American cultural critic Chris Hedges said, “Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artist, writers, poets, activists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster.” When Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, she started her Nobel Lecture at the Stockolm City Hall with the words: “I do not stand alone at this podium…there are voices around me, hundreds of voices.” Likewise, intellectuals in every society carry the voices of the people. Our own Naga writer, Easterine Kire who won The Hindu Literary Prize 2015 in her acceptance speech said, ‘This is not my book, but our book, because of the number that embrace it’.
Our society like any other society is going through a transition which is anything but a smooth ride. We see failed institutions and weak leadership which are causing political and social regression in our State. Most of us are now frustrated and infuriated with the plight of our state. But times such as these demand more than our response of anger and frustration. In the midst of the mess we are in, one is tempted to ask the question, ‘Where are our intellectuals?’ In every society, the intellectuals are leaders and agents of change. They guide public opinion and enlighten members of the society about their rights and duties. But if intellectuals, a society’s conscience shapers and keepers, do not forward, how can real change take place?
It will be unfair to assume that our intellectuals today do nothing to address our societies’ problems or anxieties. But their engagement with the prevailing issues is still far from adequate. We are bombarded daily with conflicting ideologies which cannot be ignored or wished away. We need guidance to sort out the truth from the lie. We are in need of stronger ideas to counter or prevail over the false ones. Our society is long driven by norms and values which have become redundant, learning everything by rote and following the crowd without questioning or challenging the status quo. We are in need of change and transformation driven by enduring intellectual roots, firm principles and a clear vision.
There is a need to create an open space where people realize that they have the freedom and power of the democratic spaces and institutions to talk and discuss about issues which matter. The intellectuals have to take the lead in preparing that viable space so that through it, all may participate and thereby come to a realization of what is happening in the society and what we need to do about it. On every issue that is confronting our society, we allow emotions to overtake reasoned debate. Public outcry and protest tend to get twisted along communal lines making it impossible for sober discussions. Simplistic linear thinking that allows no other view to co-exist and putting authoritative stamp on any issue are marks of an intolerant and regressive society. I believe that a society should create an environment where competing views can exist, where disagreements are addressed or resolved through reasoned debate. The intellectuals among us need to guide us towards that direction.