How to Become a Good Public Intellectual?

This essay is an attempt to ruminate on Romila Thapar’s writings on and as a public intellectual in today’s India. Edward Said’s 1993 Reith Lectures, titled ‘Representations of the Intellectual’ are taken together as a springboard for stimulating a conversation around Romila Thapar’s ideas on syndicated Hinduism, citizenship, nationalism, technocracy, dissent, and democracy. Rabindranath Tagore, D.D. Kosambi, A.K. Ramanujam, Amartya Sen, and Giorgio Agamben enter this conversation too, but on Thapar’s terms and with Said as the interlocutor. This essay asks a series of questions including ‘Who is a public intellectual?’, ‘What is her role in the society?’, ‘Why is Romila Thapar’s voice as a public intellectual so important?’, to argue that the public intellectual is a political being, a societal necessity, and the quintessential ‘anti-national’, all qualities exemplified in the life and works of Romila Thapar.

Romila Thapar’s 90th birthday is a fitting occasion to celebrate her long and remarkable career as a scholar, institution-builder, and public intellectual par excellence. It also reminds us that while flair and erudition may have set her apart as an intellectual giant, perseverance and grit have kept her going from strength to strength notwithstanding difficult circumstances. Given the rather gloomy political climate prevailing in the country, Thapar’s ideas and experiences of what it means to be a public intellectual serve not only as a fount of knowledge but also as a beacon of hope in these testing times. In my attempt to grapple with this theme of becoming a good public intellectual in Thapar’s writings, I will often fall back on the 1993 Reith Lectures called Representations of the Intellectual by Edward Said. Let me first flag some of the questions that immediately came to my mind when I thought of this topic. Who is a “public” intellectual? What is their role in the society? Why is Thapar’s voice as a public intellectual so important in India today? Can her scholarship be considered as activism in itself? Is Thapar a “Saidian” public intellectual? I will take these questions up one by one and look for clues in Said’s lectures and Thapar’s works to answer them.

Who is a Public Intellectual?

“There is no such thing as a private intellectual, since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world. Nor is there only a public intellectual, someone who exists just as a figurehead or spokesperson or symbol of a cause, movement, or position. There is always the personal inflection and the private sensibility, and those give meaning to what is being said or written. Least of all should an intellectual be there to make his/her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant,” declared Said (1996: 12) in his Reith Lectures. A public intellectual, in his opinion, is a critic who seeks to enrich public dialogues and not just popularise a doxa. Her function in society is to unsettle received wisdom and in doing so, discomfit the powers that be—an act often implying that one has to put oneself on the line. Critiquing authority even at the cost of personal suffering, as Socrates had done, is the mark of a true public intellectual (Thapar et al 2015: 3). Thapar et al’s definition (2015: 5) of the “public intellectual” largely coincides with Said’s when she writes, “the meaning of ‘intellectual’ crystallized around the notion that such a person need not be a scholar but had to be someone who had a recognized professional stature, and who sought explanations for public actions from those in authority, even if such explanations required criticizing authority and power.”

Said (1996: 102) further writes, “Speaking the truth to power is no Panglossian idealism: it is carefully weighing the alternatives, picking the right one, and then intelligently representing it where it can do the most good and cause the right change.” As a historian who was trained in the “positivist–empiricist” tradition, Thapar has time and again indicated her scepticism of the idea that all readings are of equal value. She has never shied away from taking a position nor has she ever not substantiated her position. The most important pitfall that a public intellectual needs to avoid, according to Said (1996: 121), is that of intellectual ossification. Public intellectuals are often institution-builders, but they cannot afford to institutionalise themselves as “automaton[s] acting at the behest of a system or method.” Having drawn from disparate schools of thought and methodologies as required in her work without kowtowing to any authority, Thapar has resisted the temptations of intellectual complacency and ossification at all times. This is evident from her perpetual efforts at rethinking and refurbishing her earlier formidable research with fresh perspectives and novel insights. The revised edition of her famed Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas is a case in point.

The Public Intellectual as the Quintessential ‘Anti-National’

“One task of the [public] intellectual,” Said (1996: xii) contends, “is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories…for cultures are too intermingled, their contents and histories too interdependent and hybrid, for surgical separation into large and mostly ideological oppositions like Orient and Occident.” There is a clear and sharp resonance of this in Thapar’s writings as well. She has historicised the category of “Aryans,” critiqued the propping up of monolithic, ever-antagonistic communities of Hindus and Muslims in colonial historiography, and at the same time has refused to give weight to ahistorical essences that pepper Hindu nationalist narratives of the early Indian past. According to Said (1996: 33), “it is the [public] intellectual's task to show how the group is not a natural or God-given entity but is a constructed, manufactured, even in some cases invented object, with a history of struggle and conquest behind it.” Thapar too has stressed this again and again in her writings on state formations in the past and nationalism in the present.

