Free thinking and free thinkers


There is a strange co-relation between last week and this week.Last Saturday, i.e., 8th of February was the birthday of Dr Zakir Husain, the third President of India and co-founder of Jamia Millia Islamia who also served as its vice-chancellor.The coming Saturday, i.e., 15th of the month is the completion of two months of Jamia Millia Islamia’s brutal attack which occurred on 15.12.2019. Another co-incidence is that the main building of the University which stood to witness the vandalism on that ghastly night is named after him and called as the Zakir Husain Central Library.One of the reasons why the attack can be singled out for criticism and debate is the fact that it was an assault on the library of the University. There is a lot of emphasis on education in India-in fact,Article 21(A) of the Indian Constitution makes education a fundamental right of every child between the ages of 6 and 14. The aim is to not just educate the children and students but also facilitate them to develop in them the potential of critical and free thinking, democratic ideas, secularism, equality of sexes, removal of social barriers.

Seeing from this perspective, the attack on Jamia Millia Islamia on 15.12.2019 was unique and disturbing. What was equally appalling is the fact that a foray in to the library was made from the main entrance through the glass gate which remain locked on Sundays making it questionable whether the entry in the library was for the purpose of catching the miscreants (which of course couldn’t enter a closed door) or to disheveled the structure? A library with its silent corridors and orderly racks of uncluttered books can never be a source of menace for any mortal being or a state.Library has a passivity to it which is relative. Its power and strength depends upon and directly proportional to the number of its visitors. However,a hustling-bustling library and a reading hall with large number of readers has a potential of its own. It works as a catalyst in nurturing the idea of free thinking. That is when it becomes lethal for those-people, government of any state or Right Wing groups- who believe in ethnocentrism,unscientific values, monotony of thoughts and ideas,someone who wants to tread the narrow regressive path intolerant to modern, secular and progressive thoughts.

A well-maintained and updated library in a minority institution also doesn’t fit into place with the image of the muslim whose rhetorical image is that of a skull-capped man/boy, semi-literate, hyper-active who has nothing good to offer to the society he lives in.The image of a hijab-clad female is even worse. A library in Jamia with students, generally assumed to be muslims, discussing philosophies of life, literature, history of the world, socialist and Marxist ideologies militates against the general notion formed about them.

A library full of books not just change the notion of the world about a person/community but it also transforms the person from within. A well-read person would talk of rationality and logic. It makes them learned and updated ready to take the challenges of life. Reading books may lead the bibliophiles to discard some of the old established norms, the idea of religious exclusiveness, their identity as fundamentalists and supremacists.It not only open doors for retrospection but also introspection. It steers to the discovery of being, transforming the person from within and without. Therefore, a working library would be an anathema to the preservation of closed/orthodox mindset burden with fanatical ideas and exclusivity. It would be equally challenging for a government whose ideology to rule depends upon keeping alive the notion of regressive/ demonic ‘other’,

A library abjures exclusiveness in another way. It leads to the removal of social barriers. Students from different walks of life-caste, religion, social strata, sex, colour, race- mingle with each other at this common space to share their ideas and thoughts, their stories of distinctive lands, social category, sexual orientation, caste norms, traditions and culture. The interactions facilitate in building the thought –process, creating shared-present which generates empathy and comprehension to the issues of gender relations, caste complexities and sectarian and religious ideas.It promotes an understanding wherein a person try to sharpen his individuality and at the same time remain undifferentiated. It provides a breeding ground to an individual to acknowledge the plurality of identities, to evolve a dialogue around received ideas and practices and to form a dissent which is inalienable to a democratic set-up.

A library with large number of students from the deprived community, as in the case of Jamia, make them realise of their denial and utter marginalization. It makes them aware about the inequality they face within the society and make them responsible young beings to talk about the discrimination and social injustice. The ideas of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar, Martin Luther Jr., Nelson Mandela etc. inspire and instill in them the courage to raise their voice and question their socio-economic deprivation, caste distinction and increasing political irrelevance.

An attack on library is an attack to the minds striving to be free from prejudices.

