How to define intellectuals in our India? Does Pritish Nandy qualify to be called an intellectual, Bengali or stateless?

A few days ago I came across this tweet by Shri Tapan Ghosh, a Bengali gentleman, who is the founder and head of Hindu Samhati, an organization dedicated to Hindus and Hindu causes in the state of West Bengal:


I don’t know why, but something in this otherwise innocuous tweet made me think about the word “intellectual.” Suddenly, I felt that I did not know what the word truly meant, and who were these people routinely being referred to as intellectuals. I thought I should take the help of a dictionary to try and define this word satisfactorily. I discovered that the word “intellect’ means “the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, especially with regard to abstract matters,” and an “intellectual” was “a person having a highly developed intellect.” An intellectual, therefore, was a person who had a highly developed faculty of reasoning and understanding of abstract matters with a great deal of objectivity.


Armed now with this definition, I looked at the tweet again to see if it could be applied to the “Bengali intellectual” whose tweet Shri Ghosh was responding to. Does Pritish Nandy qualify to be called an intellectual, Bengali or stateless? While pondering over this question, I made a mental list of all those whom our society now routinely labels as intellectuals. Noteworthy names that came readily to mind, both past and present were Jawaharlal Nehru, V. K. Krishna Menon, Ramchandra Guha, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Girish Karnad, and Shashi Tharoor. Not a comprehensive list, by any means! But what struck me was that we have never referred to the great thinkers of our nation as intellectuals. Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, Guru Nanak, Sri Aurobindo, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar, to name but a few from recent times; and giants like the Buddha, Mahavira, Sankara, Baudhayana, Bhaskara, Abhinavagupta, from our hoary past, are spoken of as founders of different religions or specialists in a particular discipline, but never as intellectuals, even though they became famous for their “understanding of abstract matters with a great deal of objectivity.”


This reverie brought me to a passage in a wonderful book I recently read. In “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles, the protagonist is wrestling with the question that whether “the destruction of monuments and masterpieces was essential to the progress of a nation?” As the title suggests, the novel is about Russia at a time when that country has not only suffered because of a catastrophic world war, but also because of a Stalinist totalitarian state that has hardly left any of the old intellectuals, their masterpieces and monuments, alive or intact. When, some time in 1946, Count Rostov puts this question to an American, surprisingly, it is the American who puts things in perspective. Perhaps only an American, who really does not have the burden of tens of centuries of history to weigh him down, can say something like this:

“I understand that there’s a little history of dismantling here in Russia; and that the razing of a beautiful old building is bound to engender a little sorrow for what’s gone and some excitement for what’s to come. But when all is said and done, I can’t help suspecting that grand things persist.

 “Take that fellow Socrates. Two thousand years ago, he wandered around the marketplace sharing his thoughts with whomever he bumped into; and he wouldn’t even take the time to write them down. Then in something of a fix, he punched his own ticket; pulled his own plug; collapsed his own umbrella. Adios. Adieu. Finis.


 “Time marched on, as it will. The Romans took over. Then the barbarians. And then we threw the whole Middle Ages at him. Hundreds of years of plagues and poisonings and the burning of books. And somehow, after all of that, the grand things this fellow happened to say in the marketplace are still with us.

 “I guess the point I am trying to make is that as a species we’re just no good at writing obituaries. We don’t know how a man or his achievements will be perceived three generations from now, any more than we know what his great-great-grandchildren will be having for breakfast on a Tuesday in March. Because when Fate hands something down to posterity, it does so behind its back.”

 Which brings me to the question of how to define intellectuals in our land. As history marched on with innumerable invasions by military conquerors, followed by the armies of various religions, resulting in mass conversions, economic exploitations, destruction of millennia-old ways of life, did our intelligentsia put into place modern monuments and institutions that would replace the old? Does the dismantling of history and the destruction of the monuments of our past justify our progress as a nation?

