Why we need public intellectuals

13 July 2015
Opinion
Romila Thapar
Romila Thapar / Photo credit Wikimedia commons
When Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani said of the Indian media during the Emergency that “when asked to bend, they crawled”, he received widespread praise from the intelligentsia and even from people opposed to the BJP’s ideology – because he spoke the truth.

Today, not just the media, but leaders from the fields of education, culture, healthcare and law, are crawling before the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh without even being asked to bend. They include the University Grants Commission chairman, Delhi University vice-chancellor, All-India Institute of Medical Sciences director, and numerous serving and former bureaucrats.

These were among the 60 luminaries who met RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat over lunch in Delhi on October 12 at his invitation. Although many of them said they went “only to listen”, media reports suggest that some were ingratiating themselves to the unelected head of an organisation which spawned the BJP – an act unworthy of their positions and democratic propriety.

This is happening when the RSS, BJP and their affiliates have declared their intention to radically reorganise educational curricula along Hindutva lines, including the purging of textbooks of secularist ‘misrepresentations’. Parveen Sinclair, the upright director of the National Council for Educational Research and Training, was forced to resign.

Delhi University’s Sanskrit department, which has no expertise in history, has begun a campaign demanding that history textbooks show that the Aryans were indigenous to India, and not migrants, as most historians believe.

Articles are appearing in the mainstream media glorifying a fiction called ‘Vedic mathematics”’, based on a 1965 book by Bharati Krishna Tirtha, which fails to provide evidence that the sutras (formulas/algorithms) he cites exist in the Vedas. (For a scientific refutation of these claims, see http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/nothing-vedic-in-vedic-maths/artic...)

Meanwhile, calls for banning/burning books that advance non-Hindutva views have become strident. Fanatics are rampaging through colleges, bookshops, theatres, art galleries and cinema-halls, baying for punishment to dissidents. Everything from political belief, cultural identity to personal morality is being targeted in hysterical campaigns demanding conformity; dissenters are branded ‘un-Indian’.

Intolerance for the right to dissent, palpable in all regions, is now backed by the BJP. This is not to exonerate other parties, including the Congress, regional outfits, or even the Left, which too don’t fully respect the right to dissent.

However, they are not as instinctively, viscerally, and viciously anti-dissent as the BJP/Sangh Parivar, which regards dissent as ‘betrayal’ which must be snuffed out. This is in keeping with the profoundly undemocratic culture of the RSS, which long ago dispensed with the “cumbersome clap-trap of internal democracy” and opted for Ek-Chalak-Anuvartitva (unquestioningly following a single leader, or the Fuehrer Principle).

Yet, the right to differ, dissent, and express dissenting views is at the core not just of democracy – without which it would be impoverished into a majoritarian despotic system – but of knowledge production itself. Without the right to dissent, there can be no progress in the sciences, whether natural or social, and no generation of new knowledge and its dissemination in society through education, dialogue and public debate.

This is a theme that Professor Romila Thapar, one of India’s greatest historians and internationally respected scholars, emphasised in her Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture on October 26 in Delhi. This was the third lecture in the series: the others were delivered by economist-philosopher Amartya Sen and eminent British historian EJ Hobsbawm.

The theme of dissent couldn’t have been more appropriate for the memorial lecture. Chakravartty was a doyen among India’s post-Independence journalists, who edited the weekly Mainstream. He was for long a member of the Communist Party of India. Yet, he sharply criticised the Emergency – which the CPI then backed – and had to shut down the publication temporarily.

Thapar’s lecture was a tour de force covering many epochs and continents. It was at once a rigorous, scholarly analysis of the evolution of critical intellectual traditions over more than 2,000 years, and a passionate appeal to season, scepticism and the spirit of questioning authority.

Thapar traced the relationship between dissidence and science from Socrates and Galileo in the west to the Buddha and Charvaka schools in India, and showed that certain principles, precepts and methods of science were common to all civilisations, from Athens and Arabia, to India and China. In our part of the world, we had the Buddha espousing agnosticism, and many materialist schools of thought which questioned karma, afterlife and the immortality of the atman (soul), and spurned various Vedic rituals.

If Aryabhatta hadn’t opposed contemporary royal astrologers, he wouldn’t have been able to show – a thousand years before Galileo – that the earth goes around the Sun. The key to this lay in the primacy he gave to logic and rationality, as distinct from faith and religious dogma. The method was to postulate a hypothesis linking observed phenomena to their causes, and test it through experiments; the results would be tested against future observations and refined till a scientific law was established.

Through her panoramic survey Professor Thapar showed the continuity of rational thinking and logical explanation across different countries and periods, which was invariably opposed by religious orthodoxy. Buddhist ideas were described in Brahminical orthodoxy as “delusional”, and a range of different schools like Charvakas, Ajivikas, atheists, materialists and rationalists, were all lumped into “one category – nastikas”, because they questioned the Vedas as “divinely revealed”.

Thapar says this reminds her of “the Hindutvavadis of today for whom anyone and everyone who does not support them, are Marxists!”

Numerous streams of thought coexisted in ancient and medieval India. Some “questioned beliefs and practices upheld by religious authorities”. Among them were women, such as “Andal, Akka Mahadevi and Mira, flouting caste norms, who were listened to attentively by people at large…” Amir Khusro is best known as a poet and composer, but he also studied astronomy; his heliocentric universe “distanced him from orthodox Islam”.

Later came social reformers like Ram Mohun Roy, Phule, Periyar, Shahu Maharaj, Syed Ahmed Khan and Ambedkar, who developed modern-liberal progressive values. Indian society has since been undergoing major changes, which need “insightful ways of understanding” so that social and economic conditions can be related to culture, politics and other phenomena. Public intellectuals are needed to explore these connections and “to articulate the traditions of rational thought in our intellectual heritage.”

As Thapar reminds us, there are “many specialists in various professions, but many among them are unconcerned with the world beyond their own specialisation.” These professionals are not identical with public intellectuals. “There are many more academics, for instance, than existed before. But it seems that most prefer not to confront authority even if it debars the path of free thought.”

Public intellectuals must take positions fiercely independent of those in power, must be seen as autonomous, and question received wisdom. In addition to possessing an acknowledged professional status, they must have a concern for “what constitute the rights of citizens” and particularly “issues of social justice”; and must be ready “to raise these matters as public policy”.

Thapar ends with an analysis of why public intellectuals are in decline in India and what they can do to become more assertive and effective. She didn’t speak a day too soon. (A recording of her talk is available for non-commercial use at http://sacw.net/article9874.html)