State of intellectuals in Contemporary India

Who is an intellectual?

The renowned economist Fredrick Hayek defined intellectuals as persons who transmit the ideas of specialized scientists to the general population.This definition included “journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists” who conveyed the ideas of specialists in the physical and social sciences to everyone else. In general a case, an intellectual is defined as someone who possesses voluminous knowledge which he/she uses for the public good like spreading awareness, education, and so on. At the same time some intellectuals may cause harm to society, but that type of intellectuals are typically thought to be very few in number.


One of the popular public perceptions holds that the distinctive quality of an intellectual is that he/she is well entrenched with the society or culture of the place in which he/she is aiming to do his/her work. Traditionally, academics and the intellectuals are closely identified. However, intellectuals need not necessarily have an academic background.

However, India presents a rather strange case. For a long period of time, the features that define Indian intellectuals have been very unusual. To the average Indian, intellectuals have come to symbolize these features:

1. They cannot be members or sympathizers of religious, or cultural organizations like the RSS.

2. They need to oppose the administration’s well-thought out, positive policies in the name of defending the poor and the minorities.

3. They need offend and attack timeless Indian traditions as baseless and outdated without studying them.

4. Most notably, it is mandatory for them to swear by a specific version of secularism, which in contemporary India is meant to denote someone who will accuse Hinduism for all of India’s wrongs.

5. They should be fluent in the English language even at the expense of being ignorant in their mother tongue.

Going by some of these features, most Indian intellectuals are those who instead of energizing the public discourse on important matters will do more to impede the process.

Ironically, these figures get immense prestige and copious amounts of funding from the same government they are mostly in loggerheads with. But this irony is understandable because in the case of India, intellectuals and the Government shared the same ideology of socialism for the longest time. Citing Hayek again, who argued that intellectuals in free democracy were attracted to socialism as socialists offered “broad visions, the spacious comprehension of the social order as a whole which a planned system promises and therefore succeeded in stirring the imagination of the intellectuals.”

However, following decades of economic crunch, in the post-1990s, when the Indian economy was liberalized, the influence of socialism has slowly but surely ended in the field of economics. But other fields of social sciences are still stuck in the socialist era.

The Indian varieties of intellectuals often have preference for English over Indian languages. There is no doubt that English is an important medium for Indians to communicate with the world at large but that does not justify the veiled contempt many intellectuals display towards speakers of Indian languages.

Nowhere was this contempt more visible than that time in 2011 when the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare was making headlines across the nation. Many of these intellectuals were baffled as to how a man from a village could garner so much attention. Some even went on to say he is nothing more than a rustic political stuntman. Granted that there were glitches in the Hazare movement, which often defied constitutional procedure, but this dismissive attitude towards Anna Hazare was not the standard intellectual reaction towards various of political activism this country has witnessed.These very same intellectuals who dismiss Anna Hazare are very vocal in their support for the Naxal sympathizer Khobad Ghandy. When Ghandy was arrested in 2009 on charges of helping Naxalites, these intellectuals went to town yelling ‘injustice’, but when Anna Hazare was arrested, their voices descended to mere whispers.


On another point, it is undeniable that modern day philosophical thought is shaped by the West.

But India being a repository of age-old political wisdom and diverse philosophies, it would stand to reason that these intellectuals took their inspiration, or molded their own views from their own tradition. However, such attempts raise fear among these intellectuals as they often equate pride towards our heritage as signs of fascism. Therefore, if we find any scholar trying to frame a political philosophy from the teachings of our classics like Mahabharata or Arthashastra, he/she is accused of being a reactionary.

In this case, the ‘socialist’ intellectual can learn a lot from our neighbor, the communist republic of China. Many of our domestic intellectuals have a latent admiration towards this authoritarian state, again because of shared ideology. But they failed to follow the examples set by China. During the reign of Mao Zedong from 1949 till 1976, almost all of ancient Chinese works on philosophy, science and statecraft were destroyed as part of their ‘Cultural Revolution.’


