Questioning Silence

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Delivering the third Nikhil Chakravarty Memorial Lecture last year, noted historian Romila Thapar threw light on some of the most contentious issues of our time. She said Nikhil Chakravarty, the founder of ‘Mainstream’ journal, during his time provided space to those who questioned the nature of the interdependence of society and politics. She contended that, today that space has shrunk and the intellectual parameters have narrowed. It seems that those in authority and those influencing public opinion have less respect for the public intellectual now than was so before, she maintained. Pertinently, the theme of her lecture was “To Question or Not to Question? That is the Question”. It is important to note that this acclaimed historian, besides her academic acumen in her subject, has veraciously questioned the nature of Indian politics and its social systems fearlessly. Interestingly, on the sideline of her lecture, Thapar acknowledged that she and Chakravarty share something in common. That, both of them have politely declined the Padma Award, a coveted recognition given to its outstanding citizens for their contributions in their respective fields, by the government of India. Both of them reasoned that the Padma Award would interfere their autonomy; Chakravarty as a journalist and Thapar as an academic. Such is their conviction and professionalism.

The intention here is not a rehearsal of the lecture. But one area in the lecture demands underscoring, which is Thapar’s critique of the silence of the intellectuals in the backdrop of today’s political reality. She questioned the hesitancy of the intellectuals today to defend an idea “when books are banned and pulped, or demands made that they be burned, and syllabus changed under religious and political pressure or the intervention of the state”. Without any specific mention of any political party or religious group, Thapar was hinting at the activities of religious bigots, who cannot tolerate or accommodate the different world view of any other groups; and more importantly the dismal silence maintained by academicians and intellectuals in this regard. The perspective is relevant in our corner of the world. We have observed visible presence of numerous voluntary organisations in the state, which have ‘unquestionable’ commitments and causes – no one can question them. These groups commit to preservation of religious identity or safeguarding the ‘purity’ of language, or ethnic identity. These are worthwhile ideals and respect to their commitment and their sense of volunteerism associated may be due. They, however, often tend to issue certain decrees to be followed by the public in an overbearing manner. This is where they cross the limits of what is acceptable. The abysmal silence maintained by our intellectuals regarding these diktats is palpable in the absence of any semblance of an intellectual reflection or deliberation on them in the public sphere. Understandably, this silence is a mark of the fear of repercussions from different quarters known and unknown. Thapar observes in her lecture “it seems that most prefer not to confront ‘authority’ even if it debars the path of free thoughts”. Let it be known that new knowledge is bound to question existing orthodoxies or absolutism in a society. And it is the role of the intellectuals to negotiate the opposing views through reason and rational arguments. Or “do they need an independent space that would encourage them to think, and to think together?”, as Thapar questioned.

Leader Writer: Senate Kh

Source: Imphal Free Press

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