Those Fools You Call Intellectuals: “Digital India” and a Defense of Dissidence

Bhargav Rani

In the political climate of our times, “intellectual” is a dirty word. It is more often than not invoked in a tone of disparagement, in a manner of cursory disdain, to dismiss an unsavory political discourse by bringing the very credibility of the agent of discourse into question. The word “intellectual,” in its literal sense, signifies a “person possessing a highly developed intellect,” deriving from the Latin intellectus meaning “understanding,” or intellegere, “to understand.” However, the disparaging application of the label in contemporary political practice is a complete reversal of its original signification, for it is employed to convey precisely a lack of understanding of the political situation by the “intellectual.” Moreover, the target of disdain is the very characteristic that defines an “intellectual” – the reliance on intellect. That is, the credibility of “intellectuals” is brought into question primarily because their knowledge is perceived to be rooted in thought as opposed to being derived from political practice or experience. It is this age old dialectical drama of theory and practice that all too frequently finds a stage in the arena of contemporary politics.

A particular disambiguation of this drama came to the fore again recently when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his plans to visit Silicon Valley in California on 27 September. This visit is, in part, geared towards promoting the government’s new program, “Digital India,” an ambitious project that aims to develop digital infrastructure in rural India to provide widespread connectivity and cultivate digital literacy. Some of the program’s initiatives include providing mobile Internet connectivity to rural populations, increasing transparency in bureaucracy and digitizing the workflow through such methods as biometric attendance, and the concomitant creation of jobs. In addition, Modi is scheduled to meet with a number of Indian diasporic entrepreneurs in an effort to foster Indo-US business linkages and facilitate a cross-flow of investments.

Soon after the announcement of Modi’s intended visit to Silicon Valley, a collective of scholars and academicians engaged in research in a range of interdisciplinary concerns constituting the broad field of South Asian studies in various universities across the United States published a statement expressing their reservations. The signatories of the statement, about 135 of them, include some of the most distinguished professors studying and writing on India like Arjun Appadurai, Sheldon Pollock, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Partha Chatterjee, and CUNY professors Meena Alexander and Manu Bhagavan of Hunter College. That is, it was a statement by a group of intellectuals by vocation, in the primary sense of the word. These scholars advocated for an exercise of caution in subscribing to the propositions of “Digital India,” calling for a more critical evaluation of “its lack of safeguards about privacy of information, and thus its potential for abuse.”

As the statement notes, ““Digital India” seems to ignore key questions raised in India by critics concerned about the collection of personal information and the near certainty that such digital systems will be used to enhance surveillance and repress the constitutionally protected rights of citizens.” Moreover, the collective of scholars, with “particular attention to history,” that being their job, drew attention to the manifold acts of repression by the Modi government over the past year, including various episodes of censorship, impositions on academic freedom, and the violations of religious freedom in the country. The tenor of this unfolding history, the scholars argued, demands that we assume a skeptical, critical position with respect to the government’s proposals, and they urged those who lead the Silicon Valley technology enterprises to be “mindful of not violating their own codes of corporate responsibility when conducting business with a government which has, on several occasions already, demonstrated its disregard for human rights and civil liberties, as well as the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions.”

The rebuttal was swift and vehement. Days after the statement was published on a blog, its signatories came under strong attack in a number of right-wing news outlets in India, with their call for prudence touted as a demand for boycott and painted variously as either “comic” and “arrogant” or as “malicious” and “slander.” An opposing group of scholars, many of them known advocates of “Shri” Narendra Modi’s regime, soon published a counter-statement staunchly endorsing the government’s proposed schemes to “urge some academics to lift their veil of ignorance that wages economic war against India.”

The most vocal among them was, not surprisingly, Madhu Kishwar, a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, and an active propagandist for the right-wing regime (and so, although an intellectual by vocation, not an “intellectual”), who supplemented the counter-statement with another lengthy rebuttal of her own in the right-wing newspaper, First Post. To quote just one from the many gems of logical vacuity that are profuse in the article, Kishwar, while accusing the dissident scholars of conspiring to “keep India mired in poverty, promote strife among its people, and keep it vulnerable to terror attacks,” goes so far as to characterize their criticism of the Modi government as “a McCarthy type witch-hunt against a popularly elected chief minister.”

