Muzaffar Ali

In conversation with Varun S Bhatta (Assistant Professor, HSS, IISER Bhopal)     

July - August 2021

Muzaffar Ali (mamalla[AT] | younusmalla[AT] is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, India. He received M.Phil and PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Prior to joining Savitribai Phule Pune University, he taught philosophy at Hindu College, University of Delhi. He specializes in social and political philosophy and contemporary Indian philosophy with an emphasis on the idea of the public sphere and its normative implications in the Indian context. He is a DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst) scholar and has published in prestigious journals such as JICPR, Sophia, Culture and Dialogue, and Journal of World Philosophies. A co-edited volume, The Imbecile's Guide to Public Philosophy (2021) is published by Routledge.

Varun: Muzaffar, let us start this interview by knowing a bit about your personal history. Can you please tell us where are you from? What about your earlier education and interests?

Muzaffar: I am from Kashmir and studied there till my Bachelors in 2008. While my education (up to HSC) took place around my village, I moved to Srinagar city for Bachelors in 2006. My primary education took place at a school next door of which ours was the first batch. I need to mention that we were lucky to get quality education at our primary stage in education and much of the credit goes to the then collective of teachers at this school. Quite interestingly, it was my failure to secure a seat in the State MBBS entrance examination which marked my shift to Social Sciences for my Bachelors; more specifically to Psychology! The shift was initiated through advice from some close friends who were of the view that I can do better with human psychology than human physiology!

Interesting to hear about the rural educational experiment. Probably, if we have time, would like to know more about this initiative and how it is doing at present. Also, fascinated to know about the twist of fate: from physiology to psychology! How was your Bachelors’? Curious to know how and why you transited from psychology to philosophy. 


The school was a community initiative within our village to provide quality education as an alternative to the State-run schools. However, within a matter of two decades, the shift in primary education was more towards a neo-liberal one, one where paradoxically entrepreneurship and education are supposed to share the plate! Gradually my school had a strange death as it could not withstand the shift.

    At the college, the social science stream (as it was then called) was offered in clubbed subjects and one had to choose one such club. With an eye on psychology, I happened to choose a club that had philosophy in it.  And you won’t believe within the first year itself when I studied Greek Philosophy, I  was fascinated to the core. I straight away decided that philosophy is what I am going to pursue. At the college, we hardly had teachers who could teach philosophy and I struggled to finish my undergraduate studies. I got help from a few friends who had either studied philosophy or were interested in it. A gentleman who had retired as a Govt officer but had done post-graduation in philosophy in the 70s helped a lot. The boat somehow sailed through. Once my undergraduation was over, I did not apply to any other subject as I knew philosophy awaits me somewhere.


Can you tell us what aspects of philosophy caught your attention during the first encounter? 


In my first encounter with philosophy at college, I was handed W T Stace’s introductory book on Greek Philosophy. The moment I started going through it, the metaphysical questions raised by the early Greek philosophers captivated me. It was as if these philosophers (Thales, Pythagoras, Anaximenes, Heraclitus etc) were eager at capturing the ‘ultimate reality’ at a conceptual level. The evolution of Greek philosophy with Plato and Aristotle talking about a kind of moral nature of politics was not only interesting but refreshing as well. Unfortunately, the syllabus during those days was based on the Indian-Western binary (and it still carries much of that baggage). The binary-based curriculum did not allow us to move to the specifics of any particular tradition at the college level.


Before we move on, do you remember the name of this retired government officer and any information about him? Want to imagine this person...who does post-graduation in philosophy (in the 1970s), joins a government job and at the same time assists students! 

As far as I remember, he was a retired horticulture officer who had done his MA at Aligarh Muslim University during the early 1970s. After his MA, he had even got an opportunity to move abroad for further studies in philosophy after securing a fellowship. However, he decided to move back to Kashmir and do a government job instead. Actually, since there were few or no teachers of philosophy available, colleges used to hire him after his retirement to teach and assist students. At times, he would not even be paid, but he would still continue to assist students like me at an informal level. I can’t remember his exact name as of now, though we fondly called him Malik Sahab.


Wonder why the person did not pursue higher studies. Coming back to you, what happened after your undergraduate degree? Looks like you were clear about pursuing a Master's in philosophy. How did that go?


