The most important thing, the most valuable thing about our country that we must cherish and protect at all costs is its democratic character. This fact needs to be emphasised because except for a relatively brief period during the Emergency, we have enjoyed uninterrupted democracy and have come to take it for granted. It is unlikely that our country will wake up one ugly morning and find itself under dictatorship.

But complacence is unwarranted because it is certainly possible that, while we are diverted by bread and circus, by visions of a great destiny awaiting our nation, the rights, liberties and freedoms which constitute democracy will slowly and imperceptibly be eroded. A country like ours with its regrettable tendency towards personality cults is particularly vulnerable. This possibility is all the more pertinent today, when many people across the board seem to be filled with deep unease about where, as a people, as a country and a democracy, we are going.

Any attempt to erode or dismantle democracy begins with repression of free speech, with a systematic effort to envelop and smother the public sphere in the dark smoke of fear through intimidation and orchestrated violence. Therefore, when we see a suppression of free speech and regimentation of what can be said, what has to be said (in addition to what you can and cannot eat, wear, watch, believe or enjoy, what gestures are allowed and which are taboo) we must know that democracy is in peril. The public sphere is the very medium of democracy and denotes the permanent, free and limitless possibility of people’s public conversation—about their dreams, aspirations, anxieties, frustrations, complaints, disagreements, grievances, everything.

When that conversation or even a small part of it is stopped, the resulting silence is an ominous indication that democracy is threatened in a fundamental way. The conversations could be shrill, uncouth, could be about oneself or others, they might be conformist or transgressive, innocuous or “dangerous”. But they cannot be silenced as long as they take place within certain limits that are already stipulated by the law and the Constitution. It is therefore important that the conversation is kept alive, that the public sphere maintains its vibrancy. What we call intellectuals are the people who make sure that the conversation keeps going and safeguard the openness of the public sphere. It follows that when the public sphere is threatened, the intellectual must become proactive.

Most of us make the mistake of imagining that the core of democracy is parliamentary government. It is not the core of democracy; in fact, it is not even a part of its basic structure. It is only a procedure.

But who is an intellectual? What are her functions and her obligations? What characterises her? What qualities of mind, what intellectual values are to be expected from her? This essay attempts to achieve some clarity on these questions, which is important at the present when at least some people are asking themselves whether they should speak up, whether it is worth the risks and whether it is any of their business to do so.


Before entering into these questions, it is important to discuss the nature of the democracy the public sphere and its conversations are supposed to nourish and protect. Most of us still make the mistake of imagining that the core of democracy is parliamentary representative government. It is not the core of democracy; in fact, it is not even a part of its basic structure. It is only a procedure, a mechanism opted for its feasibility, to implement democracy.

Democracy is the practice of the principle that all citizens are equal (implying that that any power hierarchy that is put in place is purely instrumental and does not dilute the equality of citizenship), that every individual citizen has an equal and proactive right of decision about the contours of our society, and that the nation is coterminous with the totality of the people and not the State. The State is just a machinery at the service of the people and does not represent an overarching power over the people. What is seen as power is only authorisation and nothing more.

There is no democracy without uncompromising humanism. The very idea of “people” is based on dismantling power hierarchies and placing every human being on the same level, equally deserving of dignity.

Quite simply—and this very simplicity sometimes blinds us to the centrality of this crucial fact—there are only rules and institutions, themselves approved by the people, the highest of them being the Constitution, by which the people must abide.

Next—and this comes from the very concept itself—democracy is incompatible with nationalism. National democracies are self-contradictory, transient entities that, one must hope, will someday resolve themselves into a durable, cohesive entity that would encompass all humanity. No convoluted arguments are needed to demonstrate this truth. It is just this: we are agreed that democracy is a matter of the people’s liberty and happiness and their right to decide the modalities for those objectives. Now, if democracy is something that exists and operates at the level of “people”, we must ask ourselves whether people are divisible.

