Dissent is one word which has assured, in the last few years, a currency unprecedented in our democratic history. The reason obviously is that at many levels, political, social, cultural, dissent is under severe assault. A political ethos and regime have emerged asserting that dissent from majoritanism is not only not permissible if not by the State, by the numerous groups of vigilantes which have mushroomed illegally and unconstitutionally. Dissent is not a right which was conferred upon ‘we the people of India’ as the Constitution states but it is inherent in all structures of democratic nature. However, in the current climate of violence and bans dissent is being termed and seen as ‘anti-national’, ‘anti-Indian’, ‘anti-Hindu’.
It can be reasonably argued that in India, from the beginning of its civilisational enterprise, nothing has remained singular for long; in fact, nothing has been, in a sense, allowed to be singular for long. Whether god or religion, philosophy or metaphysics, language or custom, cuisine or costume — every realm is dominated by plurality. It is not accidental or purely a linguistic device that in many Western languages the word for India is plural – Indes meaning Indias. It is difficult to talk about a single Indian tradition: there are multiple traditions, all authentically and robustly Indian. Even within a single major religion Hinduism there are four vedas (not one), millions of gods, 18 upanishads, six schools of classical philosophy, two epics, four purusharthas. In fact it can be easily claimed that India as a country and equally as a civilisation is an unending celebration of human plurality. It has survived through millennia mainly through plurality, both as a people and as a civilisation.
Plurality, on its part, is inevitably embedded in the notion that there are many ways of looking and living in the world. Also, that plurality accommodates differences. These differences, in their turn, embody and enact dissent. When the vedic seer ordains in a grand manner the noble notion ‘aanobhadrah kratvo yantu vishwatah’, what is being sanctified is the idea that there are ideas spread all over the world and they are all welcome. The other vedic saying envisages that ‘vasudhaiv kutumbkam’ or the whole earth is a family. Such openness to the plurality of ideas and their acceptance as in a family is the core of the Vedic cosmic vision. It could be asserted that, throughout the millennia, many dilutions and distortions may have taken place in real life and practice, as they do almost inevitably everywhere, Indian traditions and civilisation never lost sight of this noble vision nor ever failed to allow adequate space for it.
India invented four religions namely Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The birth and growth of the later three religions is yet another instance when Buddha, Mahavir and Nanak, the three founders of the three religions, dissented from the ritualistic and social caste rigidities of the Sanatan Dharma to discover new paths of spirituality, metaphysics, social organisation and liberation. Here is religious plurality being created through religious dissent. Buddhism and Jainism are two religions in India which are not posited on the notion and existence of God. They are two godless religions and this fact cannot be superseded by the reality that, overtime, followers of both religions started worshiping Buddha and Mahavir as gods. Also, Sanatan Dharma included Buddha as one of the ten avatars of God, ‘Dashavtar’ along with Rama and Krishna. Another level of the irrepressible plurality incorporating within its fold that which was distinctly radical dissent.
Whether in traditions of creative expression or in the repertoire of intellectual articulation, in India dissent from faith or from the state has always been allowed to grow and be acknowledged and accommodated. In fact, the vital plurality was many a time inspired by or expanded through dissent. For instance, when the classical tyranny of Sanskrit needed to be questioned and subverted, the many modern Indian languages came into being as forms of dissent from the classical. The vernacular did not, as it were, demolish or aspire to occupy the hallowed space of the classical. Instead it became a dissenting parallel. Each Indian language embodies and sustains a worldview which deviates from the classical world view of Sanskrit. The presence of nearly 1,000 Ramayanas in India ranging from creative transformations in languages to different readings from the Jain point view for instance, are evidence that the domination of a narrative and the worldview it enacted and expressed was creatively challenged and transformed. A Kannada Ramayan or a Hindi Ramcharitmanas deviate quite substantially from the original in Sanskrit by Valmiki and all of them are thought to have validity and sanction.
Some satisfaction can be derived from the fact that in the present situation some writers-artists-intellectuals have refused to be silent and have protested. It could be claimed that they have stood by the glorious and unbroken tradition of plurality and dissent and hopefully would continue to fight through creative and intellectual means for democratic values of freedom, justice and equality as enshrined both in our traditions and the Constitution. All thinking and creative persons owe this much at least to Indian heritage, creative imagination and humanity. That they have many different points once again underlines the innate plurality of both affirmation and dissent in India.
Ashok Vajpeyi is a former bureaucrat, a Hindi poet and critic
The views expressed are personal