The difference between an activist and a public intellectual is the difference between Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy. Patkar is the activist, wedded to the cause of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), whereas Roy is the influential voice, generating support, controversies and raising awareness about NBA through her writings and public appearances.
Public intellectuals, in India or elsewhere, come in all shapes and sizes, depending on how they combine the two sets of skills required for the job—knowledge and the ability to communicate. They usually hold liberal or “progressive” views, which often puts them at odds with the prevailing majority or “nationalist” sentiment, but even their detractors pay keen attention to what they have to say.
The more well-known among them are celebrities; the causes they back can become cause célèbre—we all know about Amartya Sen’s support for activist Dr Binayak Sen, about Roy’s long tracts on dams and Kashmir, and who historian Ramachandra Guha thinks deserves the Bharat Ratna. Then there are the less well-known intellectuals, admired for their commitment to a cause, backed by grass-roots activism and impressive scholarship.
Double impact: Baviskar and Sundar (below) have worked with the Adivasis of central India as research scholars and activists. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Sociologists Nandini Sundar and Amita Baviskar fall in this category—both are among the six winners of the Infosys Prize for 2010 that was awarded on 6 January in Mumbai. The award is given out every year by the Bangalore-based Infosys Science Foundation for “outstanding contributions to scientific research”. Sundar and Baviskar got a cash prize of Rs25 lakh each—unlike the winners in other pure science categories, who got Rs50 lakh each—for their academic work, but both are also known for their public activism.
Sundar teaches at the Delhi School of Economics and is the head of the department of sociology, Delhi University. Since late 2005, she has been campaigning against the controversial “people’s militia” Salwa Judum (SJ) that has been armed by the Chhattisgarh government to take on the Maoists in the state. Baviskar, who teaches at the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, has also worked for Adivasi rights and other civil liberty causes over the years with organizations such as NBA and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). She is currently associated with the NGO Sanjha Manch, which is dedicated to environmental sustainability.
Sundar has been doing research work on Adivasis and caste identity in central India for 20 years. “I knew the area really well and was devastated (by what SJ were doing) so I became involved,” she says. She found out about SJ’s “excesses” when she went to Chhattisgarh in November 2005 as part of a fact-finding team sent by PUCL and four other civil liberties organizations. “Salwa Judum had begun burning villages on a large scale,” she says.
Sundar feels her background knowledge of the place has enabled her to “contextualize” the problem. “I know what normal life is like in those places,” she says. “I have historical knowledge of the region. I know the terrain.” But she maintains that she is first a n academic: “Scholarly work is important in the long run and needs to be sustained. If only others had been doing their jobs, I wouldn’t have to do this (activism). It takes me away from my research that I want and am paid to do.”
Sundar?feels?that part of the solution lies in making the comfortable middle class see the link between what is happening in places such as Chhattisgarh and its lifestyle. But she has no illusions about her place vis-à-vis the establishment. “As a dean in Delhi University, I am the establishment,” she admits. “Universities in India are meant to do three things—train people for human resources that can power the economic growth; provide social mobility through education in order to reduce inequality, and push the frontiers of research. My day job is to do these things; and my night job is to file PILs.”
“There is a contrast in Nandini’s and my work,” says Baviskar, pointing out that Sundar arrived at public activism through her study of the past, while she did so by examining a problem as it was unfolding. “Her research in the Bastar area was a work of historical anthropology…whereas my early work was about a contemporary struggle—the Adivasi politics around forest and dams.”
Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) is a trade union operating in western Madhya Pradesh (MP) that works for the rights of Adivasis to forests and state welfare. It is also associated with the NBA. Baviskar’s association with KMCS began in 1990 when she arrived in MP’s Jhabua district to do the fieldwork for her doctorate degree. After getting her PhD, she joined the movement and worked as a full-time activist in 1992-93.
In the course of her work with the NBA, Baviskar found herself in the middle of a violent scene of conflict between the police and tribals. “A number of my comrades were being beaten and all of us were charged with attempt to murder and possession of weapons.” She escaped imprisonment as she had secured anticipatory bail, but her husband, who had come visiting from Delhi, was arrested and jailed for nine days.
In 1995, Baviskar wrote In the Belly of the River, which she describes as a book about the Adivasi relationship with land, forest and river that looks at the wider politics of tribal oppression by the dominant Hindu society, as well as the state and the market. The NBA activists had mixed feelings about it. “Medha Patkar termed the book inappropriate,” recalls Baviskar. “They expected a hagiography of their struggle and that I cleave to the party line.”
“So basically I had to choose—either I write manifestos or I retain that critical detachment, while continuing to be sympathetic to progressive causes,” she says. In 1994, Baviskar began teaching at the Delhi School of Economics while being associated with civil liberty organizations and NGOs such as the PUCL and now, Sanjha Manch. “I wanted to give priority to academic writing and teaching,” she says. “I wasn’t doing justice to being an activist. You have to be good at what you do and be able to support people from a position of strength.”
Proof for Baviskar that her decision was right has come in the form of a seat on the Forest Advisory Committee, which is under the Union ministry of environment and forests. If anyone anywhere in India has to use 40 ha. or more of forest land for any project, the committee’s clearance is mandatory and final.
Baviskar, who obtained her doctorate from Cornell University in the US, finds being in the academia in India ideal. “One doesn’t have to compromise on research,” she says. “There is no pressure to raise money unlike, say, in the US or the UK… As you are not writing for funding agencies, you have time to write books and for newspapers… We have the freedom where the academy is seen as a place for (an) engaged social role.”
Public intellectuals interact at different levels, she points out, giving examples of four fellow Delhi academics. There is Andre Béteille, who writes for newspapers, making sociological debates on topics such as the Mandal reservations accessible to the general public. “Béteille’s generation engages in the public sphere as sociologists, whereas Nandini and I are sociologists but intervene (in the public sphere) as citizens,” Baviskar adds.
She then cites Dipankar Gupta, whose books on subjects such as conspicuous consumption or the rise of the middle class address a broader audience, where the sociology is far more in the background. Then there is someone like Ravinder Kaur, who is working directly with the government as a member of the Srikrishna Committee on Telangana. And lastly, there is the activist, like Sundar.
Baviskar is keenly aware of the intellectual-activist milieu in India but feels that it is confined to select pockets. For an academic who is not in a place like Delhi and does not use English, things can be quite limiting. It wasn’t always like that. “Karnataka, for instance, used to be a leading, intellectually vibrant place in the 1970s and 1980s, with the likes of Shivaram Karanth and U.R. Ananthamurthy involving themselves in environmental causes. The Kannada culture has become muted now,” she says.
For Baviskar, the public intellectual par excellence is the economist Jean Dreze—known for his spartan living and deep engagement with social issues—who helped draft the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act programme. “In his case, it is the social concern that is driving the research,” she says.