The contradictions of the Indian intelligentsia

The knee jerk reaction from India’s intellectuals to the advent of a new government has been to profess a concern for ‘liberal order’. But we need to think about the space for dissent and divergent opinion in more nuanced ways.

28 August 2014

Narendra Modi. Demotix/Abhijt Addya. All rights reserved.

“The respected intellectuals are those who conform and serve power interests”. - Noam Chomsky

An intellectual should be honest and can take sides, supporting and opposing based on merits of the issue. But in India, Modi-bashing has been more of a fashionable phenomenon. It has been the standard hallmark of the decade to prove one’s intellectual and liberal credentials, something akin to a political rite of passage. Any debate on religious strife invariably revolved around the communal riots in Gujarat that occurred in 2002, and the alleged culpability of Narendra Modi, the present Prime Minister of India and the then Chief Minister of Gujarat. The anti-Modi campaign has provided perennial intellectual fodder for certain sections of the Indian intelligentsia, helping them in varnishing their scholarly pursuits and left-liberal credentials. This mode of argument not only goes so far as to dismiss the independence and credibility of the Indian Judiciary, but refuses to adhere to a civilized and sensible debate on intellectual freedom and scholarship.

Ironically this has led to an Indian version of McCarthyism in intellectual circles, wherein anyone disagreeing with the anti-Modi discourse is selectively targeted and their scholarly credentials lampooned in universities and media studios. This has led to a situation in which a considerable number of intellectuals in India fear to endorse the policies of the BJP party, out of political correctness, lest they get branded and enmeshed in the secular-communal debate. In the aftermath of the national polls, which resulted in the shrinking of the numerical strength of the Indian National Congress as well as the Left Front, Shiv Vishvanathan  exposed the tendency among leftist intellectuals and their liberal siblings to undermine religion as a way of life and to overemphasize secularism, while the BJP under Modi latched onto popular aspiration, invoking good governance and economic health.

This situation has been further aggravated by the selective intervention of the Indian English media. Its TV channels, print and social media publications have more or less never questioned the intellectual subservience to the Nehru-Gandhi family, who have controlled the reigns of the Indian state for the last four decades.  State organs, on the lines of the ‘ideological state apparatus’, in the language of Louis Althusser, have long patronized academic institutions, nurturing ideological foot soldiers in order to promote and perpetuate the legacy of the leadership. It also perhaps explains why urban India and its anglicized institutions of higher learning cannot nurture an environment of diverse opinion.

Indian intellectuals, politicians, artists and journalists of a liberal-left persuasion have all failed. In their desire to divide and rule, they outdo the former British colonial state. But all they teach the public to do is to pit one against another rather than strive to foster an inclusive society. The space inhabited by India’s intellectuals has demonstrated an excessive reliance on identity politicsAnd the left has, for too long, used 'political correctness' as a tool to monopolize public discourse.

We need only look to the case of award-winning Tamil writer Joe D’Cruz. The English translation of his first Tamil novel Aazhi Soozh Ulagu which deals with the lives of fishermen, who have converted to Christianity, has been indefinitely halted by Navayana, a self-declared progressive left-liberal publishing house, after D’Cruz expressed his support for Modi on his Facebook page. The intelligentsia had vociferously questioned the chain of events concerning Penguin’s decision to withdraw and pulp Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. And yet the same high decibel chorus of protest which transformed India’s intellectuals into upholders of free speech was nowhere to be seen when Navayana deployed its bullying tactics during the D’Cruz episode.

The issue of giving space to dissent and divergent opinion merits attention. Or in other words, can non-leftist opinions be given space in Indian academic discourse? The stony silence on the freedom and rights of authors like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen, hints at the double standards that guide the official intellectual class.

The last decade has taught Indians to embrace the lexicon of dislike in academic and intellectual discourse. And while the rhetoric of dissent may be the hallmark of a liberal social order, it is used in India to target any political opposition to existing structures of power, protecting the unrestrained socio-cultural and intellectual dominance of elites. The intellectual class has yet to discover the people of India, and fully comprehend and relate to the challenges that confront the nation and its citizens.

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