Role of Public Intellectuals in Civil Society Protest


Attack on public intellectuals is no longer limited to any specific group as a state response to protests against the number of government policies. Indian political scene witnessed several protests on many issues beginning from demonetization, Rohit Vemula’s suicide at HCU and Una agitation in Gujarat and attacks on JNU students. However, it has taken an unprecedented rise on the very day when the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in the Parliament on 11th December 2019. This upsurge has thrown equally unprecedented challenges to India’s responsible public intellectuals for both articulating public anger and playing the role of non-existent opposition to the regime.

These rising dissenting voices need expert channelization to have an impact on the ruling class who never felt it necessary to listen to the people in the interest of governance. Scholars belonging to a wide range of the spectrum are expressing their discontent about the very capability of this government. They are coming out quite critically about the dual power center as a result of the BJP-RSS nexus. The killings of three well known public intellectuals -M. M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare by Hindutva outfits can be cited here as cases in point. It was followed by the award wapsi by some noted literary figures of India in 2015.  The fact cannot be denied that those intellectuals who are raising their concerns and criticizing the present ruling dispensation, readily labelled as anti-nationals, urban Naxals, and tukde tukde gangs.

Modi 1.0 labels and slurs for any opposition continued unabated in Modi 2.0. As the present regime has also blamed and in-fact intentionally maligned the ‘dissenting voices’ (mainly women, children, students and subaltern masses belonging to different ideological and political shades of thinking) who are protesting around the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR are also lebelled as anti-nationals, anarchists and Islamists.

During the campaign speeches in a just-concluded Delhi Assembly election (on 11th result has been announced where the AAP got a massive mandate, once again by securing 60 seats out of 70 seats), most of the BJP’s senior leaders have vehemently attacked and passed similar communal, anti-women as well as the misogynists remarks on Muslim women who are protesting at Shaheen Bagh. However, the fact of the matter is that the current ongoing protests are mostly joined by the oppressed minorities, women especially Muslim women, Dalits, Sikhs and social activists. Like award wapsi, these ongoing protests are not primarily led and joined by public intellectuals barring few progressive forces. Nature of the protests is leaderless and not dominated by a single ideological force. As matter of fact, subaltern masses are themselves have willingly come out on streets and resisting anti-constitutional Act like CAA and NRC-NPR to save secular and democratic values enshrined in the preamble of our Constitution. Excluding a few left-progressive academics and social activists, public intellectuals who mostly subscribed the so-called ‘liberal world’ views are not openly expressing their solidarities or at least they are still hesitant to come out on streets against the CAA (including unnecessary and much expensive exercise like NRC-NPR) in the public sphere. Most of the academics who studied and produced literature earlier on the protests and social movements have consistently underlined that the ongoing protests at the nation-wide (it is also widely reported by global media) for the last 60 days, is unprecedented in nature and has not been seen since the freedom struggle fought against the colonial power.

However, my purpose is not here to undermine the role of liberal public intellectuals and their contributions in the project of nation-building on several fields rather, I will limit myself to the question of ‘inadequate participation’ of public intellectuals (except who belong to left-liberal academics backgrounds) in the ongoing protests against anti-CAA-NRC-NPR.

It is to be remembered that while opposing the ‘authoritarian regime’ of the Indira Gandhi during the period of emergency (1975-77), the public intellectuals had taken a firm stand and widely participated in anti-emergency political derive. However, it would not be mistaken to say that the active participations of ‘liberal intelligentsia’ in the ongoing protests are missing to a large extent if not completely. Why a section of India’s liberal have not taken a firm political stand and came out on the streets (against the CAA-NRC-NPR which fundamentally violates constitutional values like secularism, equality and social justice stipulated in the Preamble of our Constitution) is matter of great concern for those who are committed to upholding progressive ideas and rich legacy of our founding fathers like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Maulana Azad in the present critical times. In this context, let me first highlight the  manner in which the  noted public intellectuals like Antonio Gramsci, (a noted Italian neo-Marxist who had written against fascism in Germany), DR. Ambedkar and many other Indian scholars had critically reflected thought about the social responsibility of public intellectuals vis-a-vis subaltern masses.

To begin with, let us first understand what Gramsci said concerning the role of public intellectuals’ mainly on organic intellectuals. Gramsci had underlined that to build-up counter-narrative in the cultural domain, the role of organic intellectuals are critical to challenge the hegemony of the ruling class. For Gramsci, through the cultural hegemony- in the realm of civil society- the ruling class often construct ‘consent’ and get legitimacy in their support from common masses (by constructing ‘common sense’ among the masses through the means of cultural hegemony) to sustain the hegemony in the larger public sphere. Unlike ‘state intellectuals’, who maintain ‘status quo’ in society and help the ruling class; for Gramsci, a real task  of ‘organic intellectuals’ to  build-up counter-narrative in the larger civil society  against the  hegemony of  the ruling  political establishment.

