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Updated: Nov 17, 2020


This conversation was held on August 14, 2017 at Satyajit Ray Auditorium, ICCR, as part of the 3rd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of India.


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Although we are both guests on the stage, I feel like I’m welcoming my old friend to Kolkata because this is the first time that I’ve seen her here, and Presidency University has had the good sense to give her an honorary doctorate. This is a conversation that began long ago—


Romila Thapar. Many many years—


Spivak. I’m very excited to be sharing a stage with her, as you can see. This is a conversation that began long ago, many, many years ago, sometimes between the two of us, sometimes in front of an audience, sometimes in New York where I acknowledged the incredible role that the humanities imagination plays in many of the things that she has done. But today I’m only the questioner—because it’s about teaching history, and god knows I don’t know anything about teaching history. So what I really want to ask Romila is, how does one teach the idea of India?


Thapar. Let me begin by thanking Seagull for giving me this unique opportunity. Gayatri and I have often chatted in the privacy of, should I say, of our homes, in New York, in Delhi, and had long conversations, teased each other, joked with each other. This is the first time that we’re performing, as far as I remember, before an audience. So, if we get the giggles or if we start shouting at each other, you must forgive us. This is just out of sheer friendship.


You’ve asked a very tough question to start with. What do we mean by the idea of India? Being a historian, I would turn it a little bit and ask: When did the idea of India come into existence? One can’t date it, of course, because one can seldom date ideas with precision. Ideas have a way of wandering around backwards, and so on—you can’t pinpoint them. Let me begin by saying that it’s a modern idea, a concept which I think emerges in colonial times. We often hear people saying: Oh yes, the idea of India existed in the Vedic period, it existed in the Gupta period, it existed in the Mughal period, and so on. I would beg to differ with that. We don’t really know how people saw themselves with regard to questions of ‘Am I state? Am I nation? Am I country?’ We don’t even know what names each took. We know, for example, that the Sumerians—now I’m going really back, far back—of the third millennium bce referred to countries to the east, one in particular with whom they had trade relations, and the items they traded were items that came from the Indus plain. So we assume it’s a reference to the Indus civilization, which they called Meluhha, which we think might be a Sumerian version of the Prakrit Melukhkha / Milakkha / Milakkhu which is known and which is referred to.


But in the Vedic period we begin to get textual evidence, references to something called Aryavart(a). Now Aryavart(a) is a very interesting term because it shifts. In the Vedic texts it goes from the Doab to just about the middle of the Ganges valley. In the Buddhist texts, it moves a little eastwards. In the Jain texts, it moves still further east. By the time you get to Manu and his Manava-Dharmasastra, he’s talking about Aryavart(a) being the land between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas, the land north of the land between the two seas. So, that is not quite the India that we speak of today. Similarly with Jambudvipa, which Ashoka refers to it in his inscriptions, we do not know where it was or what its boundaries were, what the territory was—we don’t know. Bharatvarsha. Al-Hind, which comes into use from about the twelfth century ad onwards and refers to all the land across the Indus when looked at from West Asia. Then come the British, and they start referring to this part of the country as India, from the Greek Indós, referring to the Indus. (The Vedic texts also mention the Sapta-Sindhu, so the Persians referred to it as the Hapta-Hindu, the ‘S’ and the ‘H’ being interchangeable.)


Now, what did the British mean? They talk about India when they’ve conquered certain parts of Eastern India, then gone on to conquer other parts of the peninsula and then up north. With each conquest, the boundaries change until, finally at the end of the nineteenth century, the entire subcontinent is painted red—that is the India of the British Empire.


Is this when the concept of India, the idea of India, comes into being? Possibly, but it’s a territorial concept. Actually the idea of India is much more than territory of course—it’s culture, language, religion . . . all of that is assumed. When does that begin? My guess is—although I’m not a historian of modern India, and I may be completely wrong here—that one of the most interesting decades of our times were the 1920s. What happened in the 1920s? You had, first of all, the Indian National Congress, with Gandhi trying to convert the movement into a mass movement which he successfully did. I’m not going to quibble with the subaltern studies perspective and others on how far it truly was as a mass movement but, technically, yes, they certainly brought in a very large number of people, and the idea of India began to gel because the end, the purpose of it, was the independence of the nation that was being created.


