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Review of Muzaffar Ali's book by Satya Javvaji

Satya Javvaji

MA student, KU Luven

Oct 26, 2023

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

In India, Habermas and the Normative Structure of Public Sphere, Muzaffar Ali sketches the theory and procedures of an adequate public sphere in India arguing that it has to focus on accessibility and acceptability of the individual participants. In a book that is comprehensive and accessible to a wide audience, Ali gracefully tackles the question of how to think through a native context while being aware of the overbearing Western hegemony on the one hand, and of the risk of delving into nativism or nationalism on the other.

        The context of the book’s conception starts with Ali’s personal discomfort with the rigid Western-Indian divide in his curriculum growing up. While authors from both geographies were being taught separately, there was a dearth of how to conduct native Indian political philosophy that neither preaches a pre-modern excavation of Indian values nor blindly adopts Western concepts and categories and applies them directly to the Indian context, which oftentimes much different. The book’s first chapter deals with precisely this question - “to figure out a way to deal with the West without a complete withdrawal and yet keep the elan vital of the decolonization project intact” (p. 13). Ali responds to it by arguing for a double native approach. Firstly, since a Western theory purports a universalism in its concepts, it remains essential for a non-western theory to engage with it and critically examine its shortcomings and exclusions. Secondly, these critical engagements have to form the basis of a native and decolonised Indian political theory that adequately captures the context of the society it is speaking with. An adequate theory does not stop at pointing out a historical or contextual exception to a Western theory, thereby proving it inapplicable. Rather, it captures the relevant conditions of possibility, that are socio-historically situated, to initiate a holistic theoretical basis that can, as is successfully carried out in this book, support an Indian public sphere. 

        With this methodology in hand, in the second chapter, Ali discusses the notion of the public sphere in Habermas, whose contribution to its theory is considered field-defining in Western literature. The public sphere is the conceptual stage upon which members of a society exchange views of social and political significance that pertain to their collective life. In the Habermasian public sphere, citizens form a rational public opinion through the medium of linguistic communication which is seen as a reservoir of meaning. While everyone is theoretically invited to the public sphere, Ali points out that the notion relies on a singular universalizing idea and emphasizes the role of rationality disproportionately, thereby striving to keep the project of modernity alive. In doing this, it ignores that firstly, there might be multiple public spheres with diametrically opposed common concerns, and secondly, that since dialogue always already takes place within certain power structures, the marginal and historically excluded voices are either not heard or, to borrow Gayatri Spivak’s famous declaration, that the subaltern simply cannot speak. With these problems in mind and the direct non-applicability of this notion of the public sphere to India (that, according to Ali, is in part due to its heavy religious context), he discusses in the third chapter, that current Indian engagements with Habermas are either comparative or evaluative. Both these engagements pose challenges to the theory and provide critical ways of engaging with it, but either lose sight of the overall conceptual structure by focusing on particular historical examples/contexts or fail to offer a way forward in terms of moving out of the Western hegemonic shadow. Instead, what Ali aims for is a thick concept of the Indian situation that can, as a full concept, interact with the Habermasian theory of the public sphere.

        In the fourth and fifth chapters, Ali begins with the major chunk of his creative contributions to the idea of an Indian public sphere. He starts with the observation that existing critiques are mainly concerned about the lack of accessibility and acceptability of all to the public sphere. This leads him to frame these as the twin normative principles based on which he theorizes an imagined Indian public sphere. This is so that the public sphere is “gauged by the ease of access it offers to the communities and individuals of whom it claims to be on” and it accepts “the perspectives and viewpoints of all individuals sans any ifs and buts” (p. P. 117-18). He cautions again that he is not interested in a “nativist approach to portray the Indianness” but is instead aiming for a “native approach to conceptualize Indianness” (p. 84). For theoretical and socio-historical reasons, Ali chooses to focus on religion as the social entity that informs the Indian context, the historical idea of rationality in Indian literature and the burden of colonialism with respect to how it colours the reading of texts and consequently of understanding society. With respect to religion, Ali discusses the complicated nature of secularism in India, the socialized role of caste and the deeply political nature of these issues. Through the perspective of religion, it becomes clear that in the European context, the immigration of other religions forms a new conceptual problem while dealing with a universal and apparently secular public sphere. But when it comes to the Indian context, religion has always been part of the notion of secularism and is a “perennial entity within Indian societies” (p. 97). According to Ali, “majority-minority, upper caste-lower caste, powerful-powerless, man-woman binaries within the Indian situation are often anchored in religion” (p. 111). Additionally, he argues that the procedural communicative rationality advocated by Habermas does not apply to the Indian context if acceptability and accessibility are to be taken seriously in the public sphere, and that a combination of abstract rationality and contextual rationality has to be present. This takes seriously the notion that contextual examples cannot always be universalized and translated into abstract concepts and language. At the same time, it does not mean that context-based examples are simply supporting or adding legitimacy to a universalised social procedural reason.

        Ali proposes the term deuniversal rationality to understand the dual nature of rationality in the Indian context. He reformulates the two aspects of deuniversal rationality as abstract rationality and experiential rationality. With the help of Merleau Ponty’s theory of the embodied self, in combination with Gopal Guru and Sundar Sarukkai’s theory of how the social sphere translates into embodied experiences, Ali argues that not only critical reflection and consequent articulation but also other aspects of the individual’s public identity namely their embodied experience, cultural conditioning and their emotional aspects of existence must have unrestricted access to the public sphere since these are not subordinated to reason but are fundamental aspects of the individual’s self-identity and hence self-expression in the social sphere. Ali writes that the aim is “to grant an epistemic passage to the lived body to enter as a medium of communication within the public sphere. The lived experience emerges as … a parallel and meaningful category for conducting the debates within the public sphere” (p. 128). Ali argues for the co-originality, to borrow Habermas’ term, of both the abstract component and the lived experience component in making up deuniversal rationality. He hopes this not only allows more people, previously excluded, into the contextual Indian public sphere but also, in recognising that the public sphere is carried as part of the individual’s lived experience, and that these very experiences are accepted as contributions to interactions in the Indian public sphere. 

While Ali is successful at conceptualizing a thick notion of the Indian public sphere based on deuniversal rationality that equi-prioritizes abstract rationality and lived experience, questions follow about how issues are resolved at the theoretical level when these two components contradict or disagree with each other. This sits in the wider debate about the post-structural turn in philosophy emphasizing that discourse always already happens within certain power relations that not only oppress but also produce individuals. Since Ali’s focus was on expanding who is included in the public sphere, what could possibly be clarified further is how disagreements are to be resolved once everyone is in the public sphere. This is keeping in mind the hyper-mediatized society we live in and the possibility of a fragmented and polarized public sphere that is sometimes clearly visible during discussions pertaining to national identity. Additionally, some readers could argue that according to lived experience unqualified epistemic privilege of expressing the truth complicates matters of intra-group justice and brings up the issue of intersectionality. This is because individuals, while referring to their lived experience hardly ever refer to only themselves as isolated individuals but to the group they see themselves as belonging to and speaking as part of. However, since they are simultaneously part of multiple groups and identities, it becomes important to keep in mind that all these identities affect the articulation of their lived experience and cannot be neatly separated into compartments. These are additional remarks since the intellectual involvement and theoretical rigour with which Ali takes on the ambitious project of theorizing a native Indian public sphere is commendable making the book essential reading for political philosophers, political and social scientists, theorists from the global South and everyone who wishes to understand the complexities involved in thinking about the native.

Image-credit: © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons

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