Tragedy of apathy
In the civilised world, one of the greatest impediments to advancement is the callousness and disregard shown by intellectuals to grievances of society at large
The primacy of the role of politically unattached civil society groups, particularly of alert, informed and unbiased intellectuals, is universally acknowledged. Before Independence, an American, Dr Mote asked Gandhiji what he thought was the greatest problem facing this country? India was under subjugation, Gandhiji was leading the struggle for independence, he was striving hard for social cohesion, religious amity, removal of untouchability, eradication of poverty, providing dignity to the man standing last in the line. He was preparing people as freedom fighters. He was working for strengthening mutual trust, acceptance of diversity, and giving dignity to everyone. Normally, one would think that one of these outstanding concerns would find a mention in the reply. But the reply was very intriguing indeed! "So you are asking me about the greatest problem of this country; it is the callousness of the intellectuals!" Narayan Desai, born 1924, the son of Mahadev Desai grew up in the ashrams of Gandhi at Sabarmati and Wardha. He poses this query to all us: "The callousness of intellectuals. Is this relevant today or not? Give it a thought. If we stand by and watch the poor blaming their poverty on fate, Gandhi is relevant today. If we can see the callousness of the intellectuals, then Gandhi is relevant today." He raises the query: what are the problems according to the intellectuals? Then goes on to elaborate referring to the appointment of vice-chancellors, the lobbying for it and the manner people strive hard to get there! Our universities are expected to be the centres of intense unbiased and objective deliberations on the affairs of the state and the people. They are the nurseries where young persons should learn how to incisively scrutinise and analyse the policy issues that concern the lives of people, particularly those who have been waiting in the wings for ages. Unfortunately, some of our leading universities and institutions have acquired a reputation of being under ideological controls of people 'who think alike'. In such a situation, the objectivity of outcomes would certainly be a casualty. A greater loss would be that of credibility and people's trust. If dominant elements do not even permit the entry of those 'who think differently', how could one expect the continuation of the much-revered dialogical tradition of India? And if young persons are deprived of such opportunities, their intellectual acumen and empathetic growing up would certainly suffer. We expect our opinion-makers and intellectuals to create civil society platforms that are not divided on ideological considerations, unwilling even to listen to the other side. Take the recent cases of migrant labour, China intrusion and Rajasthan MLAs in hotels, could we really get any unbiased civil society input?
The evolution of such an objective intellectual activity would be possible only when different political parties decide to leave intellectual interactions and exercise out of politics of power. That, however, requires 'politics with principles' which could only be termed as a utopian expectation in the contemporary context. However, there could still be hope in Mahatma's words: "My life is my message"! Could one recall a transformative moment from his life, that could inspire the intellectuals of today to rethink on their role, and shed away the callousness in case they find impeding their role performance? When Gandhiji was asked in later years what was the most creative moment of his life, he responded — as expected — that there have been many such instances in his life, but "I would probably consider the experience I had at Pietermaritzburg to be the most creative one. If there is one incident that has contributed to my growth the most, it is that."
The incident is widely known, but worth being recalled. Young barrister MK Gandhi had a first-class ticket but there was a rule in South Africa that only the whites could sit in first-class compartments. Gandhi was asked to leave by a white man conscious of his racial superiority, who brought an official when Gandhi refused to vacate his seat. The official paid no heed to his first-class ticket and called the policeman! Gandhi was kicked and thrown out of the train. What happened there was the transformation of a young educated individual from a 'person to a personality'. The description of this instance is indeed very touching in 'My Experiments with Truth' in Gandhi's own words: "I began to think of my duty. Should I fight for my rights or go back to India, or should I go to Pretoria without minding the insults, and return to India after finishing the case. It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation. The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial — only a symptom of deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible to root out the disease and suffer the hardships in the process. Redress for wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary to the extent for the removal of the colour prejudice." This incident offers a great revelation in what is character, what is compassion, and how one could take a decision even in the most provocative conditions without losing his cool; maintaining his 'Buddhi' and 'Vivek'. Gandhiji extended his inherent human empathy, thoughts of wrongs being perpetrated on an entire race. Could this not be an eye-opener to young persons who are fortunate enough to get a good education at higher levels, most importantly to those who lead a life academic and intellectual pursuit in institutions of higher learning, including laboratories and libraries?
The writer works in education and social cohesion. Views expressed are personal