Interview: Romila Thapar

‘Urban naxal is something of an oxymoron’

Print edition : December 21, 2018

Romila Thapar. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

The human rights activist Vernon Gonsalves. The Pune Police claimed he and four other activists were “urban naxals” with links to extremists and arrested them on August 28. Romila Thapar spoke out against the arrests and filed a petition in the Supreme Court on their behalf. Photo: Prashant Waydande

The human rights activist Varavara Rao. The Pune Police claimed he and four other activists were “urban naxals” with links to extremists and arrested them on August 28. Romila Thapar spoke out against the arrests and filed a petition in the Supreme Court on their behalf. Photo: Nagara Gopal

The human rights activist Arun Ferreira. The Pune Police claimed he and four other activists were “urban naxals” with links to extremists and arrested them on August 28. Romila Thapar spoke out against the arrests and filed a petition in the Supreme Court on their behalf. Photo: Vibhav Birwatkar

The human rights activists Gautam Navlakha and Sudha Bhardwaj. The Pune Police claimed they and three other activists were “urban naxals” with links to extremists and arrested them on August 28. Romila Thapar spoke out against the arrests and filed a petition in the Supreme Court on their behalf. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

The actor Prakash Raj greeting the actor and writer Girish Karnad at the Freedom of Expression Convention organised by the Gauri Lankesh Balaga and Gauri Smaraka Trust on 5 September in Bengaluru. Karnad called himself an urban naxal to show his support for the arrested activists. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Interview with Professor Romila Thapar.

THE term “urban naxal” was once used during peasant protests against the state. Today, it is used almost as a slur on those who ask uncomfortable questions of the state. The same fate meets those authors and poets who refuse to sing hosannas to state power. It is easy to dub them anti-national, too, in an age when everybody is expected to eat only what a certain group of people permits. The distinguished academic, historian-activist Romila Thapar is known for her fearless insubordination when faced with the repressive organs of the state. Earlier this year, she spoke out against the arrest of five human rights activists when the media, and some organs of the state, dubbed them urban naxals. Earlier, she fought the saffronisation of history, arguing that content is being changed to suit the mindset of a certain section of the majority religion.

Today, she is as determined as ever to fight for the right to free space, dialogue, debate and even dissent. “Quitting is not an option,” she says with confidence, but adds, “The younger lot has to take over. It is their life; their generation should be concerned. It is the next generation and the generation after that which will be impacted enormously. On a broader scale one has to shake that generation. Ask them, ‘Why are you silent?’ They feel if they have a job, everything is all right. That attitude has to go. At another level, one has to fight on, believing that it [state’s repression] is not going to last.”

She answered a few questions for Frontline.

When was the expression “urban naxal” first used?

I don’t know when the term was invented, but it has come into circulation with the arrest of the five activists [in August]. The term is something of an oxymoron, indicating that the persons who invented it and use it have little understanding of what is meant by urbanism or by naxal. The Naxalbari movement was rooted in organising peasant protests and that of Adivasi societies and seldom had urban areas as the centre of its activity. Even today, wherever it is active, it is in peasant and tribal societies that are impoverished. Few slums in the cities lend themselves to naxal activity. To speak then of urban naxals as distinct from naxals is somewhat meaningless.

If the reference is to urban dwellers who are concerned about the problems in these areas or who are liberals or leftists in their thinking, even then it is an inappropriate term since they themselves are not naxals. But inexactitude is an old habit of those that now readily use this term. It was the same story earlier, and continues, when everybody and anybody who did not agree with their views were called Commies and Marxists by them and their trolls, irrespective of what might be the actual activities and writing of people so called.

For some people, even meaningless terms can have a pretence of meaning since they become euphemisms for abuse and are used as such. In this case, for those who use urban naxal as an expression of hostility and contempt, it refers to Indian liberals whose liberal thinking is anathema to the ruling party and its supporters.

On the other hand, the definition can be deliberately left meaningless and confusing. This enables those in authority to define it the way they wish to and to cover a multitude of activities. Its meaninglessness reflects back on its users because there are plenty of Indian liberals who have turned it into a joke. It would certainly be a joke if it did not also carry a threat.

What is the threat?

It is now possible for those in authority—the administration and police and those controlling political power—to arbitrarily accuse the people they choose to of being urban naxals. They then assume that the people so described can be arrested and thrown into prison, with no proven evidence and on charges that are hardly credible, as in the case of the activists recently arrested.

