JANUARY 8, 2020
IT’S NOT UNUSUAL in India to turn on the evening news and see a raging debate about a person who has been dead for centuries: Tipu Sultan, Aurangzeb, Thiruvalluvar. The past is always up for grabs, but nowhere more so than in India, a country formed in 1947 over a vast area that has been inhabited continually for millennia. Indian politicians have long reached for coherent national myths to explain the mind-bogglingly diverse country, but with greater fervor in the last five years, as the Hindu nationalist establishment seeks to make the past align with its hoped-for future.
Last month, the Indian philosopher Divya Dwivedi appeared on a television program organized to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth and she argued that Hinduism, as a political concept, was invented in the 20th century. The reaction was predictably incensed. Her comments combined the perfect elements of viral outrage: a televised sound bite, a historical figure, and what it means to be a Hindu, a topic of truly bottomless interest today. In the hours and days after her appearance, she received a torrent of abuse from social media, criticism from other academics, and pressure from her university. The firestorm.
Dwivedi, age 39, teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. She is the co-author, along with Shaj Mohan, of the sui generis book Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics. Born to leftist parents in the old Mughal capital of Prayagraj (né Allahabad), she has lived in Delhi for two decades. She has no plans to leave India, despite her work’s deep engagement with continental philosophy and deconstruction and also the large numbers of liberal Indian intellectuals who choose to emigrate; she has a sustained interest in what it means to do philosophy in India and as an Indian. Her ideas are particularly controversial because a key message of Hindu nationalism is that Hinduism is sort of an eternal and perfect religion, rather than a subject of the usual historical parameters. But on another level, Dwivedi’s situation mirrors that of any number of controversial academics in India today, from Muslim historians to Nobel Prize–winning economists.
The Indian academy more generally is in a period of turmoil, which is one of the lesser-known aspects of the Hindu nationalist domination of current politics. The prominent leftist Jawaharlal Nehru University, famous for student protests, has been nearly purged of dissent with ruthless efficiency in the last five years. Many professors have had to undergo “training” in “Hindu science” and Hindu values by nationalist cadres, who assert, for instance, that gravity was discovered not through an apple that apocryphally struck Newton, but through lychees. It amounts to a disembowelment of the scholarly establishment in the world’s largest democracy.
KRITHIKA VARAGUR: It was on the occasion of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary that you made your now-controversial remarks that Hinduism was invented in the 20th century. You received a pretty enormous and immediate reaction of outrage and trolling on social media and in the public sphere. Why do you think this statement caught fire at the time it did?
DIVYA DWIVEDI: First of all, this statement is something that has been very well researched over the past three or four decades. Also, some academics did come out and try and refute it, which was bizarre because they’re not refuting me, they are refuting a whole host of extremely sound historical precedents and Indologists and anthropologists. Given that it is so well established, I definitely knew what I wanted to say on TV and I meant every single word of it. I also knew the format of television debates in general, which are not aimed at serious discussion, but I said what I said in that limited time because I feel both morally and philosophically obliged to do so. I thought that on this occasion, the birth anniversary of Gandhi, there was nothing else that could be said. I thought I was able to say that Gandhi is not going to be our way into a political future, because our main problem is the problem of caste hierarchy, and exploitation, and oppression, so we should think of a future without Gandhi. This is the primary fact from which everything follows: that “Hindu” as a religious category encompasses a minority, which is the upper-caste minority population. But it has been invented as a category in early 20th century in order to represent the majority. So it’s a false majority. And all our political problems, and our academic problems including whether it’s possible to do philosophy on the subcontinent or not, have to do with the suppression of this fact.
Can you elaborate on your account of this construction of a Hindu majority? And what does this construction mask?
This has been very well researched by historians like Jaidayal Dalmia, Heinrich von Stietencron, Will Sweetman, Robert Frykenberg, and Romila Thapar, and almost everything regarding caste has been articulated consistently by low-caste intellectuals including Jyotirao Phule, B. R. Ambedkar, Urmila Pawar, Kancha Ilaiah, Anand Teltumbde, Khalid Anis Ansari, J. Reghu, Meena Dhanda, Hartosh Bal, Suraj Yengde, and more.
“Hindu” is related to the Arabic term “al-Hind,” which was used to designate the region around Indus river by travelers to the subcontinent. Before the 19th century, the term Hindu simply didn’t refer to religion, but to a loose collection of peoples who happened to live on the subcontinent and who were neither Muslim nor Christian. The term Hindu began to be used in the 19th century, when European Indologists were trying to codify a religion. But Indologists work only with texts, and texts are the basis only of upper-caste culture. So the upper castes acted as native informants for these Indologists, and as a result, what was conceived as religion at that time was only the upper-caste religion. With the 1872 British census, a new dimension came up, which was that communities were going to be enumerated, and that’s when the upper castes began to consider their category. For the longest time, they always continued to think of themselves in terms of caste rather than the category of religion.