The very idea of people is the expression of the conception of the human family. There is no democracy without uncompromising humanism. On what basis can we say, at the level of people, that a family from Eritrea is different from a family from Canada and can be treated differently? The very idea of “people” is based on dismantling power hierarchies and placing every human being on the same level, equally deserving of dignity, livelihood and peace. In spirit, democracy is incompatible with feeling differently about someone simply because they live across some arbitrary border drawn by power mongers on a map. From the democratic perspective, national boundaries are at the most merely markers of cultural diversity.

That is why the common man, left to himself (I say common man, though it is the common woman who has a better and more spontaneous grasp of this insight) finds no reason to love his “nation” and hate (or refrain from loving) another nation. It amounts to arbitrarily loving some people and hating some others for no discernible reason. We have seen the tragic absurdity of it in the Partition. Adjacent villages living in neighbourly good will for centuries were expected to treat each other as enemies or at any rate as aliens practically overnight because someone sitting somewhere far away, for reasons totally unconnected to the reality of their lives, had drawn a line on a map. That is why even those who fought for the freedom of this country were deeply uncomfortable with the idea of nationalism and regarded it as a narrow and restrictive notion that binds and cripples the human spirit into a clannishness unworthy of civilised humanity.

Our experiments in democracy have shown its practice to be at times chaotic, corrupt, inefficient, and often quite farcical. But with all its faults and imperfections, it is still the most important thing in our possession.

If we imagine that we can balance our inner divisiveness on the basis of caste, religion and region by unifying ourselves through a nationalism that is equally divisive except that it is external, we would be deeply mistaken. More egregious still is to attempt to give a certain slant, ideologically grounded or culturally hegemonic, to that nationalism. That it has become a cliché does not diminish the value of the phrase “unity in diversity” as the virtue of our country. Any unity that is forged through suppression of diversity is a form of hegemony and incompatible with the inclusivism that characterises democracy. The idea of unity in diversity is not amenable to limits, national or of any other kind. You cannot have an exclusionary version of unity in diversity at any level, on any scale. The centripetal drift of that unity must be limitless.



t is true that our practice of democracy has been, let us grant, less than satisfactory. Our experiments in democracy have shown its practice to be at times chaotic, frivolous, venal, corrupt, inefficient, and often quite farcical. But with all its faults and imperfections, it is still the most important thing in our possession. No matter how imperfect, it is still democracy. It would be the height of folly to imagine that we might have been better off or even equally well off without it. It is indeed easy to feel cynical about our democracy. There is a tendency in us, when we are fed up with the erratic, fumbling movement of democracy to long for strong, decisive leadership, to the point of welcoming benevolent tyranny. But if we yield to such temptations, or let our cynicism breed insouciance, we may lose democracy and that would be a point of no easy return. There will always be vested interests which will try to convince us that some other monstrous thing they are ushering in is just a variant of democracy. It is important to understand that those alternatives are not variants of democracy any more than black is a shade of pink.

Democracy is not a system of one single ruler or a small number of rulers. Therefore, there is no place for strong, charismatic or powerful “leaders” in democracy. Equally, there is no densely concentrated power centre at the core of a democracy. Democracy is meant to dismantle the hierarchies of power and disperse power and diffuse it among all in a homogeneous, horizontal way. The structural adjustments necessitated by the mechanism of high-ratio representations cannot be allowed to undermine this reality.

Therefore, if we see the formation of one central or a number of scattered power fields that seem to decide everything, we should know that democracy is giving way to something else. We are well advised to be sceptical of any such thing even if it is presented as an interim arrangement.

Power once grabbed is never returned.

In a democracy, the ruling party, the government, the State and the Nation are distinct—even if overlapping—entities. It may be necessary to conflate some of them in certain contexts for certain practical purposes. But when they begin to be projected as one and the same thing, or coterminous in some way, or at some level, it is no longer democracy.

Similarly, a country like ours, characterised by pluralism, would have a demographic heterogeneity. There will be varying distributions of religious, ethnic, cultural groups. In other words, there will be majorities and minorities everywhere. But democracy is the embodiment of the principle that the majorities will not be privileged. Quite simply, democracy is not compatible with majoritarianism, because the latter is intrinsically anti-individualistic and is irreconcilable with a system in which the individual citizen, regardless of any other identity or status, is the unit. 

