Free inquiry lost in today’s public discourse – Michel Danino

The Debaters

Prof Michel DaninoIt is not Right or Left that India’s intellectual life needs, but a revival of the ancient spirit of free inquiry. … Politically inflected ideologies have run their course. – Prof Michel Danino

Any student of India’s ancient intellectual traditions knows how they valued debate and questioning. Indeed, they often turned it into a preferred mode of teaching. The Upanishads delight in dialectics, as the dialogues of Yama with Nachiketas, Yajñavalkya with Janaka and Gargi, or Uddalaka Aruni with his son Shvetaketu illustrate. Ashtavakra, son of Kahoda, defeats Vandin in a debate to avenge his father’s earlier defeat. Buddhist scholarship depends largely on the art of discussion, as does Charaka’s fundamental text of Ayurveda.

The Mahabharata’s Yakshaprashna, Yudhishthira’s dialogue with his own father, Dharma, disguised as a demon, easily outdoes our shallow quizzes. Hsuan Tsang testifies that students wishing to enter the famed Nalanda University were confronted with probing “discussions” intended to filter out unworthy candidates. Shankaracharya engaged Hindu and Buddhist scholars alike in philosophical debates lasting many days. The whole tradition exudes a sense of intellectual self-confidence, an invitation to challenge and a freedom to dissent; let us also recall, since this is easily forgotten, that India’s intellectual tradition knew no Giordano Bruno or Galileo.

But there are two kinds of debates. The Indo-Greek king Milinda (Menander) once invited a Buddhist monk, Nagasena, to a debate. Nagasena boldly answered that he would accept only if the king debated as a scholar, not as a king. Pressed to explain, he said that a scholar does not get angry even if defeated by another scholar, while anyone daring to disagree with the king will only invite punishment on himself; a king’s debate is thus no debate at all, only power play.

For some time, modern India’s intellectual life has been drifting towards the second kind. I am not referring to the shouting matches which, on our TV channels, glory in the name of “debate”, but to more serious issues of an academic nature, which have often spilled over into the public arena.

Issues at the root of Indian civilisation and identity have expectedly attracted the most heated controversies. And so, inevitably, we begin with the “Aryan debate”, as it has been called, for instance by the US historian Thomas R. Trautmann in his eponymous edited volume of 2005. He rightly notes in his introduction,

“Unflattering labels such as ‘Hindu nationalist’ and ‘Marxist fundamentalist’, or ‘pseudo-secularist’ and ‘so-called champions of Hindutva’, are thrown about. These labels are often used as if they were proofs that the arguments of the writer’s opponent are not true.”

In other words, we have no real debate, and all Trautmann could do was to juxtapose papers from opposing camps. Laurie Patton, in an introduction to another valuable volume published the same year (The Indo-Aryan Controversy, edited by Edwin Bryant and herself), laments that there has been “very little conversation between the opponents, [but] great opportunity for creating straw men on both sides.” Their book, at least, included papers by a few scholars on both sides who did critique each other courteously and in a scholarly fashion, in a refreshing departure of the haughty dismissal that remains the dominant note.

One disturbing aspect of the acrimonious exchanges has been the notion that those who reject the theory of an Aryan paradigm are perforce pro-Hindutva activists or their western supporters. Endlessly relayed by a controversy-hungry media, it has concealed the fact that the staunchest opponents of the theory have often been respected mainstream western academics. The British anthropologist Edmund Leach, the US bioanthropologist Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, the French archaeologist Jean-Paul Demoule, the US archaeologist Jim Shaffer, the Canadian historian Klaus Klostermaier, the Greek Sanskritist Nicholas Kazanas, the Italian linguist Angela Marcantonio, the Estonian biologist Toomas Kivisild, among others, have challenged the Aryan scenario in its Indian or Eurasian ramifications.

However, none of the Indian historians still promoting it (from a “hard” version of an aggressive invasion to a “softer” one of a peaceful migration of small numbers) ever discusses these distinguished objectors; were they to do so, the convenient media-friendly story that communal-minded fanatics alone contest the dominant view would be unmaintainable.

