Public Intellectuals And the Growing Need to Speak Truth to Power

28 October, 2015

The Sahitya Akademi has finally come out and condemned the murder of writer MM Kalburgi and other rationalists, and has implicitly responded to the outcry over its silence on other incidents of societal violence. The murders and other events, including the lynching of Mohammad Iqlakh in Dadri over the suspicion of having consumed beef, provoked over 30 writers to return the awards conferred to them by the institution. Against the backdrop of protesting writers who led a silent march on 23 October in Delhi, the Akademi held its board meeting and passed a resolution which urged the “governments at the centre and in the states to take immediate action to bring the culprits to book and ensure the security of writers now and in the future.”

Unsurprisingly, the community of writers remains divided over the sincerity of the Akademi’s response, coming as inordinately late as it did, under mounting pressure from the rebellious writers whose numbers continued to multiply. It may be presumed that by breaking its silence on these violent acts, the Akademi has now managed, albeit clumsily, to put a lid on the mutiny that was expanding within its core community—at least for the time being.

At a broader level however, the unexpected show of authorial defiance has dragged to the fore critical questions that ground the debate but are usually ignored in our public discourse. For instance, what should the role of public intellectuals be? Has the space for public intellectuals in India been systematically shrinking—not simply because of the climate of anti-intellectualism making itself felt, but also because of the willingness on the part of some of these intellectuals themselves to be co-opted by the existing structures of power? Has the proliferation of social media, the seductive lure of easy fame, and the proximity to the powers that be, diminished the autonomy that fundamentally defines and accords distinction to the work that public intellectuals do?

Crucial questions have also been raised about the current political order and whether it is truly more threatening than governments in the past. Several people seem to believe that the strident rebellion of intellectuals—many of them Nehruvians or Leftists in their ideology—is purely motivated by a supposed political and partisan opposition to the right-wing dispensation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, espousing cultural nationalism as its article of faith.

We have recently had the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) leadership point fingers at the protesting writers and interrogate them for not leading similar protests at the time of the 1984 riots, or for that matter, against the many other incidents of carnage that date back to the years spent under the Congress regime. One could question the timing of the insurrection mounted by these public intellectuals and ask, why now? What has changed now?

It would be futile to deny that the tactical theories of the “primary enemy” or “lesser evil”—so often leveraged by political parties—also influence public intellectuals. In fact, such considerations have likely been instrumental in heightening or tempering their responses to disturbing developments in the past. Every incident of violence in our post-independence history has not always been condemned with equal vehemence. Some moments have taken precedence over others, sometimes inexplicably. For instance, we may well ask why the typically indifferent citizenry of Delhi exploded into rage over the gang rape of a medical student on 16 December 2012 when it did not manifest nearly as much outrage over the recent rapes of a four and two-year-old girl in the city. Why did the writers and intellectuals of Kolkata hit the streets after the brutality in Nandigram, and not on many other previous occasions of state-sponsored violence?

But these disruptions are not always driven by partisan interests. Viewed simply through the prism of political partisanship, the responses to some of these questions stand to lose their meaning. The fact is that most intellectuals who have been worthy of the title of intellectual have generally belonged to the Nehruvian or Marxist stream of consciousness. It is for the right-wing critics to ponder why there has been such a lag in scholarship among intellectuals subscribing to right-wing ideology. The usual rhetoric of pitting the rule of the Congress against that of the BJP, of  “their” censorship versus “ours” and comparing the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to the 2002 Gujarat riots, communal clashes in Bhagalpur to the lynching in Dadri, may obscure shifts that are currently underway. These shifts  are qualitatively changing the political culture of this country.

It is also pertinent to define what it means to be a public intellectual (or who qualifies as one). The late literary and cultural theorist Edward Said posited during a radio lecture on the representations of the intellectual in 1993, “There is no such thing as a private intellectual, since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world.” Said also states that there is no such thing as only a public intellectual, or someone who exists simply as a figurehead or spokesperson of a cause or movement. Any such person, he explains, is affected by personal inflection and private sensibility that impacts what is being said or written by them. This places in the category of the public intellectual, those who engage in debate and political action, but limits it to only those who write. “Least of all should an intellectual be there to make his or her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant,” Said concluded.

On the other hand, Antonio Gramsci, the twentieth century Marxist scholar distinguished between “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals. In his understanding, traditional intellectuals are bound to the institutions of the previous hegemonic order while organic intellectuals seek to rally people around counter-hegemonic ideas and ambitions. Both kinds of intellectuals represent the interests of different sections of society—or classes that are in contradiction to each other.

Regardless of the varying definitions of the public intellectual offered by scholars, one principle that should, perhaps, bind this collective together is their ability and willingness to speak truth to power, to defend the weak, uphold human rights and express contrarian views even at the risk of offending friends and foes. From this perspective, our public intellectuals do indeed appear to have strayed from their calling on more than one occasion in the past. Perhaps the culture of political and systemic co-option, coupled with the desire to be on the right side of power have blunted the edge of their ability to represent the truth on behalf of those who needed that truth to be spoken decisively and without ambivalence. In India, intellectuals and activists are co-opted through various ways. One of the methods used is the appointment of such figures to various committees under the government. The idea here is to pack institutions or positions of authority in these institutions with people who are friendly to the ruling order of the day. One need only to look at the rising tensions within the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) for an illustrative example of this trend. The ICHR’s advisory panel has been disbanded with eminent historians questioning the saffronisation of the institution.

While the question of partisan sympathies may hold fast in some cases, this cannot become a fig leaf for overlooking the systematic escalation in bloodshed across the country that has taken place following the ascendancy of the Modi government to power. In recent months the frequency of such incidents, that include the killing of minorities and dissenters, appears to have increased. It could be argued that the violence—or the potential for it—that has always simmered underneath the fabric of our polity has now become routine and homogenised.

While there is no justification for the targeted violence of the past, the threat it posed was not as dire since it was scattered and could not be pinned down to the propagation of a certain ideology. The regular assertion of majoritarianism that we are witnessing now has the dimension of organised persecution. Incidents of violence are no longer just manifestations of systemic prejudices of caste, class, culture and social differences that political parties have casually exploited as and when they deemed fit. This intensified aggression appears to be borne out of an ideological regimen of Hindutva, to which the ruling BJP subscribes and even in government, is seen giving its tacit nod to.

The threats issued to writers and activists questioning the policies or inaction of the current government by a network of the BJP’s elected representatives or by vigilantes of the Sangh Parivar’s innumerable outfits have created a distinct  political and social ambience. Those familiar with the workings of the Sangh Parivar, would be able to hear the message that is being delivered through Modi’s calculated silences and his ambivalent remarks when he does make them. They  have good reason to be anxious about the direction the country is steered towards.

The question of whether or not Nehruvian and Leftist public intellectuals earlier protested such incidents is an issue that should be debated within the larger framework of the role that public intellectuals are expected to play. A larger debate must take place to remind the current generation of public intellectuals of the dangers of leaning too close to the powers that be, but one cannot be blind to the alarming phenomenon that is taking shape before us. Only the most faithful followers of the BJP can deny the dangerous nature of the climate that is shaping itself around us today. If anything, unlike the sporadic events that sparked violence in the past, India today seems to be stepping into a vortex from which there will be no escape.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.