Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Public Intellectual in India by Romila Thapar - Book Review

"To Question or Not to Question? - that is the Question"

Romila Thapar is a renowned Indian historian with a number of excellent history and philosophy books to her credit. However, this book is different – it tries to examine the current status of the public intellectual in India. The origin of the book is a talk that she gave at the third Nikhil Chakravarty Memorial  Lecture (yes, I had also not heard of him but checked up on Wikipedia -  Nikhil was a respected journalist in India who founded the journal Mainstream) in Oct 2014. The lecture was titled “To Question or Not to Question, That is the Question”. That lecture has been revised and expanded in this book and five more essays added from other well known intellectuals – Sundar Sarukkai, Dhruv Raina, Peter deSouza, Neeladri Bhattacharya and Javed Naqvi, which were in response to Romila’s essay. The book concludes with a brief summary by Romila Thapar with her comments on the other responses.

In Romila Thapar’s lecture she laments the state of the current Indian affairs, the declining role of the Public Intellectual in India, the increasing communal polarization by religion, the rising Hinduvta extremism and trend towards increasing authoritarian behavior by the Indian Government. Surprisingly she downplays the economic development since the liberalization of 1992, and strangely believes that it has not made much impact. (I guess you have to be really living in an intellectual cocoon not to see how the last twenty years of development has brought millions of Indians out of poverty!). Other than that her essay is great and it brings out a large number of issues and points that all Indians need to think about, with her principal concern being about the legacy of colonialism that still leaves a significant mark on all major Indian policies.

Sundar Sarukkai’s essay focuses on nature of questioning and whether Thapar’s call to question needs to take into account certain fundamental characteristics of the act of questioning such as scientific rationality, knowledge/ignorance level, intellectual honesty, and ethics. Dhruv Raina’s essay focuses on Science and Democracy and argues that the institutional transformation of science over the last couple of years (a transformation in which the scope of criticism and skepticism is limited) has altered the relation between science and the public as well as the critical discourse on science and society.  According to him the world of ‘Big Science’ and dependence on large funding has reduced the independence of scientific thinking and thus reducing the effort to work for the good of society. Peter deSouza in his essay focuses on the definition of the public intellectual and his or hers different personas to examine the logic at work in the public intellectual. His essay is in three parts, with the first part covering the stories of three individuals (Priya Pillai in India, Yeshayahu Leibowitz in Israel and Avijit Roy in Bangladesh) which are tragic examples of what public intellectuals can face in today’s world. The second part examines the factors that prevent public intellectuals being more active and third part looks at how these factors work in Indian politics today.
The fourth essay is by Neeladiri Bhattacharya and it questions the framework of Thapar’s question and the type of public individual that she is referring to. He is more optimistic than Thapar on the state of Indian affairs and feels that the role of the public intellectual in India has not diminished much. I found the final essay by Jawed Naqvi, the best of the lot. Starting with a couple of examples where the Public Intellectuals have played an important role in recent developments in India, he still highlights the major challenges faced by questioning voices in the supposedly democratic fabric of Indian society. Urging us to look beyond the much-hyped Hindu-Muslim divide in India, he brings to open the caste consciousness still highly relevant in India.

All the essays are of very high quality and I salute Romila Thapar for this endeavor to bring them out in a single book format. This is a must read for all Indians who are concerned with the future of our country.