Opinion

Counterview: Why did the list of India’s top public intellectuals consist only of upper-caste men?

The gender and caste bias in Dhruva Jaishankar’s list published by Scroll.in is all too obvious.

I responded with laughter and a bit of outrage when I read a list of the five most influential public intellectuals in India prepared by Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow at Brookings India, and published by Scroll.in earlier this week. The list consisted of historian Ramachandra Guha; Ashoka University vice-chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta; former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan; columnist and now press secretary to the president of India Ashok Malik; and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, also a prolific author.

I have nothing against the five men but I laugh because the list proves my theory that upper-caste Indian men do not even realise that they are consciously and subconsciously always engaged in promoting other upper-caste Indian men. It is a syndrome I would describe as wannabe pundits admiring established pundits. It possibly happens in an ecosystem where people aspire for grants, positions, seminar invites and so on. It also happens because of the inability of upper-caste men to take women or subalterns seriously. Perhaps it is in their DNA and they just do not see what is beyond their nose or social circle.

My views will in all probability lead to social media abuse on the lines of “Muslim woman, keep out of caste” and so on. But in my defence, I have been telling my many Brahmin friends for years that they may have great ability and talent but they also come from the right caste, especially when it comes to the world of letters, academia and media. Frankly, it is shocking that Dalits and the middle castes find virtually no representation in the media. Some of the most progressive people who think they are radical fail to do any self-reflection over the fact that their professional and social circles are made up mostly of people from the same savarna background. This is particularly true of Indian Leftists, again mostly upper-caste men, who have historically denied the overwhelming importance of caste in India.

From left: Ashok Malik, Ramachandra Guha, Shashi Tharoor, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Raghuram Rajan.
From left: Ashok Malik, Ramachandra Guha, Shashi Tharoor, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Raghuram Rajan.

People within the system

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, American linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, and American professor and literary critic Edward Said count as some of the greatest public intellectuals of the past century, and all of them were anti-system, anti-status quo voices. On the other hand, the list published in Scroll.in celebrates people who operate within the system (and make no mistake, I admire many of them) but, at the core, do not challenge it in any significant way. Yes, they have political critiques but that is not the same as raising fundamental questions about the edifice (although Pratap Bhanu Mehta does do so in some excellent columns in The Indian Express).

Still, I have no issue with the individuals per se and dare say Ramachandra Guha would be a natural pick for any such list. Ashok Malik, a friend, is a very bright columnist but surely does not have the heft to qualify as a public intellectual, particularly as he is so open about giving political loyalty greater weightage than dispassionate analysis. If one had to include a Right-wing thinker because of the times we live in, it would have to be Arun Shourie because of the sheer volume of work he has produced over the years.

In all fairness to the author, he writes that this list comes from a question he posed to his Facebook friends. If I have understood correctly, then it is a reflection of his friends’ choices. It is also rather sexist. The author mentions women such as the academic Madhu Kishwar, environmentalist Sunita Narain (whose work has had policy impact), columnist Nilanjana Roy, journalist Snigdha Poonam, Yamini Aiyar of the Centre for Policy Research, and a female colleague from Brookings but then includes none of them in a list that is not a Facebook post but an article for publication. Most of these women (with the exception of Sunita Narain) do not deserve to be on the list anyway because they have had no impact on public debate, although some of them may be doing well in their careers.

Madhu Kishwar is actually a subject of contemplation, although she was last in the news for putting out a patently communal tweet that she had to apologise for. The name that does not occur to the author is that of Arundhati Roy, who is currently drawing huge audiences across the world, more than any man on the list would. Beyond being a novelist, Roy has written several political essays that have been translated into many languages, foreign and Indian. Agree with her or not, she is a genuine public intellectual in the tradition of those who question status quo. And she is an Indian voice that is heard across the world. But yes, she does not go to seminars or lit-fests, nor does she authorise grants (all legitimate activities, often done with great nobility of purpose, just as building a good career is).

Tamil writer Perumal Murugan.
Tamil writer Perumal Murugan.

Respect for hierarchy, order

The gender bias and caste bias in the list is all too obvious. There is also no acknowledgement of the rich intellectual traditions in the regions. Two quick examples: Tamil author Perumal Murugan is not remembered in spite of the cult status he has acquired after he temporarily gave up writing in the wake of his novel coming under attack from caste groups in 2014. Shashi Tharoor has written another bestseller this year called Why I Am a Hindu and is one of the chosen five, but the title of his book is surely inspired by Kancha Ilaiah’s 1996 classic Why I Am Not a Hindu.

I, therefore, detect a deep-rooted respect for hierarchy and order in the author’s choice of public intellectuals. A powerful intellect should actually kick up a storm, ask questions and certainly not be a government appointee. Why not include Carnatic singer TM Krishna who is as powerful a public intellectual as they come? He is challenging the established order in the world of music. And from my profession, no one is a better public speaker than P Sainath, whose university talks draw packed crowds. He has done pioneering work on famine and hunger and would know more than all the individuals on the list about the agrarian crisis now staring us in the face. It is extraordinary to my mind that the author can mention the possibility of a competent journalist like Prashant Jha someday making it to the list but remain oblivious to the existence of Sainath.

The list may have passed muster if it were simply put out by Dhruva Jaishankar with the title “my favourite English language columnists” (with the exception of Raghuram Rajan). Or it could have remained a Facebook post with lots of comments from friends.

Saba Naqvi is a Delhi-based author and journalist.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.