By the early 20th century, censuses began to show that the upper castes are a minuscule minority. Some upper-caste people began to catch up to the new game, which was that Indians would get greater room in governing themselves. They decided that if their numbers were revealed to be low, they would have no traction in this new form of electoral politics and therefore, they needed to hide caste and to produce a new category under which they would not only appear to be the majority, but also be the representatives of that majority. And that is when “Hindu” as a category was embraced, and they required quite a lot of persuasion to do so. This is all very, very well archived: Gandhi, Lajpat Rai, several other nationalist leaders were part of this.
So, in the early 20th century, they actively adopted a foreign term, “Hindu,” and the religion was “invented.” And this constructed majority allowed them to continue caste oppression, which continues until today.
And what about the reactions from the public to your statement? What was it like for you from the eye of the storm?
I think that the threats and the abuses, which continued for a while, definitely are scary. And there are too many other people who have faced it. So it’s just the condition that we are in today. There was also pressure on me to retract my statements. What was shocking to me was that there is this much ignorance about this fact and that it’s a deliberate ignorance. And also when some academics from the so-called liberal left tried to refute what I was saying, that was very saddening and shocking. I think that the reaction was carefully aimed at me in order to make sure that this is not amplified further or given more space in a medium (TV) that does reach a very large number of people.
When you were in college and studying philosophy, was there an expectation that Indian academics outside the mainstream can expect to get so many personal threats? When did it become an expectation that if you had a certain kind of approach, this is just part of the deal?
I think the attempts to try and silence academics who produce well-evidenced research contrary to the reigning dogmas have always been there. But it never got the traction that it is having now. It didn’t have a political party representing it at the center.
Previously there were groups who attacked historians, like Romila Thapar and Sumit Sarkar, and even certain texts like Three Hundred Ramayanas by A. K. Ramanujan. There have also been episodes where academics have been attacked physically in the university, and the offices of heads of history departments have been trashed, and research centers which contained manuscripts of the Mahabharata have been trashed. But it is more recently that Hindu nationalists have occupied all political and social spheres in an unprecedented way and, definitely, that increases the consequences of attacks coming your way.
As a college student, speaking your mind or protesting are fairly common activities and I certainly did a lot of that. You can see now that student protests have shut down, certainly in Delhi and in most other parts of the country as well. Heavy anti-terror laws are used against people who try to speak their mind, which was not the case earlier. That should tell us something about how people now share a basic level of fear or inhibition.
Did you feel something start to change in 2014, after the first election? Is there some kind of time frame you can put on when the fact that this Hindu nationalist administration with an unprecedented mandate made its presence felt in the academic sphere?
I’m actually much more interested in the manner in which almost all political players and intellectual players in India have maintained the same consensus regarding the upper castes. Everybody has been part of this consensus where the only fight in which one can take positions is that between Hinduism and Hindutva [Hindu-ness, the ideology informing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party] or an Indian secularism versus a kind of more rabid nationalism or ultra-nationalism.
Today, a lot of academics are invested in making this distinction. But to me this is still a fake wrestling match that continues to avert our eyes from the real problems, which are related to the caste hierarchy. If you look at major conflagrations of, what are called “riots” but are most often pogroms or attacks on religious minorities, that discourse is not changed in its fundamentals. I think that continuity is something we should pay attention to, because it means that a consensus that was decided very long ago has informed the idea of India.
You’ve talked and written about how India is trapped in a Hindu-Muslim unity discourse championed by Gandhi, to the exclusion of discussing intercaste relations. These days, the Indian government doesn’t even release caste data from the census. Can you talk about that and other ways in which caste remains the elephant in the room?
Caste is difficult to talk about because it’s the elephant in a room full of upper-caste people. So you could even say it’s not the elephant in the room. It’s the elephant which has been kept outside the room. It’s exactly consonant with the basic structure of the society of the subcontinent. So for 2,000 years, the upper castes maintained their stranglehold on all institutions and exploited the labor of the lower castes. They had segregationist policies and ethos and ritual and scriptural justification for it. And the oppression of women also has to do with the control of reproduction and sexuality in order to maintain caste hierarchies and boundaries.
And this order, which has a feudal dimension, has carried over despite independence, in institutions like the media, or academic education at all levels, and politics itself, political representation of the people. If in all these institutions, the upper castes continue to dominate, how can the discussion of what facilitates their own privilege, how can that discussion break through?
