Interview: Romila Thapar on her new book, Indian Cultures as Heritage

Romila Thapar’s new book touches on thought-provoking subjects including attitudes to knowledge, the role of women, the context of objects that identify cultures and ideas like social discrimination that shape it. In an email interview, she elaborated on these ideas

books Updated: Mar 09, 2018 21:27 IST
Manjula Narayan
Manjula Narayan
Hindustan Times
Hindu Rashtra,Dalits,Buddhism
Time for a fresh secular code applicable to all Indian citizens alike?: Activists protest against Triple Talaq in New Delhi on 5 October 2017.(Kamal Singh/PTI)
Indian Cultures As Heritage; Romila Thapar; Rs 599, 222pp; Aleph

In the book’s introduction, you write: “Today when we speak of culture the objects and ideas may well be taken back to the ancient past, but our definition of culture is rooted in how culture was perceived in the nineteenth century…” Please elaborate on this touching on how the colonial experience led to a certain self-examination among upper caste elites that in turn led to the Hindu revivalist movements that then led to others including Gandhism and eventually to aggressive Hindu nationalism. What can we expect going forward especially as – as you mention elsewhere - secularism is being challenged by religious nationalism in the different countries of the subcontinent – Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Culture as a concept referred generally to the life-style of the elite and the upper castes and all that was associated with this. In Europe, civilization grew from this and was extended in its application to historical societies. In the nineteenth century and with the association of colonialism, it referred to those societies and countries that had an impressive stamp of an extensive territory, a sophisticated use of a language and therefore of literature in that language, a single religion, of art and architecture and such like.

Culture came to be redefined in the late nineteenth century and was used to refer to a pattern of living. This definition included more than the elite and gradually extended over the entire hierarchy of a society. The colonial take on this was to reiterate the culture of the elite as superior. Origins of the elite groups were sought from the past, such as those of the Aryans in India, viewed as the elite and the superior culture in colonial scholarship and later in Indian writing as well. The current concerns with origins, both of the Hindus and of Hinduism, is a continuation of colonial thinking. In Indian sources, the term Aryan referred to those that were to be respected, irrespective of their origins. These did not have to be people of the upper castes. Monks for instance, even if they were of the lower castes, were nevertheless addressed as aryas.

Both, the idea of Pakistan and of Hindu Rashtra, that took shape at about the same time around the 1930s, are again derived from colonial interpretations of Indian history as propounded in the two nation theory. There was some self-reflection among anti-colonial nationalists who rejected some aspects of the colonial interpretations, but the general framework continued. From about the 1950s this began to be questioned by historians. Such questioning was seen as a threat by those still projecting colonial views, as were some politicians in Pakistan and the supporters of Hindutva in India who supported the two-nation theory. The concept of an India that is for, by and of, the Hindus, treated therefore as primary citizens, draws its legitimacy as political enterprise from the colonial construction of India as consisting of two nations, the Hindu and the Muslim.

The countries of South Asia have inherited a history written by colonial historians and some of their contemporary South Asian associates. One of the by-products of this history is the continuing perception in these countries that the identity of each comes from the majority religious community. The politics of religious majoritarianism, of course, denies both democratic functioning and a secular society. This is the point at which the countries of South Asia have to decide what kind of society they want.

The creation of cultures through TV: People watching a live telecast of the Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim verdict in Gurgaon on August 25, 2017. (Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

You mention the creating of cultures through social media, TV, ads and cinema. You write that ‘TV presents a virtual reality that can destroy the actual reality with fantasy becoming more central to culture than reality’. Please expand on this with reference to the distortion of reality through TV propaganda, the phenomenon of fake news, and through such social media instruments as Whatsapp forwards.

If culture is defined as a pattern of life, as it is being defined these days, then it means that various changes are implicit in this definition. It is no longer the pattern that only relates to the life of the elite. Other patterns of life have also to be included. It therefore makes sense to speak of cultures in the plural, to refer to a range of cultures. This is pertinent when it comes to defining what is called ‘a national culture’. Can it be a singular pattern? Can we speak of a single mainstream culture without recognizing the patterns that have been imprinted on it through history? In our times, patterns of living are often given a direction by the agencies of popular culture such as the social media, TV, advertisements, and the cinema. This is quite obvious from the styles of living, clothing, food habits, usages in language and even ethical values. The way patterns of living are presented in these agencies, are often fantasies or images that encourage fantasies, and even extend beyond to a form of virtual reality. But of course, fantasies also need to be analyzed and given a context. Collective fantasies are not arbitrary as they are conveying a message about how people see themselves.

