“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Amin Sofi explains how irrelevant polemics in Kashmir sucks the oxygen out of any possibility to nuture intellectualism in the society

(Dr. Mohammed Amin Sofi, 55, was born in Handwara. He received his early education from the Higher Secondary School in Handwara, and his B.Sc. from the Government Degree College in Baramulla. He subsequently received a Master’s degree in Mathematics from the Aligarh Muslim University, and a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur. Prof. Sofi teaches and conducts research in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Kashmir. In his leisure time, he enjoys reading books, listening to classical western music, Urdu ghazals and Bollywood music (pre-1980’s), and reading newspapers and journals.)

Society Sans Sanity

During a recent seminar organized by GK Foundation to discuss the issue “Kashmir, The way Forward”, the eminent educationist Prof. Agha Ashraf during his key note address had hit the nail on the head when he remarked that everybody in Kashmir fancied himself as the ultimate intellectual who had arrived at the right conclusions regarding issues ranging from those confronting him in his day to day life to how the G8 countries should evolve a consensus on climate change and global warming.

One couldn’t agree more with him as this holier-than-thou attitude typical of these pseudo-intellectuals the Professor was referring to and which is reminiscent of the “pygmies amongst giants’ syndrome, necessarily entails a tendency among them to scoff at those who may not hold similar views. And this lends substance to Dr. Maroof Shah’s dirge in a recent article, ”Where are Intellectuals?” in which he expresses his bewilderment on the woeful absence of those from our midst who could be genuinely called intellectuals. The Doctor would do well to remember that such individuals do not exist in vacuum as there has to be at display a uniform pattern in the evolution of such individuals in different walks of life and in different spheres of human activity. During a period of history when Bach and Beethoven were ruling the roost in the world of music in Germany, there were the likes of Gauss and Riemann who had taken the world of mathematics by storm and Kant and Hegel coming up with earth shaking ideas in the world of philosophy. It so happens that the mutually opposing trends of excellence and mediocrity not only co-exist simultaneously, but what is remarkable indeed is that there is similarity of evolution of ideas and trends that happen to occur contemporaneously and in almost all spheres of human activity.

In other words, if there are those who have excelled themselves say in Arts or in Music, there will of necessity exist a matching pool of those who have made a mark in Medicine and in Mathematics, in Physics and in Philosophy.

In order to put the discourse on intellectuals into perspective, it should help to point out how to deal with certain misconceptions that are prevalent in our society. For instance, even if there are those who could be labeled as intellectuals, it is not fair to expect them to pronounce words of authority on an issue of which they may at best have only a smattering of understanding. Unlike the period of Renaissance when almost all intellectual endeavors were subsumed under the single umbrella of Natural Philosophy, the contemporary zeitgeist makes it literally impossible to claim more than a nodding acquaintance with that which doesn’t fall within the parameters of one’s bailiwick. It would certainly make a world of difference if one settled for a deep and in-depth understanding of a particular branch of knowledge rather than make forays into sundry areas of human thought in which one’s creative prowess and expertise are expected at best to be peripheral. As opposed to this brand of thinkers who are known to be overly keen to be visible to the rest of the world, a true intellectual revels in the world of anonymity and rarely has any audience to talk and communicate his thoughts to, barring to a handful of those of his ilk. He is at complete peace with himself while keeping his own company and this is as true of a modern day intellectual as it was of Archimedes, Euclid and Pythagoras who had lived about 2500 years ago!

With this background, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in Kashmir, there hardly are those – other than a miniscule minority of privileged few – who could be counted upon as intellectuals, be it in religion, philosophy, history or literature even when we have reasons to boast of a long tradition of scholarship in these areas of human activity. Not to speak of an international figure in social sciences or in any other human endeavor, the fact is that identifying one who has excelled himself even at the national level is a pretty tall order. Let us, for Heaven’s sake, stop this comparison of our thinkers and ‘intellectuals’ with those in the rest of the world, considering that the ‘rest of the world’ is big, too big for this comparison. The region adjoining this erstwhile ‘hub’ of intellectual-philosophical activity is already huge enough for such comparisons. The failure to come up to matter at the international-national level surely has not only to do with the (lack of) infrastructure which, among other things, includes a healthy social structure for such an ethos to flourish, it also has its genesis in the patently flawed thinking that ‘it is of no consequence to pursue knowledge for knowledge sake’- a skewed worldview that has takers but only in this part of the world. We need to remind ourselves of that basic maxim underlying scholarship: “if we can know, then it is sinful not to know”! But it is easier said than done inasmuch as a mere lip service to such a fundamental requirement for scholarship cannot be expected to deliver the goods unless it is accepted as part of our ‘intellectual discourse’.

