Published:  12:46 AM, 02 February 2019

Romila Thapar: 'The media today is not communicating reality but propagating ideology'

Romila Thapar: 'The media today is not communicating reality but propagating ideology'

Interview by Siddharth Varadarajan

Romila Thapar is an Indian historian whose principal area of study is ancient India. She is the author of several books including the popular volume, A History of India, and is currently Professor Emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. In a freewheeling conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan, the celebrated historian discusses the place of nationalism in contemporary Indian politics, the role of the media and of the public intellectual.

Siddharth Varadarajan: Is critical thinking in India somehow under threat? In posing this question, I had in mind not just overt or covert pressures from the state, or political figures or political authority, but also, in a sense, public attitudes. The growing tendency for the public to acquiesce in the state's own intolerant attitude towards dissent, towards difference, the ease with which the middle class buys into hero worship, cult of personality, excessive valorization of the nation; these are all very much a part of present day India.

If you look at the election of Donald Trump, or if you look at political trends in Europe, then clearly this may also be a global phenomenon. Of course, the 'closing of the Indian mind' has been going on for some time - I would say for longer than the tenure of the present government, you can trace it back a decade or longer.

But there is a sense in which these negative trends have accentuated or sharpened over the past two and a half years. In 2015, we saw the debate over tolerance and intolerance - when artists, writers, cultural personalities mounted a critique of the government's own toleration of violence, and its failure to act when minorities were being targeted - and the prickly way in which government ministers responded.

And then in 2016, the attack seems to have shifted to the university. We saw the way events unfolded in Jawahar Lal Nehru University. I would say things have since moved on - we have a very toxic media environment where excessive jingoism seems to have become the norm and you have a situation where the executive branch of government is encroaching on virtually every countervailing institution this country has: the judiciary, parliament, the central bank, the media etc.

In this kind of an environment, where critical thinking is under threat, how do you see the role of public intellectuals? What should they be doing?

Romila Thapar: Well, you raised a host of issues. Before I get on to the 'public intellectual', let me just say that I have been disturbed like all of us have been disturbed, by not just what has been happening in our country, but worldwide, and the election of Trump was certainly a startling wake up call. I think it does raise a couple of questions which need to be answered, like why are we losing the sense of critical inquiry that we always appreciated?

It is true that the idea of a critical inquiry is usually associated with the middle class, and there is an element there of very conventional thinking, largely, but there is also an element of dissent, and I think one should really look at what is happening there as well.

Admittedly, it is true that the dissent has not been as vocal as one would have thought, which does add to the notion that there is a decline, and there is, in fact, a decline of critical inquiry. But I think that the two issues it does bring up very strongly: one is the question of the institutions and structures of democracy, have we come to a point today, where we have to rethink what those institutions and structures should be?

We have always based ourselves on elections, representation- how to represent people and opinion and so on, the articulation people's ideas, the whole question of majoritarianism and so on. Is this sufficient or do we have to go beyond this now and consider the fact that there seem to be all these people coming into power on really a minority vote? I mean, one-third is hardly a majority vote, and the process is such that they have to come to power. Even Trump's vote is not such an overwhelming vote.

Varadarajan: If you're right in tracing some of the recent developments that people find unfathomable to problems in the way the university systems function, that would suggest a reason why zeroing in on universities is so important for the current dispensation in India, and why universities have emerged as a frontline for official interference and action as well as resistance.

What has been remarkable over the last two and a half years, beginning with the film students at FTII, Pune, to the agitation of students of the University of Hyderabad over Rohith Vemula's suicide, and in JNU and other campuses, is that students and faculty members don't seem to be taking this assault on their autonomy and right to think critically lying down. Do you think this holds some promise for the way the situation may evolve?

Thapar: Well, I think up to a point it is logical. We have had an element of two things: we have had an element of suggesting that education means critical thinking, and in universities like JNU from example, from day one we have said to students "you have got to ask questions, think about what you're reading and writing, enquire into what you are reading and writing", so that has been an element in some institutions. What is interesting is that the institutions that are picked on, are the institutions that have had a trace of critical inquiry.

I mean they are not picking on any university and any institution, they pick on those where people have learned to think slightly independently. In addition to that, you have got the other feature, which is terribly important, and that is that in any kind of democratic system, and I think up to a point we have been developing this in the past, that there are certain institutions that can claim autonomy, and universities and research institutions of a higher level are amongst those. They must not just claim this autonomy but also protect it.

I think part of this problem has been precisely that people have seen that the autonomy of the university or the institution is being infringed in a very serious way. It is important to maintain this autonomy because you cannot have a democratic system in which the government controls absolutely everything. You have to have some institutions that are beyond government control, that are autonomous.

Take the case of textbooks, many of us have been arguing for the last decade or more that the agencies that produce textbooks should be: a) handled only by professionals; b) they should be autonomous of the government. So agencies like the NCERT should be autonomous bodies manned by social scientists and scientists who supervise the writing of textbooks and this doesn't mean that every time the government changes, the textbooks change.

Varadarajan: When the BJP or the RSS says it embraces genuine secularism, and criticizes others as being pseudo-secular, what they do is question the democratic state's need to act in defense of sections - linguistic, or religious minorities - who are disadvantaged in some way. They would decry that as appeasement or pseudo-secularism.  Such protections are very Gandhian in any philosophical sense, but they would hold those as somehow subverting the concept of citizenship.

Thapar: But in fact, it's not, because your own concept of the nation is not supporting equal citizenship fully and your programs are not supporting equal citizenship. If your programs were supporting equal citizenship one would say "yes, it's alright", but you can't allow a situation where some people are more vulnerable than others and yet talk about equal citizenship. This also ties in a little bit with our definition of secularism, where we keep on talking about the coexistence of religion.

I've been trying to argue that it's more than that, it's not just the coexistence of religions but the equal right of every religion to human rights, constitutional laws etc. Secondly, there are certain areas of social functioning where you don't allow religious organizations to call the shots.

They have to be through secular institutions and should not be governed by any religious organization. In a sense, education is also one of those issues which is going to come up in a big way if we do move on to being genuinely secular.

Varadarajan: They take out ads in papers saying these are your fundamental duties, they don't do it for rights.Thapar: That's it. They don't talk about rights and don't concede that the citizen has the right to say "I'm sorry, I would like that the issue of Kashmir, Bastar, the adivasis, the dalits, the burning of churches, or whatever the issue is, I would like it discussed publicly.

The media should be taking up these discussions and saying that there are different points of view and there is nothing anti-national about it". But again, if it is a sense of insecurity, then you start saying "you have to do this".

Varadarajan: Ambedkar, back in the 1940s, had warned against the tendency to have the cult of hero worship. He was, of course, referring to Gandhi and Jinnah, but that's something that could equally apply to modern day India.

Thapar: That is certainly something nationalism does bring - the cult of hero worship everywhere in the world where you've had strong nationalist movements because in a sense it is the hero that leads you on and takes you to places and makes a different human being out of you and makes a citizen out of you.

We have always taught history from the point of view of the hero, it is only recently that it's begun to change, that people are talking about the past in different terms. Then there's this sense of the utopia, that India was great in the time of Ashoka and Akbar.

Who knows what the reality was as we cannot go back into the past, but nevertheless there is that faith and so even today you feel that if there is a strong person who's handling governance, then you put your faith in that person.Varadarajan: On that note, we'll end, thank you so much for this conversation.

Siddharth Varadarajan is an American journalist, editor, and academic. He is the former editor of The Hindu, one of India's leading English language newspapers.
The interview appeared in

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