Republic of Letters anguish

EducationWorld October 2019 | Books

Battling for India: A citizen’s reader – Edited by Githa Hariharan & Salim Yusufji
Speaking Tiger, Rs.399, Pages 338

This book is a necessary compilation that comes from an embattled republic of letters in a nation slowly being desiccated by the philistinism of its politics.

The great merit of the book is its comprehensive nature as it focuses expansively on many themes. There is the question of the economy being roiled by adverse global headwinds that the ruling dispensation seems to be gloriously inept at handling. There is the spectacle of reason being ambushed by unreasoning hatred. There are excerpts from writers determinedly ploughing their lonely furrows with their writing — an often-losing battle against the aridity of the times. There are people from the peripheries and margins speaking truth to power structures that in turn seek to drown those voices, either by intimidating and outshouting them, or more sinisterly by silencing them.

Many have described General Election 2019 as a battle for the soul of India, and the book’s title invokes something very similar with citizens playing a central role in rejuvenation of the Republic. It is a battle that is seemingly being lost, especially in the electoral arena as the BJP rampages home through every single contest.

In response to the Modi government’s five years in power there has been a tremendous outpouring of quality writing. That’s why this review has invoked the idea of a republic of letters. In the aftermath of the massive electoral victory that the Narendra Modi-led BJP has won, it seems that the harder people resist, write and speak out, the more such efforts boomerang as Modi comes back, each time electorally more fortified.

The one exception to this trend was in late 2015, in the immediate wake of numerous writers, intellectuals and scientists returning their awards, the much debated award wapsi that this book dwells on quite a bit. This was followed by a crushing electoral defeat of the BJP in the Bihar assembly election. The BJP seems to have learnt its lessons well after being defeated overwhelmingly in the Delhi assembly elections, and Bihar in 2015.

Perhaps those who oppose Modi need to acknowledge that they may be doing something wrong. One successful strategy of Modi’s has been to propagate the idea that writers and intellectuals are a discredited and derided lot. Their opposition to Modi is presented as frustration and discontent at being locked out of prestigious educational, artistic and cultural organisations. Modi has contrasted his professed simplicity advantageously against the sophistry of writers and intellectuals.

A reading of this book offers two crucial insights into what is becoming a fascinating battle between the anti-intellectualism of the Modi regime and the stand taken by writers, intellectuals, artists, scientists, but above all common people against it. The first is that the cold reason passionately offered by the republic of letters withers in front of the spell that Modi seems to have cast on his ardent supporters. There is then an enchanting, almost bewitching quality that the Modi persona casts on the larger mass psychology, with many willing to give him the benefit of doubt even in as controversial and contentious an initiative as demonetisation.

The second is that it would be unwise of the republic of letters to nostalgically revert to the default position that existed before Modi. Undoubtedly, Congress’ many years of rule provided a certain exclusive sphere to India’s intellectual class. To an extent Modi may have a point about the anguish of intellectuals arising from their being shaken out of their comfort zones in university campuses and scientific, literary and cultural establishments.
The republic of letters has to think of blazing a new trail for the future. Interestingly, this is an insight provided less by writers and intellectuals than by grounded activists.

This is what Sukalo Gond, a forest rights leader and activist, has to say in the book: “We can’t look back. We are moving forward. They can’t stop us and we won’t be able to stop ourselves either. We have a long way to go; we are fighting for the rights of the generations to come.”

The transition that the republic of letters needs to make is, from the isolation of ivory towers to something more closely connected to the popular and down to earth. Kanhaiya Kumar, who figures in this book, perhaps represents this ability to combine the intellectualism of a prominent institution like JNU with earthy explanations of the highbrow. The soul-stirring words contained in Rohith Vemula’s suicide note could become the literary landmark that redeems the republic.

Books such as the one under review will remain an abiding testament to the havoc wrought by massive electoral waves and tsunamis. They will be read as texts that observed, resisted and recorded the ravages of these times.
amir ali (Book Review, August)

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