In his 1901 article called “‘Nation Ki’ or ‘What is a Nation?’,” Rabindranath Tagore (2020: 12) had surmised that the nation is “a living entity, a psychological substance,” characterised by shared memory and a collective consensus to coexist. Echoing this early Tagorean vision of nationhood, Thapar has argued that the nation is more than a mere cartographic construct, it is a sovereign community of citizens bound by historical ties and constitutional values. Thapar (2016: 8–11) goes on to write that “concepts of nations based on a single exclusive identity—religious, linguistic, ethnic and similar single identities—are actually pseudo-nationalisms…[which] exaggerate the importance of a single history of one religious community…and denigrate and distort the history of other communities.” Her critique of communal nationalism and the violence that ensues therefrom is also an extended critique of colonialism and its forms of knowledge. It is here that her scholarship as a historian and concerns as a public intellectual coincide. In a true Saidian sense, she has argued that identities are always historically contingent, hybrid and fleeting, never singular, homogenous, or timeless. It is because Thapar’s scholarship deflates majoritarian fantasies and colonial readings of the Indian past so routinely that her sombre voice remains so significant against the many tirades of the Hindutva hordes.

Thapar’s theorisation of Hindutva or “syndicated Hinduism” (2015: xxv) as drawing “on the Judeo-Christian religions in terms of hierarchical organizations and attempts to have a creed of belief” has made her critique even more potent. She has historicised this political phenomenon as beginning only in the late 19th century through the very many samajs and missions. According to Thapar, syndicated Hinduism and its ‘other’—monolithic Islam—were colonial constructs that have fuelled prejudices and been written over differences. The postcolonial Indian state, according to Thapar, has not been able to come to terms with the magnitude of the dislocation brought about by the colonial rule. Notwithstanding her otherwise nuanced and compelling analysis, her supposition has one problem. In her attempt to clinically separate the anti-colonial “reasonably” secular nationalism from its competitors—religious nationalisms, she overlooks the braided relationship among them. Although the religious nationalists largely sat out the freedom struggle, many of them were active within the Congress and inside the Constituent Assembly. Vallabhbhai Patel’s public announcement of reconstructing the Somnath temple soon after the accession of Junagadh and Rajendra Prasad’s role in inaugurating it made something very clear—the apparent distance between secular and religious nationalisms could be easily bridged by appealing and conceding to “hurt sentiments.”

Thapar (2015: xxx) has written quite incisively on this too: “Hurt religious sentiments…are equally an articulation of a rejection of contemporary socio-political changes as of an objection to the thwarting of the past practices of the particular religion.” The bogey of “hurt sentiments” is haunting the country today, creating a climate of fear and apprehension, bringing about self-censorship and a closure of democratic dialogue. Thapar posits that such a climate breeds nothing but contempt for open debate and public intellectuals. However, she notes that this is nothing new; neoliberalism has been disempowering citizens and hollowing out the substantive notion of an inclusive, aware, and assertive citizenship—a concept she has robustly defended in her writings (Thapar et al 2021) for quite some time. She goes on to suggest that since disenfranchisement of the minorities is very much on the agenda of the ruling party, the public intellectual has to be visibly vigilant, now more than ever. This is again in consonance with the Saidian vision. “Nothing disfigures the intellectual's public performance as much as trimming, careful silence, patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy…intellectuals should be the ones to question patriotic nationalism, corporate thinking, and a sense of class, racial or gender privilege” (Said 1996: xii–xiii).

The Public Intellectual as a Societal Necessity

Thapar draws upon the contributions of the premodern predecessors of today’s public intellectuals to drive home a simple yet elegant point: critical enquiry and rational thinking are essential for sustaining a self-reflexive society that is committed to self-betterment. The tradition of relentless questioning and voicing of dissent has had an illustrious history in the subcontinent (Thapar 2020). This long genealogy of public reasoning and intellectual heterodoxy, Amartya Sen (2005) contends in his book The Argumentative Indian, has been foundational for the fruition and sustenance of democracy in India that is under threat today. However, it is important to keep in mind (and doing so in no way underplays the present climate of unfreedom) that the Indian subcontinent had never been uniquely or inherently tolerant in earlier times. D N Jha (2016) has extensively written on how Brahminical invectives against Shramanic religious orders often took the form of state-sponsored violence, and Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (1992) has shown how the orthodox diatribe against the Lokayata school of thought constituted both political slander and intellectual erasure at the same time. It seems that the forerunners of today’s public intellectuals shared much of the latter’s fate.

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman (2006: xix) writes, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.” The importance of having public intellectuals in illiberal societies is obvious enough. What is not, however, is the need to have more of them in a self-absorbed society that has stopped thinking or caring about the common good. It is here that the role of public intellectuals as interlocutors of the marginal, the obscure, the forgotten, the hidden, and as conduits between the specialised domains and the public sphere truly shines.

