Book Review: India Dissents Edited by Ashok VajpEyi


Bhaskar Parichha reviews ‘India Dissents: 3,000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument’ calling it an invaluable guide in the long fight for an open society and the full realization of the fight for the freedom of Indians in a free India.

  • Edited and with an introduction by: Ashok Vajpeyi
  • Publishing House: Speaking Tiger
  • Year of Publishing: 2020

Dissent – expressing opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held – is very much in the air these days. Sure, it has always been there in the Indian context. Dissent is not evil after all.  Seeing through the Gandhian prism, for example, dissent might actually bring out the best in the Government against whom the right to dissent is being exercised.

When you have a whole book on dissention, it is bound to be of more than ordinary interest. Edited and with an introduction by poet, essayist and literary critic, cultural and arts administrator, and a former civil servant Ashok Vajpeyi,‘India Dissents: 3,000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument is a politic   book on the question of dissension except for a load of recent voices of opposition.

The blurb says:

throughout Indian history, various individuals and groups have questioned, censure and debated authority – be it the state or empire, religious or political traditions, caste hierarchies, patriarchy or even the idea of God. These dissenting voices have persisted despite all attempts made to silence them. They have inspired revolutions and uprisings, helped preserve individual dignity and freedom, and promoted tolerance and a plurality in thought and lifestyle. India Dissents: 3, 000 years of difference, doubt, and argument brings together some of these voices that have sustained India as a great and vibrant civilization.’

‘Collected in these pages are essays, letters, reports, poems, songs, and calls to action—from texts ranging from the Rig Veda to Ambedkar annihilation of caste; by thinkers as varied as the Buddha, Akka Mahadevi, Lal Deed, Nanak, Hali, Tagore, Gandhi, Manta, Jayaprakash Narayan, Named Dhaval, Mahasweta Devi, U.R. Ananthamurthy and Amartya Sen; and from Civil rights movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Dalit panthers movement, the Pinjra Tod collective, and the anti-CAA protests. Their words embody the undying and essential spirit of dissent in one of the world’s oldest and most diverse and dynamic civilizations.’

Their words embody the undying and essential spirit of dissent in one of the world’s most diverse, dynamic, and oldest civilizations. “It cannot be denied that India had a very restrictive, indefensible caste system and many elements of a feudal structure. But simultaneously it also had a republic of the imagination in which ideas and wisdom had a democratic remit,” Vajpeyi writes in the introduction.

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, encompassing speeches and articles by the likes of Savitribai Phule, Rabindranath Tagore, BR Ambedkar, and Ismat Chugtai. The third section 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. In the long fight for an open society and the full realization of the fight for the freedom of Indians in a free India, this book will be an invaluable guide.

In the outline, Vajpeyi draws a clear line from the Emergency to now:

The Emergency, imposed by Indira Gandhi’s regime in the mid-1970s was the first clear evidence of the danger that democracy reduced to mere numbers in Parliament could pose to liberty and human rights… Forty years after that dark period in Independent India’s history, the spirit of democracy is being undermined and subverted once again… In just over three years in office [the BJP] has either directly suppressed dissent, especially on the university campus, by terming it anti-national, or has kept quiet when Dalits and minorities have been attacked, often brutally by social outfits affiliated to it.’

From Ismat Chughtai’s account of her trial for obscenity, the collection spans a vast range, from Indian epics to folk poetry, to the constituent assembly debates, to Bhagat Singh’s Why I am an Atheist, to Naxalite poets and modern-day dissenters who are fighting against issues of criminalizing homosexuality, the freedom of women and abolishing the practice of instantaneous triple talaq.

If ‘India Dissents’ 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.”

The book is a timely reminder of those dissenting voices that have inspired revolutions and uprisings, helped preserve individual dignity and freedom as also promoted tolerance and plurality in thought and lifestyle.

The 546-page omnibus brings together some of these voices that have sustained India as a great and vibrant civilization. At a time when our right to freedom of expression is being repeatedly challenged and censored, comes a book which collectively presents voices of those who have persevered despite all attempts to muzzle their thoughts and ideas.


About the Author

Ashok Vajpeyi is a poet, essayist and literary critic, apart from being a noted cultural and arts administrator, and a former civil servant. He was chairman, Lalit Kala Academy, from 2008–2011. He was awarded the Sanity Academy Award in 1994 for his poetry collection, Kachin Nain Wahid. His other notable poetry collections include Shaker Ab Bhai Sam Bhavana Hai, Tatpurusha, Bummed kea Doors Naam and Vivaksha. He has also published works on literary and art criticism: Filhal, Kuchh Poorvagrah, Samay se Bahar, Kavita ka Galp and Sidhiyan Shuru ho Gayi Hain. He is amongst those who returned his award to mark his protest against the Sahitya Akademi’s silence on the murder of the rationalist M.M. Kalburgi..


About the Reviewer

Bhaskar Parichha is a senior journalist and author based in Bhubaneswar. He does book reviews for major publishing houses – mostly  non-fiction.


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