We acclaim our intellectuals as ‘eminent’,
‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’. It is time to wonder what these words actually
mean – especially the word ‘intellectual’in the context of political India.
Minds of poor citizens who believed a stone Ganesh idol drank milk, just
because some people claimed to have seen it, is andh vishwas or
blind faith. This reaction that is devoid of any reason and refuses to demand
logic or view evidence to the contrary is a perfect example of a willing
suspension of disbelief.*
Is a person an ‘intellectual’ because they have
published some books, preferably in English so that the elite in India and
English-speaking nations abroad can read them? Are they people who,
having written a thesis and obtained a PhD many decades earlier, are invited to
panel discussions on television? Are they part of the Left movement who
have appropriated the prerogative of being the only real intellectuals (since
they also speak English) since Nehruvian times? Are they the smalltown
journalists, lawyers and teachers whom political leaders like Sharad Yadav
choose scornfully to call buddhijeevi just because they can
read and write? Everyone resorts to quoting Dr Rammanohar Lohia but none
read, write or live by his highly thoughtful and intellectual, often
iconoclastic, political philosophy, expressed in a vast collection of writings.
This was also because Nehruvians called him a ‘mad man’ since he opposed their
elitist ways of thinking.
So, who is an intellectual? Dictionary
definitions say an intellectual is a person of superior intellect, a
person who places a high value on or pursues things of interest to the
intellect or the more complex forms and fields of knowledge, as aesthetic or
philosophical matters, especially on an abstract and general level. Such a
person is an extremely rational person; a person who relies on intellect rather
than on emotions or feelings. One of the best descriptions to be found
among people with a common understanding of who is an intellectual states that
an intellectual is one whose quest for knowledge never gets blunted or impaired
by pride, prejudice or faith, though such a person may seem somewhat flexible
in the absence of pride and prejudice and cynical in the absence of faith. An
intellectual should also have independent motivation to solve problems and to
know and understand what is outside of current understanding.
Some aam aadmi descriptions of
an intellectual found on the internet also fit the bill, with some humour
with "book smarts" but not much common sense.
can argue why man is on this planet for hours, and still have no idea how to
remove a splinter from their finger,
who can persuade me they are brighter than I am, without me getting the feeling
they are full of BS.
- logic, 1% blind faith.
homogeneous fiefdoms of self-proclaimed expertise (who) are always rank-closing
and mutually self-defending, above all else” - Pulitzer Prizewinner Glenn
More seriously, Wikipedia defines an
intellectual as a person who uses intelligence (thought and reason) and
critical or analytical reasoning in either a professional or a personal
Here from the internet is a good set of instructions for all those who wish to count
themselves into that hallowed set called intellectuals:
- Do not overstate the
power of your argument. One’s sense of conviction should be in
proportion to the level of clear evidence assessable by most. If someone
portrays their opponents as being either stupid or dishonest for disagreeing,
intellectual dishonesty is probably in play. Intellectual honesty is most often
associated with humility, not arrogance.
- Show a willingness to
publicly acknowledge that reasonable alternative viewpoints exist. The
alternative views do not have to be treated as equally valid or powerful, but
rarely is it the case that one and only one viewpoint has a complete monopoly
on reason and evidence.
- Be willing to publicly
acknowledge and question one’s own assumptions and biases. All
of us rely on assumptions when applying our world view to make sense of the
data about the world. And all of us bring various biases to the table.
- Be willing to
publicly acknowledge where your argument is weak. Almost all arguments
have weak spots, but those who are trying to sell an ideology will have great
difficulty with this point and would rather obscure or downplay any weak
- Be willing to
publicly acknowledge when you are wrong. Those selling an ideology likewise
have great difficulty admitting to being wrong, as this undercuts the rhetoric
and image that is being sold. You get small points for admitting to being wrong
on trivial matters and big points for admitting to being wrong on substantive
points. You lose big points for failing to admit being wrong on something
consistency. A clear sign of intellectual dishonesty is when someone
extensively relies on double standards. Typically, an excessively high standard
is applied to the perceived opponent(s), while a very low standard is applied
to the ideologues’ allies.
- Address the argument
instead of attacking the person making the argument. Ad
hominem arguments are a clear sign of intellectual dishonesty. However,
often times, the dishonesty is more subtle. For example, someone might make a
token effort at debunking an argument and then turn significant attention to
the person making the argument, relying on stereotypes, guilt-by-association,
and innocent-sounding gotcha questions.
- When addressing an
argument, do not misrepresent it. A common tactic of the
intellectually dishonest is to portray their opponent’s argument in straw man
terms. In politics, this is called spin. Typically, such tactics eschew quoting
the person in context, but instead rely heavily on out-of-context quotes,
paraphrasing and impression. When addressing an argument, one should shows
signs of having made a serious effort to first understand the argument and then
accurately represent it in its strongest form.
- Show a commitment to
- Be willing to publicly
acknowledge when a point or criticism is good. If someone is
unable or unwilling to admit when their opponent raises a good point or makes a
good criticism, it demonstrates an unwillingness to participate in the
give-and-take that characterizes an honest exchange.
- While no one is perfect,
and even those who strive for intellectual honesty can have a bad day, simply
be on the look out for how many and how often these criteria apply to someone.
In the arena of public discourse, it is not intelligence or knowledge that
matters most – it is whether you can trust the intelligence or knowledge of
another. After all, intelligence and knowledge can sometimes be the best tools
of an intellectually dishonest approach.
