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Mainstream, VOL LV No 24 New Delhi June 3, 2017

Public Intellectual in Changing India Today

Thursday 8 June 2017


by Aejaz Ahmad wWani

The Public Intellectual in India by Romila Thapar, et al.; edited by: Chandra Chari and Uma Iyengar: Aleph Book Company; 2015; pages: 170+xxxiv; Price: Rs 499.

The Public Intellectual in India is an outcome of the Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture delivered by the eminent historian, Romila Thapar, on October 16, 2014. In developing a case for the constructive role of a public intellectual in a rapidly changing India, Thapar lays out some of the contours of that ‘role’, which forms the first chapter of this book, titled as “To Question or not to Question: That is the Question”. Specifically, she shows how an eminent journalist like Nikhil Chakravartty, one of the early doyens of journalism in India, played a remarkable role of a public intellectual in post-colonial India. Nikhil Chakravartty’s unflinching courage in his journalistic career and his reluctance to be felicitated with the Padma Award, as a symbolic gesture of warding off any possible patronage and influence, speak volumes of his objective in inculcating a critical culture in India quite independent from the authorities. His editing of the magazine Mainstream has since been committed to this goal. Thapar’s chapter is followed by five chapters, each by Sundar Sarukkai, Dhruv Raina, Peter Ronald DeSouza, Neeladri Bhattacharya, and Javed Naqvi who respectively reflect back critically on Thapar’s arguments. Their responses are followed by Thapar’s rebuttal in the concluding chapter.


What is the role of a public intellectual in a rapidly changing society? India has undergone shifts of various sorts. The early post-colonial India saw the preponderance of issues pertaining to poverty, social justice, and basic democratic functioning and the pubic intellectuals remained vociferous in upholding people’s rights, fighting corruption and expanding the citizenship rights to the hitherto under-represented masses. However, the 1990s unfolded events that changed the very issues the public intellectuals would speak about and fought for or against. In Thapar’s words, ‘we moved into a kind of pedestrianism, but with rare exceptions’. Numerous factors played around. The ripple effect of the neo-liberal developments caused no expansion of the middle classes, nor did it undo poverty. Religion and politics are so networked they have caused deep and volatile differences between various communities. For Thapar, it’s the colonial state that caused social disjuncture in India in the first place, but the colonial historiography attributed this disjuncture to the medieval Indian events and this was readily accepted by subsequent Indian historians. This caused ‘retrogression’ in Indian historical representation. As a result, much of colonial laws, practices, and institutions have persisted in post-colonial India. Most crucially, Hindutva politics has acquired enormous signifi-cance in Indian politics.

In the wake of these changes, the level of tolerance and adaptability that have a deep lineage in India have been increasingly taken over by religious and cultural sensitivity of the fanatical groups. This leads to a situation where- in each public question or viewpoint has to pass a ‘religious and cultural test’ in order to emerge on the public sphere and even the colonial statutes that have anachronously persisted over time support such self-censorships. Thapar thus asks: what should be the role of public intellectuals in such a changing Indian society: merely asking questions or encouraging advo-cacy? What explains the increasing silence of our robust intellectuals? Thapar argues that we do have public intellectuals who fight for reclaiming our secular civic life, but certainly not large as it needs to be. While she argues for a thorough assessment of the colonial laws to get rid of their unnecessary anachronism, she makes a crucial remark that is basically the central but often ignored question of the dominant equation of religion and politics in India. She writes: “[Today], this is not a matter of religion versus the secular, but rather of how to consider where these become increasingly a matter of personal concern.” 

