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TO QUESTION OR NOT TO QUESTION: THAT IS THE QUESTION*


Romila Thapar


Deciding on a topic for this lecture has been problematic. As has been rightly said, Nikhil Chakravartty was a man of many parts. He was a warm and affectionate friend, he was curious about people, about politics and about the general ambience of the world we live in. There were some things we had in common—we both politely declined a Padma Award. Nikhil maintained that it would interfere with his autonomy as a journalist, and I felt it would do the same to me as an academic. His occasional snippets of political gossip were always worth waiting for. I was thinking the other day that in the current spate of writing memoirs, had he written his, the TV channels would have exploded.  Nikhil respected intellectual and academic opinion about public matters. He provided space to those who questioned the nature of the interdependence of society and politics. Today that space has shrunk and the intellectual parameters have narrowed. It seems that those in authority and those influencing public opinion have less respect for the public intellectual now than was so before. I would like to speak about whether or why this is so, a subject that I suspect would have interested Nikhil. It becomes pertinent where there is a concern with the kind of society we want and why we want it.  In the talk today I shall refer briefly to what I think is implied by the presence of public intellectuals. As a historian I cannot help but instinctively go back in time. So I’ll begin with mentioning a few persons from the European past associated with the kind of thinking that in modern times gave rise to the public intellectual. And then I’ll mention some from the Indian tradition who played a similar role. There is no connection between the two but I think they are parallel in many ways. And finally I shall suggest what could be the role of public intellectuals and why there should be a greater visibility of such persons in our society today. Public intellectuals frequently concern themselves with issues related to human rights and to the functioning of society such that it ensures the primacy of social justice. These issues cover an immense span. I shall choose a couple from among them, those that I think have priority. One is the question of what we regard as authority—whether ...


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