Increasingly influential and widespread critiques of the internationally dominant tradition of political philosophy — that is, John Rawls’ liberalism — have led political philosophers in India toward the task of cultivating an authentic and vibrant Indian political philosophy. But what does this signify — what, exactly, is Indian political philosophy?
This is the question that I have taken up in my recent book, Indian Political Theory: Laying the Groundwork for Svaraj (2017). What I do there is to initiate a project that aims to redirect the gaze of Indian political philosophy away from the West and back upon the lived experiences of Indian political life, and to present an innovative, systematic, compelling case for why we need to do this.
Political philosophers all across post-colonial nations and the so-called global south continue to work with categories and concepts alien to the lived social and political experiences of the common man, or everyday people. This is especially true in India. Consequently, we clearly need to decolonise Indian social and political philosophy, and rescue them from the grip of Western theories, and fascination with experience-distant Western modes of analysis.
There are many scholars in India on this path. In fact, much of the contemporary generation of Indian social and political philosophy is oriented more and more toward a programme of just such a deconceptualisation: That is, the project not of modifying but instead of abandoning the dominant political-theoretical vocabulary incessantly emanating from the transatlantic (or Western) world. Its overriding concern is that of svaraj (an indigenous social and political concept, which can be variously translated as “self-rule”, or more robustly, “authentic autonomy”).
In place of the current lexicon available to us in contemporary social and humanistic sciences, svarajist political philosophy seeks to retrieve and uncover indigenous conceptualisations, terms and categories, of Indian social and political thought, to find and follow its logic(s), and eventually to experiment with applying it normatively to theorisations of contemporary India’s actual social and political realities.
Naturally, the fundamental methodological concern throughout all of this is about how to re-found the discipline of Indian political philosophy in the present day. In its re-founding, Indian political philosophy pulls back away from transatlantic (or “Western”) theory, toward a return to “tradition”, but this must of necessity be a hybrid and evolving tradition, if it is to be true to the India of our own day. We must avoid this return being stultifying or oppressive (for instance, hyper-nationalistic, or tending towards “fundamentalism”, as I will briefly discuss below). Thus, it is imperative to introduce a principle of reform alongside the return. The principle of reform which I have suggested in my own work is analogous to what is widely known as the “difference principle” in political philosophy; that is, the principle that any modifications to be made to the system must benefit the least advantaged and that only those changes that do benefit the least advantaged may be regarded as legitimate.
Now a bit more on this idea of “fundamentalism”. At present, a nativist turn in social and especially political philosophy can be observed, saliently in South Asia, but also in Latin America, West Asia and Northern Africa, and elsewhere. In prominent post-colonial countries, there is a general assumption that the indigenous thought to which researchers are supposed to be (re)turning may somehow be immediately visible and available by historically leaping back over the era of the colonisation of the mind and polity. In such a conception of svaraj, the tradition to return to would inevitably be that of the indigenous elites. I call such a conception of svaraj a thick conception, which links it with exclusivist notions of spirituality, profound anti-modernity, exceptionalistic moralism, essentialistic nationalism and purism.
We must eschew this thick conception, which conflates indigeneity with hyper-nationalism. Fortunately, post-Independence India has faintly borne witness to an alternative trajectory to this: I call it a thin svaraj. A thin conception of svaraj pursues indigeneity and authenticity without the oppressive elements of retrograde hyper-nationalism.
Showing how this may be possible is what I aim to do in my own work. The task is to put forward a workable contemporary ideal of thin svaraj, a conception that is political, and free of metaphysical commitment. The model that I would propose in order to achieve this is inspired by the intellectual labour of BR Ambedkar, as opposed to the thick conception found in the works of contemporary revisionists such as SN Balagangadhara and others.
The true challenge that we contemporary Indian philosophers must all face lies in carving out a space for authentic autonomy in indigenous or native theory that does not get immediately filled in by “fundamentalist” or “hyper-saffron” thought.
This is the urgent task at hand for Indian political philosophy now.