I applied to two universities for my Master’s: Panjab University Chandigarh (PU) and Hyderabad Central University (HCU). However, as fate would have it I had to join Panjab University as the selection letter from HCU wouldn’t reach me on time due to the 2009 agitation in Kashmir following the Asia-Neelofar rape case. Interestingly the Dept at PU was imbibed with a sense of openness and seriousness for philosophy. It had a charged and vibrant atmosphere with weekly seminars, discussion groups and Professors took a keen interest in offering pedagogical clarity during and after lectures. That training gradually played its part in shaping my research interests. Dr Lallan Baghel who currently heads the Dept prodded us to submit abstracts to attend seminars and conferences at the national level. Informal discussions on concepts related to classical Indian philosophy and other subjects were a routine exercise. I fondly call the Dept as being my stepping stone as it became a platform for me to have a glimpse of global philosophy. From Habermas to Daya Krishna, Dharmakirti to Jayanta Bhatta, Husserl to Deleuze, Foucault to Chantal Mouffe, I got acquainted with a diverse range of philosophers and concepts. In essence, the groundwork for my research interests was done and the imperative need was to shape and cultivate it further. 


With this ground set, how did you proceed further? 


I secured admission to the integrated M.Phil-Ph.D programme at the Centre for Philosophy, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Centre was small at that time and I completed my M.Phil in 2013  with my focus on the concept of sovereignty within the “Deterritorial Empire”; a concept put forward by the Political Philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. It was during my M.Phil that I figured out that not much work is being done in the realm of political philosophy from the perspective of the Indian context. The trigger was an essay by Bhiku Parekh, “The Poverty of Indian Political Theory.” It occurred to me that the philosophical domain is overwhelmed by a kind of Western captivity which if I borrow from K. C. Bhattacharya can be considered as a part of ‘cultural subjugation.’ I was not thinking of closing myself to the West and becoming a nativist. Rather I seriously started to interrogate into the blind deployment of notions and theories that have origins in the West. The lament was that even Indian political theory is not able to offer anything beyond a certain point. After a lot of reading and discussions with faculty at JNU and outside, I was sure that my PhD research topic has to focus on this often neglected problem.

Muzaffar - MA.jpg

Muzaffar (far left) along with his friends in Mumbai University, attending the Afro-Asian Philosophy conference (2010).

I can relate to the tension between the west and Indian that one encounters while practising philosophy in India. I want to delve more into the points you mention and hear in detail. Before that, let us complete the current strand of conversation. Please tell us about your PhD research. 


Since I had a bit of clarity about the wider context of my research problem, I chose to understand the imagined Indian public sphere in normative terms by evaluating the Habermasian conceptualization(s) of the public sphere. The title is, “Understanding Indian Public Sphere through a Critique of Jurgen Habermas.” In my research, I didn’t evaluate or inquire into the Indian situation from the vantage point of Habermas’s normative idealization of the public sphere. Rather I employed the contemporary Indian situation as my standard measure of evaluation and inquiry into Habermas. The methodological insight for this inquiry is based on Samvada as propounded by two contemporary Indian philosophers, Daya Krishna and M. P. Rege. Among other issues, a major issue that I argue about is that the concept of rationality -- be it the enlightenment one or the communicative rationality, which shoulder the shifts and evolution of the Habermasian public sphere -- is inherently insufficient to be deployed for the understanding of Indian public sphere. As an alternative, I propose the concept of contextual rationality, as propounded by B. K. Matilal and others can be ‘finetuned’ and used for understanding and envisioning the normative conceptualization of the Indian public sphere. The fine-tuning involves the possibility of replacing the ‘illustrational’ component in the classical model of contextual rationality with the notion of ‘lived experience’ as a viable vector of meaning for a shared discourse within the public sphere. I may add that the project is still a work in progress even after I have completed my PhD and I look forward to putting it in the public domain soon.


I can see how you in the PhD research successfully attempted to come up with a novel Indian political theory by making the existing concepts/theories have a conversation with the Western ones. As a person who has not delved into political philosophy, I want some clarification about your research domain and the project. (i) In what ways do you think the Indian public sphere differs from the Harbemasian one? (ii) And, even though you have clarified that you are not a nativist, but do you think concepts developed in the Indian context (like Matilal’s contextual rationality) have better conceptual compatibility to explain Indian phenomena (like the Indian public sphere)?


