Nationalist intellectuals and the road to a richer cultural discourse

Since the earliest days of independent India, the Government (under Congress) seems to have had a stake in cultivating and promoting ‘intellectuals’. These were, for the most part, people who toed the line drawn by the Nehruvian consensus. They also (as parts of Government-created bodies such as IHRC and NCERT) were responsible for a certain strain of Indian thought – one championed by nationalist intellectuals – being subverted, demonised in the national discourse.

It was because of this that the word ‘nationalism’ itself – something that ordinarily would just mean a person’s ideological position being pro-India – became something of a pejorative term. In place of nationalism, the narrative that Left-liberal ‘intellectuals’ peddled at home as well as abroad was one about a disjointed and divided India. An India that was deeply divided across lines of caste / religion, marred by medieval superstition, and in desperate need of saving (by either the progressive West or by Communist Russia). These intellectuals also played a part in creation of the dirty-diseased-India narrative that dominated global discourse for decades before a more positive narrative took over, thanks to Indians’ achievements the world over.

Now, in the fourteenth year of the new millennium, with a nationalist Prime Minister in office, it seems that the days of nationalists being on the intellectual fringe are finally behind us (or getting there at the very least).

Deeptiman Tiwary, writing in the Times of India says as much when he quotes KG Suresh of Vivekananda International Foundation as saying, “Till now we were the fringe. Now it’s their turn.”

In the ToI article, Suresh is on record saying, “History has to be nationalised. The Left has been politically sidelined. It is now going to happen in the intellectual sphere. Not by discrimination though.”

But truth is, the entire edifice of Nehruvian intellectualism was built – not to present an accurate account of India, but one coloured in very specific political shades. If an average Indian could have spoken to the world at large, he would have spoken of a very different India — one where people of different communities had lived in peace for centuries, one where all religions were respected and allowed to co-exist, one with a glorious history of both scientific enquiry and intellectual debate. But in the hands of Left-liberal scholars and historians, a manufactured Indian story was what the world heard.

For the most part therefore, the intellectual discourse is not something that will ‘have to be nationalised’. The Narendra Modi Government will only have to release the intellectual sphere from the clutches of a forced Left-liberal discourse. India’s naturally pluralist culture will do the rest. As renowned columnist Sandhya Jain, speaking to Niti Central, said, the Leftist discourse has only managed to become mainstream by disallowing voices of dissent from finding expression.

“In India what we have been doing is that there was this colonial legacy of Marxism, Maoism, secularism, and Leftism of various breeds which was called Leftist or Left-of-Centre. They were closely aligned with the Congress, as far as patronage went. They took up all the public funded intellectual space, silenced other voices and called themselves intellectuals,” says Sandhya Jain.

She adds, “There is no ‘Right-wing’ in India. There is something which calls itself the Left-wing, but there is no Right-wing. There is no need for an ideology if you are just doing intellectual activity.”

In the aforementioned ToI article, the vacuous nature of India’s intellectual discourse has also been highlighted. J K Bajaj, director of Centre for Policy Studies is quoted as saying, “In the past 40-50 years, India has been intellectually barren, largely because research has been tethered to ideology.”

So in summary, while the time for nationalist intellectuals may indeed have arrived, in order for them to regain the ground they have lost to the forces of Nehruvian consensus, a richer, more debate-friendly cultural discourse will suffice.

(This piece was originally published on Niti Central on June 19, 2014.)

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