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OP-ED: The public intellectual is a teacher, not a hanger-on

  • Published at 01:59 pm August 19th, 2020
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The responsibility of speaking truth to power

There are responsibilities the public intellectual must carry out in Bangladesh, for there is always an ethical and social dimension to a comprehension of realities affecting the lives of people. In an age when politics is on the slide and when leadership nearly everywhere is clearly failing to meet the expectations of people, it remains for public intellectuals to raise the questions that call for answers from those who hold the levers of power.

Public intellectuals in Bangladesh, unfortunately, have remained hamstrung by partisan loyalties. For a large number of them, it has been a difficult job separating political beliefs from perceptions of what has been going on around them. That is an attitude which has marred the quality of their approach to the issues of the day. In turn, it has left citizens disappointed.

The public intellectual is he who is not afraid to speak truth to power, indeed to anyone around him. Today, in this country, it has become the responsibility of the public intellectual to question the impunity that has governed the thoughts and actions of individuals whose exercise of authority ought to have been better, should have been in conformity with public expectations, with the law, and with the constitution.

The issues we confront in Bangladesh today are of a nature that is at once grim and ominous. Extra-judicial killings have for years been a dent on the edifice of democracy we have so assiduously been trying to construct for ourselves and for the generations of Bengalis to be. The sad part of the narrative here is that the public intellectual, for reasons of his partisan loyalties -- and this has been the truth in the times of different administrations in the country -- has not quite risen in protest through his writing or his public addresses against such manifest wrong. 

The murder of a retired military officer and, some years ago, the killing of an individual even as his daughters lived through his final few moments on the phone, in addition to all the killings that have been done over time ought to have aroused the concern of the public intellectual in this country.

The public intellectual is an individual to whom the present is of immense concern because it will have a wide-ranging impact on the future. The public intellectual holds no official position. He is not a politician nor does he seek political office. His life is governed by idealism that approximates the desires of citizens for better standards of living, for superior politics. 

He believes in a certain shade of politics, has his preferences for political parties. But the public intellectual is also an individual who goes beyond personal politics, rises above parochialism, and observes the world around him in dispassionate manner. His priorities are handled by him on the underpinning of objectivity.

When the public intellectual stays silent on the major issues of the times and focuses on matters that are as inane as they are insignificant, he does not do justice to his position in society. The public intellectual in Bangladesh must make himself heard on the scam that has laid the Farmers Bank low, that has led to the annual ritual of black money officially sanctioned into white. The public intellectual must raise questions on the share scams that have shamed the country and the impunity with which people behind those scams have got away. When the public intellectual does not ask questions and demand answers to his questions, his intellectual qualities come under question. That is a sad thing to happen.

The public intellectual by definition is an individual driven by moral courage. He is not intimidated into silence. It is his job to ask why journalists who prepare reports on wrongdoing perpetrated by powerful men are handcuffed and put away in prison while those accused of wrongdoing take advantage of draconian laws and have the gates to justice put under lock and key. The public intellectual must excoriate media owners who have little compunction in dismissing their journalists and other staff without explanation. 

He must, at a point, reflect on the education the young in this country are being imparted; he must question the efficacy as also the necessity of the three-pronged education that has been imposed on the country. 

Given that Bangladesh remains, and will remain in the future, an agrarian nation, the public intellectual should raise his voice against the elitism which today dominates society. The public intellectual must not only condemn bureaucratic corruption and mismanagement but also be bold enough to name and shame those men and women who have systematically undermined the civil administration in the country. 

When politicians, both in the ruling dispensation and the opposition, spew opinions that do not make sense, the public intellectual must hit back hard. Staying silent is not an option. The tendency not to hurt the one spewing nonsense, not to let him know that he is wrong, can only help an expansion of the landscape of mediocrity.

The public intellectual should not concern himself with having friends everywhere. Nor should he be worried about making enemies through taking a stand on citizens’ issues. Because he reads, because he analyzes the issues around him, because his understanding of politics and history is a notch higher than that of others, he holds an advantageous position. 

Therein is he empowered to ask why villages are deprived of electricity for days because officials at the rural electrification board have not had the gratification of receiving the bribe they have demanded from their customers. Therein does he have the moral authority to ask why people disappear and who is responsible for such acts. 

The public intellectual will eulogize those in power and also those who aspire to power, with good reason. But his power rests in his willingness to demonstrate his sense of commitment to the country. He is not on the left, not in the centre, not on the right. The public intellectual is above. He will displease many, will earn the wrath of many, will be pelted with abuse for his courage of conviction. 

But none of that must subdue him. The public intellectual raises his voice against religious and ethnic persecution. He takes a position against majoritarian politics even as he respects majority opinion in matters of the national interest. The public intellectual is never a supplicant, never a hanger-on. His strength is in his education; it is in the ways he means to educate citizens on a comprehensive range of issues facing the country and the world beyond the country. 

The public intellectual is a discerning individual. He is a teacher for whom the country is a classroom and all citizens are students waiting to learn. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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