Vanishing public intellectuals

The Public Intellectual In India by Romila Thapar aleph book company in association with the book review literary trust; Price: Rs.889; Pages: 284

In his obituary to Benedict Anderson, historian Ramchandra Guha recollects a letter from him in which he asked, “How many public intellectuals are there in India? In Southeast Asia they are dying, replaced by professors and bureaucrats to whom not many ordinary people pay any attention... I guess your Gandhi was a public intellectual, but probably Nehru not???”

The worry about disappearance of the institution of the public intellectual is widespread. Romila Thapar expressed her anxiety about this decreasing tribe in the annual Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture in 2014 titled To Question or Not to Question: That is The Question.

Later, five brilliant minds from the fields of philosophy, science, political science, history and media got together to respond to the concern raised by Thapar in her lecture. This discussion developed into the book under review, which contains an introduction and afterword by Thapar apart from her original lecture, and the responses of Sundar Surrukkai, Dhruv Raina, Peter DeSouza, Neeladri Bhattacharya and Jawed Naqvi respectively.     

Who is an intellectual and what is her role in society? Being merely a scholar or an abstract thinker does not make one an intellectual. In his essay The Role of the Intelligentsia, Isaiah Berlin says that excellence in one’s own field of expertise, be it science or arts, “does not qualify you to be a member of the intelligentsia as such”. Nor does “sheer opposition to the establishment” earn one a place in the assembly of the intelligentsia. “A combination of belief in reason and progress with a profound moral concern for society” is needed for inclusion in the thinning assembly of public intellectuals, says Berlin.

In Romila Thapar’s view, a questioning spirit is essential for an intellectual. Questioning in itself is a subversive act as it destabilises establishments of all types. She draws from the past of India and Europe to explain that questioning is not a ‘modern’ phenomenon. “In earlier times the questions emerged from rational argument and logical thinking, but were tempered by the recognition of the human condition,” she writes.

To discover new ways of structuring a fair society, one has to challenge all kinds of power. To be able to do so, intellectuals have to be autonomous of power structures. “An acknowledged professional status” makes it easy to be autonomous but this alone does not make one a public intellectual. According to Thapar, what differentiates the public intellectuals of today from intellectuals of the past is an acute awareness of and concern for the rights of citizens, particularly on issues of social justice.

In earlier times if it was religious orthodoxy intellectuals had to fight; in our days the name of the new orthodoxy is nationalism.

For independent thinking to flourish, nationalism has to be questioned and challenged. But in another context, talking about the role of public intellectuals, Terry Eagleton wondered whether they are true to their calling if they don’t question and challenge the tyranny of soulless capital which has made even nationalism irrelevant in many ways. He laments that universities have abdicated their role of being centres of critique. They are no longer accusers of corporate capital and have instead become its accomplices.

In his response to Thapar, Sundar Sarukkai says that more than questioning, one needs to think about the value of certain kinds of questioning. It means looking for the ‘right’ kinds of questions. He says that a person can remain unthinking “if she does not ask the question: ‘what should I question?’” The act of questioning has to be reflective to make it significant.

To understand the true import of questioning, one has to understand the relationship with ‘doubt’ and its battle with ‘habit’. “On the one hand, we question through habit, and on the other hand we follow through habit,” says Sarukkai who treats this as a methodological issue. He rightly says that to earn the right to question, one has also to keep questioning one’s own foundational beliefs.

Dhruv Raina discusses the relationship between science and the public and invites us to think about the centrality of reason in public intellectuals. It is “beyond the capacity for explaining and justifying existing beliefs and commitments.” “…When we speak of historical reason or scientific reason, there is an evocation of special methods, sources of information and specific knowledge related practices. These practices privilege logical inference and controlled observation over just mere inference and observation”.

Peter Ronald de Souza writes about different types of censorship resulting from subterranean fear of all public authority. There is a culture of fear among intellectuals. They seek adventure but with security, which is not possible. He says that four types of censorship: censorship by public authority, by social groups, by peer groups and self, are detrimental to free thought.

Historian Neeladri Bhattacharya differs from Romila Thapar and says that the age of heroic intellectuals is past and suggests that we should imagine public intellectuals in different ways. The public intellectual is not necessarily someone who intervenes self-consciously in public debates to make a difference. She can be someone who helps in the building of a critical public through small interventions.

Jawed Naqvi draws attention towards the pervasive dominance of caste as an ally of the thinking elite and provokes us to think about its power to manipulate nostrums they propagate or the choices they make. He makes a subversive suggestion: bring to the forefront more “mofussil intellectuals” and bring a fresh perspective to intellectual discourse.

It is disquietingly interesting to see none of the scholars grappled with the question of language and the public intellectual. How is it that most ideation takes place in a language in India which the masses cannot understand and yet the practitioners of ideas expect them to identify with them? Our scholars who lament the loss of democratic space and secular spirit need to ponder their own complicity: their choice of creating a gated community of ideas.