It is a mistake to imagine that to be an intellectual a citizen must possess extraordinary mental abilities. Instead of asking about qualifications, it would be more useful to begin by talking about the function.

To put it concisely, democracy is essentially a matter of faith in the dictum (along with subsidiary axioms about other fundamental rights) that every individual and any collective consisting of individuals have an inalienable right to determine their way of life and progress. Any deviation from this grounding principle is a serious departure from democracy and should be a cause for alarm.



n a general sort of way, we might say that an intellectual is any citizen who thinks on behalf of others as well as helps them think for themselves about public affairs and issues of common or collective interest. While it is a good enough definition to start with, it raises some uncomfortable questions. What about motives? Vested interests? Are ideologues to be regarded as intellectuals? Must not an intellectual possess some qualifications? Is every pompous fool to be allowed to strut around claiming to be an intellectual? Whether we get fully satisfactory answers or not, it is important to draw attention to these questions, for every bit of clarity helps.

We may begin by decentering the idea that an intellectual must necessarily be a person with great knowledge, extraordinary understanding and some special skills of articulation. While such a person can be an intellectual, and such qualifications are certainly a great help, it is a mistake to imagine that in order to be an intellectual a citizen must possess extraordinary mental abilities. I suggest that instead of asking about the qualifications of the intellectual, it would be more useful to begin by talking about the function of the intellectual. Functions are of course related to capabilities. But ultimately, the capability is relevant only in the context of the required function.

Someone’s competence as a typist is relevant only in the context of our requiring him to perform the function of typing. So, then, should we ask, what is the function of the intellectual? Not exactly, because the manner in which this question is formulated is somewhat misleading. It assumes that there is a person or a class of persons designated as intellectuals (presumably by virtue of some skills) about whose function we are enquiring. Instead, we must focus on the function itself, bracketing the question of who can or should perform that function. So what is the function when performing which, an individual is being an intellectual?

The answer is simple enough. Democracy is based on the assumption of informed citizenship. But that is an ideal condition that may never be realised for several practical reasons. In the meantime, if democracy is not to be reduced to a farce, there must be some way to balance the deficit of informed citizenship. The importance of this lies in the fact that, due to the basic principle of democracy according to which every citizen has an equal right to the process of decision making, one of the ways in which the agency of the individual citizen can be sabotaged is by controlling the channels of knowledge required for informed decision making.

Democracy is a structural attempt to flatten the power hierarchy such that all power transactions occur at the same level. The ultimate object  is to eliminate or drastically minimise power asymmetries.

There are many ways in which this is done, ranging from simply blocking access to information (now made somewhat difficult thanks to RTI) to systematic misinformation, obfuscation of public discourse, censorship, emotionalisation of practical issues, sectarian rhetoric, alarmist jingoism, and so on. These are all the tools which ensure that the citizen remains ignorant of or confused about or wrongly agitated about the issues that matter to her. There must be a mechanism outside institutionality, and itself immune to institutionalisation, to ensure that citizens remain empowered to take informed decisions. That mechanism is the entrenchment of the right to engage in free, public speech with reference to all societal affairs with a view to inform and educate whoever is less informed. The intellectual function consists in that engagement.

We must understand that democracy is a structural attempt to flatten the power hierarchy such that all power transactions occur at the same level. In other words, the ultimate object of the democratic structure is to eliminate or drastically minimise power asymmetries. Now, there will always be individuals and groups driven by ambition and greed who wish to rebuild the power pyramid with themselves at the top. Their constant endeavour would be this re-hierarchising of power transactions while retaining the façade of equality of power.

Their chief effort would be to persuade the citizen to surrender her agency to someone projected as possessing the strength, stature, wisdom, selflessness and ability to manage things for them. They will try to alter the conditional consent of democracy to an absolute surrender to a form of dictatorship, authoritarianism or oligarchy, refraining from too visibly dismantling the democratic processes and procedures. It is for these reasons that the preservation of democracy requires that the freedom, neutrality, openness and transparency of the public sphere are constantly safeguarded with relentless vigilance. The function of the intellectual is to attend to this task of eternal vigilance.



he next question is who is to perform this function. This question has two parts: who can perform this function and who should perform this function. The answer to the latter is that in a democracy, every single one of us must be willing, to the best of our ability, to attend to this function. To what extent, with what impact one can do it is another matter. It is an obligatory function like keeping one’s surroundings clean. There may be people assigned for the task full time. But that does not release us from our own obligation.

