dissent in India from Vedic Brahmanism to Shaheen Bagh
A recent interview with the author was published in the Hindu: The Dissent of Shaheen Bagh Was Visible and Non-violent
Read Romila Thapar on Why Dissent is Inevitable in the Daily Star, the leading English daily of Bangladesh