~Siddhartha Kumar Lahiri*

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” William Faulkner in his speech while accepting the Nobel Prize on December 10, 1950.

Young educated minds in every society search for ‘liberated’ intellectuals who can illuminate the time and the space. Every nation and growing nationalities feel deep inside them the urge to produce the likes of Socrates as indigenous intellectual products. But if the stories end up with the pails of hemlock, who would volunteer? Idealism in its classical forms has no takers.  Nevertheless, noticing behavioural aberrations of certain intellectual corners having huge stature, the young minds feel disturbed. Reluctance shown by well known intellectuals in questioning the duplicities practiced by the policy makers in the name of nationalism and different shades of pseudo-patriotism brings frustration. However, it will be too naive to lament why an old civilization boasting of universal love and ‘sarve bhavantu sukhinah!’1 type wisdom in many words from the great saints like Buddha, Sankardev2 and Ajan Fakir3; after attaining a degree of ‘maturity’ started assembly line production of dwarf variety hybrid Chanakyas4. These hybrid intellectuals, in the Indian context, show no hesitation to stand hand in hand with the feudal patriarchs and corporate honchos together and putting themselves in the self-proclaimed position of the ‘guardian of the state’ advices it to follow ‘Rajdharma5 even when the state  in the open daylight is found in direct connivance with the big foreign capital grabbing fertile lands from the farmers who are mostly dalits6 . They even allow tacit lynching of  the minority communities over the choice of their food and occupations with the help of the well trained religious mercenaries called  Gau-rakshaks7.

The Indian state, which in essence we try to describe as pluralistic, secular and inclusive in the civilized international forums has started raising its head more frequently in recent times as a communally charged monolithic monster which is too selfish and ugly. Everyone knows that no philharmonic orchestra can conceal its cacophonous self-boasting lies. Instead of doing a value judgement on different intellectual outputs, a more fundamental exercise is needed to understand the nature of intellectual space in modern India. How is it changing in the post-liberal period? How is it changing now when the state is trying desperately to centralize itself to fulfil certain fascist agenda? Is it fast shrinking or transforming fast into some unconventional forms which make the space difficult to recognise? Or, is there a possibility that the space is trying to rediscover itself under different skies?

If by modern India we mean the India since the British rule, the essence of modernity disseminated through the higher education system was tailored perfectly to serve basically the imperial goals. There were328 three distinct phases – Colonial (1857-1947), semi colonial (1947-1991) and the neo colonial (1991- till this day). Calcutta University, the first of its kind in India as well as in the entire Asia, was established on 24th January, 1857 (Notice its sheer coincidence with the timing of the great Indian Rebellion described euphemistically as ‘sepoy mutiny’) as a multidisciplinary western-style secular university. The highest achievers from this university were supposed to study law and subsequently go to England to become Barristers. They were to advocate on behalf of a sacrosanct constitution prepared by the colonisers to ‘civilize’ the hot-head rebellious subjects. The general purpose of such education was to produce administrative interlocutors or simply clerical stuff that could read and draft letters, and office orders of various types in English and translate the same into native languages. The plan and the subsequent political plank in the form of raising the Indian National Congress (Established in 1885 under the stewardship of Allan Octavian Hume, the first ornithologist having great expertise on Indian birds and an outspoken civil servant, highly worried about the rebellious mood of the Indian subjects)  to accommodate ‘tamed intellectuals’ was highly successful. From then onward, the Congress kept on acting as the safety valve through which grass root level dissent of the colonised people could be released in sober and peaceful ways in the courts of the colonial masters. And still the legacy continues.

Intellectuals of substance whom we still remember as great contributors to the realm of philosophy and science were strong fighters not only against the imperial rule. Rather, they were concerned and committed towards the independent growth of a nation and its people. As global capitalism itself was changing from its mercantile characteristics to industrial and subsequently to the rules of finance capital, priorities of higher education as well as the essence of liberation was changing. It was rather a testing time whether the future intellectual growth of India would emulate from the greatness of the likes of M.N. Roy, Rahul Sankrityan, D.D. Kosamby or Rabindra Nath Tagore, M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan?

