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Intellectual Bilingualism, Cross-Interpretational Space and the Idea of India

Intellectual Bilingualism, Cross-Interpretational Space and the Idea of India Vinayak Lohani constituency which were not in English, making them proper bilingual intellectuals.


Intellectual Bilingualism, Cross-Interpretational Space and the Idea of India

Vinayak Lohani

constituency which were not in English, making them proper bilingual intellectuals.

It is this that Raman too misses when he says, “it is not clear what their bilingualism, specifically, has accomplished” and makes an almost trivial comment when he writes “Does a fi rst-rank bhasha intellectual or writer have any intellectual rationale for indulging in bilingual writing – for writing

eflecting over Ramachandra Guha’s essay “The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual” (EPW, 15 August 2009) and N Kalyan Raman’s response “Intellectual Bilingualism” (EPW, 10 October 2009), I hope to discuss some other aspects, and perhaps also reconcile some of the divergent points in these two pieces.

Bridging Space: Two Dimensions

One carefully needs to see the role of English language in creating a “bridging space” and understand that there are two different aspects of this bridging phenomenon. One is the bridging provided through the English language in carrying ideas from international intellectual space to different local linguistic intellectual cultures in India, and second is the cross-interpretation provided to communicate and interpret ideas and developments from one linguistic intellectual discourse to another within India. Both these dimensions need to be separately looked into.

Guha puts his main thesis as “there has been a decline in number and visibility of scholars and writers who are properly linguidextrous”. From Guha’s thesis, this writer wants to pay more attention to “visibility” than “number”, and relate it to the second function of the bridging performed by the English language intellectual discourse – that of cross-interpretational function between different regions. While the function of interpretation of thought-developments from abroad is performed well – indeed, the information avenues, such as internet and regional news channels, have only accelerated it – there has been a great degree of weakening in the function of cross-interpretation among different linguistic provinces within India.

Basis of the Idea of India

Though Guha indirectly touches upon this inadequacy of cross-interpretation between different linguistic discourses, he does not make enough distinction between the two key aspects of the interpretational space and does not treat them separately. Thus, one gathers, he feels that both these aspects have suffered over the last few decades – the inflow of knowledge from the “wider world” (as in the example he gives of Kannada writers lacking knowledge of European social theory) and the knowledge flow from one province to another. While one cannot agree with the sweeping general observation with regard to the first dimension, there is little doubt that the second dimension of the cross-interpretational function has weakened.

It is this “cross-interpretational space” on which the “Idea of India” was developed and the Indian nation came into being. It was strengthened by the great thought and action leaders, and their dedicated bands, which came in large numbers from linguistic traditions of different provinces, while being deeply engaged with issues facing the ordinary man in their respective backyards. Through means of English (and to a considerable extent Hindi or Hindustani at least across north India) they could ensure that a wide and effective “cross-interpretational space” was developed. Here, bilingualism should be defined more broadly than merely churning out works in two languages. Guha marks Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose as monolinguals as they wrote mainly in English, but intellectual practice is not conducted merely through the written word. The political and nationalistic practice of these two men (and surely many others) called for a large number of interactions within their

december 26, 2009

(say) the same essay twice, in two different languages?” To be fair to Guha, nowhere did he mention that all what bilingualism means is writing the same essay twice – in other words – undertaking the exercise of translating your works in two languages, nor did the great, socially infl uential, bilinguals whom Guha names (M K Gandhi, B R Ambedkar, Rabindranath Tagore) busy themselves in duplicating their writings. Their dexterity in multiple languages was a tool in their hands for reaching out to more people, and expanding the ambit of the debate, and consequently increasing the number of participants in the debate. This was a thoroughly dynamic and, one may add, democratic aspect of their bilingualism and has to be seen as such.

Merit of Ideas vs Societal Reach

Both Guha and Raman have concurred on the fact that the English language has been providing a greater societal reach to practitioners of ideas wherever they are. But Raman also points out that “intrinsic merit of ideas” is quite independent of “societal reach”. This statement is fundamentally wrong, as most definitely societal reach, and the newer interactions ensuing from it, lead to enrichment of a debate and refinement of ideas. Nobody can say that the Gandhi-Tagore debate (that Guha alluded to) did not have a transforming effect on the thoughts of both. Can one dispute that the ideas originating from Marx were engaged with in different milieux worldwide, and used according to the respective context. Thus, there is absolutely no doubt that even greater societal reach helps in refinement of ideas, simply by increasing the number of participants in the debate, bringing in an increased number of different views, and consequently enhances their intrinsic worth and, even more importantly, their applicability.