But the 1920s also saw the development of two other notions of the idea of India. There is the Muslim League that is finally asking for Pakistan, which is a negative idea—it’s not what is India, it is a truncated India of the British Empire. So you’ve already got the difference coming in. Countering this in a way is the establishment of the Hindu Mahasabha, in the 1920s again, which gives way to the RSS wherein the idea of India is very clearly enunciated as the Hindu Rashtra.


Now you’ve already got three ideas—not one but three. And then you also have the Communist Party of India, founded in the 1920s, where the idea of India is eventually a socialist state. So I think the 1920s is really where the discussion should start in terms of not a single idea but of the opening out of possible ways of looking at these ideas—why they happened, and what the consequences were. These we know as the creation of the two nations, and then, later on, Pakistan split into two with the emergence of Bangladesh. Associated with these was the notion of independence, and what is it that was being sought at the time of independence. What was this idea of India as conceived by the anticolonial national movement, the biggest movement at that time? How were those people visualizing the idea of India, how were they thinking of where independence begins?



Spivak. Well that’s a big one. Now I’m going to respond a little to what you said, which was the question I asked you in your house in November. First of all, of course I am deeply suspicious of ideas. We cannot proceed without ideas—they’re a convenience—but they’re also very dangerous, they’re like a lid you put on a boiling pot under which they begin to—your word is crystallize, right?—take control of that entire seething, boiling mass of all kinds of thoughts. Having spent an entire life trying to learn from the literary, I’m a little bit afraid of ideas. I also feel in some ways, and again I’m really only speaking as an Indian, that ‘I’m not an Indian’. It’s true, you can scream at me, you have screamed at me, remember when you said, ‘Why are you teaching South Asia at all, you produce these students who don’t know anything?’ And I stopped. There’re very few people in the world from whom I would take that kind of suggestion. Another thing you told me was when I said that after Edward’s death I would do a biography. You said, ‘Don’t try to research everything historically. If you think something is true and correct because of the way you’ve lived, put it down,’ and so it’s the second suggestion that I’m taking up now. It seems to me that there was in the sense of India which we got—I was born in 1942, I was a precocious child, so I remember quite a bit of stuff. Of course, mostly famine, mostly riots and so on. Nonetheless, there was something. But what we got later—thinking about it, I felt more and more, with my friend Edward Said, that it was a kind of an orientalist discovery of India, a discovery which allowed what Vladimir Ilyich would call the progressive bourgeoisie to think about India in this way, however much they wanted to bring the masses in. Which is why it slowly began to fade away. This is just an Indian person’s opinion, an Indian person who knows nothing about India from book learning. This is my sense of things. And this is why I wanted to ask you the question, and I actually wrote it down, the question about what you said me in a conversation in your house last November: ‘When we were active in the independence struggle as young people, we did not expect the grave problems that would arise as the post-independence years progressed.’ Or something to that effect. I’m interested in hearing from you a more detailed explanation of this, including whatever you want to say about the first independence and the specific hopes that seem not to have fulfilled themselves. I do want to say that this one hears from other people—I’m thinking now about the Bangladesh War, of which of course I have a good deal of experience. Both my dear friends Zafrullah Chowdhury, and Sandhya Ray who was very involved (she gave up her education, at 15 she joined Zafrullah) say so. ‘We thought that when independence came in—I could go back to school,’ Sandhya says, and then, ‘We didn’t realize that that would mean nothing.’ And finally, behind it all is Frederick Douglass at emancipation saying, ‘Now the problems begin.’ You on your own have obviously been troubled by this. I really wanted you to say something more about it—I think it’s crucial to hear from you what it was that moved you to say it on your own.