After the second World War, when the Indian Congress could negotiate a parliamentarian democracy in exchange of a huge monetary compensation to the colonial masters as well as assurance to protect their business needs if they so wished, it was a settled fact that Nehruvian intellectualism would get principal patronage in the ‘Independent India’. Growth strategy in the post-independent India was in nutshell, privatization of capital and profitable assets, socialization of labour, debts and big burdens. Foreign Finance capital of all hues and colours were invited to invest liberally in the Indian soil. Heavy industrial growth with the help of older generation factories and machineries (discarded by the advanced nations and having a tag of ‘modern technology’) procured from the post-war crisis ridden countries were imported (as a necessary baggage of the fund-bank nexus grants) with lots of fanfare to build up a ‘modern India’ which helped a lot to regain health of the war torn Euro economy under the new leadership of the least war affected of all the USA. Premier institutes of higher technical education like the IITs were established in India collaborating with big global power blocks. India proved itself as one of the leaders in brain-drain from the periphery to the centre. The agrarian crisis which was awaiting a huge structural change from meeting the primary objective of bringing resurgence in the economy was mostly ignored. It was projected by the official intellectuals like M.S. Swaminathan as a merely technical problem that could be addressed by fund-bank formulation of green revolution which was going to incubate slowly great disasters of irrecoverable consequences. The possibility of exploring an independent growth path was avoided and the state of semi-colonialism persisted. Lots of debates happened and as a result we could get intellectuals like Jay Prakash Narain, Vinoba Bhave, P.C. Mahalanobis and in the other camp EMS Namboodiripad, Charu Mazumdar, Chandra Pulla Reddy etc.

India, in the year 1991, set aside in undisputed terms the official goal of achieving socialism and embraced open market economy. The neo-colonial phase began. Man Mohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia were the tallest official intellectuals. Amartya Sen, Kaushik Basu etc. were other contenders of the title.  In recent months of 2018, there is lot of hullabaloo in the Indian parliament house over the acts of the ruling party which is avoiding very frequently some of the most crucial discussions on subjects like massive bank frauds, questions on unstoppable suicide deaths of distressed farmers, simple inquiries on privatisation of billion dollars’ worth defence deals etc. Some of the intellectuals of unquestionable integrity (For example, Arun Shourie in conversation with the ND TV) have complained in the national TV channels about the systemic dysfunctional syndrome affecting the body politic and they have expressed their fear that furtherance of these disorders can ultimately paralyse the overall political economic structure of the country. In a widespread flourish of jobless growth projections one cannot help but question the much hyped liberalisation policies. The shine of ‘Rising India’, in spite of the great efforts put by the intellectuals like Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Subramanian Swamy, has started waning very fast.

The intellectual community who have nothing but the intellect as the sole means of production to churn out their conditions of living are assumed to be the natural allies of those workers and peasants who too have nothing but their labour power to sell to maintain a base level of living. In advanced societies, ‘minds and muscles’ could hardly be separated during the initial phase of industrial capitalism; however, the situation deteriorated very fast in the twentieth century8. In the semi-feudal and semi-colonial mode of production systems, particularly if the revolutionary philosophy of scientific kind is not strong enough to assert itself, the ‘active mass’ of the society gets divided sharply between workers and intellectuals ; one representing the muscle and another the mind. As a result, the magnitude of surplus generated by these two classes might differ a lot, depending upon the cultural growth of a specific region of the society. Ruling class tries to own the intellectual class by providing incentives on the basis of their loyalty index. More autocratic a political set up becomes, it tries to intimidate the democratic intellectuals with the false promises of restoring discipline and maintaining the rule of law in the society. This narrows down the area of the platforms from which democratic values are disseminated. The biggest casualty in the diminishing returns of intellectuals is the democracy itself.  Thus, the contraction of intellectual space leaves no other choice before the intellectuals but to think out alternatives, if nothing, just for the sake of saving the endangered species from extinction en masse.

