For a book that aspires to represent “3,000 years of difference, doubt and argument” in India, it’s some disappointment that of its 546 pages, the entire stretch of Indian history until the freedom struggle is summed up in just 67 leaves. More, a staggering over one-fourth of the print space is devoted to the dissent expressed by activists, students and journalists against the state during the past three years. This tilt, of course, does not discount the significance of the book, India Dissents: 3,000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument, edited by veteran poet Ashok Vajpeyi, but it certainly limits both its intent and spread.
For, the reader often gets forced to locate the book in the immediate present, as most of the pieces of this phase have already been in circulation, and memory. The reader is too familiar with the suicide note of Rohith Vemula, the writing of JNU students Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid, and the speech of journalist Ravish Kumar. Then there is another issue. Some pieces do not actually represent dissent, but the book asserts that they do. The Nasadiya Sukta, known as the Hymn of Creation, is among the most prominent verses of the Rig Veda. Detailing the mystery of the creation and the creator, it asks: “But who really knows?” And then concludes: “He alone knows. Or maybe He too does not.”
Amartya Sen in his The Argumentative Indian has termed this, the inability of the sage-poet to define the creator, as an instance of “radical doubt”. Forwarding Sen’s argument, Vajpeyi, in his introduction, calls it the “beginning of Indian skepticism”.However, it’s neither radical doubt nor scepticism. The sage is amazed, marvelled. He expresses wonderment at the magical cosmos. Like a little child, whose pupils are dilated upon witnessing a rainbow, the sage is in awe of this cosmos.
Seeking dissent where it perhaps doesn’t exist does no justice to the cause or the civilisation the book attempts to represent. Yet, the book makes compelling and mandatory reading. Despite the tilt that makes it a political statement against the present establishment, it successfully underlines that India, through its history, has never been a monolithic cultural entity. India is a grand celebration of plurality—in thoughts and deeds. It is composed by multiple retellings of a single event, marked by intense questions and debates. Almost every major assertion that emerged from this land has faced, quite gloriously, its ‘Rashomon moment’.
It speaks volumes about the character of this nation that Gautam Buddha rose against the prevailing Vedic religion, he and his followers led an intense intellectual attack on the Vedic tenets for centuries, yet the great dissenter was later placed into the grand pantheon of Hinduism as one of the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu.
The book is divided into three sections. India until the onset of freedom struggle, which covers Vedic texts, Jain and Buddhist sages, Charvakas, classical Tamil poets, Bhakti poets up to classical Urdu poets like Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Ghalib. The second covers the freedom struggle phase, comprising speeches and articles by the likes of Savitribai Phule, Rabindranath Tagore, BR Ambedkar and Ismat Chugtai. The third begins with the Constituent Assembly debates and stretches to the present date. The last part gives space to such disparate voices like Medha Patkar, Dayamani Barla, UR Ananthamurthy, Amol Palekar and Soni Sori. A fairly comprehensive selection that constitutes historical voices against the establishment, religion, beliefs, thoughts, ideas, customs, caste, and offers crucial pointers to our times.
If this book aspires to be a political statement, then its most insightful and incisive section should be of India’s distant past—a period these days routinely, and wrongly, propagated as a highly chastised and Sanskritised era. The truth is perhaps diametrically opposite. It was a period when devotion, desire and poetry coexisted in a text. The sages did not hesitate from assaulting their own faiths. The sixth-century Jaina philosopher, who wrote a treatise on the path to liberation, had little love for his fellow Jain sages, as he decried their classification into Digambara or Svetambara saints.
Another instance is of Akka Mahadevi, the great Kannada mystic poet of the 12th century. She walked out of her marriage with a local king, declared herself to be betrothed to Lord Shiva, took off her clothes, covering herself with nothing but her long hair. This is what she had for her detractors: “People/male and female/blush when a cloth covering their shame/comes loose…When all the world is the eye of the lord/onlooking everywhere, what can you/cover and conceal.”
Having read these stirring lines, now know that the ideological brethren of the present establishment want the incident—that she took off her clothes—deleted from an NCERT textbook, as it goes “against the Indian culture”. And who rendered her verses into English? AK Ramanujan, whose essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas, was removed from the Delhi University curriculum—by the same outfit that now targets Akka. Some case for dissent, indeed.