A few days before the fateful kar seva in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, I bumped into the venerable Nikhil Chakravartty at Delhi’s India International Centre. When I informed him of my intention to travel to the temple town to observe the mobilization, Nikhilda was amused. “I don’t know why you are going to Ayodhya”, he told me, “It’s all happening in Delhi.”
The allusion was to the frenetic, back-channel discussions that various intermediaries were conducting between representatives of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Nikhilda’s political contacts were the stuff of legends and his deep links with the prime minister were well-known. As such, it was impossible to dismiss his implied suggestion that December 6 would, at best, be a contrived drama and that the real settlement would be hammered out behind closed doors in Delhi.
Nikhilda’s prognosis turned out to be wildly off the mark, and in hindsight I was glad to not alter my travel plans. But that’s not the point. What struck me at that time was the irony of a former card-carrying communist brushing aside the rumbustious realities of mass politics — for that is what the Ayodhya movement was — in favour of backroom parleys and deal-making. Regardless of whether someone was sympathetic or deeply hostile to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, it was a phenomenon that needed to be understood. Nikhilda’s intentions were presumably honourable but to me his priorities suggested that India’s ‘progressive’ public intellectuals were joined at the hip to the political establishment.
This is not to suggest that the editor of the influential weekly, Mainstream, lacked political detachment altogether. Nikhilda was no doubt one of the ‘pinko’ supporters of Indira Gandhi during her battle with the Syndicate and he was also part of the intellectual apparatus of the Congress’s post-1969 socialist thrust and pro-Soviet foreign policy tilt. Yet, this association didn’t prevent him from speaking out against the Emergency and suspending the publication of Mainstream in protest against the crude censorship of the media. Subsequently, he was one of the early critics of Rao’s liberalization of the economy and in an article in The Telegraph, he even went so far as to describe the then finance minister, Manmohan Singh, as a Quisling — an unfortunate comparison that raised many eyebrows.
Nevertheless, these displays of independence didn’t alter Nikhilda’s status as a pillar of the powerful club that was defined as being ‘secular, progressive and friends of the Soviet Union.’ This cabal dominated the institutions of intellectual capital in Delhi. Refined, educated, cosmopolitan and networked, they were India’s most visible public intellectuals for the decades spanning the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru and the proxy rule of Sonia Gandhi. The faces kept changing but the breed persisted. Indeed, until the advent of the private sector in TV brought in a cacophony of alternative discourses, they were the custodians of the mind of India. Everything else was deemed peripheral, backward looking and targets of derision.
I refer to the symbolic importance of Nikhil Chakravartty in the context of a memorial lecture delivered by the historian, Romila Thapar, in Delhi last month. The choice of Thapar was entirely appropriate: she is to the community of historians what Nikhilda was to the pre-television media — an icon of ‘progressive’ values.
Thapar proceeded from the assumption that India has witnessed “the narrowing of the liberal space in the last couple of decades.” This truncation, she alluded, had a definite political context: “It was fought back, and now it is upon us again.” To her, the original sin was the advent of a “neo-liberal economy and culture” in India. More specifically, she seemed to imply that galloping distortions had taken place during the NDA rule of 1998 to 2004. These had been partially reversed in the next 10 years, only for the regression to set in after the victory of Narendra Modi in May 2014.
Thapar’s identification of the symptoms of this liberal shrinkage was quite telling.
First, she noted the growth of political religiosity— the growth of “organisations and institutions that claim a religious intention but use their authority for non-religious purposes.”
Secondly, she detected an increasing unwillingness among those who should occupy the public intellectual space to question authority and speak up for human rights and social justice. “There are more academics in existence than ever before, but most prefer not to confront authority even if it debars the path of free thinking. Is this because they wish to pursue knowledge undisturbed or because they are ready to discard knowledge should authority require them to do so?” Indeed, Thapar went a step further and attributed the “decline of the public intellectual” to “insecurities” generated by an elusive economic boom and the emergence of Mammon as the new deity of neo-liberal culture.
Finally, and this seems to be at the heart of her despair, Thapar lamented the marked shifts in the public intellectual agenda. “The neo-liberal culture and economy cannot easily be changed but its ill-effects can be reduced, provided we are clear that society must be rooted in the rights of citizens to resources, to welfare and to social welfare.” Many would find this corrective to the excesses of capitalism unexceptionable. However, Thapar then went on to say: “This, after all, was the issue at the time of Independence when the nation-state was created. I can recall the arguments and debates in the 1960s and 1970s on how to create a society where citizens had equal rights, not just in theory but in actuality.”
The debates of the 1960s and 1970s were never so socially invigorating. They were conducted within pre-determined ideological and social parameters: the reckless expansion of the State, the social and aesthetic disavowal of entrepreneurship and the intellectual hegemony of the ‘progressives’. There were other voices but real intellectual dissent was neither encouraged nor accommodated. India under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi possessed its own Cold War mindset.
It would be erroneous to locate the despondent dissension of Thapar and the like-minded that heard her at the India International Centre to an oppressive regime backed by storm troopers and secret police. Indian society hasn’t changed since the afternoon of May 16. What may have undergone modifications are the stated priorities of the government — rapid economic growth with a coating of nationalist pride — and the composition of the ruling establishment.
The real complaint of Thapar was the grim reality of change. For the first time in their living memory, the privileged ‘progressives’ of Delhi find themselves cut out. In plain terms, political change has rendered them, if not irrelevant, marginal to the centre stage. Worse, the catchment area of fellow travellers has shrunk dramatically. Thapar’s fellow academics have not retreated into ivory towers; most of them are increasingly loath to relate to the contrived angst of those who have been displaced from the top of the hierarchical pile.
India’s disastrous experiments with socialism were also cheered on and often choreographed by a privileged socialist oligarchy. But all that is history. Today, an outlander prime minister heads the new dispensation with a partiality for austere living and commercial thinking— values the old order consider as distasteful as fascism. To cap it all, he has little time for the old ‘intellectuals.’
Had he been alive, Nikhil Chakravartty, too, would have found himself out of sorts in a brash media, a competitive economy and an unfamiliar polity. Romila Thapar’s erudite lecture was in many ways a dirge for Delhi’s socialist entitlement society. We await the requiem.