Public Intellectual: An Endangered Species


In his obituary to Benedict Anderson, Historian Ramchandra Guha recollects a letter from him in which he asked, “How many public intellectuals are there in India? In Southeast Asia they are dying, replaced by professors and bureaucrats to whom not many ordinary people pay any attention… I guess your Gandhi was a public intellectual, but probably Nehru not???????”

The worry about the disappearance of the institution of public intellectual is widespread. Romila Thapar expressed her own anxiety about the decreasing tribe of public intellectuals in the annual Nikhil Chakravarty Memorial lecture in 2014 titled To Question or Not to Question: That is The Question. Later, five brilliant minds from the fields of Philosophy, Science, Political Science, History and Media got together to respond to the concern raised by Thapar in her lecture. This discussion developed into a book titled The Public Intellectual in India which contains an introduction and an afterword by Romila Thapar apart from her original lecture and the responses by Sundar Surrukkai, Dhruv Raina, Peter DeSouza, Neeladri Bhattacharya and Javed Naqvi respectively

The advent of the Bhartiya Janata Party, the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh after its victory in the general elections of 2014 formed the background of the lecture. The BJP is the Indian equivalent of the far right National Front of France. While the rise of popularity of the National Front is seen as a threat to the French way of life and leads, rather forces political parties from the left , centre and right to sink their differences  to keep The Front away from power, in India the BJP is seen as another normal political party, with which parties of different hues have not shied from collaborating from time to time.

Romila Thapar feels that in this rise of the extreme right one can see a definite shift to “the questions of religious identity and assertions of those that form the majority community, deepening the demarcation between communities and weakening social justice and the institutions that sustain the society.” She talks about a time when “our concerns were with establishing democratic functioning and respect with citizenship, ensuring human rights and social justice, and protecting the underprivileged and those on and below poverty line.” One can say that the shift is not as clear as is being suggested here and the time of the rise of the politics of religious nationalism is also the period when the politics of social justice gained ground. That the concern of strengthening democratic functioning and human rights were not exactly informed with the issues of caste based discrimination is again something we need to ponder over.

The story of institutional decay is therefore not new. It features nearly all political powers as culpable characters. The unbroken thirty-three year long rule of the left in West Bengal made institutional life subservient to the party and the society itself turned into a kind of party society. One hardly saw any effective intellectual criticism of the hegemonisation of society by one party. This is an ideal case of voluntary silencing of criticism in a state, which swears by the name of Rabindranath Tagore, the quintessential critic. Scholarship and intellectualism withdrew from Bengal quietly. This silence was broken only after the masses mounted an effective opposition to left rule when it tried to bulldoze them into submission in Singur and Nandigram. This tradition was maintained by the Trinamul Congress, which dethroned the well-entrenched left rule in Bengal. You have to go to Tamil Nadu to see how parties which grew out of anti-Brahminical intellectual tradition turned their state into a police state. Similarly, a seemingly cultured and progressive man like Nitish Kumar led a government in Bihar which was least tolerant of criticism. State after state in India, one has seen decay, decline and destruction of institutional structures which were supposed to ensure democratic functioning.

Who is an intellectual then and what is her role in society? As Anderson writes, being merely a scholar does not make you an intellectual. In his essay “The Role of The Intelligentsia”, Isiah Berlin  says  that excellence in one’s own field of expertise, be it science or Arts, “does not qualify you to be a  member of the intelligentsia as such.” Nor does “sheer opposition to the establishment” earn one a place in the assembly of the intelligentsia. To be one, Berlin says, “a combination of belief in reason and progress with a profound moral concern for society” is needed.

Reason and Progress are two terms which are now in disgrace. Obsession with reason and progress caused such human catastrophe that 21 century may well prefer to live without them. There is no need to privilege these two terms to appreciate the meaning of Berlin’s formulation. Moral concern is key to understand what he is trying to say.

In Romila Thapar’s view, a questioning spirit is essential for an intellectual. Questioning in itself is a subversive act as it destabilizes establishment of all kinds. She draws from the past of India and Europe to explain that questioning is not a ‘modern’ phenomenon. “In earlier times the questions emerged from rational argument and logical thinking, but were tempered by the recognition of the human condition.” Through questioning, societies explain their evolving structures and also critiqued “existing realities with the intention of improving society.” One of the main jobs of those who train themselves in the art of questioning is to explore “new ways of ordering society.”

