I was in Paris for roughly nine months in 2018-19. The fellowship that had taken me there – to a rented flat in a West African neighborhood, in a building on the fragrantly named Rue des Poissonniers – was ending. My daughter was with me in the second half of May, visiting from London, where she too was coming to the end of something: her BA in comparative literature. She spent a lot of time in the Paris apartment finishing, belatedly, two final-year theses.

I poked my nose into them and learned that one of them was on the “organic intellectual.” I asked my daughter what it meant exactly, but she was evasive, because she thought I was quizzing her and also because she was busy. As I attempted to glean its meaning, I became aware of the vagueness of its provenance. It had been invented by Antonio Gramsci, but it’s not as if Gramsci had written a great deal about it. In fact, tracing it to the pertinent sections in the Prison Notebooks wasn’t easy. The term had been invoked and defined relatively briefly, and then taken on a life of its own.

This period was also when, in India, “revelations were at hand.” The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its satellites in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had returned for a second term in India. One term of the BJP had meant, we knew, a shift toward Hindu fantasy and kitsch utopianism: cow urine as medicine, astrology as science, the flying chariots in the Ramayana serving as evidence of the ancient Indian mastery of aerodynamics, and Ganesha’s elephant head as proof of our long-standing practice of plastic surgery.

This was accompanied by recurrent violence toward Muslims, mainly in North India; a recasting of dissent as “anti-national activity” and an entirely opportunistic use of the colonial law that had been invented to suppress sedition. What would the second term bring?

Modi government 2.0

On August 5, 2019, a law was passed abrogating Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Kashmir fell off the map. Its political leaders were jailed or put under house arrest, travel to and from the territory stopped, curfews were imposed, and phone and internet services were withdrawn. The swiftness with which the bill was passed and the measures that immediately followed were meant to hijack Kashmir and frighten the rest of India.

These developments – alongside the spectacle of Enforcement Directorate officials climbing over walls to get into the former finance minister’s house to fish him out and transfer him to jail, and the steady stream of academics and activists arrested for some version of abetment to insurgency – coalesced to create what it seemed the BJP wanted to be the dominant mood in its second term: fear.

On December 11, the Citizenship Amendment Bill – meant to grant refuge and, eventually, citizenship to those seeking asylum on grounds of religious persecution from neighboring countries, as long as they aren’t Muslim – was made an act by the parliament once the anguished speeches from the opposition had been heard.

The resulting Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was significant because of the resumption in Assam of a massive project to do with the identification and, of course, displacement of those who had been in India as illegal immigrants (that is, Muslims from Bangladesh) since 1951: the creation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

One might say that the CAA was the first full-blown crystallisation of xenophobic national policy in India. Xenophobia had received a fresh and significant lease on life from 9/11, after which hostility to Islam became normalized in the globalized mainstream. One of the means of normalising xenophobia in the last 20 years has been the post-9/11 reaffirmation, in the time of globalisation, of an entity called the “West,” where the “West” represents the history of democracy and free speech. These are taken to be synonymous with “Western values.”

This account is a betrayal of the way the right to be different and the right to dissent comprise human values that were shaped, and fought for, all over the world. The anti-CAA protests and their uniqueness – the fact that their agenda was humanity itself, and that so many who believed in humanity participated in the protests – remind us, among other things, of the limitation of “Western values” in containing xenophobia, and, in its exclusionary version of the idea of liberty, its complicity with the xenophobic.

Who is an intellectual?

The idea of the organic intellectual I was trying to piece together since the end of May 2019 was formed from stray quotations. The word “intellectual” has hardly any meaning anymore, because the noninstitutional contexts that intellectuals had located themselves in, and contributed to, are no longer respected or even comprehended. What we have today, instead, is the academic, whose intellectual oppositionality is shaped by professionalisation; that is, it has to adhere closely to prevalent disciplinary positions on politics. I would contrast the present-day “professionalised” with erstwhile intellectual positions that were not so much individualistic as eccentric or unassimilable.