Thapar. Let me begin by saying that I agree with you. I’m also very suspicious of ideas. Largely because ideas have a habit of slipping around and changing their meaning, which is disturbing because you think they mean something and you locate them in a place, and then you discover that they mean something quite different, and so on. They’re a tricky business. But yes, the idea. I wonder if I could start with an anecdote from my school days. Just to give you a flavour of what it was that we were doing in our teenage years in the early 1940s, I was at school in Pune. My father was in the army and so frequently transferred, and we went from Peshawar to Rawalpindi to Pune. We arrived in Pune in the 1940s, at at time when Gandhiji was in and out of jail. We were part of the cantonment culture, and the cantonment culture in India was a very special kind of culture, one that I wish some cultural historian would work on because it was quite distinctive. It was different from the city, it was Indians and Brits working together but not really socializing. This was something that struck me even then, that people who dropped in—and dropping in was a great thing in the evenings. You had nothing better to do, and so you dropped in on friends and sat around. It was always Indians who dropped in, very concerned about what was going on because this was the ’40s. We as schoolgoing teenagers would hang around the grown-ups, and very often my father would say to me, ‘You’ve listened to everything we’ve been discussing but please don’t go about repeating it in school. Because obviously what we’re discussing is meant only for us Indians.’ So that consciousness was very, very strong.


But to return to what happened to me in school. Come 1947, my final year in convent school. A convent school because all of us ‘army brats’ had recourse to only those schools that had any kind of uniform teaching, such as the convent schools that were all geared towards what was then called the Senior Cambridge Exam. About a month before 15 August, Sister Superior sent for me. I went to her, fearful and trembling, thinking, ‘What have I done now?’ And she said, ‘Independence day is coming on the fifteenth of August. You’re one of the prefects, and we thought that it would be nice if you lowered the Union Jack, raised the Indian flag, planted a sapling, and gave a 15-minute speech about what independence means to you.’ And I heard her, absolutely aghast, and said, ‘You mean me?’ and she said, ‘Yes, I mean you.’ So she said, ‘Now don’t disappoint us, think about it, but do it.’


I came out of her room and for nights on end I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking, ‘What am I going to say? Fifteen minutes—what am I going to say?’ I remember going to my favourite teacher, who happened to be the history and literature teacher, and saying, ‘What shall I talk about?’ and she said, ‘You keep talking about the future with your friends—what do you say? What do you think about the coming of independence? Just stand up and talk about that.’ So what was it that I talked about? I talked about: ‘We’re now going to find an Indian identity.’ Very important to us in those days. What do we mean by saying we’re Indians? We’re Indians in the context of British colonialism, yes, but now we’re going to be Indians without British colonialism—what does that mean?


The second thing we all talked about endlessly was: So once colonialism goes, the rules of ‘You can’t go here, you can’t go there,’ and ‘You can’t do this and you can’t do that,’ all of that will go, and what kind of society will we have? We did not discuss this in any very sophisticated way. We talked about it in a simple way of: Obviously, things will change because the colonial power will not be there. So what kind of society will we have? In a sense, that was what stayed with me for years, even though I didn’t realize it. It’s still with me, I think, especially these days. I’m still trying to find out what we mean by an Indian identity, and, my goodness, these days one is thinking very hard about what kind of society we shold have.


And it was about this, after independence, that we started to talk about much more, and continued to talk about in the 1950s.


And what were the issues? First, that we must define our society, and there was a fair amount of socialistic thinking going around in those days, partly inspired by some of Nehru’s speeches, partly inspired by other people who said one couldn’t have a society without rank inequality. So we started thinking in terms of a society that would be reasonably equal, where people had equal status. Now this inevitably led, in the 60s at least, to an absolute obsession with the economy. Everybody but everybody was talking about what kind of an economy we were going to have. Economic growth was the subject of the hour, right through the 60s, questions about economic planning, state industrialization, employment, rural development and so on. Any student who had an iota of intelligence wanted to be an economist because that was the subject that mattered. Historians and philosophers were at the bottom of the pile—ancient historians in particular—nobody was interested in all that. And it not just economics but economic growth, statistics, demography, all that went into calculating how to build a society that one could be proud of.


I remember even earlier, in the 50s, for example, before all this started off in Delhi, when I was a student in England, we used to be giving talks all over the place, at meetings of the Workers’ Educational Association, on this and that and the other. And what were we talking about? The great new society that was emerging in India. And why did we come back to India? Because it was going to give us the great opportunity to build a new society, a new society to which we would be proud to belong. There was that kind of innocent belief that independence was going to bring about all these changes. It was an innocent belief because I guess we hadn’t really worked out all the problems. The focus on the economy, on economic change, was so strong that there was much less attention paid to aspects of caste and religion. And so when caste and religion surfaced, we were almost taken by surprise. Where did those come from?