Thapar does not mask her apprehension regarding the growing distance between cutting-edge research and popular understandings. Instead, she advocates a more holistic approach towards knowledge that resonates with Said’s view that the public intellectual has a lot to gain from the amateur’s attitude. The technocrat, with all his professional competence, can never become a public intellectual unless they embrace an amphibian existence among both their professional peers and the wider public. Thapar (2015: 23–24) also draws an apt corollary from this supposition: “An intellectual perspective requires that the specialized knowledge one possesses should be related to social concerns where required and to other branches of knowledge as well.” Interdisciplinarity is another diagnostic trait of a good public intellectual. In the true Kosambian tradition, she also thinks that the interface between science and society needs to be brought back on the agenda today, when intrusive technologies and techniques of mass surveillance are becoming increasingly common and incredibly powerful.

The Public Intellectual as a Political Being

Lest the discussion so far should give rise to the erroneous notion that the public intellectual is an extra-social being passing detached ethical judgements on everyone’s conduct, I must qualify the point that I am about to make. The public intellectual is a political being. They perform civic duties and voice political opinions even if they do not have any party affiliation. It is important for a sensitive and discerning public to understand and critique the motivations of the public intellectual and not just passively receive their thoughts as unassailable words of wisdom. This, however, should not imply the replacement of critical arguments with outright slander. The task for the public intellectual, in contrast, is not to pose as the embodiment of political neutrality but to be a conscientious thinker capable of taking positions. Intellectual clarity and political honesty are far better civic virtues than pretence and complacency. Public intellectuals, while developing critiques and assessing values, should be mindful of the larger social context that they inhabit and therefore should feel the need of consistently questioning the very axioms that shape their own thoughts.

In his article called “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay,” A K  Ramanujam (1989) had argued, citing the example of his mathematician-astrologer father, that the Indian society is very context-sensitive; the dominant context being mostly that of caste. The role cut out for the public intellectual in India is complicated by the fact that more often than not, they have to advocate universal ideals and values such as freedom and justice in an overtly context-sensitive, hierarchically stratified society. This involves a balancing act that has its own problems. In her essay, “To Question or Not to Question? That is the Question,” Thapar (Thapar et al 2015)) suggests that the marginal benefits of affirmative action on a permanent basis are outweighed by its costs—it can only lead to the furthering of potential identarian fissures within the Indian society. This, however, raises a key question regarding the serious under-representation of “Dalits–Bahujans–Adivasis” mong public intellectuals in India. The hyper-representation of Savarnas within the ranks of the Indian intelligentsia is bound to give rise to a certain myopia whenever the issues of social justice are debated in the public sphere, excluding those very people for whom policies are sought to be framed and influenced.


Said’s argument that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representation and articulation, becomes particularly telling in this regard. Who and not just what the intellectual represents, is an important question. The critique of affirmative action and its failings has to be read alongside that of the Indian intelligentsia and its tendency to generate caste-based hubris behind the smokescreen of “merit.” There is no better place to start this conversation than in the universities. At a time when prisons are on the verge of housing more public intellectuals than universities whose campuses refuse entry to students citing the pandemic as a perpetual excuse, it becomes imperative, as Giorgio Agamben (2020) says, to set up new universitates—not with brick and mortar but with students flocking to teachers like Thapar.


Thapar’s decades-long record of interventions as one of the foremost public intellectuals in India has been exemplary. These interventions in the form of speeches, writings, public interest litigations, and civic advocacy of causes have been timely and visible. Her consistent and meaningful engagement with the people at large makes the present ruling dispensation anxious precisely because it reveals historical contingencies that disrupt their monotonous notions of India’s origins and destiny. Being a public intellectual in India today certainly involves observing a rather sorry state of affairs in public life. However, to borrow again from Said (1996: xviii), “[w]itnessing a sorry state of affairs when one is not in power is by no means a monotonous, monochromatic activity. It involves what Foucault once called ‘a relentless erudition,’ scouring alternative sources, exhuming buried documents, reviving forgotten (or abandoned) histories. It involves a sense of the dramatic and of the insurgent, making a great deal of one’s rare opportunities to speak, catching the audience’s attention, being better at wit and debate than one’s opponents. And there is something fundamentally unsettling about intellectuals who have neither offices to protect nor territory to consolidate and guard; self-irony is therefore more frequent than pomposity, directness more than hemming and hawing. But there is no dodging the inescapable reality that such representations by intellectuals will neither make them friends in high places nor win them official honors. It is a lonely condition, yes, but it is always a better one than a gregarious tolerance for the way things are.” Very few public intellectuals in India have embraced this lonely condition with as much composure and conviction as Thapar. May she continue to inspire generations with her scholarship and activism in the years to come.

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