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Asia

Prominent historian fears growing ideological intolerance in India

Indian historian Romila Thapar talks to DW about the ongoing protests by intellectuals over increasing intolerance in India, and about what this means for society if the trend is not arrested.

A number of writers, artists, scientists, historians and filmmakers in the South Asian nation have openly slammed the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in recent days, accusing it of contributing to the "highly vitiated" atmosphere prevailing in the country.

Intellectuals cite repeated instances of banning books as well as threats and assassinations in the recent past as a sign of growing attempts by right-wing fringe elements to curtail freedoms and impose their ideologies on others.

About 53 historians, including Romila Thapar, recently released a joint statement saying that the current trend is particularly worrying. "What the regime seems to want is a kind of legislated history, a manufactured image of the past, glorifying certain aspects of it and denigrating others," they said.

In a DW interview, Thapar speaks about her concerns and draws similarities between India's ruling BJP-led government and China at the time of the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Zedong.

Indien Romila Thapar Historikerin

Thapar: 'There has been an increasing sense that the space for liberal discussion in the country is becoming narrower'

DW: It seems as if the Indian government is not doing enough to rein in far-right Hindu elements in society. Is the menace of cultural intolerance growing?

Romila Thapar: There have been growing concerns in recent years as a result of the increasing threats issued by various fringe outfits against people who make rational, sensible statements about the way society should function.

Over the past two years, in particular, there has been an increasing sense that the space for liberal discussion in the country is becoming narrower. This has become very acute over the past months when there have been repeated incidents of threats, assassinations and lynching, along with the banning and burning of books.

In a sense, we are currently at a tipping point where people can no longer hold back their frustration about the current state of things.

But PM Modi's government does not seem to be bothered by the attacks on the intelligentsia or their protests. Instead, they are calling it a "manufactured rebellion." What is your take on this?

That is a rather confusing expression. Firstly, a protest which is spontaneous, comes from people across the country and involves virtually every profession cannot be manufactured.

Secondly, to call it a rebellion is very absurd because a rebellion is essentially directed against the state. But in the present case, we are only protesting. We are not seeking to change the state.

We are protesting against the conditions of society which have taken shape due to a weakness of governance. We have therefore appealed to the President of India to do something to salvage the situation.

Do you believe there is a concerted effort on the part of the government to allow these far-right elements to have a free reign?

I can't speak for the government. I do argue, however, that the election results of 2014 (a landslide victory for the BJP) made it clear to bodies such as the RSS (the BJP's ideological mentor) and the Sangh Parivar (family of Hindu nationalist organizations) that it is now or never! They are not going to have another such opportunity anytime soon. So they are going to make the most of it.

They will seek to convert a number of people, who would otherwise be critical thinkers, into followers of one ideology. History has already seen such attempts in other parts of the world. And the analogy I can think of is, for example, China at the time of the Cultural Revolution. It was exactly the same. The ideology was handed out and you had to conform to it. There were dissidents, but they were quiet and silent.

Only twenty years after the overthrow of Cultural Revolution were people able to once again think in a free, liberal way. And I fear this is precisely what's going to happen if they succeed in imposing a single ideology.

Do you see civil society convulsing further and protesting more often, if freedoms are curtailed?

I think it depends on what activities these fringe groups indulge in. If their activities continue to be what they are at the moment, then I think there will be more and bigger protests.

People will get increasingly fed up. People voted for the BJP because of its promise of development. But if the government fails to deliver on its promise and, at the same time, if there are repeated attempts to curtail freedoms, then people will rise and question: where is the governance?

How do you view the ongoing attempts to rewrite Indian history?

As a historian, I have led two lives. One has been about writing reasonable, rational and sensible history based on facts, evidence and arguments that are logical. The other one has been about fighting against fringe elements who keep saying the most absurd things about Indian history, and this specifically applies to ancient Indian history.

When you have people believing that we had airplanes in 3000 BC and things like plastic surgery and stem cell therapy, then there is a need to draw the line somewhere. We have been fighting this battle over history ever since I started teaching in the 1960s, and it has been an ongoing battle.

Each time the BJP comes to power, more emphasis is laid on the RSS' interpretation of history. And when the party is voted out, we return to a normal historical procedure. However, this does not stop the RSS and its followers from verbally abusing us in the most venomous and horrible terms. But we have accepted this abuse, set it aside and gone on to write history that is credible.

You make a case for cultural and academic institutions, which are government financed and controlled, to be converted into autonomous institutions run by professionals, as is the case in many other countries. Why?

Many of us have feel that ever since these councils, academies and institutions were set up, there has been too much government interference in terms of what research is being done and what it is supposed to produce.

Narendra Modi

Many intellectuals in India accuse PM Modi's administration of contributing to the 'highly vitiated' atmosphere prevailing in India

And so in 2005, when the Congress party was in power, a group of us got together and agitated very strongly, saying these institutions must be made autonomous and that they have to be run by professionals.

Our demand, however, was totally ignored by both the Congress party and the BJP. But the crux of the matter is that if your research institutes are going to be controlled by political ideologies, whether from the Left or Right, then you are saying goodbye to research.

What will happen if nothing is done to stop this drift towards cultural intolerance?

If nothing is done, I see two areas where there could be a big crisis. One is education, which is the ability to acquire information and the ability to critically inquire into existing knowledge.

But that is currently not happening and if things continue like this, then the question arises: what kind of education are we going to give students and children? By continuing on the current path, we risk producing a generation of people who will not be thinking about the essentials of education.

The second area where I expect trouble is the domain of civil laws, as some people have demanded a uniform civil code for all of India's religious communities - which would mean annulling the current Muslim Personal Law. But my position is that if we were to have a uniform civil code, then we would have to reconsider all religious and caste laws that currently prevail in the country.

Romila Thapar is an Indian historian, whose main area of study is ancient India. She is the author of numerous books, and is Professor Emerita at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.