Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Questioing power is democracy's way to hold power accountable to public interest

As Public Intellectual’s Space and Freedom Shrink, Galileo’s Fate Haunts Again

The idea of the public intellectual, or that of the missing public intellectual, is now beginning to engage Manipur’s public sphere. Better late than never, as they say. From all walks of life, the best and most committed minds now need to step out of their individual boxes and protected comfort zones to thrash out Manipur problems honestly, with the greater public good in mind. This is not about any superfluous belief that any single man or woman has the silver bullet to kill the demon and unravel the complex and complicated social problems the state is mired in, but of entrusting enlightened minds the onerous responsibility of setting the agendas for public discourses.

What qualifies someone to be a public intellectual? These are minds enriched by incessant and persistent tapping of accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the past stored in books, and through continued debates and discourses amongst themselves in the quest for answers to the never ending and ever transforming questions that life throws up generations after generations. Yes indeed, many of life problems and challenges are moving targets, and therefore answers to them cannot also have any single infallibly permanent answer. This is true of even the understanding of a nation and nothing could have captured this spirit more succinctly than in Earnest Renan 1882 essay “What is a Nation?” in which he famously said “A nation is a daily plebiscite”.

A democracy answers this question to a good extent by the requirement of those given the rein of power to seek fresh mandate of the people periodically, however even this may not be the permanent answer, and what may be called for as generations turn, may be for all to be ready to reimagine the nationhood itself, in the spirit of what another scholar, Benedict Anderson concludes – the nation is an “imagined community”. To take a simple analogy, a newly married building a family with two children, would have an idea of an ideal family and strive to keep by its standards. However, as their children grow and start seeking their autonomous spaces, the need would be for a reimagination of the ideal family, factoring into it the transformations that time has brought thus far. Unwillingness to do this will certainly be a recipe for discords and even disasters. Change, as they say is the only constant in life, and a willingness to accept and adjust to these changes is the only way to deal with this onerous challenge.

The most important role of the public intellectual is hence to take part in this quest and strive to build a critical atmosphere capable of evoking crucial public discourses and debates in the quest to questions about the changing times. Only when such a critical atmosphere comes alive, and the fire of creative social thinking gets lit, the heat will begin to generate light capable of illuminating the ways out of even the most vexed problems.

So many have said this before, that the most creative works were all products of critical engagements with the times they belonged to, and the close public scrutiny of their work they were exposed to. This is true of subjects in both science and humanities domains. As evidence we can look back at the European Renaissance, a period that threw up great scientific discoveries and innovations leading the way to the First Industrial Revolution. This in turn fomented a period of great social churnings and changes characterised as “The best of times and the worst of times” by Charles Dickens in “A Tale of Two Cities” – a story of a very trying time in European history about by another consequence of this great churning – the French Revolution.

Coleridge and Eliot said this of creative literature too. Isaiah Berlin echoed this with regards to philosophy, and indeed, psychoanalyst Jung, who was a great influence on Eliot too talked of the esoteric idea of the Archetypal, which in a way is saying individual creativity is not a phenomenon in a vacuum, and is the product of the creative and critical atmosphere prevalent at the time, besides also being an inheritance from generations in the past who possessed this creative energy.

Indeed, for creativity and innovations to flourish in the fields of the arts and sciences, what must be encouraged in our society too are public forums for these intellectual discourses and an appreciation by the public at large of such a culture of intellectual discourses and quests. It is often said that one of the major reasons the intellectual churning was the heftiest in France in the mid-20th Century, throwing up some of the tallest intellectual giants, is the fact that thinkers commanded unprecedented public awe at the time. Intellectuals of proven mettle, having created ground-breaking works in their fields, such as Camus, Foucault, Sartre etc, were veritable super stars in their times, respected and revered by the public and officials alike.

One other important condition for such a revolution of course is the guarantee of freedom of thought and speech. Everybody must be free to speak their minds in this collective search for truth, and more importantly, to speak truth to power, a phrase which is gaining cliché status today, given the trend that this freedom is increasingly beginning to be curtailed. Truth is not easy to pin down therefore deciding what is the truth has never been without problems as it is, but the quest for it must never cease. Speaking truth to power is hence a metaphor to indicate the need to challenge the tendency of power to presume only power can decide what truth is.

The extent of the guarantee of freedom of speech and thought therefore can be treated as directly proportional to the status of democracy. We also know at the opposite end of democracy is autocracy, where the executive power is the sole centre of statecraft. That the difficulty of speaking truth to power in autocracies can be hazardous was demonstrated as early as the time of Galileo in 16th Century Italy. The renowned multi-talented scientist, through observation, established and endorsed Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric universe (sun at the centre), which went against the then all-powerful Church’s view that the universe God created is geocentric (earth at the centre). On threat of the death penalty, Galileo reversed his statement to adopt the Church’s view, although he never believed it till his last days.

Public intellectuals reclaiming the space for public discourse now is all the more important because from all indications the democratic space for dissent and discourse seems to be shrinking again. Not too long ago, a well-known TV journalist was imprisoned for going public on what he thought of the current power dispensation on a social media forum. More recently, the Rights to Information, RTI, Act has been amended, to make the posts of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners, non-term posts, so that they will be in office as long as they enjoyed the pleasure of the government. This would amount to clipping the wings of this important autonomous institution, meant to be a foil of the corridors of power.

Now, except for the bravest, none dare do anything that may displease the government. Likewise, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, UAPA, has seen amendment to give the executive the power to declare not just organisations but also individuals, as terrorists without any formal procedure, or scrutiny by a court of law. Anybody who speaks against the powers that be, or are critical of the establishment, can now face the terrifying music of this amended act.

There can be no two ways about it that at the moment, speaking truth to power in India can amount to risking Galileo’s fate all over again. But this precisely is the challenge before public intellectuals today and need is for them to come out of their closets and face it squarely. Only this can unshackle the society’s inherent creativity again in every field.

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