After all, intellectual activity of any kind in general and scientific activity in particular is rooted in culture. It was not for nothing that Bruno, the great Italian natural philosopher, offered to be burnt alive for the sake of an ‘abstract idea’ rather than capitulate to the dictats of the Church which had offered to grant him amnesty if he retracted his statement on his investigations into the nature of the planetary motion. This puts into perspective the grudge that “Islamic studies has a scope in the western world but not in Kashmir”, as was pointed out in a recent column that had appeared in the GK. This is so because the scholar in the western world is essentially motivated by the spirit of scientific temper that has shaped the Western thought over the past several millennia. The fear that this spirit of scientific temper is going to elude us for a long, very long time to come has a lot to do with our obsession with quoting the Quran on the innumerable occasions it contains exhortations demanding its followers to ‘fan out in different directions in search of knowledge’, while remaining oblivious to the need for understanding and implementing the spirit of these injunctions in our daily lives. In a similar vein, expecting our Ulema to lead us as (potential) successors of Shah-Walli-ullah and Gazzali is pure wishful thinking. During a recent Friday sermon, an Imam of a local mosque here in Srinagar was heard exhorting the followers of islam to desist from ‘excessively’ asking questions which, according to his brand of logic, ran counter to the spirit of Islam – whatever that might have meant to him.

Whereas it may be considered reasonable to advise on desisting from ‘hair-splitting’, especially in matters involving faith, extrapolating the same logic to issues beyond faith and “the mundane chores of our daily lives” as the Imam put it, carries with it the risk of accepting things as they are, without worrying about the why and how of things which is at the heart of scientific temper. The Cartesian dictum of the ‘ability to doubt the obvious’- the bedrock of scientific ethos is thus thrown to the wind as antithetical to the spirit of islam while remaining smug in the hope of claiming parity in the world of science, never mind the unwillingness to reflect on those Gospel words.

Beyond the local/national level, there are equally good reasons why even at the international level, there are isolated cases where what is at display is actually intellectual effeteness as opposed to intellectual vigor which should have been a natural consequence of professional competence. The irony is that professional competence, which entails ‘vertical’ growth of an individual, is generally at variance with true intellectual growth that thrives mainly through a ‘horizontal’ approach. One of the undesirable consequences of what actually amounts to this ‘blinkered’ worldview is that those who advocate it do so at the expense of a broader perspective of things which thus becomes the greatest casualty in such a scenario.

Alas, there are all the indications that this ‘grand vision’ of producing professionals with ‘tunnel vision’ shall continue to persist, what with the premium being placed on maximizing your ‘creative output’- never mind its quality and shelf life- which has come to be regarded as the mantra for one’s professional success. This kind of an approach towards what constitutes professional excellence is of a piece with what is currently prevalent in our universities and institutions and espoused by our brand of ‘academics’ that by far outnumber those who think and act otherwise. It is this latter group of academicians who rightly belong to the genre of ‘educators’ –intellectuals in our sense of the term. The bottom line is that intellectuals are not produced- they are thrown up by a system that has the right ingredients of an approach towards creation of intellectual capital. These include, among other things, an inclusive approach of the ‘salad-bowl’ kind of culture in which individual growth can be achieved. That in part should serve to explain why is it is that Bombay and Calcutta happen to figure perhaps as the most stimulating hubs of intellectual activity among all cities and towns in India in the same way as New York presents itself as the most happening cosmopolitan city in the world where one encounters all shades of thought and culture from almost all parts of the world in view of its aptly coined sobriquet as a ‘melting pot’ of various nationalities and ethnicities. It is in the midst of such a heterogeneous ambience marked by multiplicity of cultures, languages, ethnicities and faiths that the intellectual growth of an individual can be realized.

