“A fundamental change in the functioning of democracy”
Professeur émérite

(Jawaharlal Nehru University)

Casa Corbellini-Wasserman

Casa Corbellini-Wasserman, arch. Piero Portaluppi, 1934-1935


Romila Thapar is one of the leading historians in India. She graduated from Panjab University in English literature, and obtained a doctorate in Indian History at the University of London, in 1958. She taught Ancient Indian History at Kurukshetra University, at Delhi University and at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi, where she is Professor Emerita. She has been visiting professor at several institutions, such as Cornell University and the College de France. She is a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy and Member of the American Philosophical Society. She has received several honorary doctorates.

Professor Thapar’s brilliant academic activities have allowed us to better understand the complexities of ancient India from the perspective of social history, but also with a keen eye on diverse cultures and political contexts. In her books, Hindu and Buddhist religious systems, social unrest, state formation, the establishment and decline of empires, economic history, and the caste system intertwine in a complex and nuanced account of the past. But her work was not only aimed at academics: her contribution to A History of India (1966), replaced and updated in 2002 by Early India, among other books, successfully targeted a wider audience. Thapar has also intervened in public debates, regarding the political uses of Ancient Indian past for contemporary goals, including the publication of new school textbooks for social sciences and history, which included arbitrary editions of texts she had authored.

The editorial board of Passés Futurs was honored when Professor Thapar accepted to correspond with us via email to discuss some of these issues between September 2019 and January 2020.

Nicolás Kwiatkowski – In the past few years, the Western world has seen a return of right-wing parties to power, legitimized by the popular vote. Examples are well known and obvious. Some have reshaped traditional center-right parties, like Donald Trump in the US or Boris Johnson in Britain. Others come from new rights, more focused on xenophobia and the affirmation of sovereignty, such as Matteo Salvini in Italy or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Parties of this type have been growing even in places where they have not reached power, pulling public discussion to the right in Germany (AfD), Spain (Vox), France (RN), etc. This raises historical and theoretical questions. Can these movements be understood with general conceptual categories? Since classical conceptual definitions, such as “aristocracy”, “democracy”, “monarchy” don’t seem to fit, could “caesarism”, “bonapartism”, “populism” or “fascism” be considered instead? Even though you are not a specialist in European history, perhaps you could reflect, from a historiographic point of view, on the risks or advantages of extending a category from a specific historical context to a general description of a social or political regime, thus applying it to the current situation. Should “fascism”, “caesarism” and “bonapartism” only apply to specific historical developments? Could it be useful or would it be harmful to employ them in different contexts? Is it useful to formulate historical comparisons in these terms?

Romila Thapar – Movements based on populism and drawing on fascist actions that seem to be surfacing in many parts of the world have to be understood both as reactions to a wider historical change as well as in the context of each country where they are being recognized. The world is globalized, therefore such massive changes do not occur in isolation, but since globalization does not affect every country to the same degree and in the same way, there are bound to be local divergences. They are global movements in the sense that they are using a certain kind of narrow nationalism, identified as either racist or religious or linguistic or whatever, as a way of articulating their agenda. Such nationalisms contradict the original agenda of nationalism, and therefore it remains debatable whether it is legitimate to call them nationalisms.

Nationalism on a virtually universal scale, took form in two phases in the recent past: one was the coming together of diverse communities to constitute what were believed to be nations. The recognizable change involved in this was that democratic systems replaced monarchical systems, or whatever was there earlier. In theory, governance was based on the fact that the individual was no longer a “subject” of authority but was the citizen of a state, with rights and obligations relating to the state. The individual acquired an altogether different status from the one he/she had had before. Each citizen had the right to social and political equality, employment, social justice, medical care, education and to physical maintenance. There is however a difference between having rights in theory and being able to exercise these rights in practice. The possibility of the latter is what determines the presence or absence of democracy.

