India is an intellectual project too. It must be protected.

Nation states often find themselves in a great dilemma. This dilemma stems from the fact that more often, there is a wide gulf between its origin myths and the real circumstances under which they were born. I am not saying that all nation states indulge in deception to instill a sense of patriotism in its populace. But some of them certainly do - especially the ones insecure about themselves.

Before we delve into this discussion, we should remind ourselves that India is not a nation state in the European sense of the word. The Europe of today is deeply divided about the subject, of how this potentially inflammable subject should be treated. While there is no doubt that nationalism has augmented the internal diversity of this intellectually integrated continent, it also cost it the sufferings of two major world wars. So even Europe isn’t quite sure on how to handle the chimera that is nationalism. In this context, it is imperative that we re-evaluate the import of nationalism in Indian context.

India, for all practical purposes, is a civilisational state. It can be argued that its incredible diversity makes it impossible to find a common ground along which citizenship to this nation may be determined. It is said, most potent fallacies are the ones with a degree of truth in them. It is impossible to find a common ground - only if we stick to the parochial divisions of religion, caste, ethnicity etcetera. Despite the obvious temptations to stick to these primordial identities, India transcended all these to give us what we have.

How was this made possible?

The mass movements that culminated in India’s freedom are truly magnificent. Perhaps unprecedented in history, they pressured Great Britain for a long time and finally resulted in the liquidation of the empire. But such a movement, devoid of its intellectual core, would have failed miserably to constitute a republic replacing the police state that was British India.

When we say this, we should be mindful of the intellectual legacy of British India as well. The British, for all their follies, were serious about imposing the Rule of Law in India. Now, this concept of Rule of Law under them was always defective. There was a palpable bias towards Europeans and in protecting the business interests of the British in India. However, a great deal of intellectual as well as financial resources were expended in maintaining the whole edifice of drawing up legislation for governing India. Over the years, the legislative assemblies also grew in size and influence. They were also noted for their intellectual depth, which made sure that ingenious means were employed in controlling and governing the populace.

A host of examples testify to this. For example, going through the assembly discussions that passed the Epidemics Disease Act, 1897 in the backdrop of the Bubonic Plague epidemic, we see a comprehensive and illuminating discussion. Instructive of it is the statement of Alexander Mackenzie, Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, that his government was “unwilling to interfere with religious practices and prejudice”. As the world and the nation is battling CoronaVirus now, it is interesting to note how they had a view on dealing with religion in British India.

Moving on, there is little doubt that we owe our stability post 1947 to our comprehensive constitution. India has stood despite the host of naysayers who predicted an implosion sooner or later. Nobody can discount the strong intellectual environment that persisted in the Constituent Assembly debates. Quoting Dr. B.R Ambedkar, we see that - “The proceedings of this Constituent Assembly would have been very dull if all members had yielded to the rule of party discipline. Party discipline, in all its rigidity, would have converted this Assembly into a gathering of yes’ men. Fortunately, there were rebels.” Even when the Congress Assembly Party (CAP) was an overarching force, the intellectual diversity of the delegates were well expressed.

Also, the comprehensive nature of the debates will not have been possible without the fine men and women who drew up the constitution. Even when it was a body not elected by universal adult franchise, it was reasonably representative and made sure that all future legislations will be based on universal adult franchise. Even when it was predominantly HIndu(94.6%) upper-caste men, it produced a secular constitution that abolished discrimination based on race, religion, caste, sex and place of birth. Such an exercise would have been impossible if the assembly was dominated by pandering politicians.

As the time has passed, we have noticed a secular decline in the level of intellectualism present inside the annals of Indian Parliament. The proportion of MPs facing criminal charges has skyrocketed with a whopping 43% in the present Lok Sabha. Also, the intellectual diversity is minimal with organic intellectuals and community grown leaders missing from the pulpit of our democracy. In the backdrop of insalubrious and reckless legislations like the CAA/NRC,.J&K reorganisation bill, 2019 etcetera, this assumes significance. If there was an independant and reasonable intellectual space available inside the ruling dispensation, this would have been avoided. Given the price we paid in the form of recent Delhi riots and the rising casualty of security forces in the Kashmir valley, we wish if prescience in legislation was not a premium.

But we should also be wary of the dangers that an over emphasis on intellectualism can bring up on a democracy. The intellectual elite tends to come from a few select classes that may not reflect the true composition of the society. But this can be remedied with a coherent policy and by implementing true equality of opportunity when it comes to education. Also, appeals to intellectual superiority has formed the bases of many tyrannies in history. However, this shouldn’t forbid us from pursuing a balance between Intellectual rigour and representation in public policy.

The core ideals that form the foundation of the republic are non-negotiable. They shouldn’t be exposed to the vagaries of popular politics which is vulnerable to sectarian tendencies. One could argue that the Judiciary stands as the bastion of this intellectual expression that sustains a nation state. But I would like to argue that this one front alone is insufficient to protect us. There should be a healthy infusion of intellectualism to all branches of the state. The permanent executive is touted to do this. So are the auxiliary wings of legislative assemblies. But even a cursory glance betrays the moribund status of these organs of the state.

Also, the amount of legitimacy that the legislators enjoy is unparalleled. After all, they represent the will of the people. But as said, protecting the republic starts with protecting the people. If the state cannot protect the people from the ruses of a scheming tyrant seeking to game our electoral system, can it protect itself? The answer is no. Hence, it is of utmost importance that the people be protected from such undesirable elements that hollow out our republic from within. Such harsh measures that deny such fraudsters access to parliament does not amount to tampering with the popular will - instead it greatly enhances it. This is the learning we have acquired from dealing with tyrants that came in different shapes and sizes.

As the sixteenth century thinker Étienne de La Boétie has theorised in his magnum opus - “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude”, tyranny is hard without the consent of the populace. The manufacturing of consent, as described by Noam Chomsky, also explores the complex tools at the disposal of aspiring tyrants to dupe our populace. So it is imperative that the intellectual core of the republic be strengthened against the attack of locusts that could crumble the republic under their sheer weight if not intellectual prowess and necessary forethought.

It is easy to dismiss this concern as elitist or unmindful of the aspirations of the masses. However, one should understand the looming danger of reckless legislation and the parliament being reduced to a rubber stamp in major democracies is no accident. The perennial withdrawal of intellectualism from the public discourse in these countries, including ours, has gone unchecked over the last decade. The organised attack on intellectuals - both online and offline - has diminished the public space available to their expression. These attacks now inspire widespread chagrin than solidarity - a symptom of a civilisation that is chasing rot than a glorious ascendancy.

In this context, we should realise that India as we know would have been impossible without the rigorous intellect of its people. It is this intellect that created theories and sustained them in praxis which resulted in our diverse and consummate society. Of course, we find ourselves wanting on many fronts, but that is not because of us thinking too much, but because we have neglected thinking about them - and sometimes worse, thinking a lot and doing very little about it. The polity, the legislations, the social contract - all of these were drawn up based on careful consideration by learned men and women. We can’t let that tribe vanish from the annals of institutions that still stand to maintain these lofty goals that characterise our civilisation. It is important that we protect them. Otherwise, none may remain to protect us from the unrelenting march of tyranny that has come to define the discipline that we call by the name of History.

Written on May 7, 2020