On Ramachandra Guha and Left-leaning Dinosaurs

The real critique is coming from those who are neither Left, nor Right, but Wingless

WrittenBy:Anand Ranganathan
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Ramachandra Guha has, yet again, spoken on Intellectualism and the lack thereof in some quarters, and Raghavan Jagannathan has, yet again, countered him effectively, as is his habit. But here’s the thing – both are right and wrong at the same time. That Guha is wrong isn’t news to me. This wouldn’t be a first – I fear the man relishes the prospect of being wrong with the joyous metronomicity of a tanpura. During the time this writer was on twitter, he maintained a running thread on Guha’s public embarrassments that included, among other intransigencies, being wrong on facts, logic, arguments, judgment, specifics, science, history, politics, and a host of other munition a multi-limbed intellectual-god is supposed to lug around at all times. Take it from an aficionado – Guha’s every column is a feast for bias-hunters. But this is to be respected and encouraged. He isn’t quite there yet but the day isn’t far when one would need to collate his pearls of wisdom into one easy-to-digest anthology, like there exists for the current emperor of I-Am-So-Bad-That-I-Am-So good, the one and only Aakar Patel.

To return, what Guha is saying essentially is that the Right Wing is short on intellectuals. This isn’t the first time he has delivered this thesis well past the due date. Guha wants to divide the hippocampus into campuses – Left and Right. Cleverly, he selects the people he and others in the Left campus mock and ridicule – most times, it must be said, justifiably – and once this object of ridicule is chosen, polemic ensues. As Gayatri Jayaraman, the Wingless (see later) Senior Editor of DNA puts it, Guha is not so much belittling the RW, he is trying to anoint someone who he thinks is worthy of being his opponent. When it comes to Guha searching for a RW adversary as worthy as him, little surprise that the search begins and ends at Dinanath Batra.

Well, enough of David Dhawans searching for David Dhawans. Guha needs to learn from Gulshan Grover in Rangila: “Mera competition yahan ke directors se nahin hai, mera competition Hollywood ke directors se hai.”

Guha is correct in that the RW is indeed short on thinkers and intellectuals – and here I have to put myself in a straitjacket so as not be able to put quotes on the word intellectual – because, even beyond the names that Guha mentions, many of those that he doesn’t aren’t exactly Radhakrishnans or Rajagopalacharis of this world. That said, keep in mind that the wisdom biome of any nation is like an iceberg – what keeps it afloat is hidden, and what causes damage to passing ships is the exposed part. The intellectual chatterati hadn’t heard of Prof Makarand Paranjape until he appeared on the intellectual scene last winter courtesy the JNU fracas. An accomplished academic, author of a dozen odd books, a speaker of wit and wisdom, no one in their right mind can deny he represents one of the finest minds the Indian RW has on offer. But does Guha mention him? No. For him only the Dinanaths.

Now if Guha is indulging in point-scoring he is on the dot. But the fact is, the job of an intellectual is to stir and stoke a public debate by brining arguments that connect the dots. Guha, perhaps deliberately, misses the point that India’s real, thriving, sincere, elevating, erudite, unbiased intellectualism resides in a camp that he fails to acknowledge altogether, simply because he knows and fears them, and he is not in it. The camp called the Wingless.

It is not for me to name people who belong to this camp – suffice it to say that these are the very ones who worry Guha, worry him because he can see they are not, and have never been part of an ecosystem, be it the left or the right. The Wingless are unhinged, unsupported, and unbiased. They are the impossible diamonds, the Henry Millers and the Pasolinis. They are the people feared not only by the Left but also the Right. Some of them have been appropriated by the Left, and some of them are being increasingly appropriated by the Right. What should worry (or delight) Guha is not that the RW doesn’t have enough intellectuals, what should (and I suspect does) give him sleepless nights is that the dominance of intellectuals like him is being ended by the Wingless. This, mind you, is a cause of worry for the RW, too. And for this reason, the working of established ecosystems, or the birth of new ones, should be a cause for anguish.

Ecosystems are tribes; sooner or later they demand their pound of flesh. Slowly, they sow ideas of brotherhood and dependence in an intellectual who has just joined them, and then begins the slide. We have seen it all too often. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen in the Sciences as much as it does in the Humanities, for the simple reason that Science works on ideas and sparks that aren’t political or ideological. If India is to encourage the growth of intellectualism, it must understand that ecosystems as we know them are to be discouraged. It must understand the role of a patron. You can support a musician by organising a concert for him, but you can’t ask him to perform your mediocre creation. And this is what all ecosystems do. They turn into herds, and their members little lambs, afraid to speak their minds, fearful of the consequences, scared the flow of cash or kind might ebb.  

So while the Guhas and the Aakar Patels of the Left Intellectual world decide who their adversaries from the Right Intellectual world are going to be, and while the Rajiv Malhotras and the Dinanath Batras of the Right Intellectual world set about doing the same in the other direction, what is India’s way out? Remember, no government is as self-critical and self-deprecating so as to encourage this breed. The Congress supported an ecosystem that followed its rules and the Bharatiya Janata Party will do the exact same.

What, then, of the Wingless? Do they worry? Not in the least. For a start, no one can clip their wings. They know who they are and they aren’t dinosaurs. And the dinosaurs are grunting. They are grunting for their tribe that has become redundant.

How does one elevate shallowness – exposed every waking day on the social media to what it really is – how does one elevate shallowness to respectability? By drawing a comparison with shallowness of another colour. How does one justify one’s usefulness? By holding on to the notions that today’s world needs a select tribe of intellectuals who will stand at every crossroad like Socrates and deliver sermons.

Select intellectualism – whether Right or Left – has been made jobless. Left Intellectual or Right Intellectual are designer labels, nothing more. What comes out of the mouth is now more important and worthy than from whose mouth is comes out from. The brilliance of a single tweet sometimes supersedes the worthiness of a tome. This is what Science has taught us – sparks and ideas too short to become a chapter leave alone a book. From Darwin to Dirac, brevity is the soul of intellect.

But those from the Jurassic age don’t get it. They clamour for the Cretaceous age. They don’t realise that India now has millions of intellectuals – who critique and commend the world and people around us. They may be nameless or have names, they may be studying sociology or history or science or maths or engineering – it does not matter. What they say is what matters. Verbosity that confounds has been replaced by prose that confirms to 140 characters. And that is what true intellectualism is. A sentence that makes you think; a word that makes you sit up in amazement; a single cartoon, a turn of phrase, an aphorism, a spark instead of a never-ending fire. Social media has given voice to a million brilliant throats, all of which you were busy wringing for decades. Are you worried because of this democratisation? Are you busy drawing and concocting false equivalences? Are you playing victim? Well, grunt on. Become extinct. Or accept the reality and join in – take flight without wings.


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