The change from the concentration of power and authority in a small section of society to its distribution over the entire society inevitably introduced two other changes. One was that democracy, even if it was the rule of the majority, could not be equated with the rule of a permanent pre-determined majority; the other was that civil law had to be secular. These were some of the issues that entered the constitutions of the newly emerging nations in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The second form of nationalism arose in the countries that had been colonized by various European powers. They fought for their independence from colonialism and for the establishing of a nation at the time of independence. This happened earlier in Latin America struggling against Iberian colonialism and later in the mid-twentieth century in Asia and Africa.

The struggle for creating a democratic nation-state in all these cases of early or late nationalism, required the establishment of democracy and the rights of the citizen that went with it. Establishing equal rights in what were earlier hierarchical societies often explains the twist in the identity of the type of so-called nationalism being prevalent in contemporary countries. This results in the assertion of majoritarianism by those anxious to use the new system to either acquire or to retain power1. Populism frequently leads to majoritarianism replacing democracy. The agitation to establish this can be programmed to include extreme violence against those seen as minority sections of society, such as the shooting incidents in the USA and mob-lynching in India. This also creates a kind of internal colonialism that carries forward earlier agendas.

Those denied rights in practice are obviously the immigrants and the economically poor, where wealth in various forms has moved across different segments of the middle-class. Those at the lower levels of the middle-class that cannot easily reach that wealth, accuse those with virtually little or no income of being the cause for this change that benefits some of the middle-class but not all. So their anger turns on those that, for instance, may be migrants, and it is argued that they should not have the rights of citizens or should be sent back to where they are thought to have come from. This is irrespective of what may initially have brought them from their homeland to where they are settled. In the former colonies, the basic scene is similar: democracy had made a small section of the rich richer, but has not substantially altered the availability of a predictable income and social services to the major part of the population.

The solution is sought in the populist agenda of victimizing that section of society identified as culpable often without any evidence. It is Muslims and Dalits that are lynched, accused of transporting cows for slaughter or carrying beef, since beef is not a prohibited item in their diet as it is for most caste Hindus. Those that govern have made the “nation” synonymous with the “government”. Therefore criticism of the actions of the government, even when expressed as casual statements on Facebook, are taken as being anti-national, and the authors are either admonished or arrested. The law has been revised to legalize the arrest of individuals on charges of acting against the state. In one such case a number of arrests were made over a year ago and the persons imprisoned, and the charges have not been heard in court. Academics who have books on Marx and Mao and such like, have had their homes and offices searched by the police on suspicion of their being associated with terrorists.

A fundamental change in the functioning of democracy in many places occurs: governance is in the hands of a pre-determined permanent section of society that can easily be identified as the majority, using one standard of measure – either race, or religion, or language, or caste. Both the majority and its victim can be recognized by affiliation through religion, a presumed ethnicity, or certain cultural norms, or language or, as in India, by caste. The establishing of this distinction that allows discrimination is introduced into all forms of governance and particularly in government institutions. This permits the political authority to subordinate the Other, as happens in most countries that are manifesting populism today. Once established, it is used to publicize ‘the internal enemy’ and to justify a range of coercive measures employed to silence objections. Some commentators have raised the question of whether this is an introduction of fascism through democratic processes. Countries that have already experienced fascism such as Germany and Italy would recognize the processes more easily.

The form these movements take emerges out of local history and local concerns in each country. This is demonstrated in the current discussion on a possible impending global economic crisis and the reaction to this. Since economies are tied into a global system to a far greater degree than in previous times, the impact of such a crisis will be far reaching. Yet the actual change that occurs will be specific to the economy of each country within the overall crisis that will affect each country individually.

In India, for instance, at one level it manifests itself in a choice faced by the government: either continuing to support public enterprises and public institutions, or allowing these to fall apart and become non-functional. In the latter case, attention is diverted to private agencies and corporations, encouraging them to take over public enterprises and institutions, and bear the economic burden of these, while the government focuses on other issues that involve the establishing of an ideological base that legitimizes a Hindu majoritarian form of government, giving priority to the programs of a particular section of society. That this carries the rejection of a democratic system and the potential of a more totalitarian system would not be seen as problematic, since governance itself would conform to these changes. Even dramatic economic changes such as demonetization, can be a failed attempt to control the economy or a cover up for a degree of economic failure that has political consequences. The local condition is mitigated by comparison with other parts of the world that are also undergoing an economic crisis.