What was it that the first modern “intellectual” of Post-British India, Nehru, thought he would erect in place of the old monuments and institutions? The centralization of economic planning, the appropriation of scientific and industrial research by the state, the rewriting of history through state-controlled institutions and universities, etc., were taken straight from the Soviet model that created the breeding ground for a generation of apparatchiks who labeled themselves as “intellectuals” while dutifully regurgitating what the Supreme Commander Jawarharlal Nehru most wanted to hear, read and see.


It was Lord Macaulay who wrote the first blueprint to create a class of “intellectuals” through whom the colonial power would exercise its authority and administer the Dominion. When he wrote that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” Macaulay was saying that without first destroying history and the old monuments of the past, India would not progress as a nation. In order to achieve this objective, Macaulay wrote: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

Bengal and Kolkata particularly, being the seat of British colonial power then, provided the first recruits in this re-education drive of the natives giving rise to a whole class of English-speaking Bhadralok who began the dismantling process in real earnest. When the seat of power moved to Delhi in 1911, other provinces, from the North to the South, also joined in and provided their own cadres to augment the bhadralok of Bengal.

However, Bengal also got a very early exposure to Bolshevism. The political success of the Bolsheviks in Russia brought a Bengali, Narendra Nath Bhattacharya (who had close links with Stalin) into the limelight. Stalin was the new prophet who would show the way out of colonial slavery and the promised land of a Marxist Utopia in which a Macaulayist elite would bring “liberty, egality and freedom” to the toiling Indian masses.


Narendra Nath changed his name to M. N. Roy and though he faded into obscurity, he left a lasting impression on the minds of the young students coming out of the colleges and universities of Bengal. Marxism, Maoism and Communism became the bywords for intellectual progress, while finance, industry and profit became dirty and no self-respecting Bengali wanted to have anything to do with these words. An English-speaking Bengali Communist was the ultimate “intellectual” and it is this definition of intellectuals that has got stuck in the lexicon of modern India.

 When the British left in 1947 they handed over political power to these apparatchiks under the leadership of our own Joseph Stalin, who though not a Bengali by birth, was perhaps the most Macaulayist of his protégés.

 It is this Bengalification of intellectualism that makes a Ram Guha shorten his name by removing the letter ‘n’ from his original name of Guhan, that would identify him as a South Indian. Similarly a Suzanna Arundhati Roy would drop the first of her given names and would like to be known only as Arundhati Roy, a very proper Bengali name. An anarchist, Roy is the synthesis of Bengal’s Leftist anarchism and Kerala’s Christian-Islamic imperialism.  Nivedita Menon and Nandini Sundar are two other English-speaking anarchists who hail from the South but have very Bengali sounding names.


Having ruled the country for close to seven decades and almost succeeded in destroying all the physical and intellectual monuments of India before the advent of Islam and Christianity, the current rise of a predominantly Hindu political voice has unnerved these “intellectuals” no end. Hundreds of years of Islamic and Christian depredations, followed by the Congress party’s Socialism should have completely eradicated the ideas of old, but like Socrates’ grand things, the ideas of ancient India refuse to disappear from the marketplace.

The pretenders today, masquerading as “intellectuals” are finding that there is no demand for their wares in the new agora and that their very existence is under grave threat. For them success in life was measured only in how well they spoke or wrote in the English language and how “cultured” they were in the salons of the rich and powerful who all belonged to the same “class” as them.

India has changed irrevocably. The elections of 2014 have given rise to a new species that have learnt to write obituaries. The obituary of the India of Nehru is being drafted not only in English but also in all the vernacular tongues of this nation, and when the people go to vote in 2019 they will publish this obituary and engrave it in granite. Because, as the American in Towles’ novel says: But when all is said and done, I can’t help suspecting that grand things persist.”

India is extremely fortunate that it still has a plethora of grand things that have persisted despite all the efforts of the destroyers for more than a thousand years. When all is said and done, it is this ancient India that will persist and not the blip that Islamic-British-Nehruvian rule represents. The “Bengali intellectuals” of the Pritish Nandy kind will join the ranks of the extinct species or become contained in zoological gardens.

 By Vijaya Dar

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