What then has been the role of these `beacons of light’, these ‘highest seats of learning’, these ‘temples of knowledge’ that we call universities in shaping our destiny by helping to create a pool of right thinking individuals and more importantly our intellectuals who could be counted upon to guide us in our moments of crises. The pity is that we haven’t done much. Though the failure to do so is symptomatic of the systemic rot that is both deep and ubiquitous, there still is a lot more that could be done with the existing system in place, the insurmountable difficulties notwithstanding. The irony is that what passes muster as academic activity is in essence an attempt to delude ourselves and others into believing that we are dead serious about what we are supposed to be doing and about our duties as academics, teachers, scholars and as trend-setters in our society. Yes, showcasing our ‘achievements’ to the outside world during the plethora of conferences and seminars being held in the university is part of the mandate bestowed on us by virtue of being the ‘prodigal sons’ of this society who enjoy the privilege of letting these ‘road shows’ occupy the centrestage to the neglect of its basic commitment which is not only to identify and nurture talent amongst our youth but, more importantly, to produce right thinking and responsible citizens – a euphemism for excellence and intellectual capital of a society.

A case in point is the inexplicable indifference to the idea of establishing a full-fledged Department of Philosophy in the university which is not only long overdue but that a further prevarication on this count shall definitely call into question our commitment to ensuring intellectual growth as a vital component of higher learning at the university level. The inexorable logic of excellence in higher education demands the co-existence of the modern with the traditional: thus, for instance, a fancy course on nano-technology has to go hand in hand with the establishment of a school of philosophy which is supposed to set new trends in philosophical thought and epistemology. I must admit that my efforts to initiate this proposal in my erstwhile capacity as Dean Academic Affairs at the university had come a cropper as there were not many takers of such ‘zany’ ideas for reasons that I am at a loss to figure out.

Be that as it may, it should help to say a few words on the flip side of this discourse on intellectuals. Much though the horizontal approach of an intellectual does not quite resonate with the vertical predisposition of a researcher, it is the so-called ‘pyramid-like’ approach that distinguishes an intellectual from the rest of the flock. It is as much vital for an intellectual of the sort described above as it is for the research scientist who can’t pretend to be thorough in his art unless he has inculcated in himself the spirit of quest based on this ‘pyramid model’. Let me quote Professor M.S.Raghunathan of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, one of the most celebrated Indian mathematicians of our times, whose yardstick for true accomplishment in mathematics is the ability to master the works of a Fields Medalist (the equivalent of Nobel Laureate in Mathematics) which had earned him the Field’s Medal for that piece of work, rather than the knack for writing papers without care for content and quality. His constant lament is that in spite of having carved a reasonable niche for itself in the world of mathematics, India continues to be woefully inadequate in the number of mathematicians who would fit this description of a true scholar of mathematics- in other words, a truly intellectual mathematician. At this point, it should help to distinguish between intellectual activity that passes for research in the diverse fields of science and in humanities. Whereas there is an element of subjectivity insofar as research in history, humanities or social sciences is concerned, the hallmark of research in science especially in basic sciences is objectivity which is synonymous with global acceptability, both of the methodologies employed and the conclusions derived. This is so because, apart from a few exceptions, the bulk of research in areas like arts, social sciences or law is premised on principles which are invariably local in character- dictated in no small measure, by individual predilections and societal perceptions rather than by a set of irrevocable laws which are valid in all frames of reference and within which the growth and development of science has to be effected.

Finally and most importantly there is, besides the cerebral component involving intellectual activity, an equally important component that defines an intellectual which is how one’s actions are dictated as much by grey matter as by one’s conscience. Pursuing intellectual activity without allowing the human conscience playing any part in it is at best an exercise in barren ‘pseudo-intellectualism’. Perhaps amongst the glorious examples of that genre of intellectuals with conscience that come to mind is the redoubtable Arundhati Roy whose literary credentials are no doubt beyond censure but what stands apart in her case is the intellectual honesty that have been the hallmark of her work, both as a literary and as a social figure. It was this prick of conscience that had led her to decline to accept the Padam Shree award for reasons that had failed to evoke a similar response from a local Padam Shree award winner who is known to be among the ‘tallest’ Kashmiri intellectuals and who was seen to accept the award without compunction, even when the reasons for the former to decline the award were entirely impersonal which should instead have shaken the conscience of the Kashmiri scholar to decline the award in protest if only because these reasons, concerned as they were, with his own people and his own honor! Last but not the least, considering that it is not possible, much less reasonable, to prescribe how to put into place a system where individuals would be groomed as intellectuals with honesty, let it be noted that “charity always begins at home”. If all those who care were to mend their ways, did everything to put into place all that it takes to excel in their professions of choice and learnt to compete with the best in the business and their own selves, in the absence of those to look up to as role models- in other words, if there was a collective will to make a difference- it is not at all unreasonable to expect that our world -and our own Kashmir-would end up as a far better place to live than the inferno that it otherwise is!