There are both risks and advantages of going from the specific to the general. These lie in the interpretation of data pertaining to popular and governmental activities. The data has to be specific to the country, as indeed also the implications of what is being studied. Once this data has been analyzed for a number of countries, then comparative studies can be made. Subsequent to this there is a possibility of generalizations. At the moment, such comparative studies are not generally available. It is therefore difficult to generalize about where we are at globally. Comparative studies will allow us to understand more fully how popular movements are being created, nurtured and used politically.

Nicolás Kwiatkowski – The situation in India is clearly different from that of the West, but we are interested in your reflections about the rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP to power. Some characteristics of his government are notable from afar. Although his role in the Gujarat riots is not totally clear, Modi has been accused of initiating or at least justifying violence, particularly against Muslims. His terms as Prime Minister, in any case, have seen an increase in violence against Muslims, a rise in Hindu nationalism, and public calls for conversion and against religious minorities, some of them from members of cabinet.

Romila Thapar – The Indian national movement for independence against colonial rule, that culminated in the independence of India in 1947, drew on ideas of nationalism that were viewed as bringing the nation together for the single enterprise of independence. This movement had the support of the majority of Indians. There were, however, two other lesser movements that did not participate in the Indian anti-colonial national movement and had other plans. One was based on a kind of nationalism that identified the Muslims as the minority in the population that needed its own state to give form to its own identity. This was the agenda of the Muslim League. It led successfully to the creation of the state of Pakistan. The other was its Hindu counterpart; they argued that India was a country with a Hindu religious majority and that therefore it should be a Hindu state – what was called a Hindu Rashtra.

The Hindu Mahasabha was the initial organization that drew on Hindu nationalism and converted the concept of Hindu Rashtra into a political movement, taken up subsequently by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and later the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Multiple other smaller organizations tied to this ideology are now jointly referred to as the Sangh Parivar – the family of the Sangh.

In both these cases, the nationalism was and is identified by religion, Muslim nationalism and Hindu nationalism, excluding others, and therefore distinctly different from, and not participating in, the secular anti-colonial nationalism. The latter was the nationalism that included all nationals as equals and was aimed at independence for the colony prior to its emerging as a secular democracy. It was distinctively different from the projection of a state dominated by a pre-determined, permanent section of people, i.e. the Muslim religious majority in Pakistan and the Hindu religious majority in India, treated as primary citizens in their respective countries, with greater access to the rights of the citizen. Members of other religions have the same rights in theory but in practice there is often a differentiation.

The roots of this political identity of Hindus and Muslims lie in the colonial interpretations of Indian history and society, where from the nineteenth century onwards, colonial scholars and administrators emphasized India being constituted of two nations – the Hindu and the Muslim. Religious majoritarianism was written into the agenda of the colonial understanding of India. Should a Hindu Rashtra be established, then this together with Pakistan will be a case of the colonial chickens coming home to roost.

The accusation that Modi either initiated or justified violence against minorities was made when the genocide of Muslims took place in Gujarat in 2002. There should have been intensive enquiries into these events and the offenders should have been punished. This was either not done or ways were found to get round it. Subsequent to 2014, when he came to power at the Centre and became Prime Minister, there were incidents of Muslims being lynched in northern India. Although one expected the Prime Minister to speak out against this, there was generally silence. This has been commented upon. One assumes that with the focus on the accompanying agenda of converting India into a Hindu Rashtra, there was little objection to what was happening. Perhaps it was taken as grist to the mill.

There were various methods used to underline the dominance of certain Hindu groups. Among them was conversion to Hinduism of non-Hindus (called ghar-vapasi – literally, “returning home”), a project that petered out because of several problems. One was that Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion but is a collectivity of a variety of sects; so if one is converting a non-Hindu then there has to be a connection to one of the sects. There is also the problem of caste. Hindus are born into a caste and conversion to a caste is not easy. Furthermore all non-Hindus not born into a caste are relegated to the position of mleccha or low caste. Caste Hindus despise the mlecchas, therefore for a mleccha to be converted to a low caste, would not likely carry much attraction. There is also a campaign called love-jihad, in which marriages between Hindus and Muslims were objected to. Where it happens, either the bride or the groom meets with severe violence, occasionally death, by people claiming to protect the purity of the institution of marriage.

