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.
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).
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.