By Deepanshu Mohan (@prats1810), O.P. Jindal Global University

“The pursuit of reason and rejection of traditionalism are so brilliantly patent as to be above the need of argument”, once said Akbar[i] to his trusted friend, Abul Fazl[ii]. At a time when debates on nationalism, anti-nationalism and what constitutes the idea of India did not emerge; Akbar in the 15th century, advocated strongly for the path of reason or the “rule of the intellect” (rahi aql) as fundamental features in an acceptable framework of legal duties and entitlements. Away from the undisputed social practices, trampled under a marshy land of tradition, Akbar’s reformist approach to the assessment of social custom and public policy in medieval times was reflected by an overarching emphasis on the pursuit of reason.

Reflections on Akbar’s views on the need for everyone to subject their inherited beliefs and principles to critical scrutiny (rahi aql) merits our attention. The reference drawn to Akbar by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice, is inimitable, holding significant relevance to the governing dynamics of India’s current political and social context. While we may be economically progressing at a growth rate of 7-8% as a bright spot in the global economic landscape; our societal fault lines continue to widen, mirrored in religious divides, ethnic discrimination, demand for caste based recognition etc. These fault lines to a large extent have been exacerbated by a polemical, waspish political class. We can refrain from blaming any one particular regime, political party here and avoid questioning the role of the media in this growing social dissection attributing its emergence in the inequitable distribution and allocation of resources under the operation of a misdirected economic policy environment over decades.

According to Bertrand Russell and most contemporary philosophers, Reason has a perfectly clear and precise meaning. “It signifies the choice of the right means to an end that you wish to achieve”. Similarly, Public Reasoning is a critical feature of objectively thinking about political and ethical beliefs. Over the last several decades in India, the political goals, economic reforms and policies have somewhere failed to encourage and develop the practice of public reasoning and critical dialogue in scrutinizing the processes and responsibilities skewed in favor of those in power. Political groups are fiercely defensive on their policies and are seldom willing to engage in open debate or reasonable discussions to gauge the needs of a society. The welfare of people lies not only in the development of smart cities, bullet trains, but in the development of social capabilities that justly allows social groups to rationally and reasonably utilize scarce resources.

It is rather unfortunate to observe a certain degree of ignorance amongst most of our political class, reflected by a lack of knowledge on the scholarships of leaders, rulers and scholars (Ashoka, Akbar, Kautilya etc.) extracted from our own history. In a world which contained enough ‘unreason’ in that time, we notice how each of these public figures attached great importance to the value of public reason, self-critique, as central virtues in the understanding of justice across all its forms.

Raising an old distinction from the Sanskrit literature on ethics and jurisprudence, Sen in his book (The Idea of Justice) spells out the difference between niti and nyaya, which is quite pertinent to the Indian case as well. In a developing society, as Sen argues, the principles of natural justice do not remain confined to ‘arrangement-focused’ roles of organizational propriety and behavioral correctness per se i.e. niti, but involves a more ‘realization-focused’ view of justice that is more inclusive and is realized from the lives and freedoms of people i.e. nyaya.

Over the last several decades, the main focus of India’s political and economic discourse has remained largely “arrangement-focused” in developing and operationalizing institutional frameworks and mechanisms for securing adequate distribution of economic resources, via a more command driven state control (till early 1990s) and through a floating governance system[iii] (since the 1990s) when the government opened a few sectors up for more competition. While this is imperative for an economy to develop and grow over time, less emphasis has been laid on enabling a more ‘realization focused’ model that develops from sustainable and uniform investment in areas of social security expenditure i.e. through primarily access to primary health, education etc. by the state; fundamentally developing (cap)abilities in people from all societal groups to freely act and choose.

A functional democracy can sustain only when a well-educated, healthy society can appreciate and acknowledge the positive of public reasoning, to enrich reasoned engagement through enhancing informational availability and the feasibility of interactive decisions. The application of game theory too provides a relevant philosophical shade to this