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Playing one’s part

sukumar muralidharan | Updated on January 22, 2018

Stage fright: Do India’s intellectuals choose silence or do they choose to speak out Deymos.hr/Shutterstock

The Public Intellectual in India Romila Thapar et al Aleph and The Book Review Literary Trust Non-fiction ₹499

What is the role of the public intellectual in creating a just society?

In rather sombre mood, eminent historian Romila Thapar delivered the Nikhil Chakravartty memorial lecture in Delhi in October 2014. She recalled Chakravartty’s role as a journalist and political commentator who witnessed the first five decades of India’s independence and never relented in his commitment to speak up for public interest. It was, she continued, an attitude that went missing in the years that followed.

Thapar’s anxiety was evidently sharpened by political changes wrought through the year. It seemed a time when, after muddling along for six decades, early national commitments to equity and social justice went off the rails. A regime had seemingly consolidated itself in authority with little challenge and less patience for the liberal and inclusive traditions that invested India’s early years with great promise. The question was whether to question or not, said Thapar. Credentialled members of the intellectual collectivity who had lapsed into timidity and silent conformity, needed to step up and speak up.

In the months following, the organisers curated a set of responses, published alongside the lecture in The Public Intellectual in India. As it emerged, the release of the volume virtually coincided with a wave of protests by writers, historians, social scientists, artists and others from the creative and academic communities, all very public.

These were significant enough for a historian to describe them as the “October protests”, a term that may gain traction in future narratives about the current Indian regime.

Have the worries voiced by Thapar then been assuaged? It is perhaps too early to say. Today’s intellectual landscape, she had said, features “specialists in various professions” and perhaps “many more academics than existed before”. But there was a difference from earlier times, in that they preferred “not to confront authority even if it obstructs the path of free thought”. An “acknowledged professional status” makes autonomy in all its forms a viable choice. But the nature of academic partnerships and associations — both national and international — seemingly demanded that “critical assessments... remain sotto voce”.

In a response published in this volume, the historian Neeladri Bhattacharya draws attention to what seemed an omission on Thapar’s part. The European enlightenment was a template, among many others, that she drew examples from on the salutary value of the intellectual with a social conscience. But these intellectuals soon became prisoners of another dogma, blinding them to injustices in regions beyond the penumbra of the enlightenment. Bhattacharya also demurs on Thapar’s reading of the contemporary scenario, where he sees hope and many points of light: “the fight for meaningful education, for justice and equality, for tolerance, secularism and democracy”, among many others more specifically directed, such as movements “against big dams and tribal displacements... land acquisition and the demarcation of special economic zones... nuclear armaments and for peace”.

In his response to Thapar’s rhetorical question, the philosopher Sundar Sarukkai imposes a seeming contradiction by substituting “or” with “and”. The answer, he says, is to question and not to question. The cognitive act of questioning occurs on an ideological substratum and the truth and falsehood of answers are often assessed against pragmatic touchstones. Every act of knowing was also an act of doing, self-consciously so in the case of the public intellectual. The “ethical dimensions of critical questioning” had to be accounted for, involving a seeming act of empathy. Aside from knowing the “other” in any social engagement, there was also the need to imagine the “other”.

Dhruv Raina, a scholar of science and society, responds to propositions about the quiescence of the scientific community, an attitude contrary to the ingrained image of science being by axiom and procedure entirely consistent with democracy. That comfortable nostrum may have exhausted its utility. In its very organisation, science today runs on the patronage of governments and giant corporations. The underlying democratic ethos is not to be taken for granted or asserted as a matter of faith, but proven in active engagement with social and political realities.

Political scientist Peter DeSouza decomposes the construct of a public intellectual into two components: autonomy and advocacy. He takes up three notable instances of public intellectuals speaking up for social justice in the very different milieus of India, Israel and Bangladesh. And while acknowledging the dark times that prevailed in 2014, DeSouza identifies a number of vantage points where public interventions could promote just future outcomes: reason, freedom of thought, environment, livelihood, democratic participation and enterprise.

Media practitioner Jawed Naqvi speaks of a peculiar and persistent area of silence among India’s intellectuals, particularly in the advocacy of secularism and social justice. The early belief incubated during the freedom struggle, that modernisation would prove an effective solvent for all the iniquities of tradition, has proven rather hollow. Equal citizenship for those disadvantaged by caste and by their membership of an ostracised religious minority, remains a distant prospect. The debates on secularism as state policy and secularisation as a desirable end of civil society, needed to integrate that brute fact into their premises.

Thapar rounds off the anthology with a nuanced response to all her interlocutors, with the construct of a just future society being the overarching theme. Undoubtedly the imagining of a state of justice is the foundation for concrete actions that could make that possible. This volume, by an accident of timing, may well be the theoretical buttress that the “October protests” have sought, to enable a sense of purposive striving for redeeming the promises of India’s independence.

(sukumar muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla)

Published on November 20, 2015

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