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The Making of Indian Intellectual and Intolerance Debate


“And today, with a computer, everybody is an intellectual. So I don’t think it has anything to do with someone’s profession or with someone’s social class. According to me, an intellectual is anyone who is creatively producing new knowledge. A peasant who understands that a new kind of graft can produce a new species of apples has at that moment produced an intellectual activity. Whereas the professor of philosophy who all his life repeats the same lecture on Heidegger doesn’t amount to an intellectual. Critical creativity—criticizing what we are doing or inventing better ways of doing it—is the only mark of the intellectual function.”- Umberto Eco

There is much debate on intellectuals today in India. Many of them are troubled by what they call as shrinking space of dissent. The fact remains that while in the earlier days they were relegated to the unimportant pages of local newspapers, now they are celebrity in Television news where they rant about ‘Good, old days’ and curse the government of the day at the top of their voice, and they complain in a shrill, although articulate voice, exquisite words, even though at times repetitive. Sagarika Ghose, high-priestess of faux-secularism, recently wrote a blog on ToI (Target: Intellectuals—Governments that target intellectuals aredemonstrating the weakness of their own argument), in the title of which she used the term Intellectual twice.

In the body of the blog, she attacks Ms. Meenakshi Lekhi and Ms. Kirron Kher, two of the BJP Parliamentarians for blaming intellectuals for selective outrage. The fiery women parliamentarians, successfully pointed out to the political design of the protests by the intellectuals as the all the façade of award returning promptly died out, with the closure of Bihar election. My quarrel is not that. My quarrel is how Ms. Ghose safely assumes that those articulate ones opposing the government are intellectuals and those who are supporting are not. By that logic, neither Ms. Lekhi, nor Ms. Kher, nor Mr. MJ Akbar qualify to be an intellectual being on the right to the center of the ideology, even when he is a noted thinker and writer of global repute. The way things stand now, if you are a thinker and your logic supports the government, you cannot be an intellectual. This set me in search of who qualifies to be an intellectual. I needed to search for the same as for some myriad reason, Ms. Ghose and Mr. Guha (Ramchandra Guha, noted Historian) considers the government which stifled the press during emergency, which is responsible for banning 30 out of the 31 books banned in India, which came out with 66A to ban internet dissent, and Press reforms to regulate media, was a custodian of liberty and intellectuals, and believes that the current one targets the intellectuals who are abusing, cursing the government from all avenues, be it television channels, be it foreign newspapers, with impunity. Who are those intellectuals who the government holds animus towards and who qualifies to be termed as intellectuals that are currently aggrieved? Why the people who are on the digital media or social networking sites and who do not believe that these intellectuals are actually aggrieved, on factual premise, are termed, in derogatory sense, even if they are as articulate, as experienced of the real world and real-politic as the journalists and historians. Why do they not qualify as intellectuals?

Sagarika Ghose in the blog where she blames the current government of attacking the intellectuals and begins the post by obliquely compares a democratically elected government, which awkwardly tries to firefights a cleverly crafted campaign on ‘intolerance’ so weak on facts that if it were to be left hanging, it would collapse under its own weight, with Nazis, Stalinist Russia and even Khmer Rouge. She in some way sides with ‘Intellectuals’ as one of them. She is of course, from enviable educational background, with education in History. But do all history graduates quality as intellectuals?

She doesn’t begin her article by facts, but by conclusion, and then proceed to facts. This is an erroneous way of propositioning the point of view. However, there is a logic to it. In today’s environment of information avalanches flooding our days, it a smart technique. A lazy, or hurried reader, doesn’t sift the article through for substantiation. Any marketer will tell you, this is the way to leave the words, even if unsubstantiated, lingering in your mind. A quick reader remembers the beginning of the article. Umberto Eco says that repetition of what others have said before is not intellectual exercise. Sagarika quotes Ramchandra Guha (again a historian, not a sociologist, or social scientist) that this is the most anti-intellectual government India has ever seen. It is odd for a historian to have forgotten blank newspapers during emergency and people being jailed absurdly, or a tweet alluding to corruption of a congressman resulting in a common man from Chennai being jailed under 66A brought in by Congress. As per Ramchandra Guha, this government exceeds the intolerance of those governments. She quickly accepts P Chidambaram’s apology for banning Satanic Verses, which was more as acceptance of mistake, which came after 27 years, only after they lost the power. Then she proceeds to put the responsibility of protecting Rushdie on current government, not that Rushdie has expressed any worries, nor there is any news of ‘Hindu’ hoodlums threatening the noted author. She very swiftly leaves the argument in between, not calling for un-banning of the Rushdie book since she knows that it would outrage those hoodlums who aren’t so awkward in their retort.

It appears that what we consider as intellectuals in today’s Indian context is not the intellectual which fits Umberto Eco’s definition, rather he is the one who has good English, who had the privilege of elite education, and who, above all, has access to the traditional media in terms of using it as a platform for any idea he might have, without having the necessity to substantiate it. More outrageous the idea, the better it is, for it results more sales. That could probably explain why Sagarika Ghose could narrate even Chennai flood victims with reference to their religion. She expresses her concerns on Wendy Doniger’s security if and ever she wanted to visit India, however, not for once refers to the plight of Tasleema Nusreen. She is very careful about the people she feels outraged about and in turn, want to outrage.