But the more unacceptable forms of lawlessness have taken place when Hindu mobs have indiscriminately lynched Muslims, sometimes because they have been accused of carrying or handling beef, or taking cows to slaughter (the cow being presented as an animal sacred to most Hindus), or sometimes over a simple altercation of no consequence or even a suspicion of some sort. This has been seen as frightening by many because it can so easily extend to a mob being incited to attack any citizen irrespective of the reason. Since few of the attackers have been punished, the result has been the rise of fear in the minds of many. This naturally gets exaggerated when the impartiality of the machinery of law and order is doubted.

Nicolás Kwiatkowski – The current situation in Kashmir, together with a huge legislative offensive during his first term, and the relationship with Pakistan (which has been increasingly difficult, including skirmishes in the border area), seem to indicate an attempt to fuel nationalistic sentiment and alter constitutional equilibrium. Investigations against NGOs, for sedition or hindering economic development, show that at least part of civil society is seen with suspicion by the government.

Romila Thapar – Altering the status of Kashmir without any prior discussion or consultation with the representatives of the people of Kashmir, has been widely discussed in India and opinions varied as to its legitimacy. But what is being objected to now is the continuing arrest of large numbers of politicians from Kashmir who are not members of the BJP –the ruling party of India– and the continuing curfew in the area, as well as the lack of communication links for some weeks. These restrictions were later limited, but not entirely lifted. There have been many appeals from various parts of India for a return to normalcy. Having declared that the people of Kashmir are now the same as all Indian citizens they should have the same freedoms.

Investigating NGOs has of course been an exercise familiar to many governments. But there is a difference both in the selection of NGOs investigated by a particular government, and the reasons given for investigation. The predictable reason is the investigation of the source and use of finances, but the actual reason may well be quite other. Those that are trying to establish human rights of various kinds are targets as also those who are trying to protect the environment from further damage. This is a situation familiar to many countries. Further, there is criticism that such investigations drag on for years, thus incapacitating the work of the organization.

This is also tied to the broader question of governments suspecting the institutions of civil society and describing them as anti-national in order to curb their activities. For example, attempts are made to diminish the more independent universities as institutions and make them ineffectual. Universities are particularly suspect in the eyes of the current government, most likely because they can claim to be spaces where there has to be freedom of expression and thought in the pursuit of research. This is frequently annulled both in universities and research institutions and more so in those that have exercised this freedom in the past. Academics can be silenced now that they have been brought under the Civil Service Conduct rules that in the past had only applied to those employed directly by the government. This action has been read as resulting from a suspicion of the academic. Silencing is not exactly conducive to the free thought that is an essential requirement of academic work. The infusion of the ideology of majoritarianism in a variety of ways has begun to be applied in most state-financed institutions.

Palazzo delle Società Generale Elettrica dell’ Adamello, Milano

Palazzo delle Società Generale Elettrica dell' Adamello, puis Banca San Paolo di Brescia, arch. Agnoldomenico Pica & Ulderico Tononi, 1928-1930. Statues de Léo Lodi et Giandante

Nicolás Kwiatkowski – How would you describe these trends in the light of Indian history, seen in the long duration? Do you find Modi’s government to be divergent with other traditions from Indian independence (a Pakistani minister has recently declared that “Modi has buried Nehru’s India”)? Since you are a specialist in ancient Indian history, is there something that could be said about the government’s public usage of that past to justify current political decisions? Is that past seen and used by the government as history, myth, or something else?

Romila Thapar – The rewriting of history is of prime importance to the ideology of Hindutva that governs the idea of the Hindu Rashtra. The primacy of the Hindu as citizen is based on two assumptions. The first is that, historically, the ancestors of the Hindus originated in the territory of India and did not come from elsewhere; and secondly, that the Hindu religion had its origins within the same territory. The territory of India is therefore the inheritance of the Hindu. All others currently living in India are descended from migrants and therefore are alien, as also are all those who practice religions that originated outside India.

