Acclaimed political analyst Andrew Marr in an article titled, ‘Who will fill the intellectual vacuum?’ in The Independent had written, “Once upon a time, there were intellectuals. They wore pebble glasses and stern expressions, sat around in cafes and acted as the collective conscience for politics: they provided a bridge between philosophy and power.”
The opening lines of the article, written way back in 1996, get us curious and can set the direction for a potent discussion. Incidentally, I saw some of those intellectuals in Delhi’s India International Centre - from philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi to journalist Nikhil Chakravarty to international strategic affairs analyst K. Subrahmanyam to Justice J.S. Verma to sociologist Ashis Nandy.
Unloved by few and admired by others, intellectuals have always played a key role in the development of societies. An intellectual is often described as a person who engages in critical thinking, research, and reflection about society, proposes solutions for its normative problems and gains authority as a public figure.
It seems intellectuals in India are in a state of crisis today. Since the intellectuals are often labelled symbolically as the left, centre and the right or the far-right, the principal challenge for them is to carry on without being ‘labelled’. One may rightly ask; how can an intellectual be honest in his opinion without being smeared with an ideological label.
The central point, nevertheless, is the definitions of the labels that shift in meaning as the country’s socio-political events impact politics, the politicians and the political pitch. While labelling is not an easy trap to get away from, responsible reporting, opinions and commentary in the media, vibrant discussion forums and other platforms can make a difference. The views held and voiced by the intellectuals without manipulative flavours or political biases seek to shape public opinion, influence policymakers and bring about change.
However, it’s a matter of concern that the current trend of intellectual viewpoints and reflections by a section of contemporary intellectuals about India’s socio-political narrative blurs the line between right and wrong, between inconsequential and consequential. Does it indicate a lack of intellectual integrity on the part of some intellectuals? The answer is perhaps ‘yes’.
In today’s polarised world, in the near absence of open and honest critical dialogue, there is a serious shortage of insight into the issues faced by the country and its people. In the shrinking space for civil society, public intellectuals including those in media fail to talk about government’s achievements wherever and whenever it’s valid and criticise the missteps within a balanced and realistic view. To put it another way, often intellectuals fail to tell us things we need to know.
Democracy needs critical intellectuals; there ought to be a good reason for being critical and that being critical only for the sake of being critical is not a good reason. While it is not fair to say honest and steadfast public intellectuals have disappeared entirely but, the number has shrunk rapidly.
Speaking on the corporatisation of media, P. Sainath, winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award (Asian version of the Nobel Prize) for Journalism in 2007 said, “[In] corporate-owned media, journalism and journalists can never be free.....There are very fine journalists...but the space they have to function has shrunk quite rapidly... Freedom of the press is meant for those who own one.”
This year’s winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Ravish Kumar’s take is no different. He has said, “As uncompromising journalists find themselves being forced out of their jobs by news organisations and those corporate owners are never questioned. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that still some journalists continue to put their lives and careers at risk to practise honest and meaningful journalism.”
It’s true that in the past few years, with the absolute corporatisation of the media and the advent of the media-savvy politician, ‘non-pliant’ editors and media professionals have been replaced by pliant ones. It’s primarily because media as the fourth pillar of democracy is fast succumbing to politics and patronage.
While intellectuals may like to find themselves as independent, in reality they get shaped by the social world they live in. There are plenty of examples of intellectuals including turncoat ones who get closer to people in power with the obvious intentions. After all, power is a crowd-puller. This leads us to question as to whether intellectuals’ appetite for ethical thinking is reducing.
I am not sure how much more this country can take of intellectuals who are clearly prejudiced and conformist and therefore incapable of performing their roles. Unless the Indian society rediscover, revitalise and hold on to its intellectual tradition, the result will be cultural drift or far worse, the continuation of distortions, half-truths, and outright lies. In Noam Chomsky’s words, “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies.”
The author is the former Deputy General Manager of India International Centre, New Delhi and General Manager, International Centre Goa.