To Question or not to Question: That’s the Question: Romila Thapar

In order to envision the sort of public intellectual that is needed in today’s India, Thapar looks back into European and Indian history to uncover the ways in which existing ideas or authority were challenged and questioned in the past. In Europe, the public intellectual emerged in the form of philosophers who not only questioned the dominant authorities and belief systems, but also challenged the very foundations of prevailing knowledge systems. Socrates, Cicero, Diderot, Locke et al. belonged to this lot. But soon, it appeared that the public intellectual need not be a scholar or a philosopher, but a mere professional who seeks justifications of public actions from those in authority. In contrast, in India, such tasks are generally thought to have flowed from intuition and meditation. However, for Thapar, this belief is externally implanted in us. India has had intellectuals galore who focused on causality in challenging the existing knowledge systems. Buddhism challenged not only dominant Brahmanical hegemony, but also a society based on particular norms. Likewise, Charvak dispelled idealistic philosophy in his material interpretation of the world. If Amir Khusrau underlined the heliocentric view of the universe, Bulleh Shah challenged, in his poetry, the dominance of the madrassas and mullahs. In modern times, Phule and Periyar challenged the Aryan narrative of ancient India.

While the mainstream National Movement succeeded in establishing a liberal democracy and a secular space, it saw the emergence of the public intellectual in India who spoke on numerous issues of public character, and couldn’t be silenced. In recent times, we saw the rise of specialists who are replacing public intellectuals. Thapar argues that professionalism provided the necessary autonomy needed for them to take up issues of societal importance. In addition, it sometimes establishes the moral authority of these intellectuals.

Thapar recognises the fact that in a technological and informational age, knowledge systems and information per se become the instruments of power and domination. How to make the public aware of these changing times? For Thapar, it is here that professionals can play the role of public intellectuals in uncovering the hidden public issues that otherwise remain behind the technocratic walls. In other words, professionals can use the expertise of their respective fields to help the public in challenging the hegemonic designs of today’s informational and technocratic age that authorities can use in swindling the public. Thapar concludes that for the possibility of such a critical role of the public intellectuals, there is the prerequisite need of a secular society where all and sundry have equal social and economic rights irrespective of their religious adherence. Thus, questioning is the very foundational aspect of democracy that religious and cultural groups are trying to suppress so that their hegemony in society persists. Thapar regrets that in the lessening of that liberal space in the country, we don’t have as many critical voices as we need.

Inculcating a Habit of Questioning

Sundar Sarukkai, in the first chapter, begins by stating that questioning is a default cognitive faculty of human beings because we doubt what we perceive around us. Therefore, the experience of doubting is the very precondition for questioning. While Descartes catapults this basic cognitive faculty to a methodological doubting (leading to his deductive method), Sarukkai explores the Nyaya philosophical school to present an alternative and a critique of the “Descartian doubt” in that doubting cannot be done in a vacuum and that some prior knowledge is a prerequisite. In other words, one cannot continue doubting when the initial doubt is resolved.

Accentuating on the importance of critical imagination in critical questioning, Surukkai does a philosophical exercise of understanding the impulses of non-questioning (methodological non-questioning). Who will have unrelenting energy to keep asking questions? He finds a plethora of impulses—faith, habit, ignorance, indifference, and pretending that explain the non-questioning attitude but he paradoxically finds the same modes providing the very foundations that make questioning possible.

However, Surukkai warns that questioning in the public domain isn’t the same as questing oneself. The ethical domain of the ‘public’ needs a different approach, a form of communicative ethics. This can be done only by inculcating the twin habit of ‘questing the other’ and ‘imagining the other’. The role of the public intellectuals is, therefore, to inculcate and sustain these habits in society. Once these habits develop, public discourse itself changes.

Is Democracy unrelated to Science?

In the second insightful essay, Dhruv Raina purports to understand the evolutionary inter-relationships between science and democracy and how the recent strains in such a relationship impacted both. Are science and society poles apart from each other? Certainly not for Raina who argues that over the last few centuries, science and democracy have evolved together in tandem, even though there is a methodological abyss in between. Critical enquiry and questioning constitutes the very foundation of both of them. We have seen scientists, for example, Abul Kalam Azad in our own times, critically engaged in societal questions. But as Raina notes, there have been times when scientists spoke of the essential superiority of science, but it was always that all-encompassing democratic culture of debates on both science and society that kept the see-saw attempts subsided.

