Two philosophers and a political theorist: An allegory of Indian public sphere

NK Raveendran


A Hindu hardliner holds a trident as he participates in a rally calling for the construction of a temple on the site of the demolished 16th century Babri mosque, located in Ayodhya, in New Delhi on December 9, 2018 | Photo: AFP

What is valuable for Indians who see themselves as future cultural leaders? What is the meaning of philosophy in India where the educated like to sprinkle their speeches with some philosophical quotations? A recent example may give some insights into these questions. This is the story of two renowned philosophers, Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan, and a political thinker, J Reghu. I talked to their friends, those who know their work, and did some research to tell this story.

Dwivedi and Mohan hold a high position among their peers globally, including Etienne Balibar, Slavoj Zizek, and Stuart Kauffman. Their contributions are said to have created a “new conceptual apparatus by which to give shape to the world and its futures.” When these two Indian philosophers intervened in the Coronavirus debates with Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben they were called “the leading thinkers of the world”. Yet, they are being painted a monstrous image by a particular group in India.

J Reghu. Photo: YouTube/BijuMohan

Reghu is a leading academician who has published in several international academic journals. His works have been translated into several languages, including French. In a recent American journal, he mapped out the political philosophy of the past few decades.

Recently, Divya Dwivedi Shaj Mohan, and Reghu published the seminal, and decisive long essay on the history of the creation of the “Hindu majority” and its relation to caste politics of the early 20th century. After the publication of the essay the authors were threatened and harassed by the Hindu extremists.

Dwivedi and Mohan are much younger than Reghu. But they belong to the same generation. Their exclusion from the public sphere of India should be studied in detail. But I am just planning to introduce them to those who are unaware of them, and to those who do not want to know about them.

Reghu comes from a village near Adoor in Kerala and his father was a school teacher. He completed his masters in Economics and worked in the Encyclopedia department of the Kerala government for several years. During his days as a student, he was part of several political currents and was a friend of many prominent political leaders of today. He was a member of several Left organisations and was interrogated during the emergency.

His involvement in the cultural and political arena began at a young age. In fact, it is easy to find Reghu’s fingerprints in most of the critical political movements in Kerala. Reghu was one of the first translators of feminist writings into Malayalam. I encountered his work closely when I was writing my doctoral thesis on feminist writing in the Malayalam language. Through his friendship with MT Vasudevan Nair, ONV Kurup and Maithreyan, he created the “Secular Cultural Movement” in 1992 just before the demolition of the Babri mosque. He compiled an anthology on the writings of Kosambi soon after his university degree and exchanged letters in public with EMS Namboothiripad on historiography. Later, he specialised in the history of caste and progressive democratic politics in India. Reghu is also actively theorising social trends on the basis of scientific theories. He is committed to introducing rationality into public discourse.

Divya Dwivedi | Photo: YouTube/UNESCO

Divya Dwivedi is known as someone fiercely loyal and protective of her friends and family. She is viewed as an icon on the internet by some. This 'cult of Dwivedi' often defends her with humorous responses. She too had an early experience of politics, I should say too early. As a child, she moved with her leftist parents through the villages of India. Dwivedi as a child figures in the autobiography of esteemed lower caste leader Ramachandra Singh from Uttar Pradesh. Her parents, Sunita Dwivedi and Rakesh Dwivedi, would eventually leave politics behind and practice law at the Supreme Court. Her mother’s father Raj Mangal Pande was an influential lawyer and politician who became a union minister of education.

Rakesh Dwivedi is known to be a constitutional expert. His father SN Dwivedi was one of the dissenting judges in the case that decided the fundamental structure of the constitution- The Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala. According to a friend, Divya Dwivedi began her real education in her grandfather’s library.

Divya chose a path of scholarly pursuits in philosophy and at the same time a Sartrean commitment as a public intellectual. Her patriotism is evident in her refusal to take any foreign degrees. She was involved in political movements including the Narmada Bachao Andolan as a university student. She has contributed to several disciplines, including philosophy, psychoanalysis, political philosophy, and literature. Jean-Luc Nancy said about Dwivedi’s interpretation of Freud, “I find your analysis very accurate and very penetrating! […] Your recourse to the myth of the origin of life is very enlightening and you have tied up a very important link between the texts of Freud”. The director of Unesco called for a world envisioned by Divya Dwivedi, saying, "I would like to take the Indian philosopher Divya Dwivedi at her word when she prophesied ‘We will be astonished by the futures we have invented’."

Shaj Mohan spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Thiruvananthapuram. But less is known of him, except the account by many of his parents' generation that he was reading and discussing Descartes, Bergson and Sartre when he was 13 years old. Mohan’s father died when he was young. I remember talking to his mother who was a producer at All India Radio and a friend of the cultural elite of that time. An academic journal said his works are “becoming one of the most radical and important contributions to the philosophy of the world today.”

Shaj Mohan | Photo: YouTube/
Philosopher au présent

Reghu, who met Mohan for the first time in 2007, said “his is a pious pursuit of philosophy.” As his friends said, Mohan has always been a private person, almost a hermit. He comes from an old Tirunelveli family and his grandfather Nadaraja Pillai was a member of the Congress party and a freedom fighter. His parents were left-leaning. However, Mohan had the reputation of being a child who devoured libraries. He studied Economics and Mathematics at first and later obtained a Masters in Philosophy from St Stephen’s College. Briefly, he was involved in computer science projects at an IBM institution. His colleague at that time, Anish Mohammed, said that when tested, Mohan had an exceptional IQ which was highly valuable in that field of computer sciences. But Mohammed said that in spite of his skills with the computer, Mohan was really interested in the machine as a philosophical problem.

