Gajendra Chauhan to Pahlaj Nihalani: The unstoppable rise of the anti-intellectuals under Modi govt

By Rishi Majumder

It’s a question that’s been puzzling many for a while. Why is the government appointing individuals without much standing to the country’s leading cultural and educational positions when they have better candidates among those who endorse their politics?

For example, why has Gajendra Chauhan been appointed as Chairman of the FTII governing council and not, say, Anupam Kher? The NDA-I, for instance, had appointed Vinod Khanna, of arguably greater stature than Chauhan, to the same post.

Also, did the Indian Right Wing really not find better believers among its ranks for the chair of the Central Board of Film Certification than Pahlaj Nihalani?

In the field of history one would have to search harder for illustrious figures the Cultural Right could use to further their agenda. Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, whose body of scholarship the Right,now employs as a springboard for their ideological notions of history, died in 1980. The veteran historian might well have taken great objection to some of the distortions but the point is the Right has been hard pressed to find a historiographer of enough indisputable clout whose work they can cull for fresh ammunition.

 Gajendra Chauhan to Pahlaj Nihalani: The unstoppable rise of the anti-intellectuals under Modi govt

Gajendra Chauhan and Pahlaj Nihalani. Image courtesy: IBNLive

But think a minute. Is it possible that, if historians of Majumdar’s stature were alive, Yellapragada Sudershan Rao would still be chosen for Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research? Wouldn’t a historian like Majumdar be seen to have too much of a mind of his own?

As we chew on this, do please Google the credentials of the distinguished appointees mentioned above. The problems sane questioners had with their exaltations have been documented well enough, across diverse media, for one not to have to raise them again.

Do also keep in mind that these appointments are only a few of those that have occurred, and are likely to occur, in the institutions mentioned above as well as others. For more, see here.

The relevant question— Why?

One reason could be found in a thesis put forth by Ramchandra Guha, in an essay this March, which has been debated avidly. Guha bemoaned a paucity of conservative Indian intellectuals and his writing evoked various reactions. One among them was from Jaideep A Prabhu who pointed to some exceptions Guha may have overlooked and suggested that Guha expand his scope while defining a ‘public intellectual’. Another was G Sampath’s piece just a week ago, calling the assertion a meaningless one. Sampath examined the issue through a caste prism to conclude that India’s left and liberals could be seen as socially conservative anyhow, and so, where’s the need for a removed secular conservative camp?

Let’s adopt a different approach, one that Sampath touched upon in his piece but then chose to move on from— the anti-intellectualism of the present Indian Right.

For, returning to the three appointments cited above, while Guha’s assertions may, if stretched, explain the lack of a credible Chairperson for the ICHR, it doesn’t address the willful appointments of relative nobodies to steer the two film bodies. “The work is administration,” said Chauhan in a TV debate when he realized he was ill equipped to defend himself. “Give me a chance. I will manage.”

For perspective, revisit the first appointment that landed this government in a soup. Smriti Irani as HRD Minister. The sidelining of an Arun Shourie may be seen through the lens of the party’s deliberate retiring of the old guard, but why appoint someone, with hardly any academic credentials to speak of, to govern Indian academia?

Here’s a hint. Speak to officials in the Education ministry and you will probably hear that Irani is, as Chauhan wishes to be, ‘a good administrator’. By this they mean she works hard and does her homework on various fronts. She manages.

Another hint— besides ‘managing’, what other virtue do Irani and Chauhan have in common? Answer: The lack of a strong, distinct, individual vision for what they want to achieve with their charges.

And so, one obvious reason for such appointments is that the Indian Right, overseen not just by the ruling BJP but also the party’s ideological parent organization the RSS, wants – in the cultural and educational spheres particularly – ideological puppets who will be grateful enough to work hard and get things done, but who will not in any way obstruct their agenda.

But wait a while. Have you noticed the unabashed manner in which the appointments are being made? A message, almost in the form of a Chinese whisper, seems to be being sent out with the announcement of each new appointee. Can you hear it?

The message is: What did your intellectualizing get you? Did it prevent us from coming to power? Did it prevent people from voting for us or volunteering for us or funding us? What can you do if you dislike an appointment? Write a column? Lambast us on a TV show? We will appoint 10 more candidates, equally distasteful to you, in response.

Mihir S Sharma, in a recent column, suggested an ideological takeover of culture and education in the country. In doing so, he compared what the Right is doing to what the Left did in West Bengal and differentiated it from what the Congress did in India.