Free thinkers

Though a crackdown on library, a space for free thinking, is first of its kind, an attack on free thinkers initiated years back. The murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi were the beginning of an end. Narendra Dabholkar was a medical practitioner by profession who gave up his profession for the social cause. He established the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) to fight against superstitions prevalent in the society and targeted many godmen.His life was antithesis of irrationalism, unscientific notion and fundamentalist thoughts. Writing on faith and superstitions, Dabholkar writes about four criteria of faith, that faith allow examination on the basis of facts, truth, or experience;it exuberates non-violence and toleration of other faiths;it is dynamic; and it makes one a sublime human being and not a debase one. Dabholkar once wrote that blind faith is invariably linked with religious faith and therefore impression is created that eradication of blind faith would lead to eradication of religious faith and therefore it is anti-god.Unfortunately, Dabholkar was regarded as dharma-drohi. It is ironical that Indian Constitution regards the fundamental duty of every citizen to develop scientific temperament and consider it as an important value in education but Dabholkar, who spend his entire life fighting superstitions and exposing godmen, was brutally murdered on the same grounds. Due to his efforts for almost a decade, the government of Maharashtra passed the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act in 2013, after his death.

Govind Pansare, though not denying the historical role played by religion, points to how religion is used by the establishment to keep the depressed in their place, both in past and present. He writes that religion has  been used by rulers and exploiters to meet their end which should be exposed but at the same time one should also be sympathetic to victims/exploited keeping in mind their vulnerability. He also points at how the religious forces are overpowering the rational one generating fundamentalist frenzy. For him, the task was to win back the deceived and defeat the bigots. He was extremely vocal in criticizing the right wing groups and asserted that right wing groups recently are adorning another mukhauta (mask),that is, of Mahatma Gandhi.He opines that they murdered Gandhi for his ideology (Gandhism) and now trying to finish his ideology by appropriating him, canvasing views that are against Gandhi’s views.

Delving into history, Govind Pansare penned about Shivaji. He writes that one of the titles given to Shivaji is Go- Brahman Pratipalak (Protector of Cows and Brahmans). However, studying Shivaji’s letters, Govind found that Shivaji never addressed himself as such. It was a tradition initiated when a Brahman, quoted in one of the letters, uses this phrase. He also informs that in fact some brahmans in his kingdom performed Kot Chandi yajna for the victory of Mirza Jai Singh against Shivaji. It is no secret that Shivaji started his career by denting the power and authority of Brahmans in the western Deccan. Majority of Shivaji’s supporters were low caste-group peasants and untouchables from the lower strata of the society. And his naval chief was a Muslim as a large number of his sailors as well. Such image of Shivaji evidently were in denial to how history has been perceived in the period of national struggle and after the Partition.The well-researched ideas of Govind Pansare were taken as threat.

Regarding participation of plebeians in Shivaji’s struggle, he writes that extraordinary events do not take place in history unless common people participated in it. It is the poor who desired change and not the elite class. Moved with these ideas, Pansare attempted the synthesis of Marxist ideas with that of Phule and Ambedkar. The word bahujan was his equivalent for proletariat or labouring mass in which he also included shudras and atishudras exploited by nascent capitalist class or priests.He established Shramik Pratishtan (Workers’ Trust) which publish books and organize seminars and lectures because he believed that economic revolution could not be complete without cultural and intellectual emancipation. Pansare was relentless in his service to the society even at the age of 82 when he has been shot dead.

M. M. Kalburgi was a well-known Kannada writer and free thinker.Well-versed and having profound knowledge of Kannada literature and culture, Kalburgi had knowledge and scholarship on poetics, grammar, medieval texts, vachana literature, inscriptions, folklore, etc.

