Justice Chandrachud is right to remind intellectuals of their duty. But what of the other institutions of democracy?

Merely sounding warning notes is not going to suffice in the current climate — they will have to be accompanied by stronger signals and urgent corrective measures on the part of our institutions, the judiciary among them.

Written by Anshu Saluja

Rapid erosion of our institutions’ integrity, promotion of intolerance and even hatred of dissent, repression of dissenters, withholding of accurate information, and widespread propagation of fake news count among the pressing problems of today. And our public intellectuals have been at pains to point these out in an increasingly hostile environment. In a recently delivered address, a siting judge of the Supreme Court, Justice D Y Chandrachud, highlighted the special duty of public intellectuals to “question the state” and sustain democracy. To be sure, they have done their duty by raising searching questions and speaking truth to power. But, have other institutions, including the judiciary, fulfilled their duties towards these public intellectuals? Have they offered the support systems, so crucial for confronting the powerful and swimming against the tide?

One may well ask what constitutes these support systems. Arguably, these include firstly, the reassurance that you will be safe, no matter whom you question or contradict, and secondly, the willingness to engage with and acknowledge the truth, however difficult or discomforting. The failure to do these things has left the field wide open for abuse, oppression and persecution. This is bound to breed fear and has, indeed, done so in significant measure.

In the recent past, many of our public institutions of higher learning, including Hyderabad Central University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia, among others, have been sites of major student protests that have been muzzled by unduly powerful and intolerant university administrations. Even big private universities, avowedly seeking to create an international brand for themselves like that of the Ivy League institutions, have been scorched by the flames of growing intolerance. It was hoped that the latter could serve as ready spaces, where a free spirit of intellectual enquiry could be defended and sustained, on the strength of private capital. However, such hopes are proving to be unfounded.

The fate of intellectuals working at the grassroots, away from the lure of major metropolitan centres, has been even more alarming. Ironically, this idea of involvement at the grassroots constitutes a key plank of the glossy advertisements conceptualised as a part of corporate social responsibility. But the engagement of public intellectuals with ground-level concerns affecting vulnerable groups in different localised contexts has failed to generate the same rousing response from the state that it generally reserves for corporate-led initiatives. On its part, the state administration does all in its power to quell these brewing struggles, and repress their leaders and participants. Critically, the recent response of wide sections of our judiciary to such ongoing repressive moves has been disheartening, to say the very least.

True, dissenting academics and activists have never had an easy deal. They have always found it trying to wrest space for their voices. But, in recent years, their path has only become thornier and the struggle harder, as they have to increasingly contend with armies of social media trolls, prime-time slander on television and, worse, criminal incarceration, leading up to long-drawn legal trials that take years even to get started.

Justice Chandrachud’s warning to be “more vigilant”, “transparent” and open to accepting other people’s opinions perhaps comes at a very late hour. Merely sounding warning notes is not going to suffice in the current climate — these notes will have to be accompanied by stronger signals and urgent corrective measures on the part of our institutions, the judiciary among them.

A section of public intellectuals will continue to raise alarm bells to alert us about the ongoing erosion of different institutions. But, in the ultimate analysis, it will fall to those very institutions — bureaucracy, judiciary, popular media — to salvage their fast-eroding credibility. It is they who will have to set about in earnest to put their own house in order. They will need to reclaim their shrinking space in notional as well as substantive terms.

They must first clearly assess the extent of damage that has been wrought, before initiating repair works and refurbishing the edifice. That introspection, that acknowledgment has to come from within. That has to necessarily be accompanied by concrete remedies, aimed at radical regeneration.

The ability to find balance between opposites is a rewarding faculty, but this art of striking balance, merely for its own sake, has to be dispensed with. We need to call a spade a spade; we have to acknowledge the truth, even if it conflicts with our most cherished notions. For instance, we have to identify hate speech for what it is, no matter who has uttered it, address (c)overt institutional slippages and counter proliferating misinformation. In doing all this, we have to strive hard to demand accountability at all levels.

Justice Chandrachud referred to the challenges of living in a “post-truth world”, in which “there is a contest between our truth versus your truth … Democracy and truth go hand in hand. Democracy needs truth to survive”. To this end, he advised that it is critical to “differentiate truth from falsehood” and flagged the citizens’ responsibility to “question the state to determine the truth”.These are some valuable lessons for many of our institutions to emulate and apply.

The writer is an independent researcher

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