Then there is the American term “public intellectual,” which comes with its own previously determined definition, wherein the “public intellectual” must make interventions that are comprehensible to the way the terms of the debate are set already.

Unsure about what “intellectual” meant anymore, I began to find out a bit about what Gramsci thought of the category. The clearest, most persuasive articulation occurs negatively: the “intellectual” is not to be confused with the “organic intellectual.” We learn, here, of Gramsci’s conception of what intellectuals are: a class of thinkers (comprising scholars, writers, and artists) that deems itself unaffiliated to class.

Intellectuals might write or debate on class, but they aren’t primarily defined by it: they are defined by their location in the intellectual tradition. The “organic intellectual,” on the other hand, is defined by class, by the economy, by profession (in a way quite different from academic professionalisation), and by their work.

Who can be an “organic intellectual”?

Toward the end of July, as the outlawing of triple talaq was being put in place under the newly elected NDA government, a tweet (from July 31, 2019) concerning Zomato, a food delivery service, gives us a sense of the general atmosphere in which these “reforms” were happening:

“Just cancelled an order on @ZomatoIN they allocated a non-Hindu rider for my food they said they can’t change rider and can’t refund on cancellation I said you can’t force me to take a delivery I don’t want don’t refund just cancel.”

The person from whom this stream-of-consciousness missive emanated identified himself as Amit Shukla of Jabalpur. This tweet was then retweeted by Zomato with the comment,

“Food doesn’t have a religion. It is a religion.”

For me, this wasn’t an observation that’s secular in either the European sense (religion is a private matter; it has no place in the national or public domain) or in that of the Indian Constitution (the nation-state is secular and nonreligious, and so home to a multiplicity of religions). Zomato’s tweet – its phrasing – is more akin to a form of poetic, mystical dissent that suggests that the nature of the sacred is never settled.

It is claiming anything could be sacred: “It is a religion.” For something or someone to “have” a religion is for them to follow a denomination; for something to “be” a religion is for it to, at a given point of time, possess the quality of sacredness. The poet Arun Kolatkar explored this line of thinking, which he traced to mystics like Chaitanya, when he visited a largely disused (at the time) pilgrimage town, Jejuri. What has been abandoned or damaged is made sacred in the eponymous poem-sequence from 1970 (Kolatkar 2005, 6, 22): “no more a place of worship this / is nothing less than the house of god” (“Heart of Ruin”).

The tweet may or may not have come from Zomato India’s cofounder Deepinder Goyel. But he tweeted separately: “We are proud of the idea of India – and the diversity of our esteemed customers and partners. We aren’t sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values.” This is less aphoristic than the Zomato tweet, but its rebuttal contains comparable paradoxes.

The “idea of India” – as a place, even a cliché, of immemorial diversity – takes on an oppositional resonance in the tweet, through what can only be called a political use of a marketing slogan. “India is diverse and multifarious” has been the basis of many marketing campaigns in tourism. Here, the statement, with its reassuring reference to “esteemed customers,” seems part of that larger marketing-nationalist language of diversity while it actually comprises a riposte.

There is a segue, in the plainer second sentence, from the upbeat multicultural slogans of free-market globalisation (expressed through coinages like the “global village”) into an incongruous, anti-marketing idealism: “We aren’t sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values.”

“Is it possible to classify this Zomato guy as an ‘organic intellectual?,” I asked my daughter.

This is an excerpt from an essay that first appeared in Social Research: An International Quarterly. It is part of the journal’s issue The Global Rise of Xenophobia, and is a revised version of a talk delivered semi-extempore from notes at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, on March 4, 2020, as the thirteenth Ahmad Ali Memorial Lecture.

Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, critic, poet, and musician. His eighth novel, Sojourn, is published in August/September. Finding the Raga, about his relationship to North Indian classical music, and Ramanujan, a book of poems, appeared in 2021. He is a professor of creative writing and director of the Centre for the Creative and the Critical, Ashoka University, and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.