To find out new ways of structuring society, one has to challenge all kinds of power. To be able to do so, intellectuals have to be autonomous of power structures.  “An acknowledged professional status” makes it easy to be autonomous but this alone does not make one a public intellectual. According to Romila Thapar what differentiates the public intellectuals of today from intellectuals of the past is an acute awareness of and concern for the rights of citizens, particularly on the issues of social justice.

In earlier times if it was religious orthodoxy intellectuals had to fight with, in our days the name of the new orthodoxy is nationalism. For independent thinking to flourish, nationalism has to be questioned and challenged. But in another context, talking about the role of public intellectuals, Terry Eagleton wondered whether they are true to their calling if they do not question and challenge the tyranny of the soulless capital which has made even nationalism irrelevant in many ways. He laments that universities have abdicate their role of being sources of critique. They are no longer accusers of corporate capital and have instead become its accomplices.

Is it capitalism then, in its new pleasurable avatar which is stifling the very possibility of critique? This is question Eagleton poses. The focus of Romila Thapar’s talk is somewhere else. In the face of new assertion of rightwing nationalist politics, she thinks that the primary task of an intellectual is to tell people that for democracy can succeed, society has to be secular which means that its members would enjoy “equal social and economic rights as citizens, and would freely exercise their rights irrespective of their religion.”

In his response to  Romila Thapar, Sundar Sarukkai says that more than questioning, one needs to think about the value of certain kinds of questioning. It means looking for ‘right’ kinds of questions. He says that a person can remain unthinking “ if she does not ask the question: ‘what should I question?” The act of questioning has to be reflective to make it significant.

To understand the true import of questioning, one has to understand its the relationship with ‘doubt’ and its battle with ‘habit’: “on the one hand, we question through habit, and on the other hand we follow though habit.”. Sarukkai treats this as a methodological issue. He rightly says that to earn the right to question, one has also to keep questioning one’s own foundational beliefs.

What is the goal of questioning? Romila Thapar makes it amply clear that it is to find ways to in our times it is to reorient society in true democratic direction.  For Sarukkai, it would mean to face and surmount a challenge: how to engage with the other. In public discourse, both ways of questioning are important: Questioning the other and imagining the other.

Dhruv Raina discusses the relationship between science and public and invites us to think about the  centrality of reason in the discussion on the role of public intellectual. It is “beyond the capacity for explaining and justifying existing beliefs and commitments.” He says, “…when we speak of historical reason or scientific reason, there is an evocation of special methods, sources of information and specific knowledge related practices. These practices privilege logical inference and controlled observation over just mere inference and observation.” It is this method that makes ‘scientific practice the exemplar of reason.’ Unfortunately, the world of science has undergone an institutional transformation which has shrunk the scope of criticism and skepticism.

Peter Ronald de Souza talks about different kinds of censorship resulting from a subterranean fear of all public authority. There is public culture of fear among intellectuals.  They seek adventure but with security, which is not possible. He says that four types of censorship: censorship by public authority, by social groups, by peer groups and self are detrimental to free thought.

Historian Neeladri Bhattacharya differs from Romila Thapar and says that the age of heroic intellectuals is past us and suggests that we may imagine public intellectual in different ways : The public intellectual is not necessarily someone who intervenes self-consciously in the public to make a difference. She can be someone who helps in constitution of a critical public through small interventions”. He refuses to be pessimistic and finds hope in various kinds of small interventions by different sections of society.

Javed Naqvi draws attention towards the pervasive dominance of caste as an ally of the class of the thinking elite and provokes us to think about its power to manipulate the thinker and the thinking they impart or the choices they make. He makes a subversive suggestion: to bring to the forefront more ‘mofussil intellectuals’ to bring freshness to the intellectual discourse, which has remained dominated by intellectuals from the metrolpolis.

In the age of identity politics, it would have been pertinent to ask whether the very notion of public intellectual as someone people would listen to as Anderson desires is sustainable. For there is not one public, there are publics and they have their own intellectuals. If the possibility of a universal voice is no longer there, if transcendence is a deception, then how do we imagine  a public intellectual.

It is also disquietingly interesting to see none of the scholars grappling with the question of relationship of language with public intellectual. How is it that ideation takes place in a language in India which masses cannot access and yet the practitioners of ideas expect them to identify with them? Nowhere in the world is the practice of intellection done in languages totally alien to the masses. Our scholars who lament the loss of democratic space and secular spirit need to ponder over their own complicity: their choice of creating a gated community of ideas. Does it create jealousy, fear and hatred in those who have been kept out against intellectualism as such?



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