In the present-day Namo and Nimo India ambience9, for any social scientist willing to live at least a moderate degree of  intellectually fulfilling life, a base level starting hypothesis (taking queue from the Popperian methodology) can be framed this way- the rate of growth of official intellectual space is directly proportional to the rate of growth of parliamentarian democracy. On the other hand, if we further hypothesise that ‘official intellectual space’ is simply ‘different shades of bureaucracy’ and ‘parliamentary democracy’ in a semi-feudal semi-colonial society is a ‘sham democracy’, we can rephrase the initial statement as – the rate of growth of bureaucratic space is directly proportional to the rate of growth of sham democracy. This is a dilemma of big concern. When intellectuals start behaving as proxy CEOs of corporate houses and they fail to monitor the cracking sound of the sham democratic edifice and rather keep on chanting about ‘maintaining the rule of law’, knowingly or unknowingly they stop dreaming the prospect of a new society. They request despots to behave; they appeal rebels to talk and resolve the matters (they even offer to become mediators); they theorise that right moment has not come yet to revolt (as if once that moment comes they will act as alarm bells and awake the masses in deep slumber). The intellectuals then start behaving like status quoits. The young Indian minds (inside the country as well as living abroad) are presently in distress about the pale responses of the ‘stalwart intellectuals’ on serious matters like big river dams, massive deforestation, large scale evictions of dalits and adivasis, rapid commoditisation of land, water bodies and forests, debt-traps, human-trafficking and various atrocious means by which the state terrorises the civil society to facilitate re-colonisation of those institutes which could taste at least partial independence during the cold war period.

It is in this context, one can mention an article by Sanjib Baruah, ‘Stateless in Assam’. Professor Baruah teaches Political Studies in the Bard College, New York. He picks up complex issues from the NE India and has established himself in the official intellectual space as an expert resource person of international stature on Northeast studies. Young research scholars have great expectations from Professor Baruah. In a befitting manner to his high level of erudition, Professor Baruah introduces postmodern political theories almost effortlessly. In his article he has rightly pointed out the futility of evicting the ‘foreigners’ (the Bangladeshis) and the mass hysteria and frustration generated during the highly questionable enrolment process in the National Registration of Citizens (NRC). NRC has already caused a few suicide deaths. He could connect rightly why these acts of the state are going to promote the growth of concentration camps having increasing number of ‘stateless population’. Three young intellectuals (Suraj Gogoi, Gorky Chakraborty and Parag Jyoti Saikia), having their roots in the NE India and currently pursuing their research outside the NE India, are hurt emotionally  at the ‘business’ like ‘watching’ attitude of Professor Baruah. They have questioned the reference of Hannah Arendt who explained some of the fault-lines of the modern societies in terms of state-subjects and stateless masses. It was argued that the ongoing deportation bogey raised by the state can be better explained by alienation concept proposed by W.E.B. Du Bois. They are more appalled by the ‘lack of a moral position’ of Professor Baruah and expressed concern about the ‘room for human security’ within the ambit of increasing state drive to raise ‘a number of concentration camps by different names’. Thus, the political issue raised by Professor Baruah was treated by our young friends as ethical issues that was further substantiated by the ‘master slave dialectic’ discussed by Ashis Nandy and the moral reasoning why intellectuals should stand with the slaves not to share the suffering rather to learn from the higher order cognition of slaves who treat their masters as ‘human’ whereas the masters treat the slaves as a ‘thing’.

Nobody would deny that the human rights’ violation by the state and its systematic effort to legalise state terrorism as a ‘peace-keeping’ measure in the pretext of providing security to the ‘loyal citizens’ (Other synonyms used are: Nationalists, Patriots, Ram-bhaktas, Gau-rakshaks etc.) is a matter of great concern. But at the same time, the political reality, the fast track colonisation of a resource rich peripheral economy under the strong central influence of trans-national finance capital should not be missed in the backdrop. A very important thing for any sensible intellectual is to understand the prism through which they see the changing structural make-up of the society. The binary ‘state-subjects/ stateless masses’ does not need questioning the state in terms of its class affiliation. On the other hand, in spite of bringing the master-slave dialectic, if the ‘state’ is regarded as a third party devoted to ‘humanize the master’ and ‘sympathize with the slave’, the position of intellectuals remains equally unclear. Let us revisit the ‘State and Revolution’ (in spite of branding some of its oft-quoted sentences as ‘cliché’ by the mainstream academicians and intellectuals). Lenin first referred the historical summary done by Engels as following:

“The state is …a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.”10

Lenin discusses further how intellectuals start following two different courses of understanding – first, emphasising the state functioning as the ‘reconciliation’ between classes of conflicting interests and the second, accepting the very existence of the state as an expression of irreconcilability. To put the matter in more explicit terms, Lenin summarised the views of Marx on the state as following:

“…the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’, which legalises and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between the classes.”11

In a high voltage civil war like situation, the democratic space, the freedom of intellectuals to express their concern and raise their voices for the right causes shrinks very fast. North East India is potentially one of the world’s richest corners where almost every forms of energy resources namely, the coal, the hydrocarbon, hydro-electricity, radioactive minerals for nuclear power, coal bed methane, shale oil and gas are present in plenty. The enormous range of bio-diversity and medicinal plants, rain-forests, hundreds of varieties of grasses, canes and bamboos made this place a darling among the British colonies. For the rapid spread of neo-colonisation encircling different segments of societies inside different types of concentration camps is a highly suitable proposition. It was a time tested means practiced by the British rulers for decades to raise the tea gardens in Assam.

Colonisers like to fix prices for intellectuals. Those who refuse to sell themselves are declared fugitives. Maniram Dewan12, a noble intellectual, was too ambitious to raise tea gardens and compete with the British. He was hanged till death in 1858. In 2012, the then Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia declared tea as the national drink of India coinciding with the 212th birth anniversary of Maniram Dewan. In 2015, after 157 years of Maniram Dewan’s death Shashi Tharoor, the blue-eyed writer-diplomat-politician, mesmerised the audience of Oxford Union by his superlative eloquence of speech decrying British colonialism. He is treated in the official space of intellectualism as the epitome of virtues. That Shashi Tharoor could get ultimate solace by joining the Indian National Congress is perhaps a sufficient proof to suggest that this man of many hats represents the best example of the hybrid Chanakyas of modern India, the most sophisticated facilitator to safeguard imperial interests in India. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, at the age of 28 was the youngest “Division Chief” in the World Bank’s bureaucracy. In 2001, he was chosen as the first Director of the newly created independent Evaluation Office of the International Monetary Fund. We have plenty of historical evidences regarding the fate of the larger population in places at other parts of the world where neo-imperial powers like to spread their tentacles in league with the corrupt political agents of local origin. The NE India is fast moving closer to some of the notorious experiences of the African and Latin American countries. If the intellectuals and all the working people of the place and the sympathizers are not ready for a strong resistance, the future road map is bound to be a bloody one. And it is in this context; we cannot help but refer Eduardo Galeano from his ‘Days and nights of love and war’.

Black humour in Buenos Aires: “Argentines”, they say, “can be divided into the terrorized, the imprisoned, the buried, and the exiled.”13

Another one-

In the country of silence, the light in your eyes can land you in a concentration camp14…To be alive is a risk, to think, a sin; to eat, a miracle15…A new jail is inaugurated each month. It is what the economists call the “Development Plan.”16

During the time of fast expansion of neo-colonialism, when trusts and commitments get sold out at times for a few bucks of dollars, intellectual posturing of thinking individuals can directly be put to test, and it should definitely be, based on their stands on the rights of indigenous population on water-land and forests (Jal-Jameen-Jungle). Are they ready to question a state, a fearsome monstrous state that makes laws to sell any or all of these things to outsiders? The tragedy of universal physical fear that haunted Faulkner in 1950 has not diminished a bit. However, there are certain remarkable differences. The intellectuals in the last seven decades could search and research various forms of resistance struggles and they could demystify many fear factors. The modern organic intellectuals have adapted themselves to protracted resistance and thanks to the spread of the World Wide Web, alongwith fear factors they can share courageous experiences with equal ease. As a result, even after facing sermons on ‘the end of history’, new generation of young intellectuals are seen highly enthusiastic to make new histories. And the science behind their enthusiasm is much more resilient and robust than it used to be during Faulkner’s time.