While it is not in the scope of this article to appraise the truth-value of the statements of the dissident scholars, let it suffice to say that the claims to verity that each faction of the debate asserts are founded on two mutually exclusive domains of discourses. While the advocates of the political Right draw from the “official” history composed of discourses “legitimized” by the state, like the judicial documents that acquit Modi of wrongdoing in the 2002 Gujarat riots and much of the corporate, national media that celebrates him daily, its critics, with a due sense of the politics of historiography, question such uncritical faith in the incorruptibility of the state apparatus that produces these discourses. However, my interest in this article is not in the quagmire that is the debate on the truth-value of either discourse, but rather in the question of who constitutes a “truth-teller.” What is most striking about the general tenor of most discourses that emerged from the political Right in defense of the ruling regime is that they consistently, often through the means of the same set of rhetorical maneuvers, questioned the credibility of the dissenting scholars – those fools you call “intellectuals.”
The most recurrent motif in the rhetoric informing the pejorative application of the word “intellectual” in this specific case relates to the subject position of these dissident scholars. That is, the principle argument propounded by the political Right in their effort to delegitimize the agents of the dissident discourse is that they are all scholars working in universities in the United States, that is, the “intellectuals” are all “Americans.” At the outset, the diasporic identity of these scholars, which forms the focus of criticism, hardly seems at odds with the case in question, for, one would assume, Indian scholars working in universities in the United States would logically be at an advantageous position to comment on policy matters pertaining to the relations between the two nations. However, that was obviously not how it was perceived. The rhetorical manipulation underlying the invocation of the “American”-ness of these scholars is two-pronged: the first relates to the idea of “forsaking” the homeland, and the second to their “alienation” from the realities of the homeland.

The nationalist undertones to the logic of “forsaking” the homeland are self-evident, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The argument goes that these dissident scholars have renounced their rights to comment on the political state of affairs in India when they migrated from their homeland. “Forsaking” here unequivocally implies betrayal. It not only posits the “forsaking” individual as the Other but also absolves the self of complicity in the process of Othering, for it locates the logic and praxis of “forsaking” within the body of the “forsaking” individual. That is, “forsaking” is self-imposed, an act of agency, in which volition is implicit.

Thus, the power relation between the “forsaking” individual and the “loyal” citizens of the homeland is distinct from other modalities of migration like exile. This passivity of the self in the Othering of the “forsaking” individual is what constitutes the basis for the moral high ground that the advocates of the political Right assume. This “forsaking” is, in essence, a “forsaking” of the nation, and the rhetorical manipulation underlying such a characterization of the dissident “intellectuals” is in the service of invalidating their status as possible “truth-tellers.”

But the hollowness of this argument evinces when we recognize that the diasporic condition of the dissident scholar is, in fact, no different from that of the successful Indian entrepreneur and technocrat in Silicon Valley. The conditions of migration in either case can be appraised within the larger context of the neoliberal turn in the Indian economy from the 1990s and the globalization of human capital. That is, both cases of migration stem from a philosophy that has enjoyed wide currency in India, particularly after the IT industry boom of the 1990s, which is that of the diasporic condition constituting itself as a utopia, a transcendent realm with the promise of emancipation from the drudgeries of the everyday in the homeland.
Notwithstanding the critiques of this philosophy of diaspora as utopia that functions in the service of capitalism, the question that arises is this: what warrants the qualification of the migration of the dissident scholar as a “forsaking” of the homeland when Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley itself stands as an affirmation, even a celebration, of the diasporic condition? What makes the scholar’s migration an act of betrayal when the engineer’s
migration stands as an act of empowerment, not just of the migrating individual but also of the nation? This selective persecution only goes to show that this characterization as the “forsaking” individual is a politically charged rhetorical construction that implicitly strives to strip the dissident scholar of the right to dissent.

The second rhetorical maneuver at play is the argument that the dissident scholar, lodged in the “ivory tower” of academia, is hopelessly removed from the socio-political realities, again a recurrent motif in Indian politics. The invalidation of the credibility of the dissident scholar through this argument involves the perpetuation of an essentialist reading of the theory-practice dialectic. It categorically culls the “encounter with truth” from the realm of intellectual activity and definitively locates it within the realm of phenomenology. However, at the very outset, it must be noted that this rhetorical manipulation can be accomplished only when the many years of practical, phenomenological engagement of the scholars with their fields of research, that is, the practice of research that preempts theory and that which constitutes a significant part of every scholar’s life, is erased from the public consciousness.

