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 out those voices, either by intimidating and outshouting them, or more sinisterly silencing them.
Many have looked at the 2019 elections as a battle for the soul of India and the book’s title invokes something very similar with citizens playing a central role in the rejuvenation of the Republic. It is a battle that is apparently being lost, especially in the arena of the electoral as the BJP rampages home through every single contest. However, in every battle there are many wars and theatres and this book seems in the midst of the heat of the battle to be making a rallying cry. The rallying cry, however seems to be one of retreat as it withdraws from fallen universities, scientific establishments, literary academies and cultural foundations. Perhaps a little ominously Ram Madhav, just the day after the BJP’s massive victory in 2019, wrote that the ‘remnants of the cartel’ of secular intellectuals and liberal critics ‘need to be discarded from the country’s academic, cultural and intellectual landscape’ (‘This Election Result is a Positive Mandate in Favour of Narendra Modi’, The Indian Express, May 24th 2019).
There has been a tremendous outpouring of quality writing in response to the Modi government’s five years in power. That is why this review has invoked the idea of a republic of letters. In the aftermath of the massive electoral victory that the Modi led BJP has enjoyed, it almost seems that the harder people resist, write and speak out, the more such efforts seem to boomerang on those very people as Mr. Modi comes back, each time electorally even more fortified. The one exception to this trend would go back to late 2015, in the immediate wake of numerous writers, intellectuals and scientists returning their awards, the much talked about award wapsi, that this book has quite a bit on. This was followed by a crushing electoral defeat for the BJP in the Bihar assembly election. The BJP seems to have learnt its lessons well after the two crushing electoral defeats suffered in State Assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar in 2015.
Perhaps those who oppose Mr. Modi need to realize that they may be doing something wrong. One successful strategy of Mr. Modi’s has been to cast in the media the idea that writers and intellectuals are a discredited and derided lot. The reason for their opposition to Mr. Modi is thereby presented as their frustration and discontent at being locked out of prestigious educational, artistic and cultural foundations. Mr. Modi has contrasted his supposed simplicity to 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 that has been taken by a vast majority of writers, intellectuals, artists, scientists, but above all common people enlisted on this side. The first is that the cold reason passionately offered by the republic of letters withers in front of the spell that Mr. Modi seems to have cast on at least those people who offer him support. 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 in as controversial and contentious a move as demonetization. The second is that it would be unwise of the republic of letters to nostalgically think of reverting to a default position that existed before Mr. Modi. The Congress’s many years of rule provided a certain exclusive sphere to India’s intellectual class. To an extent Mr. Modi may have a point about the anguish of India’s intellectuals arising from their being shaken out of their comfort zones of university campuses and scientific, literary and cultural establishments.
The republic of letters would then have to think of blazing a new trail for the future. Interestingly, this is an insight that may be gleaned less by writers and intellectuals and more 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’ (p. 279). The transition that the republic of letters would in the process effect would be from the isolation of ivory towers to something more closely connected. Kanhaiya Kumar, who figures in this book, perhaps represents this ability to seamlessly combine the intellectualism of a prominent institution like JNU with an earthy explanation of the highbrow. The soul-stirring words contained in Rohith Vemula’s suicide note may just 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 sentinels that observed, resisted and recorded the ravages of the times.
Amir Ali is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.