A person who comes closest to an honest intellectual as pictured above was the late Nikhil Chakravartty, who published Mainstream. Clearly of Left persuasion, he had been close to the Communist Party of India for decades and was certainly not a Congress Party supporter. A soft-spoken genial man, he sought out people from all political persuasions and ideologies to get a true picture and all versions of what was going on. He never condemned friends who linked up with people whose ideologies he did not support. Instead, he respected the friend and the relationship by spending long hours getting to understand how democratic socialists could link up with people of right- wing ideologies. The case in point here was the Samata Party headed by George Fernandes, assisting in the creation of the NDA headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Nikhil da would visit Fernandes after dinner and spend hours talking about political action, beliefs, and relationships, and whether ideologies did or did not affect governance. He never raised his voice, always listened carefully and debated points with an open mind. He was always ready to be convinced of a different viewpoint if it sounded convincing from a logical point of view.
It has been hard to find a true intellectual
ever since but it seems `Gujarat 2002’and the cry of ‘secularism’ has put paid
to open-minded inquiries. Today’s intellectuals might just as well believe that
a stone idol drinks milk.
Recently The Guardian published
a letter sent in by some self-proclaimed intellectuals like Salman Rushdie and
Anish Kapoor declaring that it would be a disaster for India
if Narendra Modi were elected to lead it (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/11/narendra-modi-victory-bode-ill-india).
They have a right to their opinion. One would think, though, that being
‘intellectuals’, their opinions would be formed on researched facts and not on
the wild campaign that has been orchestrated forcefully across the world to
denigrate an Indian political leader more than any other, including Indira
Gandhi who sterilized Muslims, locked up her political opponents, tried some
for treason, gagged the press and throttled democracy itself.
The very worst is their arrogance in arriving at
their opinions without trudging the lanes of Gujarat, or even caring to leaf
through central or state government reports, SIT reports accepted by the
courts, or Madhu Kishwar’s meticulously researched book Modi, Muslims
and Media that no one has even cared to even review since
liberals, progressives and seculars are all in that ‘willing suspension of
disbelief’ world. In fact, they have all allowed themselves to
become victims of (whisper-whisper) a `do you know what I heard?’ campaign at
best, or fall into the Congress trap of obliterating the memory of the real
pogrom and genocide of Sikhs in 1984.
Creative people like writers and artists are
allowed to offer works emanating from their brilliant imaginations. But, when
talking of the lives and choices and experiences of not just the real people of
Gujarat but millions all over India, they cannot ignore them as if they were
blind or bigoted idiots. If these wise gentlemen and ladies challenged Madhu Kishwar’s
findings with point-to-point evidence to the contrary, looking at the entire
canvas of people in Gujarat and elsewhere, one could respect them. If they have
decided to believe the Teesta Setalvads of this world who have had strictures
by courts for giving false affidavits and evidence they are choosing to be
blind. If they believe the Congress Party megaphones of this nation, now joined
by hysterical leaders who have resorted to calling Narendra Modi a butcher,
fascist, poison and more, they are deliberately ignoring those large numbers of
ordinary, normal, decent voters of all castes and creeds who have elected him
to power in Gujarat for 12 years.
However, rather than sit in the exalted climes
of their own sophisticated enclaves and penning their views to the Western
world, they should have hoisted themselves on to the platforms of any of the
opposing political parties who are today screaming ‘butcher’ and ‘murderer’ to
address the sweaty millions who patiently stand out in the sun to listen to all
leaders. They should try to convince the young Indian voting public of why Modi
would be a disaster for India. It is nothing but a cop out or the
height of laziness and arrogance to think that a flourish of their pens is
The social network is a mine of
commentary comprising sharp witticisms, often unfortunately obscene combat, and
plenty of political cut-and-thrust. Here is a nugget on that letter to The
“It's just a gimmick. All they are trying to do
is to burnish their self-righteousness credentials among their echo chamber. In
a way, it actually makes sense: their readers (or consumers of whatever it is
they produce) are in the UK or they are the kind of people who dwell in the
upper rarified cultural elite among Indians that actually reads The Guardian,
and they are desperate for these people to remain assured of their collective
saintliness” ( Srinivas IllWind, 10th April 2014).
The India-based variety of intellectual who
regularly air their views on Op-Ed pages and television channels give
convoluted analyses of Modi’s nomination procession. They have also raised to
high political theory the ridiculous tamashas of the Aam Aadmi
chieftain who has himself made political tomfoolery a high art. They
believe Congress lost a moment in history by not rolling out the next Gandhi
progeny to fight Modi electorally. Do intellectuals really not abhor
dynasties, the antithesis of democracy?
Some intellectuals are working
out various scenarios of how it would be with a dictatorial/fascist/disguised
Hindu fundamentalist Modi at the top. They don’t realize this is a living,
breathing, functioning democracy where the aspirational want him for a better
life than that offered to them till now. The very same people will remove him
if he does not perform. The gratuitous forecasts of intellectuals
are more to impress their peers than to be read by India’s voting millions who
bear the heat and swallow dust every day. Of course, all these are only
opinions based on the hyperventilating hearsay of the past decade and not
reasoned positions based on verified facts. For now let them be termed
“opinionists ". We Indians need not bow low
before them for that.
"Suspension of disbelief or willing
suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and
aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer
could infuse a `human interest and a semblance of truth’ into a fantastic tale,
the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspension_of_disbelief).
Posted on May 2, 2014