The lure of the Whatsapp forward. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

You’ve said that the greater emphasis on a particular identity the greater will be the emphasis on the exclusion of the other. This is true in the case of Muslims in India. But there also seems to be a push in India today to broaden the idea of Indian identity by reaching out to the margins when it comes to areas like the north-east which has been culturally different from the mainland, and similarly with the RSS working among tribes to Hinduise them in places like Arunachal. How does one make sense of this in the current context?

A bigger emphasis on a particular identity can exclude others as is happening today. With the emphasis on Hindus – and that too not all Hindus but those with a particular pattern of life – being the primary inheritors of Indian culture, and with history being projected as that of the majority community, there is a further marginalization of the minorities. Those such as Dalits and Adivasis who are not Muslims and Christians, are sought to be brought into the majoritarian mainstream by converting them to Hinduism. It is ironic that religious conversion to Islam or Christianity is deplored and opposed by Hindus, but these conversions to Hinduism are applauded. This is a way of holding out a promise to those that are totally subordinated that by converting to Hinduism they can move up the social hierarchy. But those being converted are not aware that this has happened before in Indian history when they were converted to Islam and Christianity, but it made no change in their social status. Such groups if they were to be familiar with history, would know that the practice of discrimination and exclusion has been part of the pattern of living of India – a cultural heritage - even if we hesitate to recognize it.

Nuns and women Bhakti devotees discarding the code of Manu and the role of dutiful daughter, subservient wife and widow under the protection of her son come across as proto-feminist. Why do you think Brahmanism did not encourage the creation of communities of women unlike Buddhism? You mention that the Shramanic traditions encouraged “renouncing social conventions in order to join a religious order” while Bhakti (a revolt against Brahmanical orthodoxy) was a renouncing of social conventions in order to discover individual self-expression.

The creation of communities of women, such as the Buddhist and Jaina nuns of the Shramanic religions was not allowed in the Brahmanical religion, barring a very few rare exceptions in late medieval times. This was not because of the animosity between the Brahmanas and the Shramanas, which the Sanskrit grammarian Patanjali describes as comparable to that between the snake and the mongoose, but also because the caste system, if strictly observed, required a patriarchal society. This precluded allowing women the freedom to choose a different life from the one ordained for them by the Dharmashastras. There were a few women Bhakti teachers but in no instance did they or their supporters constitute and order of nuns, which women could join by leaving their duties as housewives.

Romila Thapar (Courtesy Aleph)

You write: “... it may be more to the point if we cleared away the multiple laws of majority and minority religious code and drafted an entirely fresh secular code applicable to all Indian citizens alike. That may bring back the ethical in our thinking.” Please expand on this.

A secular society is not one that only insists on all religions coexisting. All religions must also have equal status and citizens must have the right to practice whichever one they chose to. But a secular society requires other inputs if it is to be secular. It is also a society that has secular civil laws. They must be laws that underline as primary, the rights of citizens and the presence of the ethical. Secular laws pertaining to birth, marriage and inheritance, must replace the existing religious customary laws and what are regarded as laws legitimized by religion. Differentiated religious laws being incorporated into civil codes, undermines secular society. Eventually a new civil code should replace the religious codes and be brought into practice.

Read more: The many worlds and wonders of Indian history

The secularization of society is essential to ensure the existence of democracy. The need for the secular is not just to enable us to say that we are not a theocratic state, but is essential to the functioning of democracy. Democratic systems cannot exist where there are predetermined religious majority and minority groups that are treated as fundamental to the functioning of democratic institutions, such as in elections to the Lok Sabha. We have been combining religion and politics by observing laws that claim religious sanctity as the basis of civil laws. This is an impediment in a multi-religious society.

First Published: Mar 09, 2018 21:25 IST