Notes and references

  1. This is the first line of a five liner peace mantra in Sanskrit which as a whole expresses a general wish – May all become happy/May all be free from illness/ May all see what is auspicious/May no one suffer/Om Peace, Peace, Peace.
  2. Srimanta Sankardev was a 15th – 16th renaissance man: a saint-scholar, poet, playwright, social-religious reformer and a figure of great importance in the cultural and religious history of Assam. He started a neo-Vaishnavite movement and influenced two medieval kingdoms- Koch and the Ahom kingdoms. The assembly of devotees he initiated evolved into Sattras over time which continues to hold huge influence among the important socio-religious institutions in Assam and to some extent in the North Bengal.
  3. Ajan Fakir was a Sufi Syed poet, preacher and saint from the 17th century who came from Baghdad to settle in the Sibsagar area of Assam. He is credited for helping the people of the Brahmaputra valley to unify, reform, reinforce and stabilise Islam. He mastered the local language and is particularly known for two forms of devotional songs Zikr and Zari ; the universal content of which has great similarity with the works of Srimanta Sankardev. Whenever the issues relating communal harmony surface, reference of  both Sankardev and Ajan Fakir comes as a common political practice.
  4. Chanakya, from the 4th century BCE was a teacher, philosopher, economist, jurist and royal advisor who authored the ancient Indian political economic treatise Arthashastra. Whenever the state matters come for discussion he is given the similar place given to Machiavelli. He is known for playing a significant role in the foundation of the Mauriya Empire and the downfall of the Nanda kings. Chanakya served as the chief advisor to both Emperors Chandragupta and his son Bindusara.
  5. Rajdharma refers to the duty of the rulers which may not necessarily focus on traditional sense of wisdom and visions of religious duties, but on techniques by which one can become an effective competitor in the world market. During the 2002 Gujarat riot having the official statistics of 1044 dead, 223 missing and 2500 injured, the then PM of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee commented that the then CM Narendra Modi deviated from maintaining the raj dharma.
  6. Dalits represent those castes that suffered untouchability and were excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism. According to some sources, the term dalit encompasses more communities than the official term of Scheduled Castes and is sometimes used to refer to all of India’s oppressed people. They do not share a single language or religion. According to 2011 Census of India, they comprise 16.6 per cent of India’s population.
  7. Members of a right wing Hindu nationalist organization, named as Bharatiya Gau Raksha Dal (BGRD) that is, ‘Indian Cow Protection Organization’, founded in 2012 by Pawan Pandit and its headquarter is in New Delhi. The organization denies its affiliation with any political party and its members are all volunteers. In recent times, the activities of this organization were in headlines for showing too much enthusiasm on cow vigilantism and disturbing communal harmony by intimidating cattle transporters even when they were having proper legal documents.
  8. Harry Braverman, 1974. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Monthly Review Press.
  9. ‘Namo’ (for Narendra Modi, the PM of India)) and ‘Nimo’ (for Nirav Modi, the diamond merchant charged with $2 billion fraud case with the Punjab National Bank) are said to form an inseparable bondage, a symbiotic relationship. Banks rob the citizens under the instruction of the ‘Namo’ and ‘Nimo’ robs the banks bulldozing all rules and regulations of the Reserve Bank of India.
  10. Lenin’s Collected Works, State and Revolution, Vol 25, p.391.
  11. ibid, p.392.
  12. Maniram Dewan (1806 -1858) was the first powerful intellectual and entrepreneur to establish tea gardens in Assam. It was Maniram who informed the British about the Assam tea grown by the Singpho people. Earlier he was a loyal ally of the British East India Company. Subsequently, when he started competing with the British not only in the tea sector but on many other areas of business, he had to face hostile circumstances. A great organizer, he joined the first independence struggle of 1857. In 1858, he was hanged for conspiring against the British.
  13. Eduardo Galeano, 1983. Days and nights of love and war, Monthly Review Press, p. 22.
  14. ibid, p. 78.
  15. ibid, p. 75.
  16. ibid, p. 78.

*Siddhartha Kumar Lahiri is associated with Department of Applied Geology, Dibrugarh University, Assam (India). A geophysicist by profession, he conducted oil exploration with the ONGC. His principal field of research was on basin evolution, morpho-tectonics and fluvial processes in the Brahmaputra River system, Assam from IIT Kanpur. He raises his political voice through ‘Natun Padatik’, an Assamese Monthly edited by Dr. Hiren Gohain. He also contributes occasionally to the EPW, Frontier and the blog Pangsau.

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