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?

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