And, of course, the other great claim was, ‘When freedom comes, we will be free to speak as and how we wish. We will be free to speak the way we want to.’ The first shock I had on this issues was when I was in college in Pune and was the cause of censorship. My brother Romesh Thapar was bringing out a fortnightly called Crossroads in Bombay. Very left, very revolutionary and socialist. I would go down to Bombay during my holidays and help with the proofreading. On one occasion, when I was proofreading an article whose headline stated that the chief minister’s action was unacceptable, I added the word ‘criminal’ to his action. And of course, the very next week, the censor hit, and my brother was informed that Crossroads had been banned. I was utterly, utterly miserable, because I thought the ban was because of me. That was my first experience that freedom doesn’t bring freedom of speech, and that you have to be somewhat careful about how you negotiate freedom of speech. The issue went to court, and, as it happened, my brother won the case, and it remains a foundational case. Whenever the freedom of speech comes up, they all refer to Romesh Thapar vs the State of Madras.


So one had all these ideas . . . we’d all studied the French Revolution, we’d all studied the books that went with it, we’d studied the Russian Revolution . . . so we had these ideas about how India was going to be an ideal society. But it didn’t work out that way, and slowly and gradually one began to recognize what the problems were.


Spivak. Of course, what I want you to talk about is precisely what the problems were. But I want to put in my two bits. That, in a sense, the way in which my sense of building an Indian society, etc., came about was a little bit later . . . You did say you wanted to know a little about our experience. Also, Delhi and Calcutta—they’re very, very different. My uncle was Jnan Majumdar, so I was in the middle of a kind of intellectual left which was very Calcutta at that point. At any rate, I left the country because Tarak Nath Sen told me I wouldn’t get a first class in my MA. My father was dead. I was supporting myself, so I had to kind of buzz off. That’s why I left, right?


At that time, we were really the bottom of the pile, Romila—even below the historians were the literary people. I think I would’ve been even worse off had I been reading Bengali. Before leaving, our sense was like Dev Anand’s in that film, Guide, that ‘English is only one of the languages of the world, so that when we speak it . . .’ That was absurd. On the other hand, that’s how it was, ‘When we speak Bengali, we will speak wonderful Bengali, and when we speak English we will speak wonderful English,’ you know? The first adolescent generation, postcolonial, etc.


So, by the time I went, there was an idea of India which did not resemble at all marching in the streets, and so on. Allen Ginsberg, all that stuff . . . I sang on the harmonium with him, and it was a crazy thing, confronting that India, with ganja and the whatchamacallit and Vajrayana Buddhism and Gary Snyder and Zen . . . All that resembled nothing. On the other hand, when in 1962, Malcolm X came to Cornell to speak—he started speaking (he was a very mild-mannered man), I remember it so clearly—and the idea of India in my head made me think, ‘Gee, this is like Calcutta.’ Malcolm X is speaking, I’m 20 years old, sitting in the audience—and that’s what I thought. Because otherwise, all around me, was this other India made up in that way.


Now the diasporics are becoming really important. Now when you first invited me to teach in India in 87—remember, I was not invited by the literature section, because I was not French and yet I was doing French theory. So Professor Thapar invited this non-historian (points to herself) to teach in the history department—and that is something that should be known, that there’s been solidarity between us for a very long time. However, back to ’87, and to what I began to feel was more and more the difference—I gave a long talk in Bengali, here in Baguiati, on the difference between onabashi and probashi, the expats and the NRIs. Onabashi is a made-up word. At that point in time, it had already become important for us not to acknowledge the diasporic image of India, a minority in the United States. Sometimes even a white-identified, good, affirmative-action minority. Sometimes a minority in that little island off the coast of France. On the other hand, not claiming the kind of 86 per cent majority that was already showing signs of violence. So, at that point, what happened to me was that I turned more and more to thinking about the rural Indian landless illiterate people whose children I taught who don’t even know the word Dalit and yet call themselves SC/STs, and to seeing if there was an idea of India in the largest sector of the electorate. I’m not going to go on about it because I think we want to hear more about your idea of the problems and so on. But I just wanted to get this said.


