Saturday, 4 December, 2021

The Power And Peril Of Intellectuals

Dev Raj Dahal


Educated persons of society as a group or class of intelligentsia are progressive ones. They are defined by their mindful orientation to and political influence in shaping the nation’s worldview and direction. Intellectuals, who exercise their intellect and conscience, delight to show thinking, knowledge and skill to steer overall modernisation of society and its change. Nepali sages, filled with intellectual riches of reason and contemplation, have embellished open-mindedness over many centuries, glowed the feeling of inner depth of self for humility, sagacity and character beyond the phenomenal world of materialism, positivism and scientism.
An independent intellectual has historical, cultural and reflective awareness of one’s own self and the vision. Gifted for creativity and an ability to pull together others in time of national crisis intellectuals differ from elites as the later specialise in the art of possible and rationalise interests, virtuous or vicious, for sadistic self-satisfaction while the former is governed by public conscience aspiring to lift Nepalis to a higher culture, banish disorder and radiate its influence for national unity.
Liberal intellectuals of Nepal, filled with the arsenal of rationality and freedom, are virtuous. Unlike scholars frozen in academic faculties and often fear curriculum updating, they are engaged in critical thinking on ecological, social, economic and political issues, absorbed in reading, research, critique, reflection and synthesis of knowledge for strapping up enduring wisdom for a civic order. Liberal intellectuals possess scientific, artistic, poetic, literary and creative ability to conceptualise, analyse and synthesise the stock of experience, information and data into knowledge and supply contextual policy-relevant views about the solution of puzzles and social problems. Others, driven by feudal legacy, succumb to hedonism obeying to their own vengeful human nature, egoism and impulse, unchecked by reason and higher norms and ignorant of the consequences of their actions. Still others are assimilated into thought-conditioning. They are unconscious of the value of national spirit, heritage and historical achievement to build a rational future.
The pedantic, doctrinaire and jargon-ridden ones are captive of the peril of their own boxes and fail to see the reality of Nepali life. They often see natives from the lens, language and canon of others, not by internally generated standards, and weak to indigenise universal knowledge to fit national and local context for overall progress. Still, others restlessly veer to repulsive conformity to parochial and partisan interests, lack a critical sense of inquiry and curiosity, deficits of independent judgments and fail to mirror the voice of marginal and uneducated Nepalis enabling them to acquire will, knowledge and skill for self-rule.
The clashing positioning of Nepali intellectuals and uneven scale of their national consciousness and national identity often rub layers of confusion and motives except in a shared sentiment of pride in national memory of self-rule, civilisational roots, emotional experience against invaders and feeling of victimisation as the spirit of modern time. The nation suffers if intellectuals veer between the state of hysteria and static mode, relish mediocrities, do only caricature of others in thinking without contextual novelty, detach their responsibility from the concerns of citizens and remain utility maximiser worthy of brain drain.
Karl Mannheim, the author of Ideology and Utopia, argues “intellectuals constitute either a class or at least an appendage to a class” and adds that “a large body of our intellectuals come from rentier strata, whose income is derived directly or indirectly from rents and interest on investments.” This shows that classical role of Nepali intellectuals preoccupied with knowledge is shifting to the artistry of various consulting institutions who farm rents from the state, non-state, market, civil society, NGOs and INGOs, refuse to incorporate national lore, belief, ideal and experience and distort institutional goals. It is fermenting social struggles for change in the authority of intellectual culture. The classical Nepali intellectuals trained in Sanskrit language and wisdom now constantly fear of beings ignored in the discourse of social scientists and policy makers on domestic and foreign policy issues though they are the carriers of culture, sanity of tradition and spiritual heritage of enlightenment the nation boasts of.
Obviously, modern intellectuals’ affiliation with interest groups, geopolitical interests, political parties, regime, social classes, gender, region and religion helped them evolve particular type of political concepts, frame partial agenda and help each unit to mobilise population for partial collective action. They are the ones who upturned Sanskritisation unveiling sudden zeal of external imperatives than internal needs and expressions. Those Nepali intellectuals with civic orientation bear national worldview, awaken citizens, hold strong conviction and advocate impartiality of public institutions in the delivery of public good and services thus symbolising liberal democracy. In a hierarchical society like Nepal intellectuals autonomous of subsidiary units exercise greater freedom than those bonded in interest-based contracts with them for lucrative projects.