Taking theoretical insights form Gramsci, it would not be incorrect to say that public intellectuals in India remain aloof from the larger masses. Hence, they are not able to build up counter-narrative against Modi 2.0 in the cultural and social sphere. That might be the reason why communal feelings and sentiments have widely permeated in all walks of life like social, economic, culture and politics. However, after the sustained protest launched by Muslim women and joined by later other social groups such as Dalits, Sikhs, the progressive left, feminists and sexual minorities are now posing major challenges to the Hindu nationalist forces. In spite of communal and misogynists remarks passed by the BJP’s leaders on the Shahen Bagh protestors, they got  massive defeat and only limited to get 8 seats in Delhi Assembly election, just concluded 11th January 2020.

Although Dr. Ambedkar might be unaware of Gramsci had made similar points on the role of ‘intellectuals to counter the ‘Brahmanical Hegemony’ in the larger Indian public domain. While toeing the lines of Gramsci broadly, Dr. Ambedkar said that intellectual honesty and integrity are needed to challenges the upper-caste hegemony in a society like India. As Dr. Babasaheb writes,

“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, Dr. Ambedkar defined who is considered to be called as a great man and what should be his role in the deeply hierarchal and caste-ridden society like India. Ambedkar explained,

“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).

In a similar way, a well-known and the late social scientist Rajni Kothari had also pointed out that it is the responsibility of the public and political intellectuals are to be critical of the existing political authority and the political process. In doing so, a true intellectual must articulate the concern of subaltern masses rather than side with state power.

While toeing the lines of Dr. Ambedkar and Prof. Kothari, more recently an eminent secular historian Prof. Romila Thapar in her works underlined the significance of public intellectuals in the Indian philosophical and intellectual traditions. Prof. Thapar and others said that Indian society is historically replete with diverse intellectual dissenting voices and rooted in heterodox traditions as seen in the case of European society. While stressing the need for freedom of speech to exercise intellectual autonomy and the role of dissenting voices, Prof. Thapar says, “Public intellectual is not expected to be dictatorial and insists on a 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).

In the same manner, the late Praful Bidwai, a senior journalist had expressed that public intellectuals are needed to articulate the traditions of critical and ‘rational thought’ in our intellectual sphere. (See Bidwai, “Why we need Public Intellectuals”, The News, November 01, 2014).

On the basis of the above mentioned arguments, one cannot ignore the role of the public intellectuals (especially organic intellectuals as Gramsci and Dr. Ambedkar both underlined) and their social responsibilities as far as the subaltern masses are concerned.  However in the case of India, intellectual and academic freedom is now also under attack after the rise of ‘state authoritarianism’ along with feudal/ conservative and communal forces in the public domain. Ever since the Hindu nationalist forces (from 2014 onwards) have occupied the public-politico sphere, the attacks on the public intellectuals (mainly who are critical and articulating the real issues of subaltern masses) have increased enormously. The killings of three literary figures and Rohit Vemula as stated above can be cited as cases in point.

However, sill the large the chunk of the so-called liberal intelligentsia who were critical during emergency (1975-77), imposed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi are now appear to be silent spectators or at least not so vocal at the time when situations are more critical because during the emergency, the movement against state-authoritarianism were joined by all kinds progressive, liberals and labour movements as hinted by noted social scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his article(see, Indian Express Dec19, 2019 “Discrimination not justice” page no.12). That was the reason why Indira Gandhi succumbed to pressure and later on, electoral democracy had restored. But now the situations are more complex because unlike an emergency period, we are now witnessing the threat of both ‘state- authoritarianism’ (in form of sporadic violence and police brutality as happened on Jamia’s student and in UP where mostly Muslims have been targeted and killings took place) and ‘rabid communalism’ (polarization on the lines of religion and making Muslims as a second class citizens) simultaneously as underlined by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his article. As a result, the attacks on Muslims have been increased tremendously because of the BJP’s leaders have openly given hate and venomous speeches during the Delhi election campaign which further polarized our society on lines of religion. However, the polarization techniques and hate speeches given by the BJP’s leaders in recent elections have proved counter-productive for the BJP itself. This point has also been brought out by the Home Minister Amit Shah as major reason behind the massive defeat in Delhi Assembly election 2020.

Although the ongoing nation-wide protests against the CAA-NRC-NPR   are leaderless so far, for being neither guided nor controlled by any political ideology. The sinister design of the Hindutva forces, however, trying to equate the Shaheen Bagh protest with the Arab spring, as per the Organizer, a RSS mouthpiece, this point has also brought out in its latest issue, Feb 2020. This narrative of the RSS is also supported by the state-controlled media that needs to be countered by civil society intellectuals as reminded by both Gramsci and Dr. Babasaheb long ago.

 Badre Alam is a doctoral fellow at University of Delhi.  This drat is comprehensively read and commented by Nazar I. Khan. I am grateful to him.




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