How does the issue of upper-caste domination manifest in your field, which is philosophy in India?
It’s total. First of all, simply in terms of what is considered to be philosophy. There is no emphasis on thinking on your own. It is a relationship to a canon. And for Indian philosophy, there is an idea that philosophy should have a qualifying identity, the “Indian” identity of philosophy. It makes sure that you only study a canon that was composed several centuries ago and you do it in the name of preserving the brilliance of this heritage, not paying attention to the fact that it was the tool for maintaining upper-caste dominance. All research is constrained by the idea of maintaining an Indian philosophy, which really has only three or four components, including the socio-cosmic justification for the caste system.
So you study these texts as kind of metaphysical articulations, which are simply articulations of how people should remain segregated. The Brahmins are the only ones, in fact, who are supposed to do any intellectual or cognitive activity. And as [the eighth-century theologian] Adi Shankara said, Bhaja Govindam, mudha-mate: worship Govinda [Krishna], you fool! Meaning, lower-caste people simply don’t have the intellectual capacity to deal with the Vedas. They should just express their devotion by chanting the name Govinda.
You’re not capable of engaging with the texts. You’re not even allowed to listen to the Vedas. This is an injunction in text after text studied within Indian philosophy. We have continued the same attitude in our philosophy departments, which is of ritual repetition of the texts and commentaries that you’ve been given.
Do lower-caste students drop out as the field narrows because they feel discouraged by these structural constraints?
To answer this autobiographically would be a bit of a mockery, but the fact is that the dropout rate for lower-caste invalid people is so staggering and so well recorded that it doesn’t need any personal testimony. Just take a look at the statistics. The highest suicide rates in higher academic institutions, medical colleges, and engineering institutions, are of students from the lower castes.
On the other hand, reserved seats are not filled, so you have a lot of vacancies. The excuse is that people are not meritorious enough. If you look at professorial posts or just teaching posts in higher education institutions, 90 percent are held by the upper castes. And then the so-called prestigious institutions, including [my own] IIT, don’t even follow the reservation policy for teaching posts, only for students. So again, dropping out is one part of the picture. The other is keeping out.
What’s the canon in Indian philosophy, loosely?
The canon would include Shankaracharya, Ramanuja, a bit of Nagarjuna, who is a Buddhist thinker, but not canonized to the same degree as a Shankaracharya. And then there are all these schools of Indian philosophical traditions such as Nyaya and Mimamsa. And of course the Upanishads and Vedanta philosophy. And then there are 19th-century thinkers like Vivekananda who contributed to giving shape to the Hindu identity, who famously represented Hinduism in the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
So, when one gets an undergraduate philosophy education in India, are they taught on two different tracks, the “Indian” and the “Western”?
Yes, yes. The papers themselves are called Indian philosophy, logic, aesthetic philosophy. But Indian philosophy is the one that’s grouped according to its national identity. So if you choose to study, say, aesthetics, then you will have “Indian aesthetics” and study [Ananda] Coomaraswamy.
You’ve often talked about the limits of the postcolonial lens in India, which is the postcolonial subject par excellence and the quintessential “subaltern.” Why do you think the postcolonial frame has been so pervasive?
Gandhi provides the major articulation of what it means to be independent in India. He insisted on native traditions, native knowledges, and native customs, which are to be recovered after the epistemic violence or epistemic damage performed by the colonizer. And he adopted very consciously and vocally the Hindu idiom in politics: to speak of independence as swaraj, to ask people to chant the name of [the Hindu god] Rama, to ask for cow protection. So by theologizing politics, Gandhi is the one who inaugurated the postcolonial identity, and the Hindu one, and then postcolonial as Hindu, and Hindu as postcolonial. And we are still living in that consensus.
Subsequently, we found more sophisticated articulations of this same paradigm — sophisticated only because the postcolonial theorists who are predominantly based abroad in First World academia borrowed approaches from European philosophy of the 19th and 20th century. So for example, the Heideggerian opposition to Western metaphysics assisted postcolonial theorists in saying that we have to oppose everything which is Western because all of that is coming from Western metaphysics. Then Deconstruction is again borrowed in its entirety by postcolonial theorists to say that the entire edifice of Western philosophy is complicit in colonization and that we have to deconstruct them.
So it’s amazing that a theoretical edifice borrowed entirely from the West is used in order to speak against the West, and for the “native,” which is of course defined as Hindu, because the academia and the media are saturated with upper castes.
An example is Gayatri Spivak’s famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Her definition of “subaltern” is exemplified in a Brahmin woman who is too worried about how her family customs regarding virginity and female honor are going to look at her suicide. So she makes sure that she’s menstruating when she kills herself, so that nobody thinks she’s pregnant because of an affair. On the other hand, she also wants to oppose the British and be an anticolonial revolutionary.
