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Friday, March 30, 2007

Four Facets of Bharatiya Intellectuals

I am sure the intellectuals that we're talking about here won't liked to be called Bharatiya intellectuals - Indian intellectuals would be more apt. More on that below.

Peter deSouza offers an excellent dissection of the intellectual life in India, taking forward Pratap Bhanu Mehta's absolute ripping of left wing intellectuals. (Rohit blog on Mehta's article at Retributions.)

Because intellectuals are almost left wingers in India - those that occupy the chair, head , or dean positions in all the better known universities nationwide, the practices here are about them. And, according to Peter, they are four categories:

The first is the ‘if you are not with us then you are against us’, or what can be provocatively called the ‘camp follower’ syndrome, which divides the world of ideas into distinct camps — black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. Each side is infused with missionary zeal and its sole purpose is to vanquish the other, the enemy. All means are legitimate in this battle... This is the defining practice of the Left intellectuals in India and so, while it may have opened up many and valuable new vistas of understanding, it has no patience with dissent or intellectual openness.

I think the intellectual hollowness of Indian intellectuals become apparent here - yes, they are on par with George Bush. They have all the right answers. But in case they don't, it's not appropriate to bring up the right answer, at least not now -

The second is what can be referred to as ‘the moment is not opportune’ syndrome where critical comment, asking inconvenient questions, and challenging established orthodoxies, are to be avoided since it will aid the enemy. Let me call this the ‘strategist syndrome’, where truth is trumped by a strategic calculus. The truth can be dangerous. It can be misused. Timing, here, is important. The inconvenient data, the necessary product of any intellectual enquiry, must be kept out of the public domain lest it strengthen the campaign of the other side. So while US imperialism in Iraq must be rightfully condemned, one must be silent about Baathist tyranny, and while Hindu majoritarianism in India must be rightfully opposed one must say little about Muslim fundamentalism.

We could see this in the derision of the intellectuals during Bush's visit to India in March '06. But this relates to the forth point. Peter gives Khushwant Singh a pass at this point which I think is unwarranted because, even though his stance during violence in Punjab is highly commendable, lately he has become an undeniable caricature of left wing intellectualism with his nostalgia for the heydays of India's socialism and statism - just like his brethren. But first the third category:

The third is what can be called the ‘comprador syndrome’ according to which Indian intellectuals adopt a different disposition when dealing with overseas academic institutions than they do in India. They make time, write papers on short notice, mentor young scholars, adjust curiosities to suit the projects of these institutions. This is particularly galling since the same intellectuals will not devote time to their own students, will decline seminar invitations from Indian institutions, will be more harsh and critical in their response to papers of local scholars than they are with overseas scholars, and will join research projects with overseas institutions on terms which are blatantly asymmetrical. Here truth is trumped by glamour. C’est la vie, monsieur.

Need I say more? Anyone who went to college or watched a media debate on culture would know this. And finally:

The fourth is the ‘poverty of imagination’ syndrome where intellectuals adopt an idiom and participate in a discourse which is fashionable in the West ignoring all the while the local and the vernacular. That it is imitative has been said before. It is charged with having no engagement with the social and cultural imaginary of India. This is indeed a pity because India is perhaps one of the most fertile fields for social science scholarship. You can work on local level issues that are multi-dimensional and you can be absorbed in issues that have civilisational scope. For example, it is unfortunate that we have not done to our epics what the West has done to theirs. If Ulysses Unbound can be the title of a book by Jon Elster, which can look philosophically at the issue of rationality, pre-commitment and constraints, would it not be fascinating to have a book titled Yudhisthir’s little lie: Why the chariot dropped only by six inches to look at the issue of political truth. But unfortunately we still do not have the intellectual culture to support such scholarship.

This affliction in social and culture areas is widespread and increasing. Peter refers to intellectuals historically.

But, now, it's not just the intellectuals, in their high chairs separated from normal Indian life, but everyone is lining up. Seeing gowns worn by Hindi movie stars to award shows while they imitate their Hollywood counterparts in mannerisms (absurdity of the utter artificiality of imitation is laughable), or reading about one's perception of what enjoying life is all about, or reading argument for national priorities based on social needs and capabilities of other societies makes me wonder will we be ever able to keep, nurture, grow, and advance our own culture or is our culture on the path to extinction taken over by the utterly monotonously boring largely western culture.

(Peter's analysis on why India has maintained democracy while our neighbours haven't, while I don't agree completely with it, is well worth reading.)


sandeep said...


Excellent! Read this on INI Signal first, commenting here. Freshly-tailored imitation suits are all our ïntellectuals" have. Their tribe is fast declining.


Chandra said...

Thanks, Sandeep. Yes, their position is increasingly becoming untenable because now there are people who can see, and speak up against, the hypocrisy of these intellectuals.

Apun Ka Desh said...

Our intellectuals are all for hollow talk... where is the change on the ground?

Good Post.