Coming to the first part of the question, we must assert that in principle everyone can perform the intellectual function. One might ask, does it mean that there are no qualifications for being an intellectual or performing the intellectual function? The answer, strictly speaking, must be, “Yes”. Just like a sense of natural justice, in a democracy we must assume that given the necessary inputs, and an atmosphere of tranquil reflection, all of us can make sane, fair and reasonable decisions. In this context, it is more useful to take the view that the qualifications in terms of knowledge, understanding, articulation, etc. are concerned, are not a matter of absolute magnitude as much as gradient.

 In simple terms, it is not a question of how much you understand about an issue that determines your role as much as how much less than you those around you understand it. It would be falling into the trap of elitist democracy (which of course is an oxymoron) to imagine that there are minimum qualifications for the intellectual function and those possessing those qualifications must be entrusted with that function. Everyone has a right to speak and be heard. And it is not the qualifications of the speaker but the quality of what is said that must be focused on. Extending the same idea, we could say that much more important than qualifications is the question of the qualities and attitudes required for doing justice to the intellectual function. The intellectual function mainly involves providing information (in a richer sense), understanding and critical analysis.

Regarding information, the intellectual task consists in obtaining and providing correct and accurate information. Contrary to what one would imagine, this part of the function has greater relevance in connection with social information than State information. Today, it is easy enough to obtain the latter information. The greater responsibility arises in the context of social information, where to sift the truth from gossip, media hype, malicious misinformation, motivated exaggeration, distorted or strategically amputated accounts of events and so on, is a far from simple task. 

This is much less a matter of sharpness of intellect than mental maturity and a sense of responsibility. It requires attention to basic but very often neglected things like checking the sources of information, resisting the temptation to believe what accords with one’s own prejudices, looking for internal inconsistencies and implausibilities, and so on. Any information and in particular the most important information one may need in order to take a rational decision may not be simple or comprehensible. It may be very detailed but—in fact sometimes precisely because of that—its meaning and implications may not be clear. It is the task of the intellectual to first understand and disseminate that understanding to others. This is not as simple as it may sound for it involves focusing on the truth from the right perspective.

When we speak of information we are talking about what we call “facts”. But “facts” are more slippery objects than we imagine. It is possible to state a fact and yet mislead the listener. For instance, one may state the “fact” that “the minister was sober on Friday”, which (although it does not logically imply so) may convey the sly suggestion that he was drunk the rest of the week, which may not be true at all.

There are many such ways in which facts can be put in the service of mischief. Another common way, mostly adopted by the media, is to include details that may have no bearing on the matter but by being mentioned change its entire complexion. Take the headline “Techie killed by two traders”. Now, the actual fact may be that the victim being a software engineer and the killers being traders was just incidental. But the headline gives the impression that the respective professions of the persons involved had some bearing on what happened. The defence of the reporter could be that he is trying providing all the related information. But you cannot ignore perspective. The way you project the possible relevance of the mentioned circumstances makes a great deal of difference.

This tendency does a considerable amount of harm in some cases. Seeing that identity politics are the most central fact of our polity today, a headline which states that a Dalit farmer committed suicide conveys the impression that his being a Dalit was a relevant factor in what happened, which may very well not be the case. Whether such reportage, in intention, is mischievous or not is secondary. The fact is that the meaning conveyed by that formulation will have consequences.

A large number of communal riots are the result of irresponsible reportage, either in local print media or street gossip (or social media which is mostly street gossip on a global level) where the identities of people involved in an incident are highlighted in such a way as to suggest that the identities played a causal role in the incident. And then there is the entire bag of tricks of rhetoric where truth is an immediate casualty. Alluring slogans and catchphrases to twist arguments, appeals to the negative emotions of the audience, etc. are all used to distort the knowledge citizens need in order to make a right decision or oppose what they regard as a wrong decision.

