“We can thus dream of a society of the emancipated.... Such a society would repudiate the division between those who know and those who don't, between those who possess or don't possess the property of intelligence.”
The Ignorant Schoolmaster
Justice Markandey Katju is the 50th most powerful person in India, if we are to go by India Today’s Power List for 2013. In his long legal career, the retired justice has delivered a few commendable judgements and espoused mostly progressive ideas. And as the Press Council chairman now, he has sought to contribute to the public discourse. In doing so, he has made what many call controversial remarks—like “90 per cent Indians are fools”. But recently, Justice Katju, reacting to criticisms about his use of harsh language, apologised saying that these statements “were made in a specific context, and were never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings”.
However, it would be a superficial understanding to think that the issue is Justice Katju’s ‘harsh’ language. On the contrary, what is disturbing and what should be contended with are his arguments and his larger diagnoses of the state of the republic. These have gone uncontested and they have also, unwittingly, undermined Justice Katju’s own intentions to further the public cause. The problem is not that Justice Katju’s views are defamatory (as implied in the tragi-comic legal notice sent by two students for humiliating them!). Any robust democracy should give space to what Justice Katju calls the need to “speak the unpleasant truth” (which was his stated rationale for his remarks on the intelligence of his fellow citizens). Hence there is no need for an apology. The problem is that the unpleasant truths are inherently anti-democratic, contradictory, and ultimately, counter-productive to his goal of seeing “Indians prosper”, wanting “poverty and unemployment abolished (and) the standard of living of the 80 per cent poor Indians to rise so that they get decent lives”.
If what Justice Katju thinks about the vast majority of Indians does not augur well for a democratic society, his argument that he will not cast his vote as his “vote is meaningless” strikes at the edifice of a democratic order. He does not vote because “votes are cast in the name of Jats, Muslims, Yadavs or Harijans”. It is one thing to be distressed about the direction of our democracy but it is quite another to totally withdraw from it. Katju’s lament, “My one vote will not make any difference. Why should I waste my time in joining the cattle queue?” is the same as the depoliticised elites’ view of democracy in India. It is empirically false for it completely misses the mobilisation of poor beyond caste identities, and that the few substantive pro-poor policy successes like the land reforms and labour protection laws (like in Kerala and West Bengal) have been made possible by democratic governments elected by the same electoral processes that the judge decries.
It also misses the intense democratic churning and contestation that has characterised Indian society in the last few decades, especially with regard to the emergence of historically disadvantaged castes. In a society based on the hierarchy of castes, it is not surprising that caste becomes an axis of mobilisation at least in the initial phases of democratisation, when some of the most egregious forms of caste discrimination are sought to be overcome through political power. Thus the emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party through the electoral process is one of the most significant events in post-independence India. Of course, by no stretch of imagination is this a revolutionary transformation as the effects have been more symbolic than material, but with such changes at least some horrifying discriminations faced by the Dalits have been mitigated. Instead of exploring how these transformations can be pushed towards a more radical and comprehensive questioning of the structure of inequalities based on caste, class and gender, Justice Katju pulls the rug from under the democratic system based on elections. Needless to say, this is absolutely at odds with his criticism of the court decision to ban rallies based on caste.
The terms that Justice Katju used for the people, “cattle”, “sheep” and “livestock” betrays an intellectual disdain for the latter. But what is more problematic is the thinking behind them, which does not see any leading role for the masses in building a democracy. The crusading zeal of the judge befits more an enlightened monarch than a footsoldier of democracy. In The Republic, Plato famously states: “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one...cities will never have rest from their evils”. Since then, the temptation to instal the wise man as the king who will lead the ignorant and stupid masses to light and freedom has been strong. But no democracy conceived in the world has been built on the Platonic injunction. Justice Katju seems oblivious of the role the same “ignorant” and “stupid” masses have played in the iconic revolutions of the world, slave rebellions, peasant resistances and worker struggles in both pre-modern and modern times.
Of course, the majority of the masses can be deluded—and often are—to work against their own interests, and to fritter away their lives in mundane pleasures like films and cricket, as Katju would lament. But the point is, that is not all that is there to them. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci has theorised, every human being is imbued with the intellectual capacity to think and reason; thus, for Gramsci, everyone is an intellectual even though by function he or she might not be.
Of course, this ability to think critically might not achieve fruition for various material and social conditions. But to change those conditions, first we need to believe in the critical capacities of human beings. Rather than think of the relationship between the elite intellectual minority and the illiterate majority as that of the leader and the led, and the educator and the educated, we need to move to seeing it as one of equals, in which both parties learn from each other. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, philosopher Jacques Ranciere deals with the eccentric ideas of a 19th century French professor, Joseph Jacotot, who believed that “one can teach what one doesn’t know if the student is emancipated, that is to say, if he is obliged to use his own intelligence”. Thus, in what Ranciere calls the “circle of power”, “the ignorant person will learn by himself what the master doesn’t know if the master believes he can and obliges him to realise his capacity”.
At the opposite end is the “circle of powerlessness” where the ignorant is always below the master, and this is what is implied in Katju’s paternalistic endeavour to rid the ignorants’ minds of “casteism, communalism and superstition” to make them “scientific and modern”. Until this moment arrives, are we supposed to suspend democracy and elections because he believes they are flawed?
Even when Justice Katju clarifies that the Indian people were not always stupid by citing the supposed glorious golden past—“with the aid of science we had built mighty civilisations thousands of years ago when most people in Europe (except in Greece and Rome) were living in forests”—his arguments resemble the standard nationalist propaganda which revels in the greatness of Aryabhatta, Sushruta, Charaka and Panini without ever pausing to ask about the lot of the common people during the various “Golden Ages”. They also ignore the fact that civilisations have grown in dialogue, and by borrowing from each other, rather than in isolation.
Justice Katju is merely happy to note India’s prosperity before the British arrived and that “its share in world trade in 1700 was about 30 per cent”. But the historians of the Mughal empire would tell us that the magnificence and splendour of the empire was built by a tiny, rapacious ruling class who sucked the last drop of blood from the vast peasant masses who lived in abject poverty. And this story can be found time and again in the previous ages as well.
Instead of recognising that exploitation based on class and caste have been part of what is now known as India for centuries, Katju simplistically traces the decline of the nation and most of the present ills to the arrival of the British (“up to 1857 communalism was almost non-existent in India”). When Katju laments: “Superstition is rampant in India.... And it is not just the illiterates who believe in it, it is also most of the so-called educated people in India”, the historian Jadunath Sarkar writes of the reign of Aurangzeb—much before the formal colonisation of India by the British—“All classes alike were sunk in the densest superstition. Astrology governed every act of life among rich and poor alike!”
It is time for democracies to reject philosopher-kings. It is time to radically renew democracy; for it to happen, people cannot be dispensed with. As Gramsci had recognised a long time ago, the language for a new society cannot emerge unless it engages with “what already exists”, unless it sinks “its roots in the humus of popular culture as it is, with its tastes and tendencies and with its moral and intellectual world, even if it is backward and conventional”.
(Mannathukkaren is associate professor at the international development studies department, Dalhousie University, Canada, and author of The Rupture with Memory: Derrida and the Specters that Haunt Marxism, Navayana.)