Historian Ramchandra Guha, holding a long grudge against Modi and RSS, on his part wrote his latest in Indian Express on 10th of December, 2015 (Dr. Ramchandra Guha's Article on Mohan Bhagwat's statement on Dr. Ambedkar) The object of article is to oppose what he calls appropriation of legacy of maker of Indian constitution, Dr. B R Ambedkar. He seems to be comfortable with Congress appropriating the legacy of Dr. Ambedkar, while recently we found a dalit leader, holding slippers to the young congress scion. As a historian, he quotes from the past where RSS had opposed Dr. Ambedkar bitterly. He however, ignores the advice of a disenchanted Dr. Ambedkar to Dalits to be wary of Congress. An intellectual speaks from a high pulpit, and must not misuse the vantage point he has. Some may dig deep to find Dr. Ambedkar’s unhappy relation with the Congress for instance, Article 370, which he was totally against, but which most intellectuals will safely ignore. His discomfort with his own role as congressman is understandable given that any thinking man (intellectual) would find difficulty with any organization demanding complete subordination to the collective. Dr. Guha in his article quotes, behold, himself to substantiate his point that RSS before independence opposed Dr. Ambedkar. While that is quite a weak substantiation, it glosses over the fact, that it speaks much about the strength of an idea that today RSS endorses Ambedkar. So while RSS decides to reinvent itself, Mr. Guha rather would want to stay stuck in its historical prejudices. He wants RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat if he wants to take a view of Dr. Ambedkar different from RSS founders to denounce the founders of RSS. By the same logic, would he want the current day congress to denounce Mrs. Indira Gandhi when they regret emergency, or Rajiv Gandhi as they apologize for 1984? Why would an intellectual like Mr. Guha want the history to decide the future? Didn’t Umberto Eco say that intellectual must be creative and thereby welcome new changes?

I have delved inadvertently into getting into wrong side of people with established credential, unfortunately driven by, what I call a bad mix of brinkmanship and political leaning of a mugwump. There are others like Pankaj Mishra who wrote brilliant books writing articles in foreign journals saying people were being killed in India for their faith, their opinion, without any substantiation. A man killed by goons is their fig leaf of fact, around which the whole propaganda is woven, notwithstanding that that one man’s kin get at least four time the standard compensation by the state, which failed to protect him (not the central government which these writers so hate that some wanted to walk naked in the eventuality of this political party coming to power, before election). I come back to what I began with and why I cannot consider a historian, a journalist or a painter as an intellectual, just as I would not consider an electrical engineer as one. I do not have anything against intellectual. I am for sure not bitter as Jean Paul Sartre who said “The intellectual is someone who meddles in what does not concern him.Naom Chomsky expanded it further, mincing no words, as he wrote, “The intellectuals are specialists in defamation, they are basically political commissars, and they are ideological administrators, the most threatened by dissent.” (Qualifier- Neither myself nor Mr. Chomsky have affiliation to BJP or RSS). Paul Johnson wrote “The desire to impose them (their ideas) on others that is the deadly sin of the intellectuals”, something we saw during Bangalore LitFest. They will talk about poor and poverty in the safe confines of their luxurious existence. Nietzsche is even more scathing, when he write, with which I end this post, and as always most profound as he writes about those who proclaim themselves as intellectuals, and driven by their interest and lethargy to pursue the hard truth (some, I believe began as true seeker of truth but turned lazy later) gang up to muzzle the simplistic voices. He writes

When I lay asleep, then did a sheep eat at the ivy-wreath on my head,—it ate, and said thereby: "Zarathustra is no longer a scholar."

It said this, and went away clumsily and proudly...

A scholar am I still to the children, and also to the thistles and red poppies. Innocent are they, even in their wickedness.

But to the sheep I am no longer a scholar: so willeth my lot-blessings upon it!


For this is the truth: I have departed from the house of the scholars, and the door have I also slammed behind me.


Too long did my soul sit hungry at their table: not like them have I got the knack of investigating, as the knack of nut-cracking.

Freedom do I love, and the air over fresh soil; rather would I sleep on ox-skins than on their honours and dignities.


I am too hot and scorched with mine own thought: often is it ready to take away my breath. Then have I to go into the open air, and away from all dusty rooms.


But they sit cool in the cool shade: they want in everything to be merely spectators, and they avoid sitting where the sun burneth on the steps.


Like those who stand in the street and gape at the passers-by: thus do they also wait, and gape at the thoughts which others have thought.
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When they give themselves out as wise, then do their petty sayings and truths chill me: in their wisdom there is often an odour as if it came from the swamp; and verily, I have even heard the frog croak in it!

Clever are they—they have dexterous fingers: what doth my simplicity pretend to beside their multiplicity! All threading and knitting and weaving do their fingers understand: thus do they make the hose of the spirit!

(My apologies for too long a post. During the writing of this, I thought about why we have most of the intellectuals in left, and lesser in the Right? that will be my next post)
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