Given this, the two topics in history that are crucial to the ideology of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra are re-iterated at every opportunity in various ways. Interestingly, both are rooted in, and derive directly from, the colonial view of the Indian past. One of these pertains to the Aryan in the Indian past. In the Hindutva theory, the origin of both the Hindu and the Hindu religion is traced back to “the Aryan” and the Vedic texts. Professional historians know that the term does not apply to a race or to identity by birth, but to the speakers of a particular category of languages – the Indo-Aryan languages. It is also generally accepted that the language comes to the sub-continent in the second millennium BCE and has some connections with the same family of languages used in Central Asia and North-eastern Iran. Recent genetic analyses have confirmed that the people of the cities of the Indus system – that was prior to the Aryan speakers – had a different genetic origin, and that the migrations from the Steppes into northern India dates to the second millennium BCE. If these migrations brought the Aryan language with them, as is suggested, then this makes the Aryan-speakers who settled in India, migrants. Therefore, both the ancestral Hindus and Hinduism are not entirely indigenous and include imported elements, as was also the case with other religions in India. This is being contested by the supporters of Hindutva, who insist that the Aryan speakers are indigenous, that the Harappans were also Aryans, and that their date therefore goes back much further to many millennia BCE. The more ardent supporters insist that India was the fount of world civilization. Disagreement with this theory meets with repeated crass abuse by an army of trolls active on the social media. The centrality of the Aryan is an inheritance from colonial scholarship of the nineteenth century and subsequent European theories.

The other topic is that of the relations between Muslim rulers and Hindu subjects in the second millennium CE. Not only is James Mill’s two-nation theory of the separate nations of Hindus and Muslims having existed from the start of the second millennium CE repeated, but also the other theory of colonial thought that the second millennium CE saw the victimization of the Hindus by the Muslims, with the colonial rulers bringing relief to the victims. Hindus were forced to convert threatened by death as the alternative, yet at the same time it is said that all Muslims are aliens, as they came from outside India. Islam was alien as it originated in Arabia and no distinction is made between orthodox Islamic sects and the many that were amalgams of Hindu and Muslim beliefs. Nor is a reference made to the inter-marriage between Hindus and Muslims, especially at the level of royalty, or the Hindus that controlled the administration of the various dynasties and the Hindu commanders of the armies of Muslim rulers. Where conflicts did take place, as they were bound to in the competition for power, no concession is made to the political and economic factors that encouraged confrontations, since the only explanation is the religious difference. If in fact the Hindus were victimized then, how do we explain the culture of a Hindu elite that continued throughout this period, and was articulated in Sanskrit literature and in art, and the innumerable devotional cults emanating from a range of religious articulation, both Hindu and Muslim, with poems and hymns composed in the local languages that spread across the sub-continent? Setting all this aside, the current plan is to rewrite school text-books to conform to Indian history as told by Hindutva.

The interpretation of the past as history, therefore, is crucial to the politics of India and the fantasies on history of Hindutva are an essential component of its ideology. The fantasy is propagated even by politicians in power who speak of all the modern inventions having been known to the ancient Hindus, such as the use of airplanes, plastic surgery, stem-cell research, television, and so on. Chronologies are willfully pushed back millennia in a desperate attempt to prove that Indian civilization was older than all others and inspired the rest. There is a total absence in all this of any attempt to apply the techniques of investigating knowledge. This is in complete contrast to the analyses of sources and the application of theories of explanation by a number of Indian historians whose work has been acclaimed internationally. There is therefore today in India an unbridgeable divide between academic and professional historical writing and the mythical narrative of the past woven by all and sundry to support the Hindutva ideology.

