“But who really knows? Who can tell where all arose?
For the Gods themselves came after Creation.
Who then shall proclaim how Creation happened?”
Nasadiya Sukta, Rig Veda
Since Independence from colonial rule, India has emerged as a successful modern democracy, holding regular elections, with a functioning judiciary, smooth transitions of power and a very fine Constitution. It is even seen as a model for many developing countries around the world.
However, within its own borders citizens know that its record of democracy has unfortunately been quite checkered. Over the years, successive Indian governments have failed to consistently uphold fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, political or religious beliefs. Very often even the Right to Life is violated with impunity– India records a shockingly large number of custodial deaths and encounter killings every year.
While the Emergency, from 1975-77, is inevitably brought up in discussions about Indian democracy the truth is perhaps that violations of various Constitutional rights accorded to citizens have occurred both before and after this dark period in recent Indian history. Conflicts over sub-nationalism, caste, class, gender and language have time and again shown that beneath the façade of electoral democracy the basic approach of state institutions and elites in the country is still quite authoritarian.
In just the past three years for example India has seen repeated violations of the freedom of citizens to express themselves, eat food of their choice or marry whom they want. Vigilante groups, often affiliated to the ruling party, have regularly intimidated those who disagree with them and even lynched people they accuse of transporting or consuming beef.
The Indian government has been blamed for allowing such intolerance and climate of fear to flourish, with state authorities often refusing to enforce the law against such arbitrary violence. Worse still, the current regime stands accused of imposing a very majoritarian version of Hinduism and narrow nationalism on the polity, by using its muscle both within and outside parliamentary institutions.
None of this has gone unchallenged though and recent years have also witnessed a wave of protests by Indian intellectuals, students, farmers, human rights activists and artists against the emasculation of public rights and freedoms. They have dubbed the current phase in the Indian polity a ‘Silent Emergency’ and warned of dire days ahead if the trend remains unchecked.
While people who think India is going through very bad times are probably right – this battle for democratic space, it turns out, is not a new phenomenon at all and has a long history going back several millennia. ‘India Dissents: 3000 years of Difference, Doubt and Argument’, a compendium of poetry, philosophy, writings and speeches, chronicles the numerous examples of criticism, defiance, sarcasm, and even outright revolt that have always been around in India since Vedic times.
The Buddha from royal lineage, Chennaiah the cobbler, Nanak from a family of traders, Lalan Fakir the wandering Baul, Ambedkar from a poor Dalit background– the champions of dissent have been varied, sharing only one thing in common – a burning quest for justice, the courage to fight for it and the compassion to preserve their own humanity in the process.
So what was the dissent all about in the olden days? Not surprisingly, like today, it was about the right of individuals to practice what they believed in and against those who wanted to control power and public institutions. While from late Vedic times, Hindu upper castes sought unfettered access to the labour, energy and resources of others, they did not always get their way as people were not always obedient or submissive.
India Dissents gives us a glimpse of these ancient expressions of resistance, very often couched in terms of religious debate over the meaning and existence of God- as also against the caste system and social discrimination. As the Brihaspati Sutra, composed in 600 BCE, as part of the atheist and materialist Charvak school of Indian philosophy proclaims:
“There is no Heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world
Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders or priesthoods produce any real effect.
The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic’s three staves and smearing one’s self with ashes
Were made by Nature, as the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge or manliness”
It was a time when, the Buddhists, Jains, ajivikas and diverse other groups, collectively called the ‘sramanas’ or ‘ascetics’, challenged domination of the Brahmins and the authority of the Vedas. Even more significantly they mobilized different social groups – merchants, peasants, artisans, workers- to stop paying the high taxes imposed on them (an ancient GST) in the name of ‘ritual sacrifices’ imposed on all kinds of occasions – births, weddings, funerals, journey to heaven and so on.
They did this through a combination of superior philosophical arguments, debate, discussion, material help for the needy and a strict code of personal ethics for their monks. They were not hesitant about speaking truth to power. Challenging the arrogance of the king, Rishabhadev, the first Jain Tirthankara says,
“You are completely devoid of compassion,
You boast of being the protector of the people
But stand exposed
In the assembly of the knowledgeable ones!”
The sramanas, through their activism, diluted the caste and social hierarchies of their time successfully, introduced concepts like ahimsa, respect for all forms of life and the religions they founded held sway over large parts of India for over eight centuries. As the influence of the Buddhists and Jains waned, the spirit of resistance to caste domination and obscurantism was taken up by other saints and the Bhakti poets of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Bengal.
As Sarvajna, a sixteenth century Vachana poet and philosopher from Karnataka asks:
“If a Brahmin wearing a triple thread
Could rise to Heaven,
Why not then a shepherd swain
Wearing a blanket of countless threads
The arrival of the Muslims as rulers on the Indian sub-continent, sparked off sectarian violence all around, prompting the rise of philosophers who sought to take the best from all religions while challenging bigotry. Guru Arjun Dev, the fifth guru of Sikhism says,
“I don’t pray to idols and I don’t say the namaz;
I serve and bow to the One and no other.
I worship at the feet of the Formless Lord within;
For we are neither Hindu nor Mussalman.
And to quote one of India’s greatest poets ever, Mirza Ghalib, from the nineteenth century,
“You give us Heaven, in exchange for the unholy life of this world
I’m afraid this is wine without intoxication, it leaves me cold”
India Dissents deals with the period of India’s struggle for freedom against the British colonialists by highlighting the differences within the movement over the meaning of nationalism, religious identity, social customs and the position of women, Dalits and indigenous populations. In the post-Independence phase the discussions center around the drafting of the Indian Constitution, issues of economic justice, civil, political and cultural rights.
A significant section of the book is made up of critiques, essays, speeches and poetry that have been written in very recent years – from the Dalit student activist Rohith Vemula’s last letter to the world before he died to television anchor Ravish Kumar’s speech while accepting the Kuldip Nayar Journalism Award in early 2017.
While the form and specifics of each battle for intellectual or social freedom have changed from the time of the Rig Veda to our own era, India Dissents shows the sentiments of the Indian people remain the same, when it comes to repression, hypocrisy and subversion of democratic principles by the elites.
[Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
3000 years of Difference, Doubt and Argument
546 pages; Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt. Ltd