To put it briefly, I can say that a public sphere’s publicness is to be theoretically gauged by the in-principle access it offers to individuals who intend to participate in it. The overemphasis on the concept of rationality by Habermas, (as I M Young, Nancy Fraser, and others charge) becomes an obstacle for that in-principle accessibility itself. The reason being that Habermas creates a procedural format to conduct the critical-rational debates within the public sphere. A simple way of putting this point is this. Think of a situation where matters of caste discrimination are to be discussed by everyone apart from the one’s who suffer it, primarily because they are not able to speak in the language and format as demanded by the Habermasian public sphere. The Indian public sphere, if we can imagine and theorize one, cannot simply rely on or overemphasize procedural rationality alone.  While on one hand, the Indian public sphere needs to resolve the problem of accessibility and operationalize it through an alternative format and procedure for debate within it. On the other hand, such operationalization should not dilute its normative potential which may otherwise end up making it redundant.
  Coming to your second question, the notion of contextual rationality looks promising on these fronts if reworked and employed in an appropriate way. Matilal himself draws on the Nyaya conception of debate and makes sure that contextual rationality as an operative within debates satisfies the needs and demands of participants. While doing that, the in-principle accessibility option for the general public who can become participants is kept intact by making illustrations and examples a necessary ingredient of contextual rationality. So while the arguments cater to the debaters’ demands, the parallel woven examples and illustrations cater to the general public who are potential (not actual) participants in the debate. I play with this illustrational component to make it more tenable for an imagined Indian public sphere so that contestations present within our society can be properly responded to, at least at a theoretical level. I do not strictly adhere to the compatibility issue in my research. But at the same time, I am of the opinion that concepts developed within a certain context do share a kind of fetal relation with the context itself. And it is necessary that we as doers of philosophy underline the existence of such relation.


I like the way you put it - “fetal relation”. Are there any works (published, forthcoming, work-in-progress) on the above topic that one can read? Please do also introduce us to your other research works.


Yes, there are a few. Up to now, I have been more concerned about the Contemporary Indian philosophical strand of my research. In 2017, as part of a collaboration, “Rethinking Classical Dialectical Traditions: Daya Krishna on Counterposition and Dialogue” was published in the journal  Culture and Dialogue. I took it a bit further in 2018 with “ Indian Philosophy and Ethics: Dialogical Method as a Fresh Possibility” published in Sophia. The first treatment of the Social and political arena within my research is part of an upcoming co-edited volume, The Imbecile’s Guide to Public Philosophy published by Routledge. The volume is going to be out by September 2021. Apart from this, I have written a few articles on Contemporary Indian philosophers such as Margaret Chatterjee and Feminist Philosophy.

    Apart from the publications, I have been occupied with the malestream nature of philosophy as a discipline. I did a project under the UGC’s University with Potential for Excellence grant at my university so that the relationship between patriarchy and philosophy can be studied. The findings of the study are available as an occasional paper published by the University. Taking the focus on this question forward, I and a few colleagues from Universities in India founded the Collective for Women Philosophers in India last year. The CWPI is a voluntary effort to study the gender gap within Indian philosophical academia from multiple methodological perspectives. To begin with, we have started interviewing Women philosophers based in India to understand their perspectives on the nature and extent of the gender gap in Philosophy. We look forward to taking it further with collaborations and projects on national as well as international levels.


Given that you have been through the various stages of academic philosophy, and have dabbled not only with regular academic activities (like teaching and research) but also proactively attempting to address some of the problems of the discipline, what has been your experience of doing philosophy in India?


Let us (for the moment) separate doing philosophy in India into two categories; studying philosophy and practising philosophy. As far as studying philosophy is concerned, we get exposed to a lot of non-Indian philosophies, thanks to the evolution of Indian academics post-colonial influence. Unfortunately, this exposure is not symmetry-based and deep down the Indian-Western binary is inherent to it. In other words, it seems that colonial authority has paved the way to a kind of epistemic authority within philosophical discourses. If this exposure was founded on a principle of epistemic symmetry then the condition of philosophy as a discipline may have been altogether different. 

