In an era when noise is favored over discussions and shallow comments over deep conversations, consent is being engineered on the foundation of subjectivity. Dissent, the fundamental act of faith in democracy, has become a bad word. As things stand today, not only are conclusions drawn in a jiffy, opinions quashed in limited characters are posted for public consumption. On top, space for those who could influence public opinion has shrunk, and scope for engaging people in dialogue on the kind of society they wish to construct has narrowed.
Noted historian Romila Thapar takes an autonomous stance on the growing inability to publicly debate liberal views in a politically-vitiated environment with an aim to resurrect the pubic intellectual who could think independently on behalf of the voiceless and the compromised. It is not as if public intellectuals are absent in our society, they never were, as human society has subconsciously nurtured them through the ages. From Socrates to Gandhi, to name a few, public intellectuals have always challenged entrenched notions and questioned identity politics with an unwritten premise to promote secular thoughts and actions.
Thapar is convinced that in a successful democratic society, citizens should have equal social and economic rights irrespective of their religion, and even ideological positions. Drawing inferences from rich tapestry of history, philosophy, science, and politics enshrined in rich Indian tradition, Thapar presents secularism as a ‘process’ and not as a ‘position’, upon which a democratic-liberal nation gets built. Secularism is used here as a euphemism for plurality, a celebration of diversity in letter and its spirit.
Based on a lecture the lead author delivered in 2014, The Public Intellectual in India shows us why it is important for objective, fearless and constructive voices to take charge to shape public discourses on issues affecting the society and the country at large. Five noted scholars offer their commentaries on the issue flagged by the lead author. Dissecting the identity of a public intellectual, philosopher Sundar Sarukkai argues that the real essence of a public intellectual is to create a ‘public’ in which his/her role becomes redundant and unnecessary. Social scientist Dhruv Raina stresses the need for fearless independence in the quest for progress.
The book is all about exploring reasons behind the rather erring silence of the public intellectual on the face of the so-called majoritarian politics. Why has the public intellectual exercised self-censorship in speaking up? Why is there a growing public culture against dissent? Why we only communicate with people with whom we agree? And, why are there angry mobs ready to lynch any divergent viewpoint?
Exploring six vantage points from which public intellectuals must speak, political theorist Peter Desouza wonders if the likes of Shah Bano (who challenged the patriarchy within communities) and Anita Narre (who refused to return to her marital home because there was no toilet) were not the intellectuals who challenged the old order with their deeds. If public intellectual is perceived as one who speaks up against the present order, then there are growing numbers of people in everyday life who are unwilling to be guided by the past. Not only do we need to locate them but nurture them organically too!
While agreeing that any attempt at being silenced must be resisted, historian Neeladri Bhattacharya wonders if the present picture is as dismal as the lead author may have painted. Isn’t silence a virtue, with an immense power of communicating more than words? Depending on how it is perceived, silence can turn out to be an active state of being. For Bhattacharya, the communal authoritarian forces are not as strong as they might seem. The presence of small dissenting voices exists in our society, and such voices do matter in history. Journalist Jawed Naqwi views the entire issue from the perspective of religious revivalism and the social identity of intellectuals. What has the public intellectual contributed to addressing the deep-seated social malaise?
In all, there is no denying the fact that the society needs to host intelligent, civil conversations about controversial and often heated issues, with the aim of widening them both in scope and participation. The ultimate aim, argues Thapar, is not only to engage the public in thinking what they are going through but where they are heading. To this end, the role of dissenting voices, small or big, is to open individual’s understanding and individual’s choice of making an impact on decisions on their lives, and the lives of those to come after us.
The book could not have come out at a better time. Whichever side of the ‘tolerance-intolerance’ debate one might be, one cannot be indifferent to the change that is being thrust upon us.
The Public Intellectual in India
by Romila Thapar
Aleph Books, New Delhi
Extent: 170, Price: Rs 499
This review was first published in Deccan Herald on Feb 28, 2016.