India’s current anti-intellectual climate echoes McCarthy-era attacks on writers, scholars in the US

Ramachandra Guha

Books set in other countries and published at other times can sometimes be strikingly relevant to India today. This is certainly the case with Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published in 1963. I first read this book as a doctoral student 30 years ago, and reread it recently.

As a professor at one of America’s most prestigious universities, Columbia in New York, Hofstadter watched, with fascinated horror, the persecution of scholars and writers by the senator, Joe McCarthy, and his gang in the 1950s. After the senator was disgraced and then had died, the historian sat down to set this recent witch-hunt in the context of other such episodes of anti-intellectualism in American history.

Hofstadter traced the deep roots of this hostility to scholars and scholarship to the Evangelical tradition and its Biblical literalism. Through the 18th century, he wrote, “[t]he Puritan ideal of the minister as an intellectual and educational leader was steadily weakened in the face of the evangelical ideal of the minister as a popular crusader and exhorter”. These evangelicals looked upon “piety and intellect as being in open enmity”. One writer, alarmed at the religious revivalism sweeping the American South in the 1770s, remarked: “Few or no Books are to be found in all this vast Country, beside the Assembly, Catechism, Watts Hymns, Bunyans Pilgrims Progress... Nor do they delight in Historical Books or in having them read to them... for these People despise Knowledge, and instead of honouring a Learnede Person, or any one of Wit or Knowledge, be it in the Arts, Sciences or Languages, they despise and Ill treat them - And this Spirit prevails even among the Principals of this Province”.

(This description calls to mind Hindutva organisations of the present, within which well-researched works of history or social science are likewise disparaged, whereas the dated, dogmatic screeds of VD Savarkar and MS Golwalkar are venerated. The Hindu fundamentalist of the 21st century, like the Christian fundamentalist of the 18th century, considers “piety and intellect as being in open enmity”.)

In 19th-century America, such anti-intellectual religiosity further consolidated itself. One influential preacher dismissed Shakespeare and Byron as “triflers and blasphemers of God”. Another remarked that he would rather have zeal without knowledge than knowledge without zeal. “Thousands of college graduates are going as fast as they can straight to hell,” said this anti-intellectual fundamentalist. “If I had a million dollars I’d give $999,999 to the church and $1 for education,” he added.

In the first half of the 20th century, there was a belated awakening of respect for scholars and scholarships in the United States of America. Two presidents, bearing the same surname, were instrumental in integrating cutting-edge knowledge into politics and public policy. These were Theodore Roosevelt, who was associated with the Progressive movement; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was associated with the New Deal. But the tide turned backwards again in 1952, when the presidential campaign between General Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson “dramatized the contrast between intellect and philistinism in the opposing candidates”. Eisenhower’s victory, writes Hofstadter, “was taken both by the intellectuals themselves and by their critics as a measure of their repudiation by America”. Stevenson’s “smashing defeat” was seen by many as “a repudiation by plebiscite of American intellectuals and of intellect itself”.

Some months after Eisenhower became president, the historian, Arthur Schlesinger, wrote that “[t]he intellectual... is on the run in American society”. Writing of the “acute and sweeping” hostility towards intellectuals expressed by the right wing in the 1950s, Hofstadter said it constituted “a categorical folkish dislike of the educated classes and of anything respectable, established, pedigreed, or cultivated”. Diehard Republicans thought intellectuals to be “pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive”. They further believed that “the discipline of the heart, and the old-fashioned principles of religion and morality, are more reliable guides to life than an education which aims to produce minds responsive to new trends in thought and art”.

American anti-intellectualism was fuelled by the cult of the practical or self-made man, who built businesses and won wars without going to Harvard or Princeton. As president, Dwight Eisenhower himself enthusiastically embraced this depreciation of the intellectual. At a meeting of the Republican Party in 1954, Eisenhower remarked: “I heard a definition of an intellectual that I thought was very interesting: a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.”

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Anti-intellectualism and India

The parallels with contemporary India are striking. Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014 has emboldened the Hindutva core to launch a full-fledged attack on independent-minded scholars and writers. Their language is far more crude than the Republicans of 1950s America; but the essence of their characterisation, or dismissal, is the same. Instead of “pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish” they use “libtard, Aaptard, sickular, 10 Janpath bootlicker, toadie of the Italian waitress”, and so on.

Another and more worrying difference is this – that anti-intellectual ideologues can do far more damage in India than they ever could in America. For the likes of Harvard and Princeton are privately funded, and even public universities like Berkeley and Wisconsin zealously guard their scholarly autonomy and integrity. Here, however, our best as well as our worst universities are amenable to political control and manipulation. And so, instead of learning physics, biology, history, economics or international relations, the students at Jawaharlal Nehru University shall be made to salute the national flag and worship an Army tank to prove their patriotic credentials.

In his book, Hofstadter perceptively remarked that the Right “has always liked to blur the distinction between the moderate progressive and the revolutionary”. This again, is as true of India as of America. Liberals who have made very public criticisms of Marxism, Maoism and Stalinism are characterised by Hindutva ideologues as communists merely because they oppose right-wing extremism as well.

Intellectuals may believe that they are merely writing books or essays, but their enemies on the Right see them as undermining the Nation itself. Writing of the search for scapegoats so characteristic of American religious fundamentalists, Hofstadter observed:

 “There has always been in our national experience a type of mind which elevates hatred to a kind of creed; for this mind, group hatreds take a place in politics similar to the class struggle in some other modern societies. Filled with obscure and ill-directed grievances and frustrations, with elaborate hallucinations about secrets and conspiracies, groups of malcontents have found scapegoats at various times in Masons or abolitionists, Catholics, Mormons, or Jews, Negroes or immigrants, the liquor interests or the international bankers. In the succession of scapegoats chosen by the followers of this tradition of Know-Nothingism, the intelligentsia have at last in our time found a place.”

One could write in comparable terms of the Hindutva Right-wing. The first group to feature in their capacious demonology are, of course, Muslims; followed by Christians, communists, foreigners, Nehru and the Nehru-Gandhi family, and (for some) Mahatma Gandhi himself. In this succession of scapegoats chosen by the followers of this tradition of Know-Nothingism, the intellectual has at last in our time found a place.

Writing of his own country, Richard Hofstadter observed: “Some individuals live by hatred as a... creed.” In India, alas, one would have to replace the “some” with “many”. And while scholars like Hofstadter, living before the age of social media, were confronted with this hate only erratically and sporadically, intellectuals in our country face it every day, even every minute. The term “McCarthyism” has passed into the dictionary, but in fact there is far more hostility to intellectuals in the India of today than there ever was in the America of the 1950s. Joe McCarthy and his henchmen worked to deprive independent thinkers and writers of their jobs; but the anti-intellectual Indians of today can go much further, and – as the examples of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh show – even deprive independent thinkers and writers of their lives.

This piece was first published in The Telegraph.