In addition, such a rhetoric must also turn a blind-eye to the abundance of discourse that emerged from the mid-twentieth century on the relation of theory to practice, the “logic of practice,” and ignore the fact that self-reflexivity about the relation of one’s discourse to their field of study is now pretty much a necessary condition of academic rigor. That is to say, the construction of the much maligned figure of the senile scholar locked in the “ivory tower” of academia demands an ambiguation of what a scholar really does and a revitalization of the mythology of the colonial historian or anthropologist on the stage of contemporary politics.

At the most basic level, the use of “intellectual” in a disparaging sense to discredit a dissident scholar unambiguously implies, or often explicitly mentions, that the scholar in question is “leftist” or “Marxist.” In the Indian political parlance, the pejorative connotation of “intellectual” is almost exclusively reserved for “Marxists,” which includes, apart from the Marxists of course, any individual who questions the actions of the state. Another closely related us-and-them term of disdain is “anti-national.” At one level, one can’t help but smile at the fact that this conflation of “intellectual” with “Marxist,” albeit pejorative, is an implicit acknowledgement, a silent nod, to the immense contribution of Marxist scholarship to critical thought for over a century. At another level, the “intellectual” as “Marxist” is in itself a very convenient rhetorical maneuver to establish the dissident scholar as definitively dubious, simply because “Marxist” is an even dirtier word in Indian politics, especially so in the current political climate. It is aimed at establishing the scholar as the irreconcilable Other, and hence ineligible to make any claims to “truth.” If I may be so bold as to return a metaphor to its appropriate context, this is what would qualify as a “McCarthy type witch-hunt.”

I wouldn’t want to completely dismiss the fact that all the signatories of the statement were academics from universities in the United States. It is not clear if the statement is meant to reflect the position of Indian diasporic scholars on an issue that concerns the diaspora or that of scholars critical of the right-wing regime. If it is the latter case, the inclusion of scholars only from the United States is, I believe, simply bad rhetoric. But what I find most troubling about this US-centric collective has little to do with the right-wing rhetoric of “Marxism” or “anti-nationalism.” It rather has to do with the fact that this list of signatories is reflective of the general centralization of knowledge production in mostly US and European universities.

My advocacy for a decentralization of knowledge production is not rooted in an ideology of nationalism but rather in the resistance to capitalistic monopolization of knowledge in the context of the increasing neoliberalization of the university. This nuance is, however, lost on the political Right, for if the quality of research produced in the country is a priority for the state, we wouldn’t be having Y. Sudarshan Rao, a historian of questionable methods who endorses the caste system, spearheading the direction of historical research, and an indubitably second-rate actor, Gajendra Chauhan, at the helm of the premier film institute of the country.

In the way of a conclusion, I might as well touch upon my own subject position, if that hasn’t been glaringly obvious. As an Indian doctoral student being trained in the practices of intellectual production in a university in the US, not only am I the subject of my own discourse, however tangentially, but the very credibility of this discourse hinges on my own credibility as a scholar. Here we come to the relation of “truth” to the “truth-teller.” It is not merely that the truth-value of this article is incumbent on the validation of my credentials, but the estimation of the “truth” of this discourse itself determines my credibility. Filtered through the rhetorical prisms of “Marxism” and “anti-nationalism” by the political Right, the truth-value of my discourse is always already judged and condemned by the extent of its deviation from the sanctified discourse of the state, and it is this dissidence that calls my credibility into question, not the other way around. It is then that the whole range of rhetorical maneuvers is put to work. That is to say, the academic credentials of the dissident scholars are brought into question not in the service of estimating the truth-value of their statement but rather the conviction of their argument as fraudulent and malicious, by virtue of its dissidence against the state, is what leads to their disqualification as scholars of no merit. Dissidence is what turns them into those fools you call “intellectuals.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 OpenCUNY » login | join | terms | activity 

 Supported by the CUNY Doctoral Students Council.