It was when he was a student at St Stephen’s college that his epistolary friendship with Jean-Luc Nancy, one of the greatest philosophers of the century, began. Dwivedi also would later become a dear friend of Nancy. They collaborated in projects with both Nancy and Bernard Stiegler. Nancy was a close friend of Jacques Derrida, the father of 'deconstruction'. Stiegler was Derrida’s student. Through these relations and their own research both Mohan and Dwivedi are the inheritors of the line of thinking which began from Husserl, Heidegger and Derrida through Nancy and Stiegler. It is generally accepted that continental philosophy is a kind of descent from a tradition. Elders select the next generation after a kind of close examination.

What is remarkable about this situation is that two Indians are the inheritors and the future of a European philosophical tradition today. Dwivedi and Mohan continue this tradition by deviating from it, through Nancy. This new beginning of philosophy is called “anastasis” by them. In fact, Nancy said that the philosophical insights of Dwivedi and Mohan show the future of philosophy. Indians should think about this reality: Europe is open to the other, and India is hostile to the other. This is especially relevant since we love to talk about “the other.”

Reghu began his research into the very creation of modern Indian history from the days he started the project on Kosambi. That is, he was not interested in learning about the history of India from the books of established historians. Instead, he wanted to know why they wrote such narratives about India. Dwivedi and Mohan, in an article titled “Critical Nation”, published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2007, were investigating something similar. Gandhiji always spoke about religion, while accepting caste and race. Then what is really the meaning of religion for Gandhi?

These questions began to find very shocking answers. Reghu wrote a book on the birth of Hindutva in 2018. In 2019 Dwivedi and Mohan published a remarkable short article shattering the established wisdoms about modern India in the Indian Express, titled “Courage to Begin”. In that essay, they said that Hindu religion was the invention of the 20th century political climate. It was through the Hindu religious category that upper caste leaders could control lower caste people and represent them before the colonial administration. They also said that the Congress party was always a lobbying platform primarily for upper caste interests. If it wants to have a future, the Congress should become the platform for lower caste aspirations, they said.

Soon, Divya Dwivedi would do the unthinkable, she spoke to NDTV about the annihilation of caste. There she said, “Hindu Right is the corollary of the idea that India is a Hindu majority population and this is a false majority. The Hindu religion was invented in the early 20th century in order to hide the fact that the lower caste people are the real majority of India…” Needless to say this video went viral and the Hindu extremists began to target Dwivedi. At that time, Dwivedi told Reghu that she refused every further invitation to participate in television debates and opportunities to clarify her position. “I must never be the news and I am a servant of the lower caste majority position,” she said.

Reghu joined forces with Dwivedi and Mohan and began to work on the long essay “Hindu Hoax: How the Upper castes invented a Hindu Majority”, which would appear as the cover story of the Caravan magazine in January 2021. Their research took two years to make sure that these theses regarding Hinduism and caste could be published without fear. Above all, they were concerned with withstanding both academic scrutiny and juridical scrutiny. It is evident that after several months of its publication this seminal essay cannot be challenged easily.

PM Modi with RSS chief Mohan Bhagawat at Ayodhya | Photo: AP

There are three essential truths coming from this publication. First, the lower caste people are the real majority of India (90% they say, and it remains unchallenged). Second, the Hindu religion was invented by upper caste leaders to mask this fact. Third, tragic events of modern India, including the partition of India resulted from it. That is, the false “Hindu majority” and “Hindu majoritarianism” require the oppression of other religions as spectacles. But they also show with evidence that religious pogroms were often used to deflect attention away from the assertions and demands of lower caste people.

Needless to say, the authors received threats repeatedly and faced harassment on social media. Jean-Luc Nancy wrote defending the authors in a leading French newspaper.

But since then, there is an utter silence in the public space about these three figures. In private conversations among the cultured people, many acknowledge the brilliance of their research and argument. But they often conclude by saying that Indian lower caste majority are not mature for this kind of discourse. I discovered through some academic friends that there is a kind of ostracism of Dwivedi and Mohan from academic spaces in India due to their political writings since 2007.

But among the lower caste writers and intellectuals it is a different story. The “Hindu Hoax” essay already has the status of “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” by Mary Wollstonecraft or the “ Communist Manifesto” by Marx and Engels. The history of the oppressor conceals and justifies oppression in order to make it both natural and normal. But then, there is the history of the oppressed, like the women in Mary Wollstonecraft's work. This removes the mask of the narrative of the oppressor. Then, it shows the path to a better future for all. This is the political achievement of Dwivedi, Mohan and Reghu.

But what does this allegory tell us? From school we are told that ancient Indian history is the history of north-western India. All our political histories are about the North Indian upper caste leaders such as Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhai Patel. We are forced to accept Hindi, a language which emerged as an upper caste language and as a component of the new Hindu religion, as the national language. Our cinema, as Dwivedi recently said, erases the lower caste existence. “If you watch Bollywood cinema or read mainstream literature, you might even think that there are no lower caste people in India, as they are invisible in Indian culture,” she wrote.

The allegory of the three courageous public intellectuals shows there is no real public sphere that freely and rationally deliberates over ideas and futures in India. We just pretend that we are “argumentative Indians.” In reality we fear philosophy and free thinking. It shatters illusions when great philosophers speak about India from here. It is the fundamental task of philosophy.

The challenge of Brahminical ideas by Reghu creates the possibility of creating new and liberating intellectual history. This threatens the status quo. In Dwivedi and Mohan’s words, new horizons are the arrival of modernity. “Modernity is the confidence in humanity that the present can be the origin of new and impossible orders, and that the essential is available every moment.” But that is the task of a public intellectual, to produce modernity.

We should embrace these three figures who propose a new modernity.

(Authour is a senior journalist and former associate editor, Asianet News. Views his own)

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