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Public Intellectual: An Endangered Species


By Romila Thapar
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi  in association with The Book Review Literary Trust, 2015, pp. 170, Rs. 499.00


In his obituary to Benedict Anderson, historian Ramchandra Guha recollects a letter from him in which he asked, ‘How many public intellectuals are there in India? In Southeast Asia they are dying, replaced by professors and bureaucrats to whom not many ordinary people pay any attention... I guess your Gandhi was a public intellectual, but probably Nehru not???????’ The worry about the disappearance of the institution of public intellectual is widespread. Romila Thapar expressed her own anxiety about the decreasing tribe of public intellectuals in the annual Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture in 2014 titled To Question or Not to Question: That is The Question. Later, five brilliant minds from the fields of Philosophy, Science, Political Science, History and Media got together to respond to the concern raised by Thapar in her lecture. This discussion developed into a book titled The Public Intellectual in India which contains an introduction and an afterword by Romila Thapar apart from her original lecture and the responses by Sundar Surrukkai, Dhruv Raina, Peter DeSouza, Neeladri Bhattacharya and Jawed Naqvi respectively. The advent of the Bhartiya Janata Party, the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh after its victory in the general elections of 2014 formed the background of the lecture. The BJP is the Indian equivalent of the far Right National Front of France. While the rise of popularity of the National Front is seen as a threat to the French way of life and leads, rather forces, political parties from the Left, Centre and Right to sink their differences to keep The Front away from power, in India the BJP is seen as another normal political party, with which parties of different hues have not shied away from collaborating from time to time. Romila Thapar feels that in this rise of the extreme Right one can see a definite shift to ‘the questions of religious identity and assertions of those that form the majority community, deepening the demarcation between communities and weakening social justice and the institutions that sustain the society.’ She talks about a time when our concerns were with establishing democratic functioning and respect with citizenship, ensuring human rights and social justice, and protecting the underprivileged and those on and below poverty line. One can say that the shift is not as clear as is being suggested here and the time of the rise of the politics of religious nationalism is also the ...

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