Because now it is, in fact, on the rise, this business. Because of what’s going wrong abroad, with the new Khilafat which has a history which is not known by anybody. It is known, but it’s not known by the young radicals. And what’s happening in France and the rest of Europe—all the right-wing coming up. And let’s not even talk about the United States. Of course there is a certain kind of unity coming in among the radical diasporics, but it’s an unexamined unity, so that, to an extent, the continents of Africa and Asia are becoming adjunct to these radical diasporics. Which is why we who do not want to discourage this feel that we have an obligation to talk about those old nation-state type ideas, of the national enterprise as my friend Bernard Harcourt calls it. So how do we re-negotiate the idea of India as a safe idea? The present prime minister was just in the United States. Luckily, I wasn’t. There we have a certain kind of solidarity emerging which is extremely frightening. Therefore, I just wanted to get that in, in terms of the problems from outside, which is not only not disappearing but also increasing. And now I want to hear a bit more about what you think of as a list of problems.



Thapar. Yes I think one of the problems which you’ve touched on in the notion of the idea of India, or the idea of any place for that matter, is of course that the idea changes—it’s not the same all the time. The idea of India that I had in 1947 has changed. Reality begins to impinge on the idea, and the idea takes a different kind of shape. At the time of those years, the 50s and 60s, the diaspora was seen as something relatively marginal to begin with, it was seen as disgruntled people who are not very happy over here, who are pushing off there because they’re getting better jobs and leading a better life, and all the rest of it. Initially, of course—and I know the UK better than the USA— it was a different group of people who went. It was the sailors, and some members of the working class who were especially taken to do specific jobs. Their presence was absolutely marginal. But when it began to change, when professionals started going and the middle-class migrated, then two things happened, as happens even now. One: they did so well that they became, as it were, the role models for the middle class here, and their attitudes therefore became extremely influential. Interestingly, also, they developed a culture which was divorced from the culture of the host country, the culture of the diaspora being a very specific culture—it doesn’t really feed into or draw on the culture of the host country but remains separated, initially at least. My guess is that as long as there isn’t a critical mass of Indians in American politics or British politics, or there isn’t a lot of intermarriage, it will remain a distinctive community. But I may be wrong about this. So, what happens in the diaspora is not something that is to be dismissed, and much of what one might call cultural or religious attitudes of the diaspora tend to have a very direct influence on the middle class here. And, of course, we know that the middle class today has changed completely from the ideas and ideals it had in the 1960s. I’m always very intrigued by the fact that, on occasions when I switch on the television to see the news, there are advertisements, especially for private universities. Very often they show very lavish laboratories, foreign scholars coming to lecture. Describing the university, they announce loudly, ‘Your destination: Success.’ I always ask myself: Surely, the destination of a university is learning, knowledge, thinking. How does it become success? And what is meant by success? Is it making money and having power? And I think that this is a very distinctive difference that has taken place from those earlier times.


But I’m going off a little bit. We were talking about what is it that came in the way, as it were, what was it that caused a lot of change. I mentioned how there was a tremendous obsession with economic growth and economic change—very legitimate but the kind of obsession which tended not to give enough attention to religion and language and to what is generally described as cultural articulation. There was a tendency to assume that religion is not very important in India, that the political message is much more important. That if we can solve the economic problems, we can solve all the others. Language became a problem and it was finally solved in the way in which democracy solves all its problems—that is, the numbers in support of linguistic states were counted and the majority opinion accepted. What linguistic states have done is another issue, is another question, and I think one that impinges very much on the notion of nationalism in the country.


