Every society is shaped by the thoughts and aspirations of its masses; but it is the intelligentsia that gives it a reality check. Well-learnt, worldly-wise individuals, who are far-sighted and understands socio-political issues deeply, are those who can guide a society into progress. But it takes a lot of courage – as it often includes going against the popular norms and beliefs, and even governments. In India, the role of socio-political intellectuals have always been crucial in upholding the country’s democratic values.
Whether it is standing up for social issues or raising their voices against injustice in the country, a bunch of intellectuals – both men and women- have done it all with much confidence and gusto.
You may love them or hate them; but you can’t ignore them. Meet some of the most illustrious and influential women who are shaping the intellectual landscape of India.
Prominent historian and author Romila Thapar (88) is famous for her work on ancient India. Romila has doctorate in Indian history from the School of Oriental and African Studies, UK, as well as honorary doctorates from University of Chicago, University of Oxford, University of Edinburgh, and University of Calcutta.
In 2004, the US Library of Congress appointed her as the first holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South, which had led to false allegations of her being a Marxist historian and Communist.
Vocal about how Indian history has often been defined solely around communal conflict, Romila has drawn the ire of the Right wing too. Last year, she was in the news again when the JNU administration sought her CV to review her status as Professor Emerita – a move that was widely considered as a retaliation against her statements.
Delhi-based author Kamla Bhasin is a social scientist, development feminist, and activist. She has worked on the topics of gender equality, education, poverty alleviation, human rights, and peace in South Asia since 1970. She is also part of SANGAT, a South Asian Feminist network and an active member of JAGORI, a women’s resource and training centre.
In 1979, Kamla began activism with the Food and Agricultural Organisation, for their Freedom from Hunger campaign in New Delhi and worked for empowerment of the poor. She has written extensively on patriarchy and gender; her published works include Laughing Matters, Exploring Masculinity, Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, What Is Patriarchy?, and Feminism and its Relevance in South Asia. She envisions a feminist movement that transcends class, borders, and other divisions.
Writer and activist Arundhati Roy, along with a few others like Salman Rushdie, has helped the rest of the world get up close with the political situation in pluralistic India – with a deeply enjoyable fictional backdrop.
An architecture graduate who has won awards as a filmmaker in the early 1990s, Roy won global attention when she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel God Of Small Things (1997). She has since been a vocal advocate for human rights and a strong commentator on politics and policy in the country. Even being charged with Sedition at one time did not stop her from exercising her rights to free speech as a citizen and her fiery non-fiction as an author. Despite being a controversies’ child, she continues to be the flagbearer of Indian intelligentsia.
Founder-editor of Manushi, a journal about Women and Society, Madhu Kishwar (69) is one of India’s most renowned academicians. An alumnus of Miranda House and JNU, Madhu is a Professor at the Indian Council of Social Science Research and a member of the Academic Council of the School of Art and Aesthetics, JNU. She has authored numerous books and papers on Indian social and legal issues.
She does not identify as a feminist, and has been critical of feminist efforts to curb the practices of dowry and Sati, as she believes that these efforts follow a Western framework which does not fit India. Despite criticism from academia and the masses, she has been an ambassador of Right-wing nationalism. She is often trolled for sharing fake news on social media; but continues to command more than 2 million followers on Twitter.
Fearless and outspoken, these are the two words that come to mind when one thinks of 22-year-old Indian student activist and author, Gurmehar Kaur. She first came into the public eye in 2017, as an active participant of the ‘Save DU campaign’, following campus violence between All India Students Federation and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), after JNU activists Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid Shora were invited to Ramjas college for a seminar.
Referred to as a ‘free speech warrior’ by the TIMEmagazine, she is now pursuing master degree at Oxford University, UK, where she is an ambassador for Postcards for Peace, an organisation that fights discrimination. Gurmehar has authored a memoir, Small Acts of Freedom, which was published in January 2018.