Apoorvanand (The Book Review, March 2016)

Charming novel

Jinnah Often Came To Our House by Kiran Doshi tranqebar press; Price: Rs.452; Pages: 490

Mohammed Ali Jinnah (reverentially known as Quaid-e-Azam), the founder of Pakistan, is one of the most enigmatic political personalities of the 20th century. Islamabad and New Delhi view him quite differently, at least publicly. For Indians, he is a somewhat demonic figure, the man who fractured the united Indian subcontinent to realise his goal of a Muslim Pakistan, which has remained an implacable cross-border enemy. For Pakistanis, Jinnah is an icon, who championed the rights of Muslims, saw through the cunning machinations of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and outwitted them.

Inevitably, the reality lies in-between. Jinnah, a brilliant lawyer — indeed a far more successful one than Gandhi or Nehru — was a westernised liberal. In this respect, he was no different from Nehru. Both men were entirely secular, Nehru an atheist and Jinnah contemptuous of those who prayed. Religion had little significance in their lives.

Though he was himself thoroughly anglicized, Jinnah hated the British, much more than Nehru or Gandhi. However all three of them were committed nationalists, single-minded in their quest to wrest independence from British rule and hegemony. The idea of Pakistan did not occur to Jinnah until very late, only a short while before Pakistan became a reality. Before that, he was an integral part of the Congress Party, working with Gandhi and Nehru (and earlier with Motilal Nehru) to push the Brits — who had clearly overstayed their welcome — out of India.

Why then, did Jinnah suddenly diverge from this objective to champion a separate independent Muslim Pakistan? That question has never been satisfactorily answered. Some people blame the British policy of divide et impera (divide and rule), arguing that Britain did not want a strong and united India.

Therefore they stoked Muslim fears of “Hindu domination” and planted the seeds of Pakistan. Others highlight the mutual antagonism between Nehru and Jinnah and argue that it led to partition. Indeed, according to the latter version, Gandhi was so opposed to partition that he even suggested that Jinnah, rather than Nehru, should become the first prime minister of a united India. But Nehru would have none of it. Rather than serve under Jinnah, he preferred division of the subcontinent.

I was hoping this book under review would enlighten me on these different interpretations of the years leading to 1947. In fact, the book’s cover has ‘Jinnah’ written in bold type, conveying the impression that it’s a biography of the charismatic founder of Pakistan. Only below, in much smaller type, does one read the words, ‘Often came to our house’. This is the most misleading title of a book I’ve ever reviewed!

However, this disappointment aside, though a work of fiction, Jinnah Often Came to Our House, is a charmingly written novel. The main characters are a Muslim couple living in Bombay, Sultan Kowaishi and Rehana. He is a rich, London-educated barrister; she the daughter of an academic. They meet, fall in love, get married, have two children, experience a bitter separation and finally, get together again.

The novel spans half a century, from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of the Second World War and the Indian naval mutiny. Apart from Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi, several real-life characters and events linked with the Indian independence movement flow in and out of the book. Among them are Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sarojini Naidu, Vallabhbhai Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose. Landmark events of India’s freedom struggle — the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon, Jalianwala Bagh massacre, the Hunter Commission report, Morley-Minto reforms, and Gandhi’s salt march to Dandi, are woven into it.

For those not familiar with details of the independence movement, Jinnah is likely to be an engrossing read. The characters and sub-plots are well drawn. However, fresh or new insights on the freedom movement, or on aspects of Jinnah’s complex personality are conspicuously missing. Nevertheless, I found the author’s depiction of Jinnah, on whom he must have done considerable research, absorbing. “I consider it absurd for a man to keep fasts for a month,” says the fictional Jinnah, “Or to pray five times a day for that matter — meaningless rituals masquerading as piety.”

Perish the thought of praying five times a day, Jinnah didn’t even know how to pray, alleges the author adding that he was an occasional drinker, a cultivated anglophile who spoke mainly English and married a Parsi. Even his daughter, Dina, married a Parsi. That is the Jinnah Islamabad is reluctant to acknowledge and this book, though a work of fiction, will surely be banned in Pakistan.

Author Kiran Doshi, a retired diplomat, has a nice turn of phrase, especially when he is humorous. Take this description of the introduction of alcohol prohibition in the erstwhile post-independence Bombay state: “The law did make a sort of exception for people over the age of 40 by giving them a monthly quota. But to get the quota, the beneficiary had to fill up a three-page, 30-column form. The first column of the form required applicants for a liquor permit to fill in the drunkard’s name (darudiaka naam). The second asked for the drunkard’s father’s name (darudiaka baap ka naam). The third asked for the name of the ailment for which the drunkard needed to drink.”

I’m not sure if this is true, but I suspect it is, since I had to go through a somewhat similar ordeal to get my alcohol ‘quota’ in the 1960s, when I came to Bombay and prohibition was still in force under the strict supervision of the abstemious chief minister Morarji Desai.

rahul singh