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Monday, November 12, 2007

Artful circumlocution

Home > Edits & Columns > On their Marx, ready to bow Pratap Bhanu Mehta Indian Express: Tuesday, March 27 Left intellectuals’ statement on Nandigram shows why Left intellectualism is so damaging
Even in a political culture used to its most privileged classes, professionals, officials, captains of industry acting servile in the presence of power, the self-abasement of so many intellectuals in the service of power still comes as something of a shock. At one level, absurd to suppose that the sole task of intellectuals lies in opposing power or restricting authority, wherever these may touch them. Denying the moderate claims of duly constituted authorities and politicians can itself be a symptom of fanaticism. During NDA rule, scientists and intellectuals lined up to put their seal of approval on many hare-brained schemes. But little did we imagine that Indian intellectual servility to power would reach a new low. A recent example is a statement issued by a group of prominent Left intellectuals that once again confirms that their loyalty is to power and party, not morality and argument.
The Left is gifted with some of the finest minds. But too often their ingenuity is used for artful circumlocution. The recent statement on the violence in Nandigram is a perfect example of that. The statement begins with a tone of sincerity that only Left intellectuals can feign, expressing pain and anguish at the violence in Nandigram. But it swiftly descends into a premature exoneration of the state government. It says that the tragedy at Nandigram on March 14 was “entirely unanticipated, unjustified, and unfortunate turn of events”. In the annals of circumlocution this use of ‘unanticipated’ is almost on par with ‘collateral damage’. Imagine a Modi or a Bush being exonerated by the magical power of the term ‘unanticipated’.
The statement then goes on to say that the CPM has asked for a judicial inquiry into the incident. Why not instead ask: what took the government so long to institute an inquiry? Why not condemn the fact that the CPM is still launching an assault on the judiciary for asking for an inquiry? The statement says: “Nobody belonging to the Left would ever justify repressive action against peasants or workers, who are the basic classes of the Left.” This is another piece of circumlocution. What does basic classes of the Left mean? That only the Left can speak for them? This is hubris. Or that these classes primarily support the Left? This is a fantastic piece of wishful thinking. Yes, nobody would “justify”. But why not outright condemnation? Why not at least say that the government badly mishandled the situation? Why engage in that perpetual deferral of assigning responsibility on the state government, to which the Left so objects in others? In the statement there is a sincere call to make efforts so that “tension subsides and normalcy returns to the area”. But the statement ends with: “We appeal to all concerned not to let the wounds of Nandigram become festering sores.” Again, reasonable enough. But in the context it is difficult to read it as anything other than a plea not to interrogate the state government too closely; as if any critical intervention will transform wounds into festering sores.
Left economists have often screamed hoarse about investment in health, education, and minority welfare. Yet they consistently treated the West Bengal government, a regime with an appalling record on these issues, with kid gloves. Intellectuals in the service of power, is a disconcertingly widespread phenomenon. This temptation has many sources. Intellectuals, perhaps even more so than others, can be rank opportunists. And certainly a system where the state controls so many of the resources and incentives that govern the professional lives of intellectuals, intellectual life is bound to be easily corroded by state power. The Left’s case is more complicated. The Left’s yearnings for an ideal of commitment makes them blind to the messy realities of power around them.
Intellectuals often come in packs. Their sense of identity comes from ingratiating themselves with a particular group and the imperatives of holding onto at least that group override intellectual clairvoyance. Even intellectuals who are opposing power and authority can succumb to this temptation. Much of what passes as intellectual life on the Left, with some possible exceptions, has this character. Its incantations seem like so many efforts to maintain a kind of group identity, a kind of dogmatic closure that is as corroding as the powers they oppose. There are of course exceptions: whether you agree with them or not, it is at least admirable that Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar and Pradip Datta did not make their conscience hostage to party diktat and protested against the state government.
But this is a losing battle. It is still a matter of astonishment that intellectuals have, in the interests of party or veniality, given up discussing their fiduciary responsibilities as professional teachers. The Central government has just engaged in the largest populist buyout of higher education since Independence. To facilitate rapid expansion of the system, necessitated by increased reservations, the government has raised the retirement age of university teachers to 65, with reappointment up to 70. There is an argument to be made that our retirement ages are too low. But this increase could at least have been linked to performance. Or it could have been used to leverage other radical reforms that universities badly need. But get this. The increase in retirement age has also been accompanied by a directive to first fulfil all outstanding quotas in teacher recruitment. What will be the consequence of this directive superimposed upon increase in retirement age? The effects will vary a bit, but its net result will be that there will be almost no new recruitment in the general category for at least five, possibly more, years. All of us believe in some form of affirmative action. But is it desirable the entire university system be made stagnant, just when it needs to be made most vibrant? History will ask Indian intellectuals this question: how did they manage to make the university about everything else but the cultivation of intellect? Party politics, identity politics, venial conniving, moralising self-congratulation trumped everything.
The Left drops the word ‘critical’ as easily as most of us breathe. A pity that it does not prefix it by ‘self’. The Left’s damage to intellectual life has been considerable, in part because it has the veneer of sophisticated intellectualism. But understand why it doesn’t rise above party loyalties and you understand why the only thing Indian universities do not do is cultivate the life of the mind. The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi LINK www.libertyindia.org

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