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A History Lecture Under the Shadow of Thugs

Chased by Shadows - Harini calamur

Uniformed policemen lined the road and chains and locks were strung across the gates to prevent latecomers into the packed hall. It wasn’t a Z-category politician coming to speak, but an 83-year-old academic. ‘Indian Society and the Secular’ was the topic, and while offering Romila Thapar protection before the talk, Mumbai’s policemen couldn’t hide their dismay at its theme.

Mumbai has had many lows, but this must rank among its lowest moments. An academician’s talk under the shadow of the police? The organisers of Thapar’s lecture, which was dedicated to the late social reformist and crusader for communal harmony Asghar Ali Engineer, had not thought of asking for police protection. Romila Thapar had spoken in Delhi on the same topic in August, without any hiccups.

Since when did secularism become such an explosive issue in Mumbai?

Even at the height of the 92-93 Mumbai riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the actor Sunil Dutt could sit, unharmed, on a fast in the heart of the city. So could former PM V P Singh. Both Dutt and Singh were particularly hated as ‘Muslim-loving Congressmen’ by the Shiv Sena which was rampaging through the city then. After the Srikrishna Commission Report of Inquiry into the riots was published in 1998, when the Sena was ruling the state, meetings in halls and on street corners were held across Mumbai demanding its implementation. The Sena had trashed the report, but not one meet was disrupted.

Neither the Sena, nor its offshoot, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena headed by Raj Thackeray, is particularly respectful towards intellectuals. Their vandalism has extended from burning books to blackening the faces of university officials. Bal Thackeray would reserve his choicest abuse for Socialist professors.

Prof. R. Thapar

But their targets have been either anyone supporting Pakistani writers/artistes, or intellectuals whom they believe would influence their constituency – the Marathi manoos. The English-speaking class has never been worth wasting their energy on. Romila Thapar would’ve been insignificant for the Sena in terms of the harm she could do.

It’s the RSS for whom India’s senior most historian is an object of hate. A historian who has shattered the black-and-white colonial view of Indian history as either ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’, who has written instead of the complex shared history of all Indian sects, castes and communities, is as intolerable for them as the concept of secularism.

So because the RSS rules Maharashtra and India, does any public discussion on secularism become ‘sensitive’ as seen from the police’s viewpoint? Had the public meeting been on the beef ban, the police’s panic might have been understandable – in the present circumstances. It wasn’t as though Maoist revolution was being discussed.

But for the RSS, secularism is more subversive than revolutionary theory. They know Romila Thapar’s dangerous potential to influence minds away from their view of our history – and right now, pushing that view is crucial.

Incidentally, the Mumbai police have always let communal goons run amok. In fact, lumpens belonging to all parties (except the Left and the RPI), have felt free to disrupt and destroy the city.

So why did the same force show such zeal over Romila Thapar? The Sena’s recent acts of vandalism (disrupting the BCCI-Shahryar talks, their ink attack on ex-BJP member and writer Sudheendra Kulkarni), have drawn flak for the police, but then that’s nothing new for them.

One answer could be Romila Thapar’s international stature. Any attempt to physically prevent her from speaking would’ve brought forth reactions from the US to France to the UK, where the PM will be on his first visit next month. But then, international disapproval hasn’t deterred our governments earlier. Appeals by Nobel laureates across the world in 2011 to release Dr Binayak Sen, charged as a Maoist, from prison, didn’t move our internationally-acknowledged scholar-PM Dr Manmohan Singh.

Does the answer to the Mumbai police’s zeal perhaps lie in the educational background of the current police chief? Ahmad Javed is a Stephenian, a BA (Hons) from Delhi University, and must know what it means to have Romila Thapar as Mumbai’s guest. He was reported to have wanted to attend the lecture himself. He has just three months left for retirement.

But his zeal cost Mumbai dearly.

Had the cops not been there, as many as 70-odd latecomers would not have been turned back. Instead, they would’ve lined the aisles and stood at the back, as always happens when people know the talk just can’t be missed, either because of the speaker or the topic. This time, both mattered.

Just before the Maharashtra Assembly election results were announced last year, an RSS member told me that a BJP victory would finally see an end to the “progressive Socialist’’ tradition of the State. The sight of police swarming the venue of Romila Thapar’s talk showed that his dream may soon be fulfilled. The cosmopolitan and financial capital of the country became a city any hard-line Communist or theocratic regime would’ve been proud of.

When a public lecture by one of the country’s most distinguished, internationally respected academics has khaki uniforms all over, you know your city has entered what Urdu writer Rahman Abbas calls an “era of darkness”, where thought itself is in danger.  As Romila Thapar said, it’s time for us to stand up and shout that as citizens, this is not the city we knew, the country we want.

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