The missing conservative intellectuals

When the left and the liberals are themselves already socially conservative, where is the space or need for a separate, secular, conservative tradition? Thus the question — where are India’s right-wing intellectuals — is a profoundly meaningless one

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

Published - July 25, 2015 12:32 am IST

According to media reports, the RSS had even set up an informal committee to come up with saffron-friendly candidates to head various academic and cultural institutions. File Photo

According to media reports, the RSS had even set up an informal committee to come up with saffron-friendly candidates to head various academic and cultural institutions. File Photo

The appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan — described by some sections of the media as a “C-lister” — to the chairmanship of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) has once again raised questions about the scarcity of credible, right-wing intellectuals.

G. Sampath

It is no secret that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been struggling to find intellectuals to head various academic and cultural institutions. According to media reports, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had even set up an informal committee to come up with saffron-friendly candidates for some 680 positions.

But it could come up with only 160 names. Even these 160 people, one presumes, included the likes of Mr. Chauhan, Y. Sudershan Rao (made chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research), Baldev Sharma (chairman of the National Book Trust), Pahlaj Nihalani (chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification) and Chandrakala Padia (chairperson of Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla).

Hindu conservatism, whose nationalism is a curious amalgam of revivalism, xenophobia and triumphalism, can never attain respectability except in a self-contained discursive ghetto…

None of these names has inspired much confidence in the constituencies these bodies serve. Many have charged the NDA with not just saffronising but also degrading the country’s premier institutions by appointing underqualified candidates to the post.

The eminent historian, Ramachandra Guha, was so distressed by these appointments that he penned a column lamenting “the closing of the Indian mind”, where he draws the “melancholy but inevitable conclusion” that “the present government despises writers, scholars, artists and film-makers.”

Other commentators have been less melancholic and more pragmatic, either faulting the RSS for not having created its “own cadre of intellectuals”, and/or challenging it to produce “a saffron Amartya Sen”, whatever that means.

Conservatism infused by religion The most systematic study of the crisis of talent facing the Indian right has come from a liberal. In an 18-page essay titled, “Where are India’s conservative intellectuals?” published some months ago in Caravan magazine, Mr. Guha provides a considered answer to this question.

He begins by making a fundamental distinction — between intellectuals and ideologues. Intellectuals contribute to the growth of knowledge, whereas ideologues are “more interested in promoting their political or religious beliefs”. By this definition, which no one should have a quarrel with, most of the so-called intellectuals, including RSS sympathisers on the Narendra Modi bandwagon, would automatically fall into the category of ideologues.

Mr. Guha’s explanation for India’s missing conservative intellectuals is fairly straightforward. In his preferred formulation, conservative ideology is characterised by a shared “first person plural” that privileges the status quo as an emanation of a cherished past. Typically, this “we” signifies a national imaginary.

But in India, unlike say, in the United Kingdom, the conservative vision of the national community (the “we”) “is intricately bound up with religious affiliation.”

Clearly, this Hindu conservatism, whose nationalism, as Mr. Guha points out, is a curious amalgam of revivalism, xenophobia and triumphalism, can never attain respectability except in a self-contained discursive ghetto, which is precisely what has happened. Indeed, it is hardly conceivable that an ideology which consigns a few hundred million non-Hindus to second-class citizenship can ever form the basis of serious scholarship.

Yet, this has been the track record of the Indian right — essentially the Hindu Right — till date. It might partly explain the anti-intellectual streak of India’s right-wingers, for many of whom the word “intellectual” is itself a term of abuse. Given this reality, Mr. Guha answers his eponymous question thus: “there can be a credible conservative tradition in India only if it emerges outside the ecosystem of the Sangh Parivar.”

Fantasy of a secular right wing Is it really possible — a secular conservative tradition in India? Mr. Guha is not alone in wishing for it. Even Amartya Sen has spoken about the need for “secular rightwing” parties — like the Christian Democrats in Germany or the Tories in the U.K. Or is this wishful thinking?