Why do we overlook the distinction that has been made between armed struggle against the government and the expression of dissent?

The distinction is very important and those who have made a serious study of naxalism and Maoism do make such a distinction. To confuse the two is again deliberate because it allows the authorities to extend the reach of their control over people to a far greater extent than is normally conceded.

The attempt to disallow dissent has been going on for the last few years. At one obvious visible level, it takes the form of lynching those transporting cows or wearing the kind of headgear more frequently worn by Muslims, or that of killing young people in inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. This is then justified by stating that these and similar activities are contrary to the caste rules and customs of certain religious communities. Therefore, those who act in this way are expressing dissent against these customs and against the communities and organisations that observe these customs.

But nowadays a certain kind of writing, too, is dubbed anti-national.

Writings that supports discussion and debate and may critique authority are dubbed anti-national, and their authors treated as suspect. One of the institutions that have been attacked because they asserted their right to dissent are of course universities. Their autonomy is being removed in a variety of ways, to the point of making them ineffective as institutions meant to advance knowledge. The two basic functions of education—teaching students how to question existing knowledge and exposing them to the widest possible range of argument and reading—are being whittled away. In the rewriting of textbooks, the attempt is to change the content of what is to be taught. The excuse is that the existing texts hurt the religious sentiments of particular religious groups, generally Hindu. There is little concern that this kind of objection is a belittling of a powerful religion that does not require these petty attempts in its defence. What is really at stake is not the religion so much as groups of people using religion to unnecessarily flex their muscles.

Will the elections in the near future also have a role to play in the attempts being made to control dissent?

Now with [the general] election round the corner, the allowing of dissent will in all likelihood be further curtailed. Charges of sedition and anti-nationalism have been around for a while as a way of preventing dissent. Now a wider group of targets are being brought into range with an all-encompassing label, urban naxal, which can be applied to anyone for any reason. It is meant to suggest that such people are sympathetic to terrorists carrying out subterranean anti-national activities. If there are so many urban naxals as defined by those who are using the term to describe others, then isn’t it time to ask the question, why are there so many of them? What is the reason that Indian society has so many dissidents? The existence of dissent in any society cannot be dismissed arbitrarily. It requires to be explained no matter how embarrassing it may be for those who would prefer to make it disappear.

How important is terrorism to the definition of dissent?

Terrorism is present in many parts of the world, and we are no exception. It can be, and often is, a scapegoat for or a deviation from governmental policies either perceived as not having succeeded or actually not having done so as earlier proclaimed and anticipated. Terrorism then becomes the explanation for these failures or becomes the deviation that is required to keep people from asking questions about the failures. This is an obvious and simple answer as an initial explanation, but the existence of terrorism is of course a far more complex matter.

Terrorism has to be seen from two perspectives. One is the spreading of terror and fear among people by the use of violent methods of every kind, resorted to by armed groups who organise themselves and who disregard the law. They may have any of many agendas: political, social, economic, religious or a combination of some of these. Another way of increasing a fear of terrorism is through violence. This is also known to be used against the citizen by those who, according to the Constitution, should be protecting the citizen. Agencies of the state spreading terror are only too familiar from history. But in our times this is more recognisable. We have spoken up against it since the time of Independence and incidents of its increase cannot be ignored.

Another perspective comes from asking why there is terrorist activity in a particular area. Frequently, the reason is that such an area has experienced problems of not being properly represented or economic impoverishment or corrupt administration or where caste and religious conflicts are allowed to continue, if not encouraged. The basic question is whether the proper development of the area with a guarantee of the human rights as required by the Constitution is prevalent or not. Generally, in such areas these rights and the institutions that go with them are either not easily visible even if they exist in however perfunctory a manner or are generally not functioning.

Rather than encouraging serious debates on why such a situation has arisen and how it can be set right and discussions between those who analyse it and those who are involved in its administration, the matter is described largely as a law and order problem and treated as such. Up to a point, it does become a law and order problem, but that is not the basic reason for this condition to prevail. The solution then resorted to most frequently is seen to be the accelerating of control over these societies and curbing their activities. Those persons who are trying to ensure that these societies and other societies in a similar condition have some access to human rights and social justice, which are essential to bringing them out of the cage of terror, are also the ones that are now labelled urban naxals.

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