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Economic & Political Weekly


It is not the question of privileging only the bilinguals as far as the question of justifiably occupying the cross-interpretational space is concerned. The tall occupants of this cross-interpretational space could act as “great reconcilers” not merely because of their bilingual abilities but – and this is the critical factor – because of their deep engagement with and knowledge of social realities and life-currents from their base constituency, as also a high degree of classnuanced and region-nuanced empathy with all kinds of Indians wherever they come from. It is in the decades since then that the centre stage (the arena of highest visibility) has come to be constituted mostly by persons who simply lack the handle to, and lack the competencies of, understanding the dynamics and developments across the classes in different regions of India. But this is not simply related to language competencies; it is more complex than that.

‘Prisoner of the Class’ Ailment

In the recent episode in Singur one notable lesson and observation (even to the corporate world) was the lack of grassroots competencies of these giant companies’ executives who otherwise possess the most sophisticated competencies to work in a familiar corporate environment where most interactions (with clients, peers, and others) are from people from a class similar to theirs. Yet they are simply at a loss when the situation calls for engagement and dialogue with the local grassroots, and thus perforce resort to the now-accepted way of using the state as its subcontractors wherever grassroots competencies are called for. Moneyed and power-elites very often lack the skill to work in an environment and social context different from what their class has prepared them for, and end up using their class-power to get things done. A similar state of being is that of the dominant and most visible occupants of the centre stage now – they have got reduced to being in a state of limbo, from where they cannot play a constructive role as far as the crossinterpretational function is concerned.

There has been a clear marginalisation, from the “high visibility centre stage arena”, of persons who possess a combination of intellectual competency as well as deep engagement and exposure to social realities

Economic & Political Weekly

december 26, 2009

in their respective constituencies. As a result the cross-interpretational space itself has shrunk, where the centre stage has come to be occupied increasingly by “classprisoners”, whom Raman refers to as “metropolitan anglophones” (but they may be regional demagogues and other narrow-minded “culture thugs” as well) and leading to an increasingly visible “separation of discourse”.

Regional Intellectual Elites

But surely a vibrant regional intellectual does not necessarily imply that the “intellectual aristocracy” in that province is always in tune with the aspirations of the people or representative of social realities relevant to the common man, particularly the underclass. Despite being steeped in the intellectual and cultural traditions of the province, they are very often unabashed in their selfindulgence and not particularly enterprising as far as encouraging debates and deepening democracy is concerned. Raman has imputed such self-serving behaviour only to the anglophonic centre stage-holders.

A weak ground in Guha’s essay is the missing analysis in the relationship of creation of states on the basis of language and the supposed reduced linguidexterousness in those regions, and their marginalisation from the centre stage leading to a “separation of discourse”. From what he writes “The expansion of school network, and the entry into the political system of previously excluded groups, has greatly deepened the social bases of the intellectual class”, it can naturally be inferred that the creation of linguistic states has in fact led to a greater intellectual vibrancy in different provinces, and assuming a more or less similar degree of exposure to wider global currents (because of the tremendous growth of information avenues) it should have led to a much greater – to use Guha’s words – “rooted cosmopolitanism” than parochialism. Perhaps, what Guha missed presenting (and this was completely ignored by Raman too) was that, though the intellectual cultures in the provinces have been strengthened, what has happened after the consolidation of the linguistic states is that such practitioners who could have acted as great reconcilers were lost only to the benefit of their respective states, and despite abilities could not occupy the

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cross-interpretational space. Many of these intellectuals, college/university professors or journalists are directly or indirectly supported by the state government and this, quite often, constrains their ability to take impartial stands during moments when it is warranted. This has been seen time and again, especially during times of conflicts between states, or on occasions when their views may be interpreted as against the dominant view in the state, or held to be against the (supposed) prevalent sentiment of the people of the state.

Thus, in the evolution of “intellectual bilingualism”, which is also related to that of the cross-interpretational space, one may add another link in addition to the two – colonialism and nationalism – presented by Guha, namely, “post-independence federalism”. While colonialism helped create a “thinking class” facile in the use of English and knowledge of the best traditions of the western world, nationalism deepened the social base of the thinking class and giving the nationalist movement a more democratic form, and also in the process led to the development of the cross-interpretational space. The third phase of postindependence federalism further deepened local regional scholarship, but its impact on the cross-interpretational space has been somewhat mixed.

Raman has ended his essay with the advice to the subaltern classes that “to hanker for ‘bilingual’ intellectuals may not be the best way to begin. Instead, they could focus their energies on devising other ways and means by which to learn more about their own society.” One cannot disagree with the suggestion towards a continued and deeply engaged pursuit of learning about their own communities in a better way; but one also hopes that many out of these classes and elsewhere will also strengthen the cross-interpretational space, as the present times are, not so much of “a crisis in the ‘monolingual anglophone community’ in India” as Raman suggests – indeed they have other pastures should they need – but more gravely, a crisis for the cross-interpretational space, and thus to the “Idea of India” itself.

Vinayak Lohani ( is founder and secretary of Parivaar Education Society, West Bengal.

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