Thapar, Romila et al. The Public Intellectual in India. Ed. Chandra Chari and Uma Iyengar. New Delhi: Aleph, 2015. Pp. 170.
“People’s suffering must never be allowed to remain the silent residue of politics,” Foucault said in a press statement in 1981. It was his call to the citizens of the world to confront governments who, through their deeds, are responsible for the suffering of the people. The people’s suffering are the outcome of human rights violation and exploitation by vested interests. But in what capacity does Foucault and his like keep calling upon societies and governments to rethink their positions and priorities? What gives his statement its ethical authority? The answer is, his being a public intellectual. All the same, upon second thought we may also realize that the concept of a public intellectual is more taken for granted than closely delved into. India, with its rampant communal sectarianism and corruption-driven politics, is a country where ‘public intellectual’ is little understood and given heed to. Romila Thapar’s book The Public Intellectual in India is an admirable attempt to bridge this lacuna in the public consciousness of the country.
It is a compilation of seven essays on the eponymous theme by seven writers including Thapar, along with her “Introduction” and “Conclusion”. The six essays following Thapar’s are responses to the propositions she makes in hers, and each one is moored on a particular point of view. In the “Introduction” Thapar anguishes about the diminishing space of the public intellectual in present-day India. As a corollary, she also explores the change that has come over the public intellectual’s role because of the changed zeitgeist and attitudes of the power centres. She states, “Initially [the public intellectuals’] concerns were with establishing democratic functioning and respect for citizenship, ensuring human rights and social justice, and protecting the underprivileged and those on and below the line of poverty. Today the focus is shifting to questions of religious identity and assertions of those that form the majority community, deepening the demarcation between communities and weakening social justice and the institutions that sustain society” (xiii). The intolerance free thought and expression meet with these days from Hindutva forces is the major cause of her concern. According to her, the basis of the ideology of Hindutva is a by-product of the colonial project. However, this fact has been glossed over by its ideologues. She points to the growing cases of banning books and films in India in recent times. Many public intellectuals have succumbed to such intolerance manifesting in threats, and withdrawn into the silence of self-censorship.
In her essay “To question or not to question? That is the question” Thapar’s objective is to define the concept and function of the public intellectual: “Public intellectuals frequently concern themselves with issues related to human rights and to the functioning of society, such that it ensures the primacy of social justice” (1). A public intellectual would be a person who has a “recognized professional stature” and seeks “explanations for public actions from those in authority” (8). She takes an overview of the European ancestry of public intellectuals and then comes to the Indian referring to people from Socrates to Emile Zola and Buddha to Bulleh Shah of Punjab, till E.V. Ramasami Periyar of the modern times. She elaborates on the issue of intimidation coming from Hindutva groups and the consequent narrowing of the liberal space citing several instances. With reference to the eponymous theme of her essay, she argues that the important task of the public intellectual now is to enlarge the liberal space, non-violently overcoming the repression unleashed by reactionary powers.
Sundar Sarukkai, a Manipal University-based philosopher in his essay “To question and not to question: That is the answer,” explores the philosophical dimensions of Thapar’s poser. He links the faculty of questioning as well as of not questioning to that of the habit of doubting or not doubting. Sarukkai explores the history of doubt in the philosophy of foreign and Indian schools of thought. Methodical questioning is an attitude that is difficult to sustain because of the large amount energy required for it. Therefore, in order to live without having to raise questions on each and every doubt, we take recourse to the intellectual habit of taking for granted certain foundational beliefs in order to reach an understanding of things. Therefore, the public intellectual shall most effectively function in critically probing into such foundational beliefs that enable questioning as well as non-questioning, because such beliefs have the danger of turning into the bases of authority of all sorts.
Dhruv Raina, a JNU Professor of Physics, in an article titled “Science and Democracy,” focuses on the “institutional transformation of science over the last couple of decades”. This has changed the relation between science and the public and also the critical discourse on science and society. Present-day scientific research is dependent on large scale funding and consequently has become subservient to the interests of the funding agencies which are capitalistic. This has shorn science of its erstwhile commitment to democracy and social welfare, and has thus “muted its critical voice”.
“Living between thought and action,” the fourth article in the book by Peter Ronald Desouza, probes into two of Thapar’s criteria for being a public intellectual, viz. her being an ‘autonomous thinker’ and her being an ‘advocate of social justice’. For this professor at CSDS, there exists a creative tension between these two entities. While the former is intellectual in nature the latter is ethical and proactive, and the public intellectual needs to maintain a precarious balance between the two. He examines his proposition in the light of the cases of three persons – Priya Pillai, a Green Peace activist, Yeshyahu Leibovitz, an Israeli professor, and Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi blogger killed recently by religious extremists. These are instances of public intellectuals who were put to severe tests regarding the two callings of a public intellectual referred to by Desouza. However, he laments the dwindling number of such people during these days of fundamentalist revival. There are many potential public intellectuals who have succumbed to its violent intolerance and withdrawn into silence.
Neeladri Bhattacharya, a professor of history at JNU, takes exception of Thapar’s tendency to celebrate the public intellectuals of the past who had been courageous enough to defy authority. In his “Framing a question: Questioning a frame” he argues for a critical reconsideration of the past instead of its celebration leading to a despairing over the ‘dismal present’. The last essay in the book “The Indian intellectual and the Hindu-Muslim trap” by the journalist Javed Naqvi suggests that the public intellectuals of present-day India should come out their trait of the ‘romanticizing of victimhood’. He also points out that because of the Indian dependency on the Hindu/Muslim binary, the graver social issue of the discrimination against the Dalits is sidelined.