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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 3, New Delhi, January 2, 2021

Rethinking the Role of Intellectuals | Arup Kumar Sen

Saturday 2 January 2021, by Arup Kumar Sen


In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci addressed the fundamental question of formation of intellectuals in a social formation: “Are intellectuals an autonomous and independent social group, or does every social group have its own particular specialized category of intellectuals? The problem is a complex one, because of the variety of forms assumed to date by the real historical process of formation of the different categories of intellectuals”.

Actually, Gramsci was trying to understand how capitalists, as an “essential” social group, establish their hegemony in the economic, social and political domains.
Post-colonial India has gone through a process of capitalist transformation within a liberal constitutional framework and, over time, got transformed into a neo-liberal capitalist regime. This happened even before the BJP came to power at the Centre as an absolute power in the second decade of the 21st century. In spite of India’s journey in the path of neo-liberal capitalism, the basic constitutional framework enshrined in the Constitution of India survived.

The recent rise to power of the BJP does not signify a fundamental economic transformation, but it represents a fundamental political transformation, as it converges with repeated attacks on our constitutional rights.

The Hindu Right represented by the BJP has built up a strong cadre base in different parts of India through its mass organizations like the RSS. However, it has not been able to establish its hegemony in the political domain through its ‘organic’ intellectuals, in the Gramscian sense. So, it is trying to silence the dissident voices of liberal and radical intellectuals, including those of human/civil rights activists, through coercive means, in order to manufacture consent to its rule.

This strategy of the ruling power to silence the voices of dissent in contemporary India reminds us of Edward Said’s imagination of the role of ‘critical’ intellectuals: “…I believe there is a special duty to address the constituted and authorised powers of one’s own society, which are accountable to its citizenry, particularly when those powers are exercised in a manifestly disproportionate and immoral war, or in deliberate programmes of discrimination, repression and collective cruelty”. (See Said’s Reith Lecture titled Speaking Truth to Power, 1993)

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