Raina is concerned about the ways in which institutionalisation of science and its organi-sational expansion have taken place in recent decades, and these, in his view, have exposed it to the external influence. For instance, he possibly seems to refer to the ways in which scientific institutions have been steered and influenced by politicians. In addition, he argues, the last century has also witnessed an increasing divorce between science and society. He concludes that a critical voice is crucial in scientific knowledge of any kind, but that is equally concomitant for the democratic citizenship.

Tension between Truth and Justice?

Peter Desouza identifies two constituent traits —‘an autonomous thinker’ and ‘a champion of social justice’—that make up what Thapar calls ‘public intellectual’. For DeSouza, each of these involves different personas (analytically speaking), and each of which follow different sets of protocols. While the former is epistemically concerned with validation of various claims, the latter evaluates social structures in terms of fairness and justice. At times, they may contradict each other. The former could be called a ‘seeker of truth’ and latter the ‘seeker of justice’. He seems to argue that both may seriously contradict one another in transformative societies like India. For example, a ‘seeker of truth’ might view caste in India as an ideological system that must dissipate if we are to become a meritocratic society and in effect may suggest that the very affirmative policies which in a sense perpetuate caste identities be done away with. But a ‘seeker of justice’ may well justify the same policies on the ground that the past social disabilities must be cured with social justice programmes before we arrive at a common starting point. Thus, for DeSouza, both of these persona have to grapple with this tension and yield to each other in a constructive way so that the public intellectual gets to know when, where, how to speak, approve, disapprove, condemn or act in societies that are as transforming as India.

‘Framing the Question; Questioning the Frame’

Neeladri Bhattacharya is emphatic about the uncritical ways of using critical historical events and figures of the past to underline the need for a critical public temperament. He is not against such an exercise, but doesn’t endorse nostalgic returns to the past (or what he calls ‘celebratory returns’). For Bhattacharya, these past events and figures are often marked by inner tensions and contradictions which often blur in these celebratory returns to draw resources that help us to critique the present. Quite clearly, this argument seems to mark a difference between the ‘romantic Hindutva’ or ‘Islamist type invocation of histories and historical figures’. To illustrate his arguments, Neeladari refers to the historical importance of the Enlightenment. On the one hand, the Enlightenment created an edifice for reasoning and rational foundation of modern societies, but on the other hand, it created and established categories that valued what was seen as ‘commensurable, measurable, classifiable’, but which stereotyped what it saw as its ‘other’.

Neeladari also picks out ‘uncanny’ aspects in Thapar’s essay. For him, Thapar anachronisti-cally connects ‘intellectual autonomy’ with pre-modern times which, as matter of fact, is a modern category entwined with the modern concept of the public sphere. Thus, Neeladari cautions about an uncritical ‘hark back’ and urges towards an inculcation of critical thinking that is self-conscious and sensitive to contemporary needs. In view of this, Neeladari doesn’t share what he sees as ‘pessimistic’ observation in Thapar’s essay. For him, the situation is not as grim as Thapar presents it; people from various sections of the society are actively engaged in various movements against environmental destruction, against nuclear proliferation, for peace and so on.

Fighting the Hindu-Muslim Trap

In the following chapter, Javed Naqvi, a celebrated journalist, views the changing social scenario in India as an indication of an overt and covert resurgence of the Right, as has been the case elsewhere. This is the critical juncture that tests the ‘nation’s intellectual resilience’. For Naqvi, the liberals first need to tackle two preliminary challenges before they could really counter the regressive Right. First, they must shun the ‘romanticising of victimhood’ which undermines the liberal ability to fight regressive politics. Second, they must be mindful about the ‘insidious ways’ that communal politics operates through in today’s India.