The defining feature of conservatism is a belief in the organic unity of whatever it is the “first person plural” denotes. This belief serves to obfuscate the central antagonism that the first person plural denies — this obfuscation is the reason conservatism “works” as an ideology. In the secular breed of conservatism that Mr. Guha and Prof. Sen seek, the antagonism wished away is class conflict — the exploiters and the exploited are united by the soothing balm of patriotism and a nationalistic superiority over the peoples excluded from the ‘we’.

In India, which has always been, despite its constitutional secularism, a Hindu majoritarian state in practice — innumerable studies have documented anti-minority biases in the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the police, the media and other institutions — the central contradiction was, and remains, caste rather than class antagonism.

Through the caste prism From this standpoint, it becomes clear that India’s left-liberal tradition has produced very few intellectuals whose careers and analytical frameworks were defined by an all-consuming interest in caste antagonism — in a manner analogous to how, for a scholar in the European leftist tradition, class antagonism is a foundational category of thought. Or how, for the conservative, the organic unity of society, whatever its internal contradictions, is a constitutive assumption. One Indian intellectual who comes immediately to mind is B.R. Ambedkar, but he was not what we would today call a left-liberal. Seen through the prism of caste, the real reason for the absence of an Indian (as opposed to Hindu) conservative tradition becomes apparent: the “conservatives”, so-called, did not emerge because they were already hegemonic — they just happened to go by the name of “liberals” or “socialists” or “communists”.

It would be no exaggeration to say that most of India’s left-liberal intellectuals (mostly drawn from the upper castes) are socially conservative — and conservative in the classical sense of not considering their society’s determining antagonism (caste) as the ultimate problem. While they may not defend caste, or glory in it, as sections of the Hindu Right might, neither do they believe that every sociopolitical problem needs, or could benefit from, a caste perspective — despite overwhelming evidence of pervasive casteism. In this, the Indian left-liberal tradition mirrors the Western conservative one, which denies that class conflict or exploitation is the elemental problem in capitalist society.

In other words, when the left and the liberals are themselves already socially conservative, where is the space or need for a separate, secular, conservative tradition? The question (where are India’s right wing intellectuals?) is thus a profoundly meaningless one. It’s meaninglessness obscured in no small measure by a warped notion of secularism that makes no distinction between religious solidarity and religious sectarianism.

The great British conservative, Edmund Burke, constructed his philosophy in the context of the threat to tradition and order posed by the symbolism and spirit of the French Revolution. The nationalism of the British conservative — though it had a place at the table for Christianity — was essentially a secular response to a secular threat.

Indian nationhood India’s nationhood, in contrast, as historians of Partition such as B.B. Misra have pointed out, was intimately tied to a religious, and specifically Hindu, imaginary. Hinduism, in this context, was nothing but another name for Brahminism. As independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, summed up in his Discovery of India , “That mixture of religion and philosophy, history and tradition, custom and social structure, which in its wide fold included almost every aspect of the life of India, and which might be called Brahminism or (to use a later word) Hinduism, became the symbol of nationalism. It was indeed a national religion.” How exactly is this different from Mr. Modi’s “cultural nationalism”? Yet, Nehru, one hardly need mention, was no RSS pracharak . He is an iconic left-liberal, and a favourite whipping boy of the Hindu conservative. But of course, his utilitarian defence of the caste system need not be reproduced here.

In stark contrast to the left-liberal’s social conservatism — which is almost indistinguishable from that of the Hindu Right — stands someone like B.R. Ambedkar, who could say what few left-liberals would dare to today: “No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy.” Of course, one could make a similar judgement about Islam as well. But in any given national context, the more politically dominant a religion, the greater its capacity to undermine democratic values.

All said and done, from this Ambedkarite perspective, and if we keep his “ Annihilation of Caste ” as a reference point, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that mainstream intellectual discourse in independent India has only ever been controlled by conservatives. The Indian conservative is not missing — he is merely Hindu, upper caste, and invisible.

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