Public reason leads to progress

Religious leaders take part in a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram on September 20, 2021.   | Photo Credit: S. MAHINSHA S

Since the Catholic Bishop of Pala in Kerala, Mar Joseph Kallarangatt, raised the issue of ‘love jihad’ and ‘narcotic jihad’, various groups have sprung into action taking sides. Since this concern has been voiced since 2018 on a few occasions, a well-meaning government has the responsibility to clear the air by establishing whether it is a bogey or part of an organised crime by groups within or outside the country. The government must also prevent preconceived anti-Muslim prejudices from surfacing and spoiling the secular fabric of the State. That vote-bank politics is in full play is evident from the visits of different political parties to the Bishop’s house. This article tries to bring home the need to build a reasoned public sphere in Kerala and elsewhere in India.

Democracy based on public reason

Development scholars generally acknowledge that Kerala’s social achievements in education, health, land reforms, public distribution system, social security and so on are the outcome of its renaissance tradition and public action. Even so, you cannot sustain this progressively unless you build a genuine democracy based on public reason. From the second half of the 20th century, the idea of democracy as the public use of reason gained great significance. Jürgen Habermas and several outstanding thinkers on democracy consider the public sphere as the result of a process in which individual citizens are made capable of demanding from the ruling class not only public accountability but also moral justification for their actions. In a genuine democracy, not only the government, but the Opposition, social leaders and the media too will have to morally and scientifically justify their statements.

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The moot question that many may ask at this point is why people enthusiastically work up or support apparently irrational issues while several burning problems such as growing inequality, poverty, unemployment, marginalisation of women, alcoholism, the declining quality of higher education and research, endemic rent-seeking, an alarming suicide rate, ecological overkill, and the blatant disregard for the rule of law stare us in the face. Why is ‘narcotic jihad’ more important than the COVID-19 pandemic which has claimed so many lives and destroyed livelihoods?

Development is not only freedom, as Amartya Sen famously conceptualised, but also democracy at its practical best. But this can be realised only through reasoned public debates, or what Habermas calls communicative rationality. When Ayyankali, a ‘low caste’ social reformer of Kerala, said in the early 1930s that his dream was to see at least 10 members of his community acquire a BA degree, it was public reasoning par excellence, although for many upper castes, it was irreverence and irrationality. If the youth of Kerala do not have the capability and freedom to choose their life partner, food, clothes and question injustices, the public sphere is in decay. The communicative rationality of several religious groups is also suspect. Are Christian girls as vulnerable to drug trafficking as is widely alleged? We seem to be in deep unfreedom.

Showing compassion

I would like to place here two universal issues that the Bible has famously thrown at us. First, am I my brother’s keeper? This is a counter question posed by Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, who killed his brother Abel, to God (the supreme wisdom) who asked him where his brother was. Indeed, the message is loud and clear that human beings have a moral responsibility towards one another. When Athens of 5th century BC, hailed as the cradle of democracy, declared that its goal was for people to live in freedom together, in a way the city was taking forward this vision. Second, who is your neighbour? This was asked by a rich lawyer who apparently obeyed the Ten Commandments and wanted to enjoy eternal life. The young man asked the question because Jesus wanted him to love his neighbour. The famous parable of the Good Samaritan was Jesus’s reply to the question. A priest simply walked past a wounded man on the road. A Levite also quietly avoided him. But a Samaritan, a low-caste person, took care of the wounded man and showed abundant mercy. Today, your neighbour is a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian or a heathen. What makes the difference in the parable is compassion and not upholding caste hierarchy. The world is missing this great value and continues preaching hatred on the strength of religious texts.


On many grounds, Kerala is at a crossroads. Its democracy is on trial and faces deep crises. Kerala’s soul cannot survive via vote-bank politics or identity politics, but only by building a substantive rational public sphere.

M.A. Oommen is Honorary Fellow at CDS and Distinguished Fellow at GIFT, Thiruvananthapuram

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Printable version | Oct 25, 2021 5:32:41 PM |

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