In Narendra Modi's India, intellectuals must figure out their position and the path ahead

Indian intellectuals have never been more alienated from any regime at the centre than they are from the Narendra Modi government but this needs to be inquired into rather than merely regretted.

India has the most popular government in decades, implying a more difficult position for the intellectual than an unpopular government might have created — since agitating against unpopular state policy/conduct is widely understood to be moral duty of the public intellectual in a liberal democracy.

Who is an 'intellectual'?

Broadly speaking, an intellectual is a person who engages in critical study, thought, and reflection about the nature of contemporary society, and proposes solutions for the perceived problems of that society; by speaking out in the public sphere, he or she gains authority as a creator of opinion.

An intellectual is not simply someone who undertakes intellectual activity — however profound — but one who engages deeply with societal issues to understand them and make their complexities widely understood. An intellectual is also someone able to draw abstract conclusions from social experience.

Intellectuals have generally been artists and literary figures, often residing in the academia, but with the increasing specialisation in most disciplines, academics have gradually become a category of their own. The social sciences and the humanities are the spaces most hospitable to the academic-intellectual since the disciplines still intrude upon the public space, in a way that biology or the physical sciences do not today. As an illustration, Charles Darwin’s work had enormous public implications of a kind that most biology — which is removed from public view — does not have any longer.

An intellectual is not just a thinker, but someone whose work has impacted society in a meaningful way. Image for representation only, via

Intellectuals are not merely those who undertake intellectual activity, but those who engage deeply with societal issues. Image for representation only, via

The 'Intellectual', the Right, and the Left

If the term ‘intellectual’ is innocently associated with the left, it is because of the complex intellectual tradition associated with left-wing thought. If one were to consider one of the most contested of disciplines — history, for instance — left-wing constructions of history have found acceptance in universities because there is an intellectual rigour to their methodology. The allegation in India that left-wing history is ‘biased’ is not a patently false one, because all history writing is biased in one way or another. But the point is not whether such history has a bias but whether the reconstruction of the past by the historian passes examination at the right academic levels. If a saffronised reconstruction of history is untenable in the academia, it is not because it is prejudiced but because its prejudices will not stand up to academic scrutiny, which insists on convincing evidence and argument.

What is acceptable is not arbitrary and there are protocols laid down on how academic research may proceed. This kind of validated research — regardless of biases — is how knowledge accumulates and what is taught at the lower levels can only echo the findings of research, though duly simplified; as students pass into higher education they cannot unlearn things they thought to be true. Feeding schoolchildren invalid ‘knowledge’ is a sure way of destroying education in India, and will do irreparable harm. The only correct/legitimate way to go about propagating a new ‘Hinduised history’, for instance, is to first construct it painstakingly at the university level rigorously, through validated research, and then disseminate it downwards — assuming that this is possible. It is because not enough attention has been paid to the creation of validated knowledge about India that universities in the US are more trusted; Indian philanthropists would rather fund institutions like Harvard to build such knowledge than Indian universities.

The term ‘intellectual’ has come to acquire pejorative implications to the rank and file of Hindutva because of the perceived left-wing bias in most intellectuals; but, as already suggested, this is because left-wing thought is able to draw upon a multitude of theoretical streams that Hindutva has no access to. The right-wing has also made no efforts to dilute its ideology, at least to make itself attractive to politically unaffiliated intellectuals in various disciplines. It may have found some sympathy among managers, experimental scientists and micro-economists but these categories, while they are also associated with intellectual effort, do not usually generate ideas which permeate public life.

Indian intellectuals and the Government 

What has been said hitherto points out the handicaps faced by the Hindu right-wing in its intellectual efforts but I have been silent about how the ideological standoff between the government and the intellectual has been harming intellectual life in the country, in the universities especially.

One of the moral duties of the intellectual in a democracy has been to interrogate the state and the institutions of power. This moral duty, however, is secondary to the primary one — creating valid knowledge.

I would also suggest that an intellectual who ‘interrogates’ is also adding to knowledge — for instance, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Michel Foucault, whose interrogative roles are intimately associated with their intellectual endeavours. One would find it difficult to argue that Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent did not contribute to political thought. The Indian intellectual/academic with left-wing affiliations, it would seem, has identified ‘interrogation’ entirely with agitation and protest at the street level (against nebulous issues like ‘intolerance’) and this has been aggravated under the NDA, since the political left has essentialised it as ‘fascist’.

Agitations and protests, it is understood, are directed against the government or the state in a democracy since they pertain to what representatives of the public are improperly doing or not doing. One does not normally protest against a natural calamity or crime but one could agitate against necessary steps not being taken. One might propose therefore that except for cases where protests are directed against local governments/institutions all protests today overtly/covertly target the state and the NDA government.

