There is an intriguing contradiction in the way intellectual labor is articulated in contemporary times. On the one hand, we are told, we are living in the worst phase of Indian democracy that has trampled upon institutions, curtailed freedom, silenced dissent etc. implying a time of authoritarianism or even fascism as it is euphemistically called. On the other hand, there is a boom in the emergence of new dissenters and consolidation of old ones at a scale that defies the climate of authoritarianism. The simultaneous fear and mobilization of intellectuals responding to the time of intolerance is not unique to India, but may be a contemporary reality sweeping across the world. What explains this contradiction? Is it the reality of absence of freedom that creates intellectual consciousness or is it that the intellectual consciousness creates a reality in discourse that has no material foundation? Maybe it is a little of both. Social realities are not scientific truths that can be established in a laboratory and repeated over and over again, but are established in discourses, in writings and speeches as well as films, literature etc. That means, reality is as much a matter of interpretation and invention as it is material.
Politics of writing open letters
Returning to intellectuals of the liberal left, those who know their ways understand intellectuals’ obsession with writing open letters to effect social change. What is implied in the act of writing such letters is not so much the imperative of change as an escape from an oppressive present as it is the spectacle of intellectual performance, combined with the desire of controlling the narrative. The writing of such letters and their release to media are so stylized and iterative that it becomes its own justification. The very fact that such periodic burst of letter-writing are strategies to cement their role as filters through which social realities can be interpreted establishes the supposed indispensability of intellectuals as carriers of ideas. Ironically though, such desire is often reality-checked by the continuous urge of writing more such letters, meaning the letters they write have no impact.
Yet, the symbolic importance of such an act cannot be underestimated. In fact, it is not the carrying capacity of the letters to usher in any change, but their flimsy nature (and worse, the knowledge that they are irrelevant) which defines such letters. Just to give an example, civil society members such as TM Krishna, Romila Thapar, Naseruddin Shah (need we name them at all?) wrote a letter to PM Modi expressing concern over the FIR lodged against 49 intellectuals (that included Anurag Kashyap, Mani Ratnam, Aparna Sen, Ramachandra Guha) who had earlier written to the Prime Minister against the use of ‘Jai Shriram’ as a war cry. The problem was that it was not Modi, but one called Sudhir Ojha of Bihar who had invoked 124A of the IPC while registering the case and a Bihar court had agreed. The funny thing is that 124A had been invoked a number of times in the earlier UPA era as well. Even then liberal use of expressions like, fascism, emergency, authoritarianism or selective use of songs such as Niemoller ‘First they come for the socialists’ or Faiz’s ‘hum dekhenge’ etc. echo in our newspapers.
Open letters are political tools written not to address the problem but to create noise, the reason why they are mostly released to the public rather than being sent to the designated agencies. Instead of writing to the state Chief Minister or the Home Minister who control law and order, most intellectuals write such letters to the Prime Minister or the PMO or just release the letter to media. While expressing outrage over weaponization of Jai Shriram, the 49 intellectuals kept mum when anti-CAA protesters openly chanted allahu akbar. When the FIR was lodged against 49 intellectuals, 180 more intellectuals joined the fray and wrote another letter. Supporting the 49 intellectuals, they wrote, “This is why we share their letter here once again and appeal to the cultural, academic and legal communities to do the same. This is why more of us will speak every day. Against mob lynching. Against the silencing of people’s voices. Against the misuse of courts to harass citizens”. What is interesting to note is the contradiction of ‘silencing of people’s voices’ and ‘more of us will speak everyday’.
What the letters actually signify?
The supposed democratic order that the intellectuals harp on is a carefully orchestrated move that perpetuates the inequality between intellectuals and the people they speak for. The mask of equality is constantly threatened by the desire to maintain difference or intellectual superiority. When it comes to the freedom and right of intellectuals, it is supposedly more meaningful and important than the freedom of the subalterns. When thousands of poor and hapless get arrested every day by the police and many get killed by Naxals or die in ideological violence (more pronounced in Communist-ruled or secular states), intellectuals maintain a studied silence. Contrast this to the arrest of activists and academics such as Varavara Rao, Shoma Sen and others when the intellectuals announced doomsday scenarios. When recently Arupjyoti Saikia of IIT Guwahati was interrogated, compulsive dissenters numbering about 42 such as Ram Guha, Partha Chatterjee and Nivedita Menon wrote to the NIA urging it to treat Saikia with dignity and respect he deserves. Holy constitution! What happened to the principle of equality? Only intellectuals and academics deserve respect?
The desire for asymmetrical treatment though sits uneasily with their desire to speak for the subaltern, is not external to intellectual labour but is deeply embedded in it. It is during these moments of recognizing themselves as a distinct class, they perform as intellectuals. The question ‘what is an intellectual?’ is important due to these moments of intellectual consciousness when one of their own is under threat. But such expression is not always reactive; it could be proactive as well. By highlighting specific issues and not others, intellectuals create a climate of dystopia, partly owing to their diminishing relevance. In a way, the expression of outrage is less about the issue at hand and more about guarding the threshold of what counts as democracy and citizenship and what can go in their name. This partly explains why there is a simultaneous fear of loss of intellectualism and the simultaneous boom in intellectual production. Easy availability of media outlets creates conditions wherein one section of the civil society facing irrelevance (academics) joins hands with another section (media professionals) to create a web of dependency that in turn leads to the identification of intolerance.
We have heard, courtesy Marx, about alienation of the working class from the capitalist modes of production. It is a truism in Marxist circles that capitalism dehumanizes the proletariat and robs him of his labor. Along these lines, we can think of something like intellectual alienation wherein the production of intellectual ideas, instead of producing desired result, often leads to counter narratives, derision, mockery etc. Like the proletariat’s labor enriches the capitalist, intellectual labor (in the act of writing letters) consolidates the groups and people they are written against. In a strange way, that frustration gets articulated by more such meaningless letters. As the proletariat cannot imagine a world without exploitation, the intellectual too cannot imagine a world where he is not respected. In the contemporary time of social media and deepening democracy, subalterns have started asserting themselves as equals, something that has been derided by intellectuals as post-truth. The fact that intellectuals still believe they are the change means they don’t get it yet; they are still misrecognizing themselves as intellectuals. When Ram Guha asked ‘where is your Amartya Sen?’ he misrecognized himself as the sole heir of Sen and intellectualism as a good/service to be flaunted.
(This article has been written by Mr Jyotirmaya Tripathy, a Chennai based academic and cultural critic)