1. The Public Intellectual in India book review: Past imperfect

The Public Intellectual in India book review: Past imperfect

A collection of works that romanticises history, even condoning its misdeeds, but sans any thoughtful analysis

By: | Published: December 20, 2015 12:14 AM

The Public Intellectual in India
Romila Thapar & others
Pp 170

EMINENT MARXIST historian Eric Hobsbawm was once asked if activism restricted his intellectual freedom. For someone born in 1917 Germany—who later professed the Communist ideology and saw the rise and decline of the USSR—it was a profound question. However, what Hobsbawm said in response should be a lesson for all ideologue writers and academics: “I hope that it never restricted my intellectual freedom. However, I have to admit that any real and strong political or religious commitment tends to impose, I wouldn’t say obligations, but more a preference or a prejudice favourable to advancing the cause.”

What the eminent scholar meant was that you are never objective while analysing the ideology you profess. “A Catholic scholar is tendentially less enthusiastic about investigating the Holy Inquisition than an atheist or a Protestant. Similarly, it is clear that scholars who were critical of communism have less hesitation in studying the phenomena like the Gulags (a Soviet bureaucratic institution), while a Communist historian would certainly prefer to avoid it. I, therefore, have to admit that while I hope I have never written anything about the Soviet Union that I should feel guilty about, I have tended to avoid dealing with it directly because I knew that if I had, I would have had to write things that would have been difficult for a Communist to say without affecting my political activity and the feeling of my comrades,” Hobsbawm explained.

It is this kind of admission or disclosure that one misses in eminent historian Romila Thapar’s treatise, The Public Intellectual in India, which talks about the role of public intellectuals in these times when the liberal space is shrinking and religious (read Hindu) fundamentalism is rising. In the book, Thapar has expanded her October 2014 talk on the subject at the third Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture, and has invited a set of academics/ideologues to mull the issue and give their responses. The book is more in the nature of rants and a loss of privilege with the coming of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre with which this set of academics never shared a good rapport. Rather, it would be proper to say they have a pathological dislike for the BJP as a party and Modi as an individual. However, if such disclosures were made  in the style of Hobsbawm, the work would have read much better.

Thapar rues that public intellectuals are not speaking up enough, but does not pick up specific topics and academics with domain expertise in specific areas to examine them. Instead, what comes out is her oft-repeated—that is, whenever the BJP comes to power at the Centre—monologue that the party has failed to understand the rich and pluralistic past of the country and has tampered with history writing by bringing in elements of mythology. She invokes liberalism from the nostalgic past of India and Europe to drive her point.

To be fair, there’s much wrong with what the present government is doing—with bodies dealing with culture and history—but then this has to be seen in the context of politics. Thapar points out the wrongs of the current government, but does not trace their beginning to the early Seventies when then prime minister Indira Gandhi appointed leftist historian of medieval India, S Nurul Hasan, as her education minister to cultivate the support of the Communist Party of India. Hasan went on to set up the Indian Council of Historical Research with the avowed aim of supporting fellow travellers. In the years that followed, leftist academics captured all crucial departments in social sciences in prestigious academic institutions, strengthening their grip over higher research, as well as textbook writing for school education.

Naturally, the rightist ideologue resented this and reacted in a similar manner when they came to power. While there’s much wrong in the way the rightist view and interpret Indian history, there’s enough bias in the Left’s account as well. What’s required is to allow independent research, something that will not be possible in the near future, given the way our politics is organised. Sadly, such perspective is missing in the book.

The entire work is based on a structure, where a few like-minded academics come together and start a mutual appreciation club without any thoughtful analysis on any specific subject. If communalism troubles Thapar and her colleagues, it should be studied in greater depth across states with more facts and data. I have never come across any of Thapar’s work on contemporary issues that talks of anything other than communalism and secularism, with the central thesis being the criticism of the Sangh Parivar.

Even her complain about public intellectuals not speaking up seems to be misplaced since there are several luminaries who are writing day in and day out on issues that affect us, what’s wrong and what should be done. Eminent historian of modern and contemporary India Ramachandra Guha, for instance, is quite vocal on issues he feels strongly about. However, Guha is not part of Thapar’s school and does not find mention in her work. Guha is no rightist and criticises the BJP and the Sangh Parivar harshly, but, in the same vein, does not spare the leftists either. Maybe his criticism of the latter doesn’t find favour with Thapar.

Most other writers in the book come across as ordinary, save Neeladri Bhattacharya, professor of modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University. His piece is the best response to Thapar’s angst about current times and the role of public intellectuals. Bhattacharya rightly castigates Thapar for romanticising the past, thus legitimising some of its wrongs as well. Just as one cannot see the present in shades of black and white, one should also not see the past in just these two colours—that’s the sum of Bhattacharya’s criticism of Thapar’s stand.

Anyone interested in reading this book should only read—apart from Thapar’s rant—Bhattacharya’s response and no further.

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