“Urban naxal is something of an oxymoron”


Romila Thapar. PHOTO/K. V. Srinivasan

Interview with Professor Romila Thapar.

The term “urban naxal” was once used during peasant protests against the state. Today, it is used almost as a slur on those who ask uncomfortable questions of the state. The same fate meets those authors and poets who refuse to sing hosannas to state power. It is easy to dub them anti-national, too, in an age when everybody is expected to eat only what a certain group of people permits. The distinguished academic, historian-activist Romila Thapar is known for her fearless insubordination when faced with the repressive organs of the state. Earlier this year, she spoke out against the arrest of five human rights activists when the media, and some organs of the state, dubbed them urban naxals. Earlier, she fought the saffronisation of history, arguing that content is being changed to suit the mindset of a certain section of the majority religion.

Today, she is as determined as ever to fight for the right to free space, dialogue, debate and even dissent. “Quitting is not an option,” she says with confidence, but adds, “The younger lot has to take over. It is their life; their generation should be concerned. It is the next generation and the generation after that which will be impacted enormously. On a broader scale one has to shake that generation. Ask them, ‘Why are you silent?’ They feel if they have a job, everything is all right. That attitude has to go. At another level, one has to fight on, believing that it [state’s repression] is not going to last.”

She answered a few questions for Frontline.

When was the expression “urban naxal” first used?

I don’t know when the term was invented, but it has come into circulation with the arrest of the five activists [in August]. The term is something of an oxymoron, indicating that the persons who invented it and use it have little understanding of what is meant by urbanism or by naxal. The Naxalbari movement was rooted in organising peasant protests and that of Adivasi societies and seldom had urban areas as the centre of its activity. Even today, wherever it is active, it is in peasant and tribal societies that are impoverished. Few slums in the cities lend themselves to naxal activity. To speak then of urban naxals as distinct from naxals is somewhat meaningless.

If the reference is to urban dwellers who are concerned about the problems in these areas or who are liberals or leftists in their thinking, even then it is an inappropriate term since they themselves are not naxals. But inexactitude is an old habit of those that now readily use this term. It was the same story earlier, and continues, when everybody and anybody who did not agree with their views were called Commies and Marxists by them and their trolls, irrespective of what might be the actual activities and writing of people so called.

For some people, even meaningless terms can have a pretence of meaning since they become euphemisms for abuse and are used as such. In this case, for those who use urban naxal as an expression of hostility and contempt, it refers to Indian liberals whose liberal thinking is anathema to the ruling party and its supporters.

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