Examining the Public Sphere in India

Examining the Public Sphere in India
By Arshid Iqbal Dar
What has happened in India over the last couple of months from the “intolerance debate” to the JNU controversy can be called an issue of ‘public sphere’. The attempt here is to analyse the situation from Habermas’ notion of public sphere; therefore, it is desirable to first have a brief description of the notion of public sphere as per Jurgen Habermas.
According to Habermas, the Enlightenment had its origins in a new kind of institution or, perhaps more accurately, a non-institution – the Public Sphere. The public sphere encompassed all the places where people could meet, discuss and decide without fear for their freedom. During the 18thcentury, it encompassed coffee houses, newspapers, and salons (clubs devoted to the art of conversation). Today, it would include things like unions, professional associations, volunteer organisations and so on. The public sphere was, and is in short, an open meeting space where free communication was and is possible, and thus is a bedrock of a democratic society.
One participates in the public sphere because one wants to, not because one is forced. The only force in the public sphere is the force of better argument, or in other words, of reason. In the public sphere it is not who you are, but what you contribute that counts.
Let’s look at India’s recent events through this prism. Starting from the intolerance debate, when leading intellectuals, filmmakers and academicians highlighted the issue of intolerance prevalent in the current Indian state, most of them responded to the issue by returning their awards. This heated up the “intolerance debate” even more and the response of the present state apparatus of either labelling them as anti-nationals or simply asking them to leave the country, despite being natives of the country, was even worse. What was more ridiculous was when a reward was ‘announced’ for anybody who would slap Amir Khan, a leading actor of Indian cinema, after he shared his feelings about the present conditions in India.
Habermas also talks about the encroachments faced by the public sphere, in his term “colonisation” of public sphere, from other areas of society, from hierarchical institutions like the state and corporations, where coercion is the norm rather than exception, and which have a definite interest in what goes on in the public sphere. Same has been the case in India, where the public sphere has been totally distorted, where free speech, communication and free discussion is regarded as “anti-national” and where those speak are ‘rewarded’ with sedition charges. Open discussion presumes the pursuit of truth, and that is what, in the absence of external colonisation, it produces. Because the norm of discussion, reason and democracy are all the same, the defence of one logically entails the defence of others. But what is happening in India, where the state apparatus is legitimising itself from above by forcing its “colonial”, or we can say totalitarian, ideology into the public sphere, is totally against the notion of Habermasian public sphere where the legitimacy of the system comes from below and where free speech, debate and discussion are the bedrock on which the public sphere rests.
What the Indian current state apparatus is doing clearly reflects the traditional value system, using Habermas, where the right of dissent is not admitted, either in politics or in private beliefs and where unequal social relations are normal and accepted. When these two ways of looking i.e. traditional value system and enlightened public sphere clashed, argued Habermas, naturally people preferred the values of the public sphere and this is what generated the revolutionary pressure that exploded in 1789.
The same happened in India, where the two styles of thought clashed and the result was the current scenario. What happened at JNU was simply the result of growing dissent over the current state apparatus’s hijacking of the public sphere. Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNUSU President expressed his feelings, or we can say grievances, regarding the current state system, he too was labelled as anti-national and was put behind bars. This again reflects the colonial or totalitarian mentality where free speech, debate and discussion are perceived as threats to the existing system; even though India claims to be the world’s largest democracy. If the very ideals of democracy are not respected, if they are perceived as a threat, and if anyone who expresses his/her grievances or dissent is put behind bars, and if a reward is kept for “cutting the tongue” of one who expresses his grievances, then India’s claim of a democracy is hollow and suspicious.
The public sphere, according to Habermas, is distorted by the influence of market forces or what he would call “commercialisation” in the modern public realm. This is to say, he emphasis how public institutions such as a modern press — the public sphere’s pre-eminent institution as he calls it – are ideologically circumscribed by commercial pressures, becoming as it were the mere consumptive vehicle for advertising. This was evident when leading TV channels in India circulated manipulated videos of the JNU controversy, again proving that there is an enslavement of the press as well. This also reflects the true nature of the Indian ideologically circumscribed public sphere governed by the dictates of a totalitarian mentality via stunting democratic conversation; or what Habermas would call ‘rational-critical debate’ on matters of shared public and political importance.
Thus we can say that India, which is radically curtailing the possibility of individuals collectively engaging in a democratic conversation concerning issues of public and political significance, should do away with its colonial or totalitarian mentality in order to keep its claim for being a true democracy. Because, after all, a democratic society rests on the public sphere, which in turn rests on free speech, debate and discussion; the norm of discussion, reason and democracy are all the same, the defence of one logically entails the defence of the other.
—The writer is a research scholar at the Department of Political Science, Kashmir University