Apart from being an expertise on various aspects of Kannada culture, he was also the editor of vachana volume taken out by Karnataka government. Vachanas were the revolutionary literature and the rationality embedded in it inspired Kalburgi to reconstruct history in the light of the social ideas enshrined in it. He courted controversies for his readings and his stance on Lingayatism as separate from Hinduism.For Kalburgi Lingayatism was a social religion, an action based faith emphasizing more on soul and the world rather than god and soul. Therefore, shranas, followers of vachana philosophy, focused on eliminating varna distinction, Brahmanical supremacy untouchability both at physical and mental level,promoting inter-caste marriage and uplifting Dalits and tabooed section of the society.For him, Basavanna, the lingayat saint and vachana writer of the 12th century, was the ideal model because he also practiced what he preached.Kalburgi himself emulated the role of these medieval dissenters in modern world when he started posing excruciating questions in the face of orthodoxy throwing new light on the subjects of caste, sect and religion. That is when his writings became problematic to the privileged class and upholders of traditions. A scholar who has under his credit some 115 books and over 700 articles, the killing of Kalburgi was a jolt to a nation who calls itself a ‘vishguru’ or at least strive to be so.

The commonality among all three of them is that they were not passively drowned in the pleasure of scholarship. They were putting it in practice. They aimed for learned and enlightened civil society, free from prejudices, fundamentalism and age old traditions, and therefore challenging the dogmas, questioning the received knowledge and exposing the myths and ideologies prevalent in the society and endorsed by right wing groups.Though religion is a tool for some disgruntled elements, the efforts of these reformers make it evident that problems of Indian society are embedded more in its caste and sectarian beliefs. Romila Thapar in one of her essays writes that rather than focusing on the monolithic religious society the link between caste and sect should be explored in understanding the interface between religion and society in the past, in ancient and medieval Indian societies. This is true of the present as well. This understanding pertaining to the social set-up, its discrimination and religious beliefs and efforts made to challenge and curb it became the cause of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi’s undoing. All three of them were probably going through the last phase of their life. Their killing indicates the desperation of their perpetrators in dealing with free thinkers and putting an end to their undertakings. The homicide of these free thinkers in contemporary India is a reflection of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at the time of Independence.

The state-machinery failure to book the culprits and crack these cases instilled a fear among free thinkers,encouraged the brigade of supremacists and proponents of hate and irrationalism and initiated a process to stifle the free voices. Soon after, Perumal Murugan, the eminent Tamil poet was intimidated and forced into taking vow of silence. Even the act of intolerance in the form of lynching -with mob killing the adherents of the defamed community- has started not with targeting uneducated cow-traffickers but with a well-educated IT professional in Pune for suspicion completely unfounded.When many intellectuals, poets,scholars have raised their voices against the rising intolerance in the country and returned their awards, they were named and shamed as‘award wapsi’ gang by certain politicians and mainstream media. Disrespect to knowledge and learning reached its nadir when Romila Thapar has been asked by the JNU authorities to submit her CV and even nobel laureate Amartya Sen and economist Raghuram Rajan have been trolled and regarded as anti-national for questioning the government policies.The signs of the genesis of a society which abhors progressive minds and detest free thinking were more than evident by now.

The attacks on the universities, as also library, is in line with this outlook because universities nurture young minds full of free thinking and unorthodox ideas, ready to question and debate, form a dialogue and dissent.

What’s the future?

The students’ resistance all over India and overseas and their solidarity with one another and against the oppression only enrich the democracy and secular nature of the state. With anti-CAA agitation, and non-violent demonstrations against the brutal attacks on students and library, the students have shown the hard way that questions will be raised, undemocratic and regressive ideas will not be accepted and if need be, protests will be staged.Passing through the lanes of Jamia’s gate no. 7, when one encounters a maskeshift library on the side-path with students sitting and reading, undisturbed and indifferent to the traffic; when one sees that in Shaheen bagh amidst the protest of womenfolk, a Fatima Sheikh-Savitribai Phule library has emerged;’when one hears the slogan ‘Protest bhi, padhai bhi’ one gets filled with hope that the legacy of free-thinkers- Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Maulana Azad, Mahatma Gandhi, Zakir Husain, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M. M. Kalburgi- will live on. As Basavanna in Kalburgi’s Kettitu Kalyana (Fall of Kalyana) says, ‘If water has to be pure, it should flow on and never be stagnant…..The static perishes whereas the dynamic doesn’t’.

Samana Zafar, Jamia Millia Islamia

Disclaimer: Views expressed in the article are those of the author and not those of the institution Jamia Millia Islamia.




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