Right Wing publications such as Swarajya, on the other hand, in many of their articles, have suggested that such a takeover comprises a sort of counter-intellectualism on the part of the Right— an effort to gain more legitimate representation in the educational and cultural worlds.

But what if it weren’t counter-intellectualism? For – let us raise the question for the third time, how on earth does that explain the appointment of those less eligible for a post, when those clearly more eligible, from the same ideological spectrum, are around? What if it were instead, ‘anti-intellectualism’?

Anti-intellectualism is not a new or an Indian phenomenon. In a milder form, for instance, the idea has been defined, in America, in the writings of journalist Paul Johnson and economist Thomas Sowell. Sowell also argues that anti-colonialism may have formed the basis for anti-intellectualism. It persists, in the US, in the more ridiculous ideas of some Republican politicians.

In its more horrifying avatars, anti-intellectualism has emerged in incidents such as the Khmer Rouge trials, where individuals have been condemned to death for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language or ‘The Night of the Long Batons’ in Argentina where five faculties of the university of Buenos Aires were dislodged. The name for the latter incident derives from the sticks used to strike hundreds of students and professors while they were being forced out of university buildings.

Anti-intellectualism was married steadfastly with Fascism when philosopher Giovanni Gentile presented it as an ideological basis for the same. At a ‘Congress of fascist Culture’, Gentile said: “Fascism combats not intelligence, but intellectualism which is a sickness of the intellect... ”

Examine the above examples closely and it will strike you that the ultimate failing of anti-intellectualism lies in the fact that its proponents are hypocrites. Pol Pot, or Benito Mussolini or Argentina’s Juan Carlos Ongania could never really discard intellectualism completely. You will always need an idea to rule. Each of these dictators needed a body of thought – be it Communism, or Fascism or Corporatism – from which they could appear to derive legitimacy. What they sought to do, therefore, was to mould one body of thought to make it fit into a box designed and owned by them.

The Indian Cultural Right as embodied by the RSS is also trying to put things into a box. And rather than counter-intellectuals it needs an abundance of ‘good managers’ through whom to do so.

For another strain of anti-intellectualism, examine Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own speeches. “There is nothing accidental about him, beginning with his anti-intellectualism,” Jug Suraiya had written, earlier this year, in a column titled Narendra Modi: Our anti-intellectual PM. The column was one of many inspired by the PM’s citing the Hindu god Ganesh as proof of transplant surgery in ancient India.

Let’s revisit that too. “Hum Ganeshji ki pooja karte hain (We worship Lord Ganesh),” the Indian Prime Minister had said, according to the text posted on the PMO website. “Koi to plastic surgeon hoga us zamaane mein jisne manushya ke shareer par haathi ka sar rakhkar ke plastic surgery ka prarambh kiya hoga. (There must have been some plastic surgeon in that era who placed an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery).”

If this were just a case of one man’s gaffe, it could, possibly, be overlooked. But the PM was echoing a wider Right Wing Agenda that was thumbing its nose at prevailing intellectual standards. There is nothing accidental about this agenda either.

Finally, two things. The intellectuals of India, as elsewhere, are really far from perfect. How so, is another debate altogether, but, for an indication, let us borrow from Noam Chomsky’s criticism of the American liberal intellectual establishment, “Intellectuals are specialists in defamation, they’re basically (political) commissars, they’re the ideological masters so they are the ones who feel most threatened by dissidence”.

But would you really want to throw the baby away with the bathwater? Because you are dissatisfied with questions, would you do away with questioners altogether?

Secondly, it may seem premature to draw from a few lame appointments and speech excerpts to generalize and warn of the way totalitarian regimes have gone.

But consider a recent incident. On August 1, the Saturday that just passed, a screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai- Muzaffarnagar Eventually, on the massacre of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, was stalled at Delhi’s Kirori Mal College.

Here’s what those present have to say about what transpired. Thirty to Forty young men who called themselves Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (the RSS Student Wing) members rushed in and demanded that 100 odd students should not be allowed to see the film. It was against their caste and against the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they claimed, despite not having seen it. When professors at the screening suggested they watch the documentary and then express any reservations in the discussion after, one of them charged towards a senior professor, Keval Arora, screaming, “Main Hindu hoon. Main Jat hoon. Main tujhein thappad maar doonga (I am a Hindu. I am a Jat. I will slap you).” He was restrained before he could do so, not by the police who had been called in and who were standing by, but by his companions who appeared to have sensed that things could escalate beyond their control.

What if, tomorrow, they don’t restrain him? Is a night of long batons really such a distant possibility?

Updated Date: Aug 03, 2015 15:45:53 IST