India’s pre-eminent historian Romila Thapar, frequently accused of being Left-liberal, is not on Shiv Sena’s radar. Her formidable knowledge and no-nonsense approach probably puts off the party’s leaders and vigilantes. Or it could be that the party with its unabashed preference for strong-arm methods finds it difficult to engage with the rich intellectual submission that Thapar makes.
Whatever be the reason, Thapar’s scheduled lecture in the city on Monday evening, in the memory of the Islamic scholar and reformist Dr Asghar Ali Engineer, went off without a hitch.
She spoke on “Indian Society and The Secular” with her usual depth and verve, and then engaged the audience in a question-answer session, her grace and good humour coming through to the packed hall. It seats 600 but there was not even standing room in the aisles.
It was as if hundreds of Mumbaiites had made their way to not only hear Thapar but also to offer individual affirmation that it is worth being secular in these times when every aspect of life is coloured by religious identity.
It was a collective statement that the credo of secularism is worth upholding in the brittle, fundamentalist times we live in. It was a subtle message to the BJP and Shiv Sena, now in government, who lose no opportunity to deride secularism.
Mumbai’s history includes a strong secularist tradition but in the telling of the city’s story, this gets over-shadowed by other, more dominant elements of commerce, industry and entrepreneurship that came to define the city in the 19th century.
Popular cinema, entertainment, mass culture, concentration of wealth and the wealthy, and the rapacious real estate lobby are added to the contemporary narrative. Its waning cosmopolitanism is lamented upon, especially after the Sena rendered it a deadly blow in 1992-93.
But historians have recorded the city’s secularism. Caste, kinship and village connections were factors that determined the organisation of work and living spaces of industrialists and workers as Bombay became industrialised.
In Girangaon, the old textile mill area in central Mumbai that saw the fastest growth, some religious and caste practices gave way to a more communal life as private and public spaces of the workers segued into one another.
This led to shared celebrations of festivals, inter-mingling of rituals and new kinships that went beyond religion and caste, and strengthened despite attempts by the then government and industrialists to divide communities.
A few pernicious practices such as not sharing a meal in a low- caste colleague’s house persisted, but by and large, the tradition of shared spaces and experiences not determined solely by religion took root.
The “theatre of the street” was a secular enterprise. Balladeers and shahirs like the late Amar Shaikh whose birth centenary is being observed this year borrowed their idiom and references from multiple religions. Hindus attended Moharram processions. As historian Rajnarayan Chandavarkar observed in his book “History, Culture and Indian City”, chawls, streets and neighbourhoods organised communal activities, “whether satyanarayan pujas, Moharram tolis, melas…”. The Ganeshotsav festival, he pointed out, changed its character in the 20th century which “until the 1970s, had an important secular dimension” to a celebration of Hindu triumphalism.
Thapar evoked those times when she spoke about secularising the society. If we want a secular society then “we would have to cease to think of ourselves as identified primarily by religion, caste, or language, and start thinking
of ourselves primarily as equal citizens of one nation, both in theory and in practice…The relationship of other identities such as religion, caste, language and region, will inevitably become secondary,” she said.
Secularism is not a political slogan nor does it mean a denial of religion, she pointed out. It is “the distinction between religion and religious control over social institutions”. She called for education sector and civil laws to be made more secular.
Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray should have heard Thapar; so also chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.