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24 January 2011

The task of Intellectuals in development of Society

There is a general consensus among Pakistani intellectuals to abstain from opposing established traditions and values. As supporters of the existing system, they attain popularity, social status, cash rewards, titles and support in official circles. They are fully aware that to oppose popular opinion would bring condemnation and displeasure.

In fact, the task of intellectuals is not to support public views in order to please people. On the contrary, it is their responsibility to change public opinion and create awareness and consciousness in society. To fulfil this role, they have to pay a heavy cost. We have a number of examples where the intellectuals raised their voice against popular public opinion and expressed their concern on the emotional fervour of the masses when they felt a principle was at stake.
In 1889, Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was wrongly tried and convicted on the charges of treason. There was such public fury against him that nobody had the courage to speak in his favour. At this point, Èmile Zola, the novelist, spoke openly in his defence and published an open letter in a newspaper accusing the government and the authorities of injustice. Zola faced public and government anger and escaped to England to save his life. Later on it was proved that the whole case was false and Dreyfus was released.
Intellectuals often face problems when their country is involved in war. At such times emotions run high; people are not willing to hear anything against war efforts. Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and activist, raised his voice publicly against Britain’s involvement in the war in 1914. He lost his post at Trinity College and was forced to pay a fine as punishment for his beliefs but he did not back down. He continued his anti-war campaign throughout his life and played an active role during the Vietnam war by forming a tribunal to try the American government on war crimes.
We also have the example of Arundhati Roy, the frail woman, who publicly expressed that if the Kashmiri people want independence, they should be allowed to
have it. It takes great courage to go against public opinion and make a statement on such a sensitive topic.
Though in Europe and America there are a number of intellectuals who oppose popular public opinion, in the face of criticism and condemnation, in third world countries, dissident intellectuals face greater hardships and threats. As they challenge the existing systems, values and traditions, they are regarded as rebels and their ideas are considered dangerous and harmful to society.
Their writings are either banned or censored. They are not allowed to teach and are gradually marginalised. They have to live in poverty and austerity. In advanced countries, they have some space for survival but in the third world it is difficult for them to live a dignified life.
However, there are still some intellectuals who continue to say and write what they believe despite  all hardships. Their commitment compels them to challenge obsolete ideas and shake society by presenting new thoughts. They do not seek admiration, appreciation or financial recognition. Their satisfaction stems from their contribution to the domain of ideas.
Sometimes an intellectual’s ideas change the outlook of society and sometimes they are lost in the mist of time. Here we have the example of Abul Fazl, Akbar’s
historian, whose ideas were ignored and never applied.
It is sad that many Pakistani intellectuals did not ever rebel. Since the inception of the country, their approach was to follow in the footsteps of state policies.
Many have the knack to change their views in accordance with whoever is in power and so have continued to be the mouthpiece of every government.
When Ayub Khan imposed martial law and sought the support of intellectuals, they lined up to applaud his dictatorship and immediately accepted his offer and so the Writers’ Guild was formed. During Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship, they enthusiastically attended the Ahl-i-Qalam conferences to please him. It is the common practice of many of our intellectuals to somersault and change their views in favour of those who are in power.
We have noticed how our literary giants and journalists, who were praising Musharraf’s ‘moderate enlightenment’, transformed into democrats overnight. The result of this opportunism, flattery and sycophancy is that they have lost the trust of the people. However, many won’t be ashamed of it.
Another tragedy of our intellectuals is to sell their knowledge to NGOs and undertake research for funded projects which are not used for their own society; rather they provide material to foreign countries to understand and analyse our political and social condition in order to deal with us. They are not contributing anything to create awareness among our people; this gap leaves a vacuum for conservative forces to spread and popularise their ideology.
The task of the intellectuals is not to fulfil their personal demands and sell their knowledge. Knowledge gives them dignity, respect and honour; they should preserve it at all cost. It reminds me of the episode of Goethe and Beethoven; two giants, one in literature, the other in music. One day, both were taking a walk when a nobleman crossed their path. Goethe, out of respect, stood aside to give him way but Beethoven continued to walk and told Goethe “there are thousands of nobles, but only two of us.”