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Dr. Pallavi Deka
Date of Publish: 2016-07-14

Political Controversy over Intellectual Activism


Recent times in Assam have seen a trend of anti intellectualism; a trend that has been termed as a hostility towards and mistrust of intellect and intellectuals. In doing so, the anti intellects perceive themselves as the champions of common folks- i.e. populism against political and academic elitism. However, in most cases intellectuals are well known, well received and above all they are respected. They are well known because they are popular and popularized. Their popularity soars because these are constructed and packaged as well as advertised in such a way that is acceptable to most sections. Then the need arise for analysis of the present state of exasperation and disrespect for them in India in general and Assam in particular.

The analysis of such distinct trend needs an understanding of the category of intellectuals and the theorization around it. The acceptability of the views of intellectuals depends on neutrality or a balanced view. Therefore the general notion is that such views of knowledgeable person which is impartial will guide the society for better. This is the known and defined ‘should be’ characteristic of any intellectuals. If at any point of history somebody discards the defined should be characteristics of an academician , then one need to defend her/his stand by redefining the nomenclature itself as well as explaining the reasons for questioning the prevailing or acceptable mode of functioning. Hence the requirement of activist intellectual is the current debated topic.

Now the question is who exactly are these people? The term politically neutral or neutral for that matter is seen by most as respectable position. Academics for a long time have acclaimed a position of value neutrality. However such a view has been criticized by many because no individual and no society can remain neutral in real sense; having knowledge of all sides neutrally is different from taking position and expressing positively about the better side. And that holds the basis of difference between an armchair intellectual and an activist intellectual.  

The difference between the two can also be cleared from the very famous slogan study and struggle, meant for the students who are also activists. While the armchair intellectuals maintain the boundary of study and teach, the activist intellectuals further their role to study, teach and struggle. Meaning that they opt for roles in making a better society by knowing facts and truth and taking positions for the side which is factually, ethically and historically correct. Therefore activist intellects not only bring out truths and give them to society to choose the right direction, but having known the truth they themselves choose the right side as well as express them.

If we string along Antonio Gramsci, who has enormously written on the question whether intellectual are autonomous and independent social group or does every social group have its own particular specialized category of intellectuals, then we need to divulge upon the terminology called organic intellectuals as against the traditional intellectuals. While the traditional intellectuals are oldest form who was ecclesiastic and organically bounded to landed aristocracy, the organic intellectual category evolved to challenge the monopoly of the former when new socio-economic dominant class evolved. Such opposition to monopoly of old class of intellectuals created many ‘hobbles de robe’ category who put themselves as autonomous and independent of dominant social groups. However Gramsci calls this syndrome as social utopia. Because according to him every new class creates a set of new intellectuals alongside itself, so autonomy of intellectuals is far from reality. For him, intellectuals are dominant groups exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony. The two main functions they perform are to create spontaneous consent which the dominant groups enjoy and act as apparatus of State coercive power which ‘legally explores discipline’.

The whole debate that is presently going on in Assam regarding the public position of more than three dozens of public intellectuals against BJP has a need to be analyzed in context of the above cited theoretical intervention. The ongoing debate in Assam is not isolated event because dissenting voices are being raised in whole country by people who are creams of this society in various fields against the rising intolerance during present times because of particular form of belief of RSS family. The most interesting part of this dissenting category of intellectuals is that they cater to different ideologies, from Marxist, socialist to liberals and nationalists.

Actually activism on the basis of hard data, facts, evidence, research and reason has remained the basis of intellectuals’ mode of functioning throughout ages. Starting from Galileo and Socrates, who had put reasonable questions and came under the rage of supports of status quo to Noam Chomsky who openly performed public debates against US government policies in Middle East on many occasions and Shahbagh movement in Bangladesh. In Indian context too public intellectuals have always taken public positions (for or against) on different issues (remember their dissenting voices against the Partition, Pokhran blast, Sikh riot, BabriKand, our very own Assam Movement, in Nandigram-Singur and not forget intellectuals as activists in movement against big dam, nuclear plant, environment protection etc.). In most of these events, the intellectuals not only provided grounded data on them, but also took public positions.

So how the appeal of 43 in Assam was is different from what they are meant to do or that they have been doing throughout ages? If the 43 learned men and women of Assam have enough evidence against imminent danger of spreading communal hatred and fascism by that particular party in the garb of poriborton and vikas, there can be no reason for denying or criticizing against that. There can be and should be many who may and have already expressed their opinion about no existence of such danger. At least in national scenario the intellectuals on both sides are present visibly. However the case of Assam in different from national scenario and that is why attack on these academicians is more.

The reason that can be cited for now is that the party in power at the centre does not have a Baeumler, Rosenberg or Heidegger. And in Assam their organization is so weak that they are nonexistent in academic circle or those new faces are far from the image of public intellectuals. So the option remain is to harshly and forcibly stop the opposition voice by using State power. Unless the State ruling class creates a strong organic intellectuals who can create public opinion in their favour, such anti intellectualism will persist.

However the argument that the freedom of expression of the academicians and intellectual as against the democratic rights of the masses should be restricted holds some ground. This is because the appeal that came from those 43 renowned persons directly talked about whom not to vote; instead the most acceptable appeal would have been to be aware of the problems of BJP and to reject all communal forces. This, though, does not mean that the hullabaloo would have died down even after such precautions; exactly because of the intellectual vacuum of the ruling party in the country today.     


Dr. Pallavi Deka

( Dr. Pallavi Deka is an Assistant Professor at JN College, Boko. She can be reached at 81349-60037. Views expressed in this article are author's own )



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