Naqvi argues that the wrong Hindu-Muslim binary has been internalised even by liberal intellectuals by glorifying the remedy of secular Hindu-Muslim rapport, and for that they must share some blame. Many of the thinking elite share dominant social identities, and thus half-heartedly approach caste and religious issues. For Naqvi, religion and caste share a deep nexus in India and what we need is to defeat the religious fascism which runs deep in the Indian society. The incantation of a Hindu-Muslim problematique is seen by Naqvi as a legacy of Gandhian politics. Thus, he imagines public intellectuals to retrospect and reflect upon the ongoing Hindu-Muslim trap, because this sort of characterisation hides the underlying social contradictions in India.

Thapar’s Rejoinder

In the concluding chapter, Romila Thapar addresses the questions and concerns raised by various astute responses. The overarching objective, Thapar notes, is an imagination of a society where the freedom to ask questions, not just foundational which rarely get asked but most importantly the perennial questions pertaining to social injustices of various sorts, is a norm. For this to persist there is a perpetual need of the people with pro bono sense to ask the right questions at right junctures. But it all needs a basic culture where ‘doubting’ is persistent because it is the faculty of doubting that leads to questioning.

One could think of today’s debates on national news channels (“the shouting business”) as an epitome of public questioning and the spirit of a vibrant society. But Thapar reminds us that the media has, more often than not, been ‘partisan and prejudiced to the existing authority and foci of power’ as well as morally complicit in adopting and entrenching wrong social binaries, and categories (Hindu-Muslim binary, for instance). She suggests an alternative forum or platform, independent of all authorities that can indulge in discussing the alternative views in opposition to the conventional and entrenched forms of debates and propagandas. In the nick of time, Thapar cautions about the ‘ideological public intellectuals’. She actually makes a distinction between the ‘concerned public intellectual’ and ‘those performing only a role’. The ultimate aim must be to ‘engage the public in thinking about the kind of society they have and the society they want to live in’.

Critical Analysis: Towards the Horizontal Democracy?

This book highlights the role of public intellectuals in a country like India where there is no dearth of ‘problem repertoire’. Indeed, the role of intellectuals is paramount in any robust democracy and society too, but an overemphasis on the intellectual aspects leaves the fate of a democracy in the hands of a few (who can be called intellectuals) and unfurls and espouses a kind of vertical democracy where the rest of the people are presumed to be sleeping or simply indifferent. As Noam Chomsky argues in his recent work Masters of Mankind, intellectuals have inherent authoritarian and dominating tendencies in the long run and as they make use of popular narratives of socialism, justice and similar other ideals, they to that extent keep the common people in a state of dependency. He further argues that unless that tendency is checked and met with by robustly participative masses or by a horizontal democracy, there will be no respite from these tendencies.

This was quite evident in the recent caco-phony spread across the country on the issue of ‘sedition’ at JNU. While the intellectuals were delivering lectures on nationalism with much clarity, plainly under-standable to the students of JNU, the rest of the people in the country could hardly make out anything constructive from these debates. It is because there is a disjuncture between the ‘public’ and ‘intellectuals’ and unless both are connected through proper channels, there can possibly be no adjoin of “Public Intellectual”. Common people speak a different language, and this fact must be recognised. In the absence of such channels, both may be talking about the same issue, but incommensurability and lack of mediation inter se will certainly allow no space for a critical culture in India.

This book is, nevertheless, a must-read for those interested in Indian politics and culture. It is a happy combination of perspectives from multiple standpoints—philosophy, science, journalism, social sciences and ethics.

The reviewer, who currently teaches Political Science at the School of Open Learning, University of Delhi, is the contributing author and co-coordinator of the forthcoming anthology, Modern South Asian Thinkers, being published by Sage.

Notice: A national lockdown underway in India due to the Corona Virus crisis. Our print edition is interrupted & only an online edition is appearing.