Which academic fields are most susceptible to the Hindutvadis? History is kind of obvious, the low-hanging fruit. Is literature, too, for example?
Yes. There is a pressure to, first of all, teach more Hindi literature and to teach certain kinds of literature that have “Indian values.” And if we don’t lose sight of the fact that Hindutva and postcolonialism converge extremely well and at heart are not different at all, then the entire enterprise of postcolonial literary studies has been nothing other than the same agenda. This idea of recovering the voice of the subaltern or of the oppressed, those who are oppressed by colonization, those whose culture was silenced and their pride was hurt, these are nothing but upper-caste traditions, upper-caste texts, and upper-caste pride.
Another discipline being affected is policy, and I mean all domains of policymaking. And all domains even of sciences, if they have to study so-called Vedic science and Vedic plastic surgery and Vedic nuclear physics. Then also political science. Having accepted this false Hindu majority and then the Muslim minority, only two paths are allowed to us: one is of the aggressive Hindu nationalism that we see in politics. But the other path is adopted by the academics themselves, which is for political theorists to say that instead of hating the Muslim, we should tolerate the Muslim.
What is there beyond tolerance? What other paradigm is there to conceptualize inter-group relations?
There is something we already have but which is very marginalized: the Indian constitution, which is the gaping gesture of what it means to be modern. A society which for centuries was run on the basis of a caste hierarchy and a feudal economic and political order came at a point at least to say that we will no longer govern our mutual relationship to each other on the basis of these existing paradigms. We are going to make a break with the past, and we will found our coexistence on an entirely new ground. And the new ground is liberty, fraternity, equality, justice, which is political, social, and economic. This is exactly what the first page of the constitution says.
But Hindu nationalists have recently been saying the constitution is too Western and that we need to inject some Indian values into the constitution. So what we are seeing is really a conflict between what the constitution stands for and what those who actually control society stand for.
You mentioned a pressure to teach more Hindi texts; how else is Hindi language encouraged in the academy?
This, too, has been multipronged. Hindi is not the national language, but it was chosen as the “link” or official language for independent India. It’s not just this government, but this one is doing it much more aggressively. Hindi has been also promoted by upper-caste academics and intellectuals themselves, who say that we should reject English because it’s the language of the colonizer. So this perennial, upper-caste obsession with not being polluted by that which is foreign is combined with the effort to somehow disguise Hindi as the vernacular. But if you have to invent a new Hindi with more Sanskrit terms, making a break from the [Persian-influenced] Hindi-Urdu of the past, it already shows that you’re not speaking the vernacular. Increasingly, all the circulars that come to us faculty are sent in this unreadable, unintelligible “pure” Hindi.
Ironically, many low-caste Indians in fact prefer English to such a Hindi.
Yes. Lower-caste intellectuals and Dalit scholars have been openly saying that they need and embrace English and they don’t see it as an oppressive language because it is the language in which they came across the discourse on human rights, the language in which [founding father Babasaheb] Ambedkar wrote and was read, and it is the language in which employment opportunities and the prospects of a better future than the ones stipulated by the caste system is available to them. In fact, Dalit scholars can go abroad for their studies only if they have access to English. So Hindi and vernacular education, which does not give you employment and does not give you freedom, is being imposed on the very people who need that freedom the most.
I wanted to ask how you use your agency to push back against these trends that we’ve been talking about: this upper-caste domination, this Hindu-Muslim static discourse, this postcolonial ubiquity. Because no state of affairs is permanent, right?
Articulating these things is already, I think, a point of resistance. But what else?
My research and published work, including the Gandhi book with Shaj Mohan, are an assertion of doing philosophy as something related to politics, and doing philosophy as an exercise in creating new freedoms. So it’s both an instantiation and a plea for being modern in our exercise of our own thinking, in the exercise of reason and having the confidence in ourselves that we can do it and we don’t need the crutches of the past. It also informs my research praxis and teaching and does not at all follow the agenda of postcolonialism and nativism. And a part of it is also to expose the logic of postcolonialism, which has informed several things that I published.
Another part is to encourage the generation for which I’m responsible and for a few generations as a faculty to be able to set their own agendas and not be trapped by the ones that have continued for so long. So the idea that I mentioned earlier of erasing the ground on which we have conducted the dominant discussions in India and clearing the ground for a new kind of discussion.
Philosophy is not meant to refurbish and plaster up that which has been thought a long time ago. It’s not meant to continue or to transmit the messages of your gurus or your ancestors or of your race or identity. And therefore, philosophy is not culture.