However once Mao’s reign ended, the new rulers understood that a China completely disconnected from its splendid past cannot have a shining future. From then on, the Chinese government has taken initiatives to teach works of great philosophers like Confucius to its citizens. They have even taken steps to establish Confucian learning centres worldwide to disseminate Confucian teachings to a global audience. But in our own country, most attempts to do something similar with our great philosophers like Vyasa or Chanakya would be termed ‘fascistic’, ‘communal’, ‘intransigent’ among other labels.

The greatest fault one can find with our intellectuals is their definition of the term ‘secularism. As an academic concept, secularism means that religion is treated as a human construct rather than the product of a divine revelation hence making it open to critical investigation. In India however, secularism shields even the most illogical religious beliefs and bigotry from scrutiny provided they claim to be non-Hindu. One great instance is the dominant belief in most of our historians that Christianity was brought to India by St. Thomas even when most Christian scholars and the Vatican itself have dropped this myth.

Secular intellectuals in India were in favor of banning ‘Satanic Verses’ by Salman Rushdie when it was published in 1988. But our doyens of intellectualism would be the first to raise their voices in opposition to any attempt by Hindu groups to restrict publications of works deprecating of Hinduism. Of course, this is not an argument in favour of banning books no matter how derogatory. Such controversies should be dealt with in an academic manner without involving the courts. But as we have witnessed, the responsibility of being level headed is expected only from one community while others are free to run riot.

These eminent intellectuals declare that India should not cling to its past heritage but instead make way for “modern thinking based on scientific temper.” The basis of this declaration is based on these intellectuals’ understanding of the west where, from the eleventh till the seventeenth century, religion and science were like two vehicles aggressively trying to overtake each other on a one-way street, often with harsh consequences.

Unlike the West, ancient Indian philosophies were not known to make any dogmatic declaration on issues of science. On the contrary, if we care to read these often-ridiculed old works, we will find that most of them actually offer diverse viewpoints when it comes to complex topics such as human existence, composition of the universe and elements of nature. In the words of Veer Savarkar:

….The Vedic hymns to me appear more like suitable efforts undertaken by the seers to comprehend the forces of nature around them since that period lacked modern technology. It was impossible for anyone at that stage to analyze, each and every living species and non-living entities. Instinctively they chose to analyze the things and beings in the universe using the five senses humankind is gifted with- touch, sight, scent, hearing and taste. Now everything had one or more attributes one could, well, “sense”. For example, the rose was red by color, soft to touch and fragrant by scent.….. A sea storm was frightening to hear, forceful to feel and salty to smell.

Given the olden times then, this very idea of using the five senses was a legitimate leap of human creativeness! They developed this thought process to call the five senses representatives of the Pancha Maha Bhootas (The Five Great Elements), namely Pruthvi (Earth or the solid state of matter), Aap (Water or the liquid state of matter), Tej (Fire, light energy or radiations), Vaayu (Wind, air or gaseous state of matter) and Aakash (Outer space, or the Great Void). Spiritually, they theologized that whatever conversation or dialogue we humans could have with the such forces in the universe was also through these five senses, hence they even developed the concept of the five-headed deities, like Pancha Mukhi Mahadev……..Just as the process of studying the universe and its objects and beings with our five senses was so instinctive, so were the attempts at trying to figure out if there indeed was any psyche behind the very forces who could create this universe. So these forces were deified and became objects of devotion across ancient cultures……. (Translation of a Marathi Essay titled Conceptualizing God)


This is the reason that in contrast to the European Renaissance, the Indian version did not cause a conflict between science and religion. Most figures of modern Indian thought like RG Bhandarkar, Jagadish Bose, Prafulla Ray and most famously, Swami Vivekananda showed us in their own way how ancient Indian thought systems and knowledge can be compatible with modern notions. Yet many of our contemporary intellectuals try to paint these savants as ‘outmoded’ thinkers.

For the longest period, public discourse and scholarship was dominated by the Left, since most of them could arrange the necessary financial support and public platforms. On the other hand, the bulk of our nationalist scholars had to manage on their own, using inadequate resources and avenues to make the truth public. One can only do so much with meagre means. This is one of the chief causes for the severely limited exposure their erudite works have received.  This leaves almost no space for a robust debate which can counter the one-sided narrative. However, things are now slowly changing for the better.

Of late, several organizations have come up with scholarly and fact-backed evidence to counter the Leftist alterations of India’s history, culture, and the rest.

To be continued.