Intellectual Troubles

intellectualsIntellectuals form the backbone of any forward looking nation. In India intellectuals have been playing all sorts of roles. In the recent times, the quality of intellectuals are in steady decline. One of the prominent reasons for the sliding quality of intellectuals is that of their active consumeristic culture and mad political pursuits. Despite the prohibition of government employees in the political activities, some of the academics are openly challenging the rule of the nation. They not only engage themselves in active politics but also influence their students and staff to tow their line of political thought. It is a well known fact that the educational institutions becoming political dens will be risky for both social as well as cultural destruction.

Prof.Dipankar Gupta writes in The Times of India on 26 April 2014

When Father Mascarenhas, principal of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s college, publicly chastised BJP and favoured Congress, he put his institutional status in jeopardy. Nobody says he is not brainy, but brainy people come in two sizes, small and large. The small ones are the ideologues who live off politics and long for the centre stage. The large sized ones are the intellectuals who engage with society, but choose to stay at the margins.

This truth was clear even as far back as the 19th century when the modern world was just about opening up. In 1837, American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson visualised an ideal “American Scholar” as a “Man Thinking” and not just “a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking”. This is why, by doing what he did, Father Mascarenhas ceded territory to small people wearing tight clothes, doing lasting harm to his status and to the institution to which he belongs.

A university professor may be actively involved in politics, engage with events of the day, but should never join a party or canvass for one. This isn’t as easy as it sounds for it is very tempting to get that quick gratification from being a spitfire ideologue. Why, people even begin to acclaim such individuals as being socially committed and rooted. The best intellectuals, however, know this is one apple they should never bite.

The actual separation between intellectuals and ideologues happens on the ground rather spontaneously. A natural weeding out process takes place because politicians instinctively distinguish between somebody who will be their tub-thumper and a person who will not, despite all inducements. It is hard for an ideologue to turn intellectual, but rather easy for an intellectual to slide down the slippery slope. And every time an intellectual slithers and becomes an ideologue, a certain party rejoices. Re-entering low life is now clearly at a premium.

Intellectuals not only offend the powers of the day with what they say, but also because they refuse political shelter and patronage. It is perhaps the latter that upsets the establishment the most, which is why they get hammered left and right. It is then a test of an intellectual’s stamina to hold steadfast to the calling and excel in a chosen field. Such a person might also opt to spend additional time in communicating a difficult subject to a larger audience.

Louis Pasteur was one of the earliest laboratory scientists to reach out to the world with his finding on how bacteria caused disease. Just as well he went public; look how we have all prospered on account of that. Jagdish Chandra Bose and Mihir Saha, for quick ready reference, did that in India and helped spread the temper of science in the country.

Jagdish Bose even had Tagore and Sister Nivedita rooting for him. Even so, the two were considered subversives of sorts by the colonial government, as has been the fate of many scientists. Saha, in fact, had the British authorities all riled up because of his support to nationalists of his day.

Intellectuals happily take sides in the open sun only when their very existence faces death on the vine. Democracy is oxygen for them and when that is sucked up and vacuumed out, they have no choice but to protest.

It is not surprising then that some of the brightest minds in modern times, from Einstein and Russell, to Bose and Saha, to Chomsky and Said, have staked their reputation to uphold democracy. Edward Said’s political persona was, perhaps, the most prominent of them all; he passionately supported the cause of the Palestinians, but refused to join the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). As he once said about himself: “Partisan, yes, but a joiner and member, no!”

Why do intellectuals behave so strangely? Actually, it is not intellectuals alone, but members of a few select professions who act in the same way as well. One would hardly expect an army chief to be a party propagandist; nor, for that matter, a priest, a policeman; or a judge.

This is simply because, at the very core, these professions are more pastoral than self oriented. The well-being of the institutions they serve is more important to them than their personal health. This goes against the laws of the market where the “survival of the fittest” determines individual rewards.

Hardly a brain teaser then why members of these professions never end up with fat salaries. Is there a sum you can actually calculate to justly reward a person who is ready to die to protect the lives of others? How much money can you give somebody for saving your soul? An intellectual, likewise, adds to knowledge that lives through generations; can one give this service a market price?

Don’t even think of it; you can never pay such people the money they deserve. Nor can such professionals be persuaded by money’s cousin, political power. Party affiliations make the mind inflexible and reluctant to accept contrary facts. Even so, there are still some true soldiers, priests and, yes, intellectuals in our times.

They have all made their mark by surviving against the fittest.