Building support for public intellectuals in times of cultural intolerance

(Courtesy: Hindustantimes)

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Badre Alam & Sanjay Kumar

It will not be an exaggeration, to say that extremism and cultural intolerance has not been growing at large against the minorities and public intellectuals. And therefore one cannot deny the fact that in recent time it has become increasingly critical issue in South Asian countries. It is a fact that the killings of secular bloggers by Islamists and fundamentalists in Bangladesh continue unabated. In a similar way, human rights activist like Sabeen Mahmud have been killed by fundamentalist groups and several social activists are still facing charges of blasphemy in Pakistan. Even more recently in Afghanistan, an innocent and poor woman like Farkhunda was brutally killed by a religious mob on the pretext of blasphemy.

However, it is sad to see that the process of killing literary personalities and suppressing public intellectual voices have also taken roots in country like India, which claims upholding secular and democratic traditions. The killings of distinguished and noted Kannada writer M. M. Kalburgi, social activist Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, by communal forces are the cases in point here. But one cannot deny the fact that the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri has broken the silence amongst social and literary activists at nation-wide. As a result, a number of writers, activists and film makers have returned their awards and registered their protest against the growing cultural intolerance. Barring BJP and RSS leaders, it is important to note that most of the academics, including eminent historians and noted social scientists, have came out united and expressed their concerns against growing cultural intolerance.

At the very outset, we state our support for the academics and literary personalities, filmmakers simply because they are defending liberal and secular heritage of India’s past. And therefore, their voices cannot be muzzled on allegations of ‘appeasing the minority’ or labeled as ‘pseudo-secular’ and inclined towards some political ideology like congress or the Left, as the BJP-RSS leaders have pointed out repeatedly. Let us reflect upon the manner in which academics and intellectual freedoms have been suppressed in the age of cultural intolerance.

Suppression of dissenting voices in the age of cultural intolerance

Generally speaking, academic and intellectual freedom have confronted challenges from various quarters such as homogenization of academics, excessive control of the authoritarian state, the domination of market forces over academic institutions and lastly the hegemony of fundamentalist and conservative right wing forces in institutions of higher learning. We will confine ourselves to how academic freedom, including intellectual dissenting voices, is being increasingly curtailed and suppressed after the advancement of Hindutva forces at the centre-stage of Indian politics. Before delving into current issues, let us discuss the views of Dr Ambedkar and others on the role of the intellectual class in society like India.

To begin with let us understand first what Ambedkar had said regarding the role of intellectual class in society like India. In his words:

“The intellectual class is the class which can foresee, it is the class which can advise and give lead. In no country does the mass of the people live the life of intelligent thought and action. It is largely imitative and follows the intellectual class. There is no exaggeration in saying that the entire destiny of a country depends upon its intellectual class. If the intellectual class is honest, independent and disinterested it can be trusted to take the initiative and gives a proper lead.’’ (DBAWAS, Vol. 1, p.71)

While delivering the speech on the birth century of M. G. Ranade in 1943, Ambedkar defined (who is) a great man and his role in society. He said:

“A great man must have something more then what a merely eminent individual has. A great man motivated by the dynamics of social purpose and must act as scourge and the scavenger of society”. (Raja Sekhar Vundru, ‘The other father’, Outlook, Aug. 20, 2012. p. 46). Taking what Ambedkar said further, distinguished social scientist Professor Rajni Kothrai has also reminded us that, it is the responsibility of the public and political intellectuals to be critical of the existing political authority. In a similar way, more recently eminent secular historian Romila Thapar has stressed the importance of public intellectuals in the Indian philosophical tradition. For Thapar, Indian society is historically replete with various instances of critical intellectual traditions, which is heterodox in nature like European society. In this regards Thapar says:

“Public intellectual is not expected to be dictatorial and insist on single answer. Negating discussion is negating fundamental right to freedom of speech”. (The Indian Express, Negating discussion negates the Indian philosophical tradition, Oct 18, 2015).