The same principle applies to the issue of the Saraswati river, which has been back in the news of late. Here, the intellectual dishonesty is worse, since it conceals from a chronically ill-informed public that the lost Vedic river was identified with the now dry Ghaggar-Hakra of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Cholistan, not by a few “nativist bigots”, as an ignorant and abusive columnist recently put it, but by generations of European Indologists, geographers and geologists from the mid-19th century! Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, was among the many who, in the 19th century, published maps displaying the Saraswati as a tributary to the Ghaggar, while the British archaeologist and explorer Marc Aurel Stein, who identified the first Harappan sites along the river’s dry bed, published his findings in a 1942 report entitled A Survey of Ancient Sites along the “lost” Sarasvati River. In recent years, this identification has been accepted by most archaeologists of the Harappan civilisation. None of this is ever discussed by the river’s detractors, who have successfully created the myth that its identification is the work, again, of right-wing chauvinists.

For obvious reasons, the controversy that has surrounded the Ayodhya issue has been far bitterer. Archaeologists and epigraphists who maintained that there was clear evidence of a large temple-like building beneath the Babri Masjid were demonised, as were scholars who patiently marshalled historical, cultural and epigraphic evidence leading to the same conclusion. What mattered, once again, was not dispassionate scholarship and civilised debate, but winning the media war.

The US-based scholar and author, Rajiv Malhotra, the author of a few provocative books that have challenged west-centrism and western prejudices in South Asia studies, was attacked by academics led by Richard Fox Young on the grounds of plagiarism. It turned out that barring a couple of instances that were clearly editorial slips, Malhotra had carefully referenced all his quotations. However, rather than challenge Malhotra to a debate, his critics went on urging his publisher to withdraw his books. Their language was one of intimidation, not intellectual engagement.

Almost on a daily basis, the press has been using the Indian Council of Historical Research as a favourite target for dart practice. Its chairman and members have been charged with mediocrity and an eagerness to rewrite Indian history on the basis of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. That the accusers have never cited a single project adopted by ICHR to that effect went unnoticed; what mattered was to get the allegations relayed from columnist to academic and back again, in almost identical phrases. Also, no call for an objective assessment of ICHR’s less-than-immaculate performance under previous regimes has been heard. “Slander on and on,” says a French proverb, “some of it will stick in the end.” Our intelligentsia has become a past master at this art, which involves cherry-picking, selective quoting, misquoting, wilful ignorance of basic facts and passing the baton of calumny until the vaguest of allegations become the hardest of facts.

Amalgamation is another time-tested technique: such as the murders of intellectuals such as Narendra Dabholkar and M. M. Kalburgi, gently slide on to the RSS’s supposed admiration of Hitler and the renaming of Aurangzeb Marg, and draw the inevitable conclusion that India is now ominously under a regime “that has ambitions of becoming a fascist power”. That is what Teesta Setalvad, Irfan Habib and others did and stated at a recent Sahmat press conference. I condemn the above-mentioned two murders and do hope the culprits will be caught; but I do find it strange that the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, who was by all accounts a revered figure, did not arouse the slightest hint of revulsion in our intelligentsia. Besides, the point is lost that if Dabholkar and Kalburgi challenged traditional thinking and attitudes, they were actually well within Hindu intellectual traditions, which never feared such dissent and did not use violence to suppress it—compare with the brutal manner in which communist and fascist regimes alike have dealt with dissent.

As regards tinkering with the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions, which many such activists complain about, I agree that a national debate on the issue is certainly called for, but it will also need to go back to the origins of the practice—that is, in the early 1970s, when the then education minister Nurul Hasan, a medieval historian of Marxist leanings, began a systematic “reddification” of those very institutions, which saw the eviction, sidelining and victimisation of numerous sound scholars. I do not recall US-based academics protesting at the time. I stand in favour of true autonomy, but an autonomy founded on real intellectual freedom and excellence, not on convenient political leanings.

Through all these exercises in demonisation, which share an ever-predictable pattern, what comes out is a deep sense of insecurity—perhaps a subconscious realisation that politically inflected ideologies have run their course. It is not Right or Left that India’s intellectual life needs, but a revival of the ancient spirit of free inquiry and confident engagement. Meantime, we must be prepared for more pseudo-debates of the kingly kind. – Pragyata, 9 November 2017

» Prof Danino teaches at IIT Gandhinagar and is a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research.