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Two Philosophers and a Political Theorist: An Allegory of Indian Public Sphere

There are two Indian philosophers who are considered among the most important philosophers in the world by their peers.

Two Philosophers and a Political Theorist: An Allegory of Indian Public Sphere

What is valuable for Indians who see themselves as some kind of future cultural leaders? What is the meaning of philosophy in India where most educated Indians like to sprinkle their speeches with some philosophical quotations? I am going to suggest an answer to these questions and remark on something symptomatic about Indian society and cultural sphere through a shocking example.These examples are of two renowned philosophers and a political theorist from India. I spent some time talking to their friends, those who know their work, and some research to be able to tell this story or allegory. But there is another important aim here, it is to humanise these three individuals, especially the philosophers who are being given monstrous images through fake news and social media campaigns.


There are two Indian philosophers who are considered among the most important philosophers in the world by their peers[1]. We discuss these peers even in our magazines. They include Etienne Balibar, Slavoj Zizek, and Stuart Kauffman. These peers are concerned about the suffering of the Indian philosophers[2]. When these two Indian philosophers intervened in the Coronavirus debates with Jean-Luc Nancy[3] and Giorgio Agamben they were called “the leading thinkers of the world”[4]. Their philosophical contributions were said to have created a “new conceptual apparatus by which to give shape to the world and its futures”[5]. But in India nothing is said about them or can be said about them. This should be extremely shameful for all Indians who take pride in their cultural acquisitions. I am speaking about Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan.


Now, their collaborator is a political thinker from Kerala. He has published in leading international academic[6] journals and participates in international conferences. His works were translated into several languages, including French[7]. He is cited by well known scholars[8]. He has drawn up a map of philosophical politics of the past few decades in an American journal in a long essay[9]. He is a participant in debate on the future of philosophy with the leading thinkers of the world[10]. When Dwivedi, Mohan and he faced threats from the Hindu fascists it was reported in Le Monde[11]. But he is never considered among the mainstream intellectuals of India, and it is a shame. I am speaking about J. Reghu.



J Reghu. Photo: YouTube/BijuMohan


Dwivedi and Mohan are much younger than Reghu. But you will see that they belong in the same generation. Their exclusions from the public sphere of India should be studied academically. But I cannot do that. Instead, I want to introduce them to those who do not know about them, and to those who do not want to speak about them. I would like the readers to read this introduction, this story, as an allegory of politics and of values in India.


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


His involvement in cultural and political life began at a young age. In fact, it is easy to find Reghu’s fingers prints all over 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 Malayalam language. Through his friendship with M. T. Vasudevan Nair, O. N. V. Kurup and Maithreyan he created “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 became one of the specialists of 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 rationalism in public discourse.


Recently, with Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan he published the now seminal, and decisive long essay on the history of the creation of “Hindu majority” and its relation to caste politics in early 20th century. After the publication of the essay the authors were threatened and harassed by the Hindu fascists. But before their coming together, which makes the point of my allegory, the other two characters too should be introduced here—Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan.


Divya Dwivedi is known as someone fiercely loyal and protective of her friends and family. There is something like a Divya Dwivedi cult on the internet with some interesting posters and memes which portray her as an icon. This cult of Divya often comes in her defence using humour as a tactic. 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 an important lower caste leader Ramachandra Singh from Uttar Pradesh[12]. Her parents, Sunita Dwivedi and Rakesh Dwivedi, would eventually leave politics behind and practice as lawyers at the Supreme Court. Her mother’s father Raj Mangal Pande was an influential lawyer politician who became a union minster of education[13].


Rakesh Dwivedi is known to be a constitutional expert           . His father S. N, Dwivedi was one of dissenting judges in the case which decided the fundamental structure of the constitution. The case is known as “Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala”[14]. According to a friend, Divya Dwivedi began her real education in her grandfather’s library.


But Divya Dwivedi chose a different 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[15]. She was involved in political movements including the Narmada Bachao Andolan as a university student. Dwivedi has been contributing 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”[16]. In an official document of the Unesco, the director of Unesco hopes for a world as envisioned by Divya Dwivedi, “ 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’ "[17].


About Shaj Mohan, it is said in an academic journal that his philosophy is “becoming one of the most radical and important contributions to the philosophy of the world, today”[18]. He spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Thiruvananthapuram. But less is known of him, except the account by many of his parent’s 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 the All India Radio and a friend of the cultural elites of that time.


Reghu who met Mohan for the first time in 2007 said “his is a pious pursuit of philosophy”. As his friends said, he has always been a private person, almost a hermit. He comes from an old family of Thirunelveli 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 sciences projects at an IBM institution. His colleague at that time, Anish Mohammed, said that when tested Mohan had exceptional IQ which was important in that field of computers 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 the St Stephen’s college that his epistolary friendship with Jean-Luc Nancy, one of the greatest philosopher of the last hundred years, began. Dwivedi would later become a dear friend of Nancy too. They also collaborated in projects and writings 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. As is known to most, in philosophy in the continental tradition is a kind of descent from a tradition. Through a kind of close examination the next generation are elected by the elders.


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 important when I see that Indians love to talk about “the other”.


Returning to Reghu, he 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, and why not some other narratives. Dwivedi and Mohan in an article titled “Critical Nation”[19], published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2007, were investigating something similar. Gandhi always speaks 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”[20]. In that essay they said that Hindu religion was the invention of the 20th century political climate. The Hindu religious category allowed the upper caste leaders to control the lower caste people and also represent them before the colonial administration. They also said that the Congress party was always a lobbying platform for mostly upper caste interests. If it wants to have a future the Congress should become the platform for lower caste aspirations.


Soon, Divya Dwivedi would do the unthinkable, she spoke in 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…”[21] 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 invitations 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”.


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”[22], 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.


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 the 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” requires 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 harassments on social media. Jean-Luc Nancy, the dear friend of Dwivedi and Mohan, wrote defending the authors in a leading French news paper[23].


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 “Manifesto” by Marx and Engels. That is, a work which divides history into two. There is the history which is of the oppressor, and it masks and justifies the oppression to make the oppression both natural and normal. But then there is the history of those who are oppressed, such as women in the caste of Mary Wollstonecraft. The second type of history shows the first type of history to be what it really is, an oppressive instrument. Then it posits a new history which 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 Gandhi, Nehru and 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[24], 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 invisibilised in Indian culture.”


The allegory of the three courageous public intellectuals shows this. There is no real public sphere which 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. When those who are great philosophers, such as Dwivedi and Mohan, speak philosophically about India from within India, it shatters the illusions. But shattering illusions is the fundamental task of philosophical thinking.


When J. Reghu challenges the very Brahminical ideas which have been used to create intellectual histories in India, it opens the possibility for creating new and liberating intellectual histories. These possibilities of liberation appearing in the horizons threaten 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.”[25] But that is the task of a public intellectual, to produce modernity.


These three figures propose a new modernity and we should embrace it, and we should ride their lightings.



* This article was originally published on Mathrubhoomi online / Author: N.K.Raveendran








[4] “The world’s leading thinkers (including Jean-Luc Nancy, Julia Kristeva, Divya Dwivedi, and Shaj Mohan)”