Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Intellectual Style and Public Sphere: Testimonies of a Socio-Political Decadence

The recent controversy over the observation made by a well-known activist and public intellectual in Manipur on the reasons for women going in for caesarean section is not merely a question of gender. At its core, it is profoundly about the nature of public sphere and intellectual style in that state.

For the uninitiated, Dr. Dhanabir Laishram, a well-known public figure in that state, speaking in a public function, cited the desire to be a “leishabi” (“un-married women”) amongst some women as a reason for their preference to go for C-section rather than vaginal birth. Elaborating his observation, Dr. Laishram, went on to say that since the child was born by cutting the abdomen, (the woman) remains “unmarried” (“lelladi leishabi adum oidana, angangdu puktagi pok-aa-banina”)!

This rather bizarre explanation elicited outcry and condemnation in social media as well as in the press. A “joint press statement issued by women from different background(s)” charged Dr. Laishram of insulting women by insinuating that they prefer to go for C-section rather than vaginal delivery so that “their vaginas remain(ed) intact”.

Although in the ensuing controversy, the issue has been largely reduced to that of gender, the fact remains that it is also about commercialization of healthcare and unethical practices amongst some medical practitioners, something that Dr. Laishram had also cited as a reason for what he felt as an increase in the rate of C-sections in the state. Most importantly, it is about the kind of intellectual life that inhabits the public sphere in the state.

Many have accused him of indulging in loose talks (“panghai-haijinbi”, “pangang-ngangbi”), and speaking without proper “research and data” or “homework” etc. However, some of those who accused him of such indulgence have missed two crucial aspects of the whole controversy. First, Dr. Laishram is a popular public speaker. Not only his writes a regular column in the largest selling newspaper in the state but he is also presumably a much sought after speaker in public meetings/functions. Lest we forget, he has been one of the key public figures who have been involved in various public issues, shaping and leading people’s movements, including the one that has occupied the public for the last two decades: the “territorial integrity” of the state. Thus, the question is, what makes him such a popular and much sought after speaker? Part of the answer, atleast, has to be the nature of “intellectual style” that he adopts.

Second aspect relates to the nature of public sphere, a domain wherein issues of public importance are articulated, debated and formed, in the state. This is a site which has been more or less abandoned, as an editorial of a respected newspaper in the state once noted, by “our intellectual classes whose profession is precisely to think and expand the horizon of thoughts in the society, [and] is being filled in at best by untrained thinkers…and at the worst by anybody who self-ordains himself or herself as an intellectual, worthy of commentary on any social issue under the sun.” This has created a scenario wherein, as the newspaper noted on more than one occasion with a palpable sense of exasperation by quoting W.B. Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

There’s no gainsaying that this nature of public sphere has been the other side of the chaotic lawlessness and decadence that have marked the state for a long time. This being the case, we ought to take a serious look into these aspects of public life in the state.

Manipuri Intellectual Style: A Fatal Cocktail of Old and New Traditions

“Let me tell you a story”. That’s a likely opening remark by someone trying to answer or explain something in countries like India or China, says Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist and psychologist. What it means is that “storying” or “story telling” is a mode of knowing or making sense of reality in some cultures. It is a part of, in Johan Galtung’s expression, an “intellectual style”.

Different cultures seem to have different “intellectual styles”. According to Galtung, Norwegian sociologist and principal founder of peace and conflict studies who has given the concept of “structural violence”, such styles consist of features ranging from the parameters of discussing the truthfulness of a given proposition to how to conduct oneself in intellectual exchanges.

For instance, in what he calls Saxonic Intellectual style (UK/US), the emphasis is likely to be on documentation, operationalization, data collection and analysis, description and hypo-deductive thinking. In this style, while dealing with proposition or formulation, the likely question will be how do we operationalize or document. And the intellectual engagement or exchange often takes the form of what can be called democratic dialogue or interaction.

In contrast to this Saxonic style, in what he terms as Nipponic Intellectual Style, “who is your master” tends to guide the deliberation. Based on masters, classification of schools tend to preempt debates. Usually, there is also a tendency not to harm established social relations and correspondingly deliberation is often marked by no direct focus on weak argumentation.