Then, of course, there’s the cultural idiom which always tends to be associated with the coming in of religion, whether it is or not. And by this I mean that when people define Indian culture, and this relates a little bit to what you were saying, the idea is not to ask, ‘What is the culture of the entire Indian society? What is the culture from top to bottom?’ It’s always only the culture at the top—that becomes the identity, that becomes the Indian identity. And, in fact, many of the problems that we’re facing today are precisely because that identity is not sufficiently broad. The identity has not been discussed and debated sufficiently in order to arrive at a point where one can say that, ‘Yes, this is perhaps not the ideal identity but it does approximate the ideas that most people have of what they mean when they say “I am an Indian.” ’


Spivak. It seems to me also that the idea of India is quite often metonymic of one’s language group. The Indians who speak about India abroad quite often have no clue about the fact that it is an extremely multi-everything place. Forget about class and caste—just in terms of cultural differentiation[. . . .]And I think that’s a very major problem, I mean, even in scholarship sometimes, no name’s named but one thinks Bengal is India and India is the world—and that’s a book on nationalism.


I don’t even know whether one should think ‘India’—that’s another question. But if one does, then one should think about Indians who do not resemble one at all. Now that’s one of

the things that’s disappearing today—it’s disappearing abroad, it’s disappearing at home, and I think it’s a tremendous shame. When we were growing up for example, it’s a very simple thing but if something got lost, I’d say, ‘Ouf-oh! Hajir Pir ke ektu noon jol dite hobe.’ (You have to give some salt water to Hajir Pir if you find the damn thing.) Now it’s all Ganesh. If you find something, it’s all Ganesh. I mean, we didn’t even think that by giving that salt water to Hajir Pir we were being middle-class syncretic secularists. It was just a natural thing to do, but it’s kind of disappeared, those kinds of things have disappeared, you know.


Sometimes, when I see someone abroad and say ‘Salaam-Alaikum,’ they say, ‘Oh, you’re Muslim?’ I say, ‘No, that’s also an Indian greeting—what’s your problem?’ (Audience laughs) This is the kind of thing that should be practised in our everyday, I think this very, very strongly, so that somehow you begin to think not only of your own identity as the Indian identity.


You said that one of the things you were thinking about when independence came was, ‘We talked of economic growth that would end poverty.’ Garibi Hatao. Now here I can say something, because I’m supposed to be an expert on economic growth and social inclusion for the World Economic Forum—haan bacchalog, haat-tali lagao (audience and Spivak burst into laughter). You know, I have this wonderful, wonderful colleague called Xavier Sala-i-Martin who has invented the competitive index. And he says—he’s a delightful man, an economist—he says, ‘Look, I can tell, because I go to meetings of the World Economic Forum, that when the Ministry of Finance of Rwanda and the Ministry of Finance of Canada come and talk to me because I show where there are new areas of economic growth, they are not talking about the same thing. But I can talk to both of them. But social inclusion? That’s in your hands.’ This separation has now gone, totally gone. I’m coming from Ghana. Ghana has just launched its first satellite. There’s the diasporic convention, but I’m not showing my face—I’m only listening to them. And what are they saying? They’re saying, ‘Now, we are no longer looking for freedom, we are looking for economic growth.’ And this is how the Indians talk about China. So this whole thing of economic growth—of not including social inclusion, of exacerbating the difference between the rich and the poor . . .


Thomas Piketty is a very nice guy but his wonderful Eurocentric book does not take into account how bad the Scandinavian countries became in the 90s. Because the Somalis and the Rwandans and the Turks were coming in, the Scandinavians were changing the rules. So they were no longer Piketty’s ideal, but he never once writes a sentence about the change. And he’s also talking about inheritance rather than capital, etc. Just paying taxes and so on is not going to do it. But this particular question has become so identified with the idea of India, this question of economic growth. The middle-class is going up, there’s electricity all over the place, there are latrines and so on and so forth. Economic growth, and social inclusion—I think that problem has to be questioned in a completely different way. It perhaps needs the revamping of education from bottom to top, because education is not just learning and knowledge, it is also questions, it is also questioning. I mean, the good education that you were talking about—that is also questioning. That has been completely throttled, that idea of education with which we began. We’ve both been in that business for a very long time and it’s gone from us. I would say that that the economic-growth you mentioned in your questioning, and in your discussion with me, as something you were really looking forward to. That, and that ‘Poverty would disappear.’ I think that’s something we should focus on a little bit in terms of who has an idea of India.


Thapar. Let’s also clarify that one isn’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater—it’s not that one is against the idea of economic growth at all, especially economic growth related to poverty. That is absolutely fundamental. All that’s happened, of course, is th