“The deterioration of the intelligentsia is as much a symptom of disease as the corruption of the ruling class or the sleeping sickness of the proletariat.”
It began with my grandfather, who was the first person in his family to acquire a modern education (oh, the baneful influence of Aligarh!) and thereafter join the service of the Raj. “Naukari-Pesha,” sniffed his brother, who had chosen to remain master of their ancestral lands. My grandfather’s second son, my father, blazed a brilliant trail through the renowned Government College (now GC University), Lahore, where amongst other distinctions he succeeded the great Faiz as Editor of the Urdu section of The Ravi (famous journalist Mazhar Ali Khan was Editor of the English section). Outside the hallowed College gates, he privately edited a stridently pro-Congress anti-Raj weekly and a Communist Party fortnightly. His involvement with revolutionary politics landed him in prison briefly. Thinking to keep this young radical out of trouble, the family moved him to Osmania University, Hyderabad State, for a Master’s. He later read Law at Merton College, Oxford.
The key point about this young radical was that he topped in the All-India ICS examination and joined the Indian Civil Service. Now, my father sat for the ICS exam because, as he felt, the nation would need trained administrators after independence. But why did the British imperialists permit such a political dissident to even appear in the exam, leave alone join this most coveted of Services thereafter?
The answer is simple. They had an Empire to run and needed the best and the brightest to run it. After all – Macaulay to the contrary – that was the very practical reason they had encouraged the extension of modern education to “the natives” in the first place. Other contemporary imperial powers such as the Netherlands and Belgium discouraged native education entirely and the French permitted it to only a limited extent. But the British actively promoted the growth of a native intelligentsia, from amongst whose members they could recruit those that they needed for running this enormous Subcontinent that had, piece by piece, fallen into their laps.
British colonial rule produced this new social group of bureaucrats and professionals, such as lawyers, teachers, doctors, engineers and journalists.In British India, the concept can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, when Raja Ram Mohun Roy and a radical group called Young Bengal began to raise questions which took contemporary Bengal society by surprise. By 1870, India witnessed the rise and growth of a middle-class consciousness which is reflected in the aspirations of native associations started in Madras, Bengal, and the Bombay Presidency. By 1880, the total number of English-educated Indians rose to 50,000 and, by 1907, the number of English-educated Indians rose to over 500,000. This English education gave its beneficiaries a unique capacity to establish contacts on a country-wide scale and the opportunity of moulding and mobilising public opinion either against or in favour of government policies. Further, Western education created awareness of world currents and ideologies which helped them to formulate conscious theories of nationalism.
The ideology of the most of the English-educated elite – whether they served or opposed British rule – was motivated by a desire for change and opposed to preserving traditional class, caste and other privileges. The English-educated elite became the torch-bearers of modernity, based on reason and social justice, and made personal sacrifices to lead the Subcontinent to progress, freedom, and democracy. It was the Intelligentsia – which numbered Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru, Iqbal, Suhrawardy, Patel, and others such figures within its folds – that proposed, led, and achieved the freedom of the nations of the Subcontinent.
Why did the British imperialists permit such a political dissident to even appear in the exam, leave alone join this most coveted of Services thereafter? The answer is simple. They had an Empire to run
Let us look at this word “Intelligentsia”. Its origin is Russian and it first appeared in the 1860s, during the reign of the Tsar Alexander II, when a group of Russians used it to define their own intellectual circle. Now, it needs to be understood that the Tsarist Autocracy was not a unified, monolithic cultural entity. Following its establishment under Tsar Peter the Great, it expanded enormously, principally under the Tsarina Katarina II, or Catherine the Great, simultaneously expanding the Empire and asserting its cultural “Westernisation” in a series of wars, until it had engulfed Eastern Europe, Northern Asia and Central Asia. Now, clearly, this enormous ethnically and linguistically diverse land empire needed an equally diverse and skilled bureaucracy to run it. Therefore, the need for more “Westernised” education from Catherine onwards, and therefore the inevitable multiplication of an Intelligentsia and the phenomenal Russian literary, cultural, and intellectual Renaissance of the nineteenth century.
The specific group that coined the term Intelligentsia for themselves believed in “revolution, atheism and materialism” and considered themselves to be the predominant intellectual cult in Russia. Their behaviour and outlook were largely inspired by Nikolay Chemyshevsky’s utopian 1863 novel What is to be done. Many of the prominent leaders of the later Russian Revolution, such as Plekhanov, Martov, Lenin, Stalin, and others were or had been members of this Intelligentsia.
The term ‘intelligentsia’, then, rises out of an aggressively secular social philosophy. However, its meaning has expanded since the English language borrowed the word from nineteenth-century Russia. Today, it is generally used to mean the best educated and most articulate section of society. It embraces both secular and religious traditions. The intelligentsia are believed to have the ability to influence public opinion, politics and the values of the society in which they are located.
The concept of an intelligentsia is not coterminous with the term “intellectuals”. Intellectuals, from before the time of Socrates, have been considered as a breed apart. In French philosopher Julian Benda’s terms, they were understood to be “all those whose activity essentially is not the pursuit of practical aims, all those who seek their joy in the practice of an art or a science or a metaphysical speculation, in short in the possession of non-material advantages.” The involvement of intellectuals with real-world power, and real-world temptations, Benda regarded as betrayal of their essence, for which he coined the term “Treason of the Clerks”, looking especially at the right-wing so-called intellectuals in Europe who supported fascist and totalitarian regimes.
But, let us be clear, the members of the intelligentsia are not detached intellectuals. Both in our own history, and in that of Russia and other parts of the world, we see the intelligentsia’s deep involvement with the politics of change – whether revolutionary change, as in Russia, or national freedom, as in India, or democratic constitutional evolution, as in Pakistan.
The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Are the publicly active intellectuals, i.e. the intelligentsia – who comprise the ranks of the governmental institutions, the educational system, the legal community, the press, the media, the political party think-tanks, the NGO-wallahs, the civil society activists – still fulfilling their duty to the citizens and society of Pakistan? Or have they, like Julian Benda’s treasonous clerks, simply sold out to opportunism, convenience, and convention?