Historian Romila Thapar on academic freedom, nationalism, sedition, and free speech.

Historian Romila Thapar on academic freedom, nationalism, sedition, and free speech.

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A widely respected public intellectual, Romila Thapar has groomed generations of students in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and earlier in Delhi University. Frank in her views, she insists that in the given climate where people’s nationalism is questioned merely on the basis of a slogan or two, as in the case of JNU, the primary identity of every “citizen of India, over and above all other identities of religion, caste, language, race and suchlike,” is that of an Indian. “Nationalism,” she points out, “does not allow the Hindu in India or the Muslim in Pakistan to claim primacy and privilege as a citizen on the basis of being members of a religious majority community.” In favour of repealing the sedition law, she took a few questions from Ziya Us Salam. Excerpts:Historian Romila Thapar on academic freedom, nationalism, sedition, and free speech.
Sedition is being thrown around with reckless ease and disdain at students or at anybody who is critical of the government. Are we in danger of the state riding roughshod over all individual freedom?
Sedition is an extremely serious matter and cannot be bandied about or treated casually as we have started doing in recent times. Those who have the right to accuse a citizen of sedition should be first taught what it actually means and implies, since many people are unaware of its implications or when it is appropriate. Countries change their borders within a century, as indeed the borders of British India changed in the twentieth century with the establishing of three separate nations. Nationalisms are now said to be of various kinds. Governments therefore have to be meticulous in its understanding and sensitive to its meaning before accusing a citizen of sedition. It cannot be used casually in lieu of abuse. In colonial times, sedition related to statements made to incite violence against the colonial state. Today, the colonial state does not exist. It has been replaced by three independent states, so the context of seditious remarks has to that extent become more complex. The law regarding sedition has to be repealed.
In the light of the JNU experience, the government probably does not seem to be well disposed towards freedom of expression, and is happy to see nationalism being bandied about as the monopoly of a chosen few. How disconcerting is this for you as an Indian citizen and a vocal intellectual?
Most people are generally satisfied with leading conventional lives that do not require unconventional views and activities. Intellectuals and academics, however, are not only given to making enquiries in the furthering of knowledge, but this is their expected function. In doing so, they have to be confident that they will be allowed to think in ways that may deviate from the conventional, provided of course their thought and actions are not socially harmful. And what might be socially harmful is always a matter that has to be teased apart and debated. Intellectuals are expected to explore ideas and to do so preferably without fear. But if they have to live in fear, then that fear seeps into the lives of the people amongst whom they live. A society whose ambience is suffused with fear ceases to nurture creativity and its life is reduced to a routine banality.
On a slightly wider canvas, it seems all abodes of free speech are in danger. The Film and Television Institute of India, Hyderabad Central University, Aligarh Muslim University, JNU… there seems to be no end to right-wing parties and their various affiliates hurling accusations to mar the fair name of an institution. Does it remind you of the Emergency?
There seems to be a growing attempt to dismantle institutions where creativity in thought is encouraged. In most cases, new appointments to positions of authority have been made of people who were chosen because they are not associated with the kinds of ideas that explore new avenues of thought and work, or that encourage the questioning of existing ideas, and because they are likely to carry out instructions from the ministries. So far at least, this has been the pattern. In one case, an enterprising Director of the National Museum who actually allowed some qualitatively different kinds of exhibitions to be held was fairly quickly moved to the Ministry of Sports! Attempts to silence free speech are, of course, always characteristic of governments that lack confidence and are uncomfortable with an independent citizenry.
Nationalism is not just limited to flying flags on official buildings and singing the glories of the nation symbolised as a mother. Nationalism was a deep commitment to the identity of a people, most of whom came together to expel the colonial power. There were some who preferred to give their allegiance to the Islamic state and to the Hindu Rashtra. Nationalism encapsulated and should continue to encapsulate the identity of a people living in a territory claiming equal rights of citizenship. These rights exclude discrimination on any ground, and include a concern for the well-being of all such people, and where the primacy of the citizen is the chief concern of the state. The primary identity is that of being a citizen of India, over and above all other identities of religion, caste, language, race or suchlike. Nationalism does not allow the Hindu in India or the Muslim in Pakistan to claim primacy and privilege as a citizen on the basis of being members of a religious majority community. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Dalits and Adivasis are all equal citizens. All citizens have the right to debate and discuss their duties towards the state and also the obligations of the state to ensure that the claims to human rights of all citizens are met by the state to an equal degree.
ziya.salam@thehindu.co.in