The intellectual is a watchman who whistles intermittently the whole night, staying awake himself and keeping people assured that, even as they sleep in their beds, someone is alert to possible mischief.

Next comes that part of the intellectual function that I call critical analysis. After cleansing the information of all the pollutants mentioned above, the task of subjecting it to critical scrutiny remains. This essentially involves providing different, sometimes conflicting perspectives on a given issue. This has, as any other aspect of the intellectual function, as much to do with a sense of honesty and responsibility as with skill.

The intellectual’s task is to explain to her audience how the issue could be perceived in different ways, which considerations push in the direction of which solution; what the grounds for accepting something are and what the grounds for rejecting it. It implies—and this is of crucial importance—that the intellectual must exemplify the pluralistic, contestatory character of the public sphere and strive to protect that character from forces that will try to turn that space into a medium purely for State propaganda or ideological polarisation.

Democracy is built on a fiduciary relationship between people and their representatives. The intellectual must be the watchdog of that trust, and whenever it looks likely to be abused, she must speak up. What we call a whistle-blower is a person who exposes some particular misdeed in some particular place. The intellectual, on the other hand, is a watchman who whistles intermittently the whole night, staying awake himself and keeping people assured that, even as they sleep in their beds, someone is alert to possible mischief. But his whistle also means that there is no place for reckless complacency, that vigilance, as someone said, is the price of liberty.

It is commonly said, in a somewhat accusative tone, that all intellectuals are Leftists. As such this statement is not true but there is a reason why it appears that way. If the task of the intellectual is to safeguard the public sphere as the necessary medium of democracy, he will inevitably have to question and challenge the claims of powerful sections who wish to pursue their designs away from public scrutiny. It is in the nature of power structures that there is a convergence and symbiosis of power centres. In a capitalist democracy like ours, for instance, there will be a relation of mutual dependence between the State and big business. Consequently, to defend democracy is essentially to challenge and question the claims of those who wish to create invisible power hierarchies.

The required qualities are a matter of ethics, rather than skill—honesty, impartiality, a sense of responsibility and a sense of collective good.

Further, the intellectual need not be active if everything is going well. Her task becomes salient only when things are not going well, when the status quo is against the legitimate interests of the people. So, when the intellectual speaks, on most occasions it would be to demand change. This stance makes the intellectual appear radical or leftist because the political right is usually identified with status quo and the left with demands of change.

There is of course another reason for the intellectual being branded as a leftist. In communist countries or theocratic States the political structure is authoritarian, and there is hardly any public sphere. Therefore, anyone who speaks against the State will be in prison if not already shot. For various reasons, socialist democracies in the proper sense have hardly existed. Till now, with some variations, there have been only capitalist democracies. This is not the place to go into the paradoxes and the tensions between the two facets of such societies. Suffice it to say here that capitalism, as of now, is the condition of the possibility of democracy and also its chief obstacle. Against this background, it is hardly surprising that unless he turns into the spokesperson of the nexus of capital and State machinery, the intellectual must resign himself to being dubbed as something of a leftist.

Coming to the qualities and attitudes necessary for a proper discharge of these obligations, the required qualities are more a matter of ethics, rather than skill—honesty, impartiality, a sense of responsibility and a developed sense of collective good. The only way these qualities are practised is that the owner of these qualities must be an agnostic, who is willing to accept that truth may lie on any side and is therefore willing to present different, mutually conflicting viewpoints with total detachment. It follows that a person with that attitude will not resort to attacks on certain positions. The intellectual function requires the relinquishing of particular positions. You may have a position on a certain matter of public relevance, you may have your opinions and preferences. But when performing the intellectual function, you must suspend them or if you must, you should present them as one of the possible positions without failing to make an explicit declaration of your preference for that position. The task of the intellectual is to offer an analysis of available choices to enable rational decision. Those who are incapable of this detachment and honesty should not be trusted with the intellectual function.

