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Why the intellectual is on the run

Harish Khare
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Now that the Supreme Court has provided some sort of relief against harassment to Professor Ashis Nandy, it has become incumbent upon all liberal voices to ponder over the processes and arguments that combined to ensure that an eminent scholar had to slink out of Jaipur in the middle of the night because of his so-called controversial observations at a platform that was supposed to be a celebration of ideas and imagination. Sensitive souls are quite understandably dismayed; others have deplored the creeping culture of intolerance. Some see the great sociologist as a victim of overzealousness of identity politics. All this breast-beating is fine, but we do need to ask ourselves as to what illiberal impulses and habits are curdling up the intellectual’s space. We need to try to recognise how and why Professor Nandy’s nuanced observations on a complex social problem became “controversial.” Who deemed those remarks to be “controversial?” And, these questions cannot be answered without pointing out to the larger context of the current protocol of public discourse — as also to note, regretfully, that the likes of Mr. Nandy have themselves unwittingly countenanced these illiberal manners.

After all, this is not the first time — nor will it be the last — that a sentence in a complex argument has been picked up to be thrashed out into a controversy . This is now the only way we seem able to talk and argue among ourselves. And we take pride in this descent into unreasonableness. We are now fully addicted to the new culture of controversy-manufacturing. We have gloriously succumbed to the intoxicating notion that a controversy a day keeps the republic safe and sound from the corrupt and corrosive “system.”

This happens every night. Ten or 15 words are taken out of a 3,000-word essay or speech and made the basis of accusation and denunciation, as part of our right to debate. We insistently perform these rituals of denunciation and accusation as affirmation of our democratic entitlement. Every night someone must be made to burn in the Fourth Circle of Hell. In our nightly dance of aggression and snapping, touted as the finest expression of civil society and its autonomy from the ugly state and its uglier political minions, we turn our back on irony, nuance and complexity and, instead, opt for angry bashing, respecting neither office nor reputation. We are no longer able to distinguish between a charlatan and an academician. A Mr. Nandy must be subjected to the same treatment as a Suresh Kalmadi.

Nandy, a collateral victim

Mr. Nandy’s discomfort is only a minor manifestation of this cultivated bullishness. And let it be said that there is nothing personal against him. He is simply a collateral victim of the new narrative genre in which a “controversy” is to be contrived as a ‘grab-the-eyeballs’ game, a game which is played out cynically and conceitedly for its own sake, with no particular regard for any democratic fairness or intellectual integrity. By now the narrative technique is very well-defined: a “story” will not go off the air till an “apology” has been extracted on camera and an “impact” is then flaunted. In this controversy-stoking culture of bogus democratic ‘debate’, Mr. Nandy just happened to be around on a slow day. Indeed it would be instructive to find out how certain individuals were instigated to invoke the law against Mr. Nandy. Perhaps the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association needs to be applauded for having the courage to call the Nandy controversy an instance of “media violence.”

At any given time, it is the task of the intellectual to steer a society and a nation away from moral uncertainties and cultural anxieties; it is his mandate to discipline the mob, moderate its passions, disabuse it of its prejudices, instil reasonableness, argue for sobriety and inject enlightenment. It is not the intellectual’s job to give in to the mob’s clamouring.

‘Middle class fundamentalism’

But, unfortunately, that is what our self-designated intellectuals have reduced themselves to doing: getting overawed by television studio warriors, allowing them to set the tone and tenor of dialogue. There is now a new kind of fundamentalism — that of what is touted as the “media-enabled middle class.” For this class of society, the heroes and villains are well defined. Hence, the idea of debate is not to promote understanding nor to seek middle ground nor to reason together, but to bludgeon the reluctant into conformity. Mary McCarthy had once observed that “to be continually on the attack is to run the risk of monotony … and a greater risk is that of mechanical intolerance.”

When intellectuals and academicians like Ashis Nandy allow themselves to be recruited to these “debates,” even if they are seen to be articulating a dissenting point of view, their very presence and participation lends credibility to the kangaroo courts of intimidation.

Manipulated voices

The so-called debate is controlled and manipulated and manufactured by voices and groups without any democratic credentials or public accountability. It would require an extraordinary leap of faith to forget that powerful corporate interests have captured the sites of freedom of speech and expressions; it would be a great public betrayal to trust them as the sole custodians of abiding democratic values and sentiments or promoters of public interest.

Intellectuals have connived with a culture of intolerance, accusation and controversy-stoking that creates hysteria as an extreme form of conformity. Every night with metronomic regularity our discourse-overlords slap people with parking tickets.

And a controversy itself becomes a rationale for political response. Let us recall how L.K. Advani was hounded out of the BJP leadership portals because a “controversy” was created over his Jinnah speech. And, that “controversy” was manufactured even before the text of the former deputy prime minister’s Karachi remarks were available in India. Nor should we forget how Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah was banned by the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, even before it was published because our newly designated national saviour had anticipated that a “controversy” would get created.

The Nandy ordeal should also caution against the current itch to demand “stringent” laws as a magical solution to all our complex social and political ills like corruption. It would be sobering to keep in mind that Mr. Nandy has been sought to be prosecuted under a stringent law based on the formula of instant complaint, instant cognisance and instant arrest. Mr. Nandy is lucky enough to have respected scholars give him certificates of good conduct, testify that he is not a “casteist” and that he is not against “reservation.” Lesser intellectuals may not be that fortunate. We must learn to be a little wary of our own good intentions and guard against righteous preachers.

If we insist on manufacturing controversy every day, all in the name of giving vent to “anger”, it is only a matter of time before some sections of society will be upset, angry and resort to violence. If we find nothing wrong in manufacturing hysteria against Pakistan, or making wild allegations against this or that public functionary, how can we object to some group accusing Mr. Nandy of bias? When we do not invoke our power of disapproval over Sushma Swaraj’s chillingly brutal demand for “10 heads” of Pakistani soldiers, who will listen to us when we seek to disapprove Mayawati’s demand for action against Mr. Nandy?

Just as the Delhi gang rape forced us to question and contest the traditional complacency and conventions, the Ashis Nandy business will be worth the trouble if it helps us wise up to the danger of culture of bullishness and accusation. Unless we set out to reclaim the idea of civilised dialogue, the intellectuals will continue to find themselves on the run.

(Harish Khare is a veteran commentator and political analyst, and former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh)

Thanks to manufactured debates on TV, there is no time for irony and nuance nor

are we able to distinguish between a charlatan and an academician


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