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Changing Times for Intellectuals and Activists in India

Peoples Voice on October 16, 2017 - 10:11 am in Society
Pushkar Raj
Melbourne based human rights researcher and writer

Intellectuals and activists are the conscience of a society but they face a crisis of survival in the country today as Gauri Lankesh’s killing last month demonstrates. Gauri is the fourth intellectual activist who was silenced through a murder.

Earlier, Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist activist, was killed in August 2013 for his activism against superstitions such as black magic and child sacrifice followed by Govind Pansare, a left-wing politician, writer of  Shivaji Kon Hota, in 2015 for revealing secular side of Maratha icon Shivaji.  Kannada scholar M M Kalburgi was also killed in the same year for hurting Hindu sentiments signalling a message of strangulation for those who live by thinking, writing and speaking.

The people close to the ideology of Hindutva are suspected to be behind these killings as the intellectuals are considered a threat by them. Kalburgi and Gauri had more than a dozen cases filed against them in different courts by various radical Hindu groups. After the death of Gauri, a  BJP member of the Karnataka state legislature suggested that if she had not criticized Sangh Parivar, she would still be alive.

Ideologies create a fixated worldview

Ideologies, by definition and practice restrict thought within bounds- be it of time or space- therefore, at times,  tending to be highly irrational and destructive for example, communalism, fascism, Maoism and nationalism, to name a few. Hindutva too falls in the same category and its adherents have a flat

Worldview rooted in myths and Manusmriti,  an ancient text similar to other religions’ treatises.

A writer, however, goes beyond ideologies, travelling with time, seeking truth, challenging, explaining and expressing social reality through what he lives by – writing and speaking. In the words of famous Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, the writer creates “new values” for a society.

However the status quo forces such as Hindutva do not appreciate this role of the writer, so when Kancha Illiah argues that Hindutva promotes social smuggling or Kalburgi, reveals a disconnect between Lingayatism and Hinduism, the followers of Hindutva resort to intimidating, harassing and finally purging the intellectual.

Constitution under threat

Jawaharlal Nehru wrote The Discovery of India in the 1940s, underlining a set of new values on which later the Indian constitution was based becoming a shared and supreme ideology of all the citizens of the new republic.

Barring the Emergency (1975-77) writers wrote, as Jean-Paul Sartre held, “to exist and express their freedom.” They enjoyed freedom of conscience and fulfilled, to repeat Sartre again, their “moral and ethical responsibilities of observing the social political moments, and to freely speak to their society.”

However, the writers are in a peculiar bind today.  On one hand, society is so radicalized that as a social class they are perceived as a threat, and on the other, the constitution of the country is unable to protect them because those guiding its implementation do not fully believe in it. Addressing its lawyers’ wing last week, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat stressed that the constitution should be changed according to the ethos of the country.

Thinking of the state of intellectuals in India today, one is reminded of Turkey about a decade ago in 2006, when noble laureate, Orhan Pamuk was charged, with “insulting Turkishness” for referring to the Armenian genocide of 1915-17, which the nationalist government denies. It was the beginning of AKP’s rise under Recep Tayyip Erdogan gradually leading to total crackdown on dissent. Today hundreds of writers, journalists and activists, including country director and chairman of board of Amnesty International, Idil Eser and Taner Kilic are in jail. With  5.1 percent average ‘development’, Erdogan regime is holding nearly total control over media and Internet and in the words of Pamuk, the writer of Istanbul, “so many crazy, unacceptable things are happening”. The ruling party though maintains that Turkey is a secular parliamentary democracy as envisioned by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (father of Turks).

Thinking of a decade ahead, one is inclined to ask, will India become like present-day Turkey? It is a cynical but relevant question.


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