It follows that an intellectual cannot be an ideologue. An ideologue is any person who thinks there is only one right way and he is in possession of it. Anyone toeing the party line and yet claiming to be an intellectual is a fraud. To represent a political party is to share its aspiration to come to or stay in power. No one constrained by that loyalty can speak the truth. Either he has to be a traitor to his party or a traitor to truth—and democracy.

The same applies to those who not only hold an ideological position fundamentally opposed to the very idea of parliamentary democracy but actively support those who are engaged in armed struggle against the democratic State. Such people cannot be trusted with the neutrality required of an intellectual. In fact, their right of participation in a democratic public sphere becomes problematic. An honest intellectual cannot support the attempts to subvert the democratic State through violent means and yet claim right of participation in civil society.

Another quality that the intellectual should have is belief in the intrinsic importance of honesty and transparency. A person who believes in the acceptability of “grand lies” for the good of the people is a fascist. In a democracy no one must presume a superior wisdom that entitles them to hide the truth from the people or tailor it, putatively in the latter’s interests. Democracy is based on the principle that people have an inalienable right to truth which in turn is based on the principle that people have a right to debate, disagree and explore and arrive at the truth or the right opinion in their own way in a space of total freedom.

Returning to the question of obligation, one might ask, given that one might possess the requisite qualities of an intellectual, why should one accept the obligation of intellectual function? The answer is that the obligation comes with the status of citizenship itself. Or if we wish to seek a deeper ethical rationale, we could say that the ethical basis lies in the very idea that just as there are rights that follow from the fact that one is a human being or even a sentient being, there are obligations that follow from the fact that one is a sentient being.

These obligations derive content from our situatedness with regard to who needs our help and to what extent we are in a position to help. This is the spirit of the general dictum that it is as wrong to be a mute witnesses to oppression as to inflict it or be complicit in it. In the context of democracy, the situatedness of being in a position to preserve fellow citizens’ right to decide their destinies, imposes the obligation to accept the intellectual function whenever required.

In principle every citizen, no matter how “unintelligent”, “ignorant” or “uneducated”, has the right to critique institutions which are meant to be the instruments of these values.

To illustrate this point, consider the example of a doctor. A doctor is one who is trained to heal, who has the capability to heal. But we also expect him to perceive himself as one whose duty it is to heal. In all cases, but particularly as in the case of a doctor, a firm and undeniable relation between skills and duties exists. The Hippocratic Oath makes this quite clear. This at any rate is the spirit of that oath—that wherever there is illness and ameliorable physical suffering, the physician’ duty automatically comes into play. In other words, the broad presupposition is that at least in certain cases, capabilities entail obligations without choice, that certain abilities unconditionally imply commensurate duties. That is to say, in the domain of duty, sometimes the dictum that “if you can, you must” holds.

On the other hand, intellectual function can be seen purely in terms of rational self-interest as well. Democracy, as I stated earlier, if it is not to be reduced to a façade over the substantive reality of bureaucratic oligarchy, must performatively assume that every single citizen understands the meaning of justice and truth, of duty and the right to what one might call the sacredness of life. From this it follows that in principle every citizen, no matter how “unintelligent”, “ignorant” or “uneducated”, has the right to critique institutions which are meant to be the instruments of these values. It is absolutely essential that each of us understands and helps others understand that if I remain passively indifferent to this fundamental feature of democracy, very soon I will find myself living under a dictatorship.

The practice of democracy requires that all of us must be willing to function as intellectuals inasmuch as we find occasion to perform that duty. One may contribute towards that duty by making the effort to understand the issue inasmuch as possible with the help of the generic cognitive skills one has acquired in the context of one’s basic social role, and communicate that understanding to those who need it; strive to create the conditions for the continuance of this activity and also help create conditions of self-reliance in this regard.

To be an intellectual in this sense there are no special qualifications. There are certain principles that attend this responsibility. But there is no particular space in which to perform this duty, and there is no permission to be sought from anyone since in a democracy, the entire social space is coterminous with public sphere and the people are sovereign. More importantly, as I said above, the primary mode of the intellectual function is not expositional as much as dialogical. Hence, it is the duty of all those engaging in the intellectual task to preserve against all odds, the possibility and ethos of conversation.