The NDA (or more correctly, the BJP) is broadly descended from a loose coalition once known as the Sangh Parivar brought together by religious extremism, and there were so many groups associated with it that it would be difficult for even the leaders of the NDA to list them out. While the BJP still professes Hindu nationalism as its ideology, it is also a fact that when the NDA came to power in 2014 it did not rely on a Hindu platform, but that of ‘development’. By all evidence, its phenomenal popularity since then has not rested on promises to build temples but the public sensing that its leader Narendra Modi is the strongest India has had. The NDA government may still be reliant on Hindutva sentiments but to be fair to it, one finds it difficult to identify an overt act or decision from it which reeks of fascism or communalism. The demonetisation decision hit the traditional constituency of the BJP — the small trader — hardest and a case even exists for a revised understanding of the party’s constituency. The NDA, it would appear, is primarily implementing the programmes of the former UPA government and if the former UPA takes credit for the ‘ideas’, it was never the thinking up of schemes as much as their implementation which was difficult.

Protest and the Indian intellectual

If one looks back at the instances of protest/agitation by India’s left-wing intellectuals, the first instance one recalls was their protest against the killing of three rationalists on separate occasions, in different parts of India. (The Hindu tradition admits rational thought, although the foot-soldiers of Hindutva seem to be unaware of it.) The killers were never found and it was never established that the same people were behind all three killings. However, a number of intellectuals vehemently protested the ‘growing intolerance’ in India by returning the awards bestowed upon them by the previous UPA government. The purpose of the gesture is still unclear but it was supposedly to protest against the state, and not the elected government. Still, the state had apparently become more abhorrent with the NDA government running it.

The demonetisation of November 2016 caused a huge number of difficulties for India’s citizens and the economy is yet to recover, but it was enormously popular — perhaps because it was seen as a demonstration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's strength. Few economists — not even Amartya Sen, Manmohan Singh and Raghuram Rajan — saw economic sense in it, but that cannot mean that it was without a rationale. India’s intellectuals, instead of coming down heavily against demonetisation on humanist grounds, could have speculated on the likely effects of the action, which became extremely popular despite the pain it caused. If the economy suffered, would it not follow that it was the cash/black economy which suffered most? Could not the state have now armed itself with information about the spots where black money was being generated/held? Wealth held as cash is political power outside that of the state, which can be used also to subvert its ends; unaccounted wealth can be held as real estate and merchandise, but bribes are paid only in cash. Demonetisation may have been intended to strengthen the state — a necessary prerequisite for successful state action in future.

The most recent instances where India’s intellectuals have protested pertain to mob lynchings by self-styled gau-rakshaks and Kashmir. Gau-rakshaks are apparently miscreants affiliated to the former Sangh Parivar but it is unfair to trace their doings to the NDA government. The Prime Minister can only be accused of not speaking out strongly enough against the lynchings, but before any blame can be laid at the doorstep of the government, each case will have to be investigated in detail. Miscreants and criminals have taken shelter behind political ideologies before.

But it is probably in relation to Kashmir that the responses of India’s left-wing intellectuals have been most ill-advised. Most of their responses revolve around the historical origins of the Kashmir muddle but I propose that the history of the Kashmir conflict has become immaterial today since both India and Pakistan have painted themselves into corners from which all negotiation is impossible. Any government in India or Pakistan is so pressed upon by public opinion — created by its own propaganda over the decades — that it cannot get the mandate to resolve the issue by conceding to the other. What concerned intellectuals/academics can do is to look at the human rights angle, organise open debates focussed on Kashmir which admit all viewpoints and gradually influence public opinion so that resolving the Kashmir issue is publicly acknowledged as involving negotiation.

What left-wing intellectuals have done instead is to paint themselves as obdurate anarchists preparing for the dismemberment of India on political/moral grounds. They invite separatists to shout ‘azadi’ slogans, a move which only provokes the nationalists. Gradually, it would seem, left-wing academic-intellectuals are only creating constituencies for themselves, and there is little to choose between right-wing and left-wing constituencies among students. Building political constituencies, one may be sure, is an intellectually less strenuous option than having to create valid knowledge. It may take courage to stand up to a mob but courage against political goons is not the primary requirement from an intellectual.

The NDA government has been trying to bring about sweeping changes in the country but if areas are to be named from which it has been most distant, they pertain to culture and (liberal) education. As already indicated, these are the areas which the Hindu right-wing is ill-equipped to dominate — without also lowering standards all around. It is because of the BJP’s unfamiliarity with cultural issues globally that that the term ‘intellectual’ has become a curse word to the party’s rank and file.

India cannot do without intellectuals if it is to be respected in the world and global respect is what the NDA government is striving after. It cannot be justly claimed that the intellectual left-wing represents any threat to the nation’s integrity and its innocuous radicalism is not much more than political correctness. The BJP dominates politics today, but in its quest for complete dominance may also rest its greatest weakness; when one is so strong as to remain virtually unchallenged it is better to leave to one’s adversaries the things they are more adept at.

The NDA will only serve itself by leaving culture and humanities/social sciences education to intellectuals even if, at the moment, they are hostile to it. Such action will also force academics to move out of activism into intellectual labour.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India.

Updated Date: Sep 10, 2017 08:09 AM

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