 Nicolás Kwiatkowski – More specifically, regarding the historian’s craft, you have been a hard and public critic of Yellapragada Sudershan Rao’s appointment as chair of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), in 2014. You were concerned about the seriousness of his research and his analysis of the historicity of the Indian epics. His term ended in 2017, the Government designated a new list of council members in late 2018, and Arvind Jamkhedkar became new chairman, for three years, with calls to “reconstruct Indian past”. How would you evaluate Prof. Y. Sudershan Rao’s term as chairman? Did it have an impact in the profession or in wider public uses of the past? Did it have a relationship with the government’s view in that regard? Was there a noticeable ideological or historiographic orientation of the ICHR during his term? Has anything changed in the few months since Dr. Jamkhedkar’s appointment? How would you characterize the new composition of the board of the ICHR? More generally, have there been noticeable changes in the profession or in university life in the past five years?

 Romila Thapar – After Sudarshan Rao took over the Indian Council for Historical Research and the membership of the Council had many more persons supporting these ideas of Hindutva history, other historians tended to disconnect from it. Nor does one hear of any intellectually exciting work that has come out of the ICHR. The basic problem is that the reconstruction of the past according to the needs of Hindutva is still moored in the out-of-date readings of the nineteenth century and of the now discarded colonial explanations of the past; and superimposed on this are the requirements of its ideology. Colonial readings were challenged half a century ago and historians have moved on to other theories of knowledge, more in keeping with discussions in the social sciences and in contemporary philosophy. History is now a discipline in which debate and discussion among professional historians is rife, and the interpretations of two centuries ago have been left behind. The Hindutva narrative of the past is unable to catch up with this. The only response it makes is to accuse other historians of being anti-national and anti-Indian, and what in its eyes is worse, Marxist in their readings, quite irrespective of whether they are or are not Marxists.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was unexpectedly subjected to an unprecedented and massive attack by a huge masked and armed mob that entered the campus and assaulted and badly injured both students and teachers on the evening of the 5th January [2020]. The JNU has been targeted by the current government since the last four years in an effort to dismantle the university, since it was regarded as a major centre of liberal ideas and with strong academic and intellectual programmes in the various Schools and more particularly in the Schools of Social Sciences and Humanities. Rules and practices were changed by the current Vice-Chancellor and administration to acquire greater control over student activities and faculty appointments. The announcement of an enormous hike in fees and charges was resented by the students since it virtually terminated the presence of almost half the number of students who could not afford to pay the enhanced charges. The JNU was noted for its recruitment of qualified students from economically backward areas that gave a wider social dimension to the student body than was prevalent in most universities. The students protested and a prolonged boycott of registering for classes followed. The intrusion of an armed mob creating havoc and destruction across the campus is seen as an attempt to break the protest and threaten both students and faculty. Curiously a police contingent arrived at the campus but did not prevent the assault of the mob because, as they say, they had not been ordered to do so. Interventions in and attacks on universities, focus on the state-financed universities, what in India are known as public universities. The private universities financed by individual corporates are not interfered with.

The mob was immediately dubbed a left-wing student mob by those in power. But the evidence as it is surfacing suggests that it was the student body affiliated to the governing party that was linked to the mob, judging by the slogans attributed to them and by the confessions of those few that were eventually rounded up. This raises very serious concerns as to whether we are now going to allow mobs on campuses assaulting students and faculty as the answer to student protest. In some other universities, such as Jamia Millia in Delhi and the Aligarh Muslim University, it was the police that entered the campus and assaulted students presumably to bring the protest under control. What is heartening is that these attacks have led to more protests from other students across the country in sympathy with what happened at JNU and in Jamia and Aligarh. These wider protests have coincided with the broader objections to the Acts recently adopted by the government to determine who is legally a citizen and who is not. This legislature is weighted against the Muslim population in some clauses and in others against the large majority of the poor who do not have documents to prove their citizenship. Those who don’t qualify will have to live in detention camps. We are now beginning to experience in many parts of the world the new and rather horrifying culture of people living in detention camps. India will be no exception.

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Majoritarianism supports the rule of a permanent, pre-determined majority defined by the single identity of a religion or language or ethnicity, and subordinates all others not conforming to this single identity. The latter are treated as minorities. This condition therefore differs from the rule of the majority in a democracy where what constitutes the majority varies from issue to issue and is composed of people with diverse identities.