Nepali legislators in the past justified their thought and body control by the top leaders in the wake of vote of no confidence motion in the parliament for a desire to curry favour for career interests while those exercising conscience had fallen from favour. An enforced silence haunts new generation of leaders in the committees entailing the democratisation of inner life of political parties. Many intellectuals emerging outside the political arena and donors’ loop lack social and economic opportunities for the pursuit of their vocation in the service of freedom, truth and justice.
Antonio Gramsci coined the term “organic intellectuals” who are not a class apart from society but evolved from its culture, history, language, feeling and knowledge and less disruptive of ecology, society, economy and polity. The “inorganic intellectuals” are ahistorical, de-culturalized and nihilistic who often think the imitation of alien knowledge is the best for socialisation, education, policy, law, institutions and social change and advance the logic of what Devkota calls “me first.” The embodied intellectuals derive their knowledge from the experience and will of citizens and seek a middle way to mediate the interest of those above and below to avoid schizophrenia.
The participation of Nepali intellectuals in varied educational systems tends to create a disparity on the bases of geography, birth, status, caste, income, profession, social mobility and varying circumstances of life. Those who specialise in certain occupational areas have better prospect in lives. The dynamic part of Nepali society is moving from one social stratification to another driven by technology unfolding entirely new opportunities for citizens depending on the scale and level of knowledge, expertise and connectivity. The ability of Nepali intellectuals lies in transforming the conflict of interest, identity and ideologies into conflict of the critical choice of public policy.
Ironically, one can see how modern intellectuals of Nepal are detached from their roots and uphold value, culture, life-style and food habits on imported ones thereby losing national confidence. One of the reasons of failure of Nepal’s overall progress is attributed to frequent imposition of discipline-deterministic idea in multi-hued topography, population and resource endowment. The persistent fault of Nepali social scientists is their inability to catch the acceleration of science and minimise its negative implications on society. This decay of the ability of Nepali intellectuals either in knowledge production or policy or even improve the ethical standards of social scientists has made them subject of media dispute and disrepute.
Nepali intellectuals, barring the native litterateurs, poets, artists, singers, cultural elites and historians who are deeply embedded in natural, social and cultural life of the nation, apply their concepts derived from the advanced parts of the world to real life position without the knowledge of local priorities and preconditions. Literary festivals are the arena to express social, economic and political ironies, morass and vices of the nation which is different from the seminars of policy wonks and social scientists. As a result, the native intellectuals have received titles and honours from citizens for their deep reflection on Nepali society. They constructed statues and monuments. The triumph of social sciences and their application in Nepali society without suitably indigenising them bore disruptive effects on its classical learning and sanity of wisdom. Social sciences have mainly helped the process of rationalisation of elites’ status quo, not accelerate the nation’s moral and material progress to a higher scale of freedom, justice and wellbeing.
The dominant intellectual landscape of Nepal is dotted with free-willing persons whose claims to self-righteousness excel their creative ability and enable them to escape from public morality and public responsibility. There is a strong tie between intellectuals and culture and no spirit of secular assault can erase it. Real intellectuals have childlike innocence and simplicity who often possess the spirit of inquiry and doubting mind. An intellectual break from the Nepali legacy of patrimonial political culture for a consensus on welfare state entails re-socialisation of leaders and citizens on its values of public good, impersonality in their dispensation and the formation of new public sphere that does justify the system imperative of sustainable progress. The dignity of Nepali intellectuals can only grow if they acquire organic character, apply the insights of nation’s historical wisdom in the statecraft and vault an inspiration to work together for innovation and creativity for purposive task of nation-building.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)