In a sense, there are perceptible features of Galtung’s Nipponic style in Manipuri intellectual style too. “Social relation” and its hierarchical ethos emanating from an unholy marriage between its feudal past and colonial experience, seem to dictate the intellectual style. One salient indicator is the “enactment of modesty” that accompanies intellectual deliberation.

Anybody who has observed the intellectual deliberations in the state, even in formal seminars in academic institutions, would get to hear honorific phrases and those which express “modesty” punctuating the intellectual deliberations. Thusly, when one puts across views or interjects questions, it is usually accompanied by phrases like “eeakai-khumnajaraba matik charaba” (deserving of the honour or honourable), “mayia tangbal-da lengsinbiriba” (“those who are on the dais”), “karisu khangjadraba eina” (“I, who know nothing”), “thamja-ge” (allow me to put/place) etc.

Adherence to such formal forms often mediates the “content” of the intellectual arguments. In other words, there is an intimate connection between the form and the content in this Manipuri intellectual style. Thus, if one were to put across the point of view based on one’s intellectual conviction without (or least or minimal adherence) to such formal forms, one is likely to lose the content and argument that rest on it. In fact, the evaluation or judgment will shift from the intellectual content and structure of the argument to the person (e.g., the person is likely to be judged as “arrogant” or “egoist” etc).

In terms of the substance of the intellectual style, it is predominantly marked by “rhetorical”, “anecdotal”, “common sensical” elements which are usually presented in a narrativized mode.

Such an intellectual style is understandably different from those coming from the west. In these intellectual styles, intellectual arguments are made using conceptual (cognitive) categories which are mutually exclusive, often invoking and reified through corresponding empirical “facts”, and woven through “either or” reasoning. The assumption behind the force of the argument is the individual as a rational being who is capable of engaging in rational thinking, and “reflexivity”, and carrying out her/his intellectual engagement under some kind of “paradigm”.

Most of the people who inhabit the public sphere in Manipur are those who are trained under these intellectual styles from the west. But their lived world is not rooted in those ethos. It is this clash or contradiction that has often been played out in public deliberations in the state.

However, with the expansion of “education” under the intellectual styles from the west, and due to their hegemonic nature, a sense that these intellectual traditions are “superior” to the local intellectual traditions or styles has gradually been instilled amongst the people. Refrains of “scientific” knowledge or “research” and “data” etc are expressions of that attitude. One sees this sense of intellectual crafts from the west being “superior” in many of the “contentious” controversies in the state (e.g., emphasis on “history” over “memory” in the “Khongjom Lan” controversy).

Notwithstanding this sense, the traditional ethos, as an aspect of the lived world, continues to have a hold over the overall intellectual style in the state. Perhaps, as Ashis Nandy puts it, the western sensibility is only “skin deep” in this part of the world.

It is within such a dynamics that one can locate Dr. Dhanabir Laishram’s intellectual style. He is a holder of a doctor of philosophy in political science. That gives him the legitimacy of that modern education. However, his style is largely informed by the traditional ethos. Thus, marked by “rhetoric”, “anecdotal”, “common sensical” and sprinkled with or couched in traces of modern (social) “scientific” categories and theories backed up by selective “data”- albeit, one suspects, often decontextualized from their conceptual or theoretical frames, he is able to communicate efficiently, and to some extent effectively as well, with his audience.

However, the latest controversy is one moment wherein one gets to see the limit of that intellectual style, which is, if one may, a fatal cocktail of the old and the new intellectual ethos, which Dr. Laishram epitomizes as a practitioner. This exposure of the limitation is occasioned by the emergence of a new class of people, especially younger generation, who are not only exposed to but also have begun to inhabit in the cultural ethos of the western intellectual styles.

Public Sphere: Vacuum and Anti-intellectualism

Indeed, there are unmistakable signs that the new class of people who are acquainted with the western intellectual styles have gradually come to make their presence felt in our public life. However, they are yet to be the “mainstream” of our public sphere. As noted earlier, the intellectual class, of which professional academics who have devoted their life and time in thinking about, researching and articulating issues constitute a crucial – but by no means the only – component, have more or less abandoned the public sphere.

