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Review of Muzaffar Ali's book by Richa Shukla

Richa Shukla

Assistant Professor, IIT Bhubhaneswar

Nov 13, 2023

Book review of Muzaffar Ali's India, Habermas and the Normative Structure of Public Sphere (Routledge, 2023)

This text called India, Habermas and The Normative Structure of Public Sphere is an attempt by Muzaffar Ali, a contemporary Indian political philosopher, to make us revisit the hidden ambiguity behind Indian Public Sphere in reference to Habermas’s idea. He points to this ambiguity by making us think the public sphere is a space that makes us think and question. The book submits a proposition that public spheres and its institutions go hand in hand. He also mentions three criteria for calling a public space. 

I couldn’t help but notice a tension that Ali wants to point out between his method on how he would do Philosophy vs how ideally Indian philosophy has been done so far. The larger arguments reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s proposition while she discusses the nature of Philosophy, i.e., it's important to think about what we are doing in Philosophy.[1]

The book consists of 5 chapters, excluding a preface and acknowledgements. It begins by pointing out a reflection as well as a theoretical concern on how the contemporary Indian situation is a possible glitch in the theorization of Habermas’s public sphere. Rather, it proposes ‘Samvada’, (संवाद) as a method of further analysis. The philosopher here submits that there is a coherence between contemporary Indian philosophy and Indian political theory which can very well be used to theorise the native idea of the Indian Public Sphere. It not only presents a picture of Habermas’s Public Sphere but also, brings in Indian philosophers, political theorists, and a few feminist scholars as well.

The first part of the book dwells on a reflective theoretical need: Can we ever think of a native theory of the Indian Public Sphere? The book attempts to not only answer this theoretical concern but also create a 'theoretical toolbox' [2] for the same. Additionally, it revisits and re-reads old debates in Indian political theory and Indian philosophy. This, Ali suggests, can help us in rebounding the normative foundations of the Indian Public Sphere. I couldn’t help but notice that the book takes a good philosophical lurk from the past, present and future of the Indian public sphere in terms of establishing theoretical discourses. It makes an attempt to understand the timeline behind these discourses. 

The book concerns how one can do Indian political theory considering we no longer can use Western frameworks as it's incapable of capturing Indian reality. He has referred to political thinkers like, Aakash Singh Rathore, Gopal Guru, Sundar Sarukkai, Aditya Nigam and many others to set the theoretical tone of Indian political theory. For instance, along the lines of these thinkers, he argues that we need to understand the audience, the Indian audience horizontally as well, as so far, we have been burdened by the Western way of doing Indian Philosophy. We have been colonised in our approach to Indian Philosophy at times. While he re-visits the concept of ‘Samvada’ in this manner, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between this and Upanishad saying: वादे वादे जायते तत्त्वबोधः which implies that it's through diverse opinions that we get to know the truth.

The book while, analysing Habermas’s concept of the public sphere, critically analyses key elements from the Indian domain as well whether it's the Indian debates on religion, caste, lived experience or the corporeal body. He writes, "The conceptualized Indian situation throws up two essential markers regarding the inadequacy of the Habermasian public sphere. At the social level, the hyper-presence of religion within Indian society needs a multi-pronged instrument of public debate rather than a unilateral notion of rationality to shoulder real and true public opinion."[3]

At a time when globally, the phenomenology of the public sphere is altering, this text makes a few pertinent interventions while keeping in mind Indian lived realities. While trying to establish caste as a ‘unique public lived reality’, one can look at movies like Article 15, Mulk, Sairaat, Masaan and shows like Made in Heaven, Kota factory, and Class which capture the Indian essence and the complicated relationship which we share between religion, caste and Indian public sphere.

Ali looks at religion as an important aspect of India’s social context. He establishes that the role of religion cannot be underestimated in evaluating the political and social contexts of Indian societies. This has been established by drawing from political thinkers like B.R. Ambedkar, and Valerian Rodrigues. In the Indian domain, while deconstructing caste and religion, Gopal Guru argues the same.[4] He writes caste has wings, it can fly, and that’s why it reaches a place before we reach it. These aspects have lived experience to their credit too. I could think of Feminist Philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir’s description of lived experience, in her book, The Ethics of Ambiguity. She takes the example of glue and paper. The way we put paper on glue and it becomes impossible to separate them, in a similar manner, it's impossible to detach 'lived experience', from human existence and our social reality. The book walks on a thin rope of some pertinent theoretical concerns, visible criticism of Habermas’s concept and an alternative that Ali is trying to provide for the same. 

[1] Dolan, M. Frederick. "Arendt on Philosophy and Politics".

[2] Term used by Ali for the same.

[3] Ali, India, Habermas And The Normative Structure of Public Sphere, page no. 111.

[4] Guru, Gopal. "Dalits from Margin to Margin." India International Centre Quarterly, 27: 111-116.

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