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From Palestine to India: Why Edward Said's legacy matters

A new biography of the scholar shines light on his views on the Palestinian question, public intellectuals, and the importance of academic freedom

A protester carries a placard as she takes part in a demonstration along with others in support of Palestine during an anti-Israel protest rally in Islamabad on May 17, 2021. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP) (AFP)

On 7 May, the last day of Ramadan, several hashtags were trending on Twitter, worldwide: #FreePalestine, #FromKashmirToPalestine, #BoycottIsrael. As Israeli forces stormed the Palestinians in the Al-Aqsa compound, there was a global outpour of support for the 75,000 Palestinians inside the mosque. And even though millions may continue to support Israel, this solidarity for Palestine has been decades in the making.

Although there are many to be credited for it, one person who stands out when it comes to the question of Palestine is the late Edward Said, prolific writer and professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, New York. When Said started his career in the 1960s, the Palestine question could be ignored completely in public discourse. By the time he was done, it became acceptable, almost fashionable, to bring it up.

Places of Mind, scholar Timothy Brennan’s new biography of Said, captures his many complexities. It traces the life and writings of an individual who left his mark on many fields—literary criticism, linguistics, philosophy, politics, history, music and social theory. Brennan, who was Said’s student and friend, draws a loving portrait of an intellectual with “shifting positions and divided sympathies”; someone who is loved and hated with equal vigour to this day. In Places of Mind, he also absolves Said of many accusations and clarifies his stance on issues such as Marxism and feminism.

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A running theme in the book is how Said made intellectuals part of cultural conversations, taking them outside academic books and placing them in everyday life—newspaper columns, television debates, documentaries. He made the university an exciting place, a place that stood for new ideas. As Brennan writes, “he moved the humanities from the university to the center of the political map.”

Said, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, who moved to the United States when he was 16, never shied away from taking unpopular opinions, even though he was treated as a “permanent outsider”. He wrote extensively on the cultural hegemony of the West, questioning “American, European and Middle Eastern opinion makers”. He defended Yaseer Arafat, former Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, publicly, when no one was willing to do so. When most people celebrated the Oslo Accords, which gave Palestinians limited self-governance in West Bank and Gaza, he criticized them. This position earned him the ire of Palestinians, though later his view was slowly accepted as a viable solution.

Said was ‘rewarded’ for his controversial views. His office was once firebombed; the FBI had a thick file on him, surveilling him under the threat of being a terrorist. He was the only professor, apart from Columbia’s president, to have a direct buzzer to the campus security. Once Said was photographed throwing a stone towards Israel, standing near the Lebanon border. The gesture, although replicated by many, created a furore. Many asked for him to be fired. However, the university administrator said that as long as no laws were broken, Said had the academic freedom to express his views.

Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said by Timothy Brennan, Bloomsbury Publishing, 464 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>1099
Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said by Timothy Brennan, Bloomsbury Publishing, 464 pages, 1099

In Representations of an Intellectual (1994), Said described real intellectuals as rare creatures. These are people who publicly raise “embarrassing questions... [and] confront orthodoxy”; who cannot be “co-opted by governments or corporations”; and who remember and raise issues otherwise conveniently “swept under the rug”. They have to be harsh, and their role is always public and controversial and unpopular. In the lecture On Defiance and Taking Positions, Said spoke of the need for academic freedom and the role of universities in promoting teaching and research to achieve changes in society. His ideas, obvious as they might seem, resonate urgently with our times, especially with the state of higher education in India.

Scholars who are brave enough to question the status quo are fast disappearing from India’s universities. Recently, in a study by Global Public Policy Institute, India’s academic freedom index score was comparable to Libya’s and Pakistan’s. This study measures the freedom academics have to pursue their work by looking at factors such as institutional autonomy; freedom to research, teach and exchange ideas; campus surveillance and intimidation; and so on. Nepal and Somalia score higher than India in the latest survey.

In the last seven years especially, there has been a targeted effort to silence dissenting voices—through red-tapism, political appointments at universities and curbing institutions that speak up. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has been under constant scrutiny since 2015, when it became embroiled in a series of controversies. Sedition charges against Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, the appointment of Rajiv Malhotra as an honorary professor, the call for “evaluation” of Romila Thapar’s CV, brutal attacks on JNU and Jamia Milia Islamia students during the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests—the list of attacks on academic freedom stretches on.

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In the recent Bhima Koregaon arrests, most of the accused are intellectuals and academics who have questioned the government. The exit of political theorist Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University, who has been questioning the government despite for some years being hopeful about it when it came to power in 2014, caused a furious debate around academic freedom. But things only seem to have got worse. Recently, in one of the biggest attacks on academic freedom, the government mandated prior approval for online international conferences on India's “internal” matters or on sensitive political, scientific, technical topics.

The role of an intellectual is all the more crucial, especially during a global pandemic when there is a constant state of emergency—and it is easy for the government to brush everything other than healthcare emergencies under the carpet. We need scholars and public intellectuals like Said to ask uncomfortable questions—a reading of Brennan’s biography makes this clearer than ever.

Umang Poddar is a lawyer and writer.

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