Indeed, in other parts of the world, even within this country, there is a significant role played by these professional academics as “public intellectuals”. Notwithstanding the increasingly insulated and specialized nature of academia, many of them take part in articulating, shaping the debates and forming public opinions on a range of issues of public importance. In fact, a quick glance at the editorials and op-page articles in leading newspapers in this country shows that anything between 20 to 40 percent of those write-ups are contributed by them. Rest of the writings are done by journalists as columnists who are also trained in academic disciplines, and in terms of their intellectual rigour, some of them are no less than, if not far superior to, many of those who teach in academic institutions. Besides, social activists and other professionals such as doctors, scientists, lawyers and jurists, industrialists, artists and sportsters also form crucial part of these public discourses.

Besides, there is a critical mass in the larger society who form what Sheldon Pollock calls the “socio-textual community”, who read these articles. Presumably, the same is not true in states like Manipur. Those in academic institutions or for that matter all other forms of the intelligentsia, are equated to this “socio-textual community” but probably in our case we do not have this requisite critical mass. It is an intellectual vacuum which has been filled in by others, creating the spectre of intellectual bankruptcy that stands as a testimony to the socio-political decadence that the state has been going through for decades.

Complicating this unenviable situation are two crucial factors. First, the ethos of “who is the master” and “classification of (intellectual) schools” of the Nipponic Intellectual Style have gone through a mutation in Manipur as “whose group” (one belongs to). In a fractured polity and society marked by inter-community estrangement and plethora of lups (associations) and frontal organizations, intellectual enterprise has been scattered and divided. Even some of the younger generation of scholars seem to groom their own followers and sycophants rather than seeking out truths and forging voices, to serve their own self-interest. Thus, silencing and/or sidelining voices as her or his or this or this group seem to rule the roosts.

Second, with the emergence of new media — social media and “Whatsapp University”, overflow of information has given rise to manipulation of facts and intellectual engagement has become more of “perception management”. Personal diatribe, calumny and canards, and deflection strategy to subvert voices and people have increasingly become normalized. Indeed, such low level discourses are often marked by a lots of, to invoke Princeton University professor of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, “bullshits”!

And historically battered by an oppressive and humiliating condition, and trained under an education system that encourages rote learning aggravates their “skin deep” acquisition of western intellectual styles. Consequently, driven by such psyche, many have been both victims and victimizers of the intellectual and political bankruptcy in the state.

Consequently, it seems that those academics who move beyond classrooms and professional journals to write and speak up (or “speak truth to power”) on issues of public importance in public platforms become rare species. And worst, the fact that they stick their necks out to do what they do as citizens – refusing to remain silent and/or content with simply earning livelihood like “animal laborans” –  seems to come as moral irritants to many who suffer from a sense of intellectual and political impotency or helplessness under an oppressive, decadent and chaotic environment.

And perhaps having used to a pervasive display of the need for self-preservation under decades of protracted conflict, many seem to find it difficult to believe that some could be driven by a deeply felt outlook towards collective life rather than narrow self-interest. Thus, cynicism runs deep and anybody who makes an effort for collective well-being are seen with suspicion. One peculiar expression of this psyche is anti-intellectual postures and rhetoric against any academics who move beyond their professional domain and come in public sphere.

Thus, those who have reacted to Dr. Dhanabir Laishram and accused him of indulging in “loose talks” (“panghai-haijinbi”) also simultaneously talk derisively of “academics”, “intellectuals” etc. In fact, one of the women even dismisses those in premier institutes in the state like Manipur University and D.M. University as those who “exist” in “vacuum”!

However, it must be reiterated that a defunct or sterile intellectual class or de-legitimizing or dismissing intellectual contribution and leadership is a sure recipe for disaster for the whole society and the state. Sooner we learn this, better it will be our chance of self-resurgence, towards a life with dignity and well-being, a resurgent Manipur!

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