    The asymmetry is bound to shape the practice of philosophy as well.  It leaves the practitioners of philosophy with a conundrum of being faithful to both traditions simultaneously. Most of us, I think, remain entangled with solving this conundrum throughout our careers, and my experience is of similar nature.  I find it difficult to strike a balance between the two traditions given the fact that the Indian-Western binary has been foundational to my career as well. J. L. Mehta, Daya Krishna, J. N. Mohanty, Ramchandra Gandhi, Margaret Chatterjee are examples of India based philosophers who have suffered this conundrum and attempted to find a way (whether successfully or unsuccessfully is a different question altogether) out of it.  Honestly speaking, I am inquisitively searching this forest to look for a way out of it.  Another characteristic problem within our philosophical circles is the lack of dialogue within. Much of the communication is limited to friendly circles and senior fellows. Young scholars and researchers hardly get opportunities to interact with each other. 


With regard to the last point you mentioned, what are the critical difficulties and concerns you think that the community of young philosophy scholars in India encounters? And what initiatives and steps we can proactively take to tackle these?    

One of the major predicaments that we face is to prove that philosophy is (still) relevant. I think a young philosophy professional is used to facing questions and doubts regarding the relevance and use of philosophy every now and then. The doubts do not emerge from a vacuum. Rather the general atmosphere, academic as well as non-academic, is bulldozed by a technocratic and positivist invasion which leaves very little scope for a sustained train of thought. Further, the instrumental nature of education plays a role in sidelining criticality and inquisitiveness. It falls on us to either submit to the onslaught or to keep up the ante. Our predecessors have not witnessed a difficulty of such magnitude, I believe.

    There are a few administrative and academic hardships as well. Administratively, there is hardly any scope for a young professional to receive focused impetus from the national councils such as the ICPR or ICSSR to sponsor research stays in acclaimed institutions. ICPR has senior fellowships among others, but I hardly find it offering a special young faculty program. Academically, it becomes difficult for any young scholar in India to share and have a conversation on his/her work. The reason is the attitude that “senior is better”  which I think needs to be revisited. It is quite easy for anyone to get a senior professor’s inputs on research and teaching, but very hard (almost impossible) to get a shared or even contested view from peers. We have to figure out alternatives, such as having platforms and collectives like IPN, CWPI, etc., to communicate with each other and share works of interest.  While the academic part of this difficulty has to be resolved by us and the senior colleagues in philosophy academia, the administrative one has to be sorted elsewhere.

One of the challenges that I constantly encounter as an academic philosopher is the guilt of doing philosophy only in English and not doing enough of it in my mother tongue (Kannada). Even though this question resonates with the India-vs-West problem that we discussed above, they are different. Working in one’s provincial language is a way the philosopher connects to his/her immediate locale. Thought of asking your thoughts on this as I want to know what does asking this question in the context of Kashmir entail?


The question is both important and interesting. The vernacular medium definitely offers a lived way of doing philosophy (or for that matter any discipline which is articulation and argumentation centric). I would have preferred to get schooled in the Kashmiri language. But alas, English as a “language of power” has so permeated our being that during my schooling Kashmiri was not even a subject in the curriculum. Even now, after being introduced, it is taken quite casually. The result of sheer neglect towards the vernacular languages has been quite drastic. We are more like hybrids. Now that I am based in Pune, a cursory comparison makes me feel that English is more commonly deployed in the northern states. States like Maharashtra, Bengal have (to a good extent) managed to preserve their vernacular languages.  On a different note, while English distances me from my immediate locale, it simultaneously brings the outer world closer to me. It (as if through its sheer power) throws the world open to me, and that needs to be underlined. Somehow, we forgot to strike a balance between the openness that English offers and the belongingness that the vernacular bestows.   


Thanks for pointing out how vernacular and cosmopolitan languages can complement each other. Having discussed the various hurdles and characteristics of Indian academics, I want to know how all of these have come to shape your pedagogy. How do you think philosophy should be taught in India?


My pedagogy has indeed been shaped by this tumultuous-yet-interesting experience.   I have made it a point to rid the courses (that I teach) from the sweeping Indian-Western binaries. The courses now have a mix of Indian and non-Indian philosophers without any underlined segregation. I hope that helps free the caged bird. Second, since philosophy is a vast discipline and in India, it has been more involved with the history of philosophy, I make sure that contemporary scholars across the wider social sciences get their place (at least) in my teaching.

    Coming to your second question, I am of the view that we need to teach ‘philosophy as philosophy’ without reducing it to spiritual enterprise, religious conservatism or other comprehensive doctrines. The argumentative value inherent to philosophy, its inquisitiveness to interrogate, its inclination to offer and sustain critique need to be the vectors of teaching and doing philosophy.