Rage against the intellectual

The responses to Gurmehar’s fearless speech come at a time when the monstrous rage against the intellectual has been growing, both in India and beyond.

Written by Janaki Nair | Published:March 10, 2017 12:19 am
Gurmehar Kaur. Screengrab.

It would be a grave mistake to understand the fierce online and openly politicised attack on Gurmehar Kaur’s video as only another breach of free expression, or just another display of Indian misogyny. Far more disturbing signs are revealed. The responses to Gurmehar’s fearless speech come at a time when the monstrous rage against the intellectual has been growing, both in India and beyond. One of the main casualties of this rising anti-intellectualism is the refusal of those attacking our institutions, individuals and practices to engage with the fullness of speech, its metaphoric nuances, its cadences and abstractions, even its confusions.

We had a brief glimpse of this collective failing in India when the former RBI governor, Raghuram Rajan, was severely maligned for referring to the “bright spot” interpretation of the Indian economy as a case of the one-eyed king in the land of the blind. But the murders of Pansare, Dabholkar and Kalburgi are proof of the violence against thinking differently.

With each passing day, the examples of such anti-intellectualism have proliferated. As a result, a courageous attempt to reach beyond the belligerence and war paint of two neighbours locked in battle, to point to peace as an achievable ideal, has been grievously misunderstood. It was a call for the leaders of both these nations to show true statesmanship in resolving issues and making the world a safer place for more Indians and Pakistanis. These are the thoughtful words of a young person expressing hope in the most poetic way available to her. We might well ask: What if Gurmehar had borrowed her eloquence from other peace activists, say, M.K. Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu? Would she have been denounced as loudly and for as long? Still considered as “polluted”? Still tyrannised for thinking differently?

We will not know. But we do know that the Indian people today are never too far away (quite literally, a stone’s throw away) from those for whom education has thwarted appreciation of the finer aspects of language and art, theatre and music, argumentation and persuasion. The distrust of intellectuals wears many guises. It has of late revealed itself in the increasing trust placed by the government in bureaucrats, technologists and scientists to head India’s premier scholarly and educational institutions. We increasingly inhabit an educational system rooted in a deeply held belief that science and technology alone are worthy of awe and moral authority; they are less partial and partisan than those from the social sciences and the humanities.

Forget their un-encashability, all such disciplines are “residual”, gathering together only those failures who cannot make the science grade. That the new Nalanda Chancellor Vijay Bhatkar, a computer scientist, could blithely participate in Vedic rituals and a hawan to “resurrect” the true spirit of Nalanda, one of the many Buddhist monasteries that flourished before that religion declined in India, is no contradiction in these anti-intellectual times.
We are getting accustomed to the use of both “facticity” and “sentiment” in this offensive against intellectuals. On the one hand, Harvard- or Oxford-trained economists are dispensable and mocked at by the “man of the poor,” their place taken by the unquestionable certainties of government statistics. On the other hand, if our universities are currently being turned into obedience schools, it is in the name of a church-like piety and sentiment about nationalism.

Only a nervous and insecure regime distrusts its intellectuals and the university as the space of critical intellection. Therefore, a new “resacralisation” of the relation between teacher and student in the time of democracy (consider the Gurukul fellowships now offered by the ICHR) is accompanied by the clamour to “militarise” the campuses. The now-expelled RSS pracharak Kundan Chandrawat who announced a bounty for Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s head, averred that “communists” must have been responsible for denying him permission to work on the political ideas of both Ambedkar and Golwalkar for his PhD. One could see “a red under every bed” as responsible for the sorry state of Indian universities, but that is not only crediting the left with too much power, it is denying history.

The distrust and persecution of intellectuals has many notorious precedents, in regimes of both the right and the left, in the long 20th century. Sustained anti-intellectualism hounded poets and scholars, scientists and musicians into silence or simply did away with their inconvenient truth. Germany in the 1930s, the Soviet Union in Stalin’s era, Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Recip Erdogan’s Turkey in our own times. In each historical case, scores of intellectuals have been “disappeared”, were undermined or denigrated in the name of a greater national/proletarian good. Julian Barnes’s imaginative bio-novel on the fate of composer Dmitri Shostakovich should be a must-read for those interested in these histories, if the anti-English tenor of current anti-intellectualism can be set aside.

No more will our universities be the “kuthuhala-shalas” (curiosity centres ) of early India where people may have gathered to discuss things and exercise curiosity, as the very word “kuthuhala” suggests. Regardless of whether they existed or not, since they were written about long after the time of the Buddha when they may have
existed, that they were remembered at all should give us a sense of the rich life of the mind to which we are heir. But the life of the mind is indeed what has become an unbearable challenge for those whose anti-intellectual chants now fill our university spaces.

The writer teaches history at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU
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