Another well-known social activist Praful Bidwai has said that public intellectuals are needed to articulate the traditions of rational thought in our intellectual heritage. (Praful Bidwai, ‘Why we need public intellectuals’, The News, November 01, 2014)

If we look into the manner in which suppression of intellectuals have taken place under Modi’s rule, it becomes important to discuss what eminent scholars have said regarding the increasingly intolerant behavior of Hindutva brigades.

Noted Marxist historian Prof. Irfan Habib said that, the last few months, the BJP-led Union government has stepped up its efforts to steer the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva agenda by changing the nature of public institutions. (Frontline, ‘Nation’s mental makeup may suffer grievously’, September 30, 2015). When noted economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen stepped down as chancellor of Nalanda University; Sen has also said that the academic freedom is threat under the Modi’s government. (Times of India, Feb 21, 2015).

On this basis of above mentioned arguments of eminent academics, it is right to say that the threat of cultural attacks is growing in Indian society rapidly. To discuss arguments further, let us unpack the manner in which RSS and BJP leaders have generated the fear of communal tension by making open public statements.

RSS-BJP leaders’ statements against literary figures

Since the BJP came to power, several issues like attack on minorities, communal violence, ghar wapsi, love jihad, saffornisation of public institutions, caste atrocities and lastly attacks on public intellectuals by the brigade of Hindutva forces. We focus at the recent attacks on academics and intellectuals by the RSS and BJP leaders, including PM Modi. While attacking literary personalities and writers, right the RSS said, “Some pen artists affiliated with the disease of secularism have returned their medals to protest attempt at destroying Hindu religion and destroying India” (, “Writers returning their awards suffering from disease of secularism: RSS”, Oct.13, 2015)

It is very ironical to note that current culture minister, Mahesh Sharma pointed out that “writers stop writing, and then will see?” In a similar way but using a different tone, Finance minister Arun Jaitley said writers have manufactured a controversy. He said that writers, belonging to the left with Nehruvian leanings, who enjoyed the patronage of the previous establishment, are not comfortable with the Modi dispensation. Further, Jaitley pointed out that their activism was prompted by the decline of congress and left (The Times of India, ‘writers have manufactured a controversy and protest’, Oct. 14, 2015). Even PM Modi has also said that “such controversies have happened in the past too. The BJP has always opposed pseudo-secularism. Today, when we are faced with such an unfortunate malady, the same debate has resurfaced. (The Hindu, “Lynching is saddening, but center not to be blame”, Oct. 15, 2015). In addition to this, it is very ironical to note that current Haryana BJP CM Manohar Lal Khattar said that ‘Muslim can continue to live in India only if they stop eating beef’ ( Oct. 16, 2015).

To be very brief, here we contest the views of RSS-BJP leader’s statements on the public intellectual and literary figures because, the protest registered by them, in our mind, should not be considered as merely ‘appeasement of minority’ and siding with the congress and left views. To put it simply, on the basis of above arguments particularly made by eminent scholars, it is plausible to argue that BJP-RSS leader’s statements against the literary figures are in fact motivated by communal and political motives rather than based on genuine facts and academic rigour.

The search for a wider solidarity

Since BJP came to power at the centre, one cannot ignore that the menace of cultural intolerance is growing .It is a fact that Hindutva forces are spreading their tentacles in all walks of life such as of socio-political and cultural domain.

In the light of earlier discussions it could be argued that challenges posed by RSS-BJP will not confine in particular realm social life, but will have long-term communal agenda to try and saffornise all walks of life of Indian society and polity.

To reiterates our argument further, we express our solidarity with ongoing protests because in our views any society cannot claim to be a modern, secular and progressive without the proper recognition of role played by writes, Film makers, historians and public intellectuals at large.

In a given political climate, a question arises: how could we build wider social solidarity to challenge and defeat the growing cultural intolerance getting institutionalised now? To overcome and fight against the current Hindutva juggernaut, we believe that there is an urgent need for evolving a wider social solidarity amongst public intellectuals, artists, secular civil society, left and progressive forces, student, and women’s organization to safeguard and protect our long inherited democratic and progressive traditions of cultural plurality and tolerance.

(Badre Alam is a doctoral fellow at University of Delhi while Sanjay Kumar is a doctoral fellow at Jamia Milia Islamia, Delhi .)