Recently 17 Indian writers returned the Sahitya Akademi Award, India's highest award for Literature in protest of the murder of a prominent writer and several attacks on freedom of speech and dissenting authors. The current scene of the country has alarmed many liberals and secularists and a lot has been written about the descent of India into fascism if the current strains of extremism are not checked. With the silence of the PM on the Dadri lynching of a man based on a rumor of stored beef in his home (there is a ban on beef in many states of India recently) the concern of writers, intellectuals, theater artists, celebrities and many prominent cultural opinion makers is genuine. Many even applauded the writers returning their awards and there were several Facebook posts as to whether Pakistani conscientious writers had ever showed solidarity or protest in this way for the persecution of minorities. Some blogs and articles even dismissed the returning of awards as selective condemnation citing events as far back as the anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi in 1984 (for which the victims have yet to get justice) and as recent as the Gujarat pogroms against Muslims and the forced migration of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley of Kashmir in the early 1990s wherein none of the current writers on the lists showed any support or even raised a voice.

 Whatever the debate, all of this brought to my mind Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1837 essay, 'The American Scholar' delivered over 150 years ago, in which Ralph Waldo Emerson considered the meaning and function of the intellectual. Emerson put forth the idea of the "One Man," by which he meant the complete person, or the person who embodies all dimensions of human potential and actuality – the farmer, the professor, the engineer, the priest, the scholar, the statesman, the soldier, the artist. (If Emerson had lived today, surely he would have used the term "The One Person.") The intellectual is this whole person while thinking. Emerson's intellectual, while enriched by the past, should not be bound by books. His most important activity is action. Inaction is cowardice. Emerson's intellectual preserves great ideas of the past, communicates them, and creates new ideas. He is the "world's eye." And he communicates his ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals. And finally, Emerson's intellectual does all of these things not out of obligation to his society, but out of obligation to himself. Public action is part of being the One Man, the whole person. The scholar's first and most important duty is to develop unflinching self-trust and a mind that will be a repository of wisdom for other people. This is a difficult task, Emerson says, because the scholar must endure poverty, hardship, tedium, solitude, and other privations while following the path of knowledge. Self-sacrifice is often called for, as demonstrated in Emerson's examples of two astronomers who spent many hours in tedious and solitary observation of space in order to make discoveries that benefited mankind. Many readers will wonder just how satisfying the reward really is when Emerson acknowledges that the scholar "is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature."

The true scholar is dedicated to preserving the wisdom of the past and is obligated to communicating the noblest thoughts and feelings to the public. This last duty means that the scholar — "who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public illustrious thoughts" — must always remain independent in thinking and judgment, regardless of popular opinion, fad, notoriety, or expediency. Because the scholar discovers universal ideas, those held by the universal human mind, he can communicate with people of all classes and ages: "He is the world's eye. He is the world's heart."

Although he appears to lead a reclusive and benign life, the scholar must be brave because he deals in ideas, a dangerous currency. Self-trust is the source of courage and can be traced to the transcendental conviction that the true thinker sees all thought as one; universal truth is present in all people, although not all people are aware of it. Instead of thinking individually, we live vicariously through our heroes; we seek self-worth through others when we should search for it in ourselves. The noblest ambition is to improve human nature by fulfilling our individual natures. In his long, concluding paragraph, Emerson dwells on the romantic ideal of the individual. This fundamentally American concept, which he develops at much greater length in the essay "Self-Reliance," is America's major contribution to the world of ideas. The scholar must be independent, courageous, and original; in thinking and acting, the scholar must demonstrate that America is not the timid society it is assumed to be. We must refuse to be mere purveyors of the past's wisdom: ". . . this confidence in the unsearched might of man, belongs by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar," who will create a native, truly American culture.

 And then the great Edward Said in his series of lectures called Representations of the Intellectual (1993 Reith Lecture), suggested a more political tone to the concept of the public intellectual. According to Said, an intellectual's mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge. This mission often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo. At the same time, Said's intellectual is a part of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public as possible. Thus Said's intellectual is constantly balancing the private and the public. His or her private, personal commitment to an ideal provides necessary force. Yet, the ideal must have relevance for society. Said's ideas raise some interesting questions: How does the intellectual stand both outside society and inside society? How does the intellectual find common ground between what is of deeply personal and private interest and also what is of public interest? How does the intellectual engage him or herself with the changing issues of society while at the same time remaining true to certain unchanging principles?

 All of the above gives me an insight as to what could have been going on in the minds of the writers who felt the recent wave of backlash against writers, free thinkers, dissenters and critics of popular culture was gaining momentum in a country where there is a semblance of democracy even if it still is a fledgling one. These very writers must have shuddered when they heard about the plight of the Bangladeshi bloggers and their open murders with not even the state able to prevent the extremists from publishing a hit list of who they believed were secular writers and bloggers. They must have thanked their luck to be able to live in a country where they could openly criticize the government and its policies in the early days and watched with horror as India too saw the days when bloggers and Facebook commentators faced jail sentences for a remark about the PM even if done in satire. There must have been empathy and new found respect for the neighborly Pakistani writers who so boldly and nonchalantly wrote against the establishments and continue to raise their voices even when in the face of threats and  attacks such as the ones on Raza Rumi and Hamid Mir.

I understand the arguments of those who say these very writers kept silent at numerous occasions when their symbolic gesture of today would have meant a lot, but I have only this to counter them with: at least they are standing up to bigotry today and proving the idea of India exists and there will always be the intellectual class which will stand up to the threat of fascism in every era. Writers are growing all their lives with each new work of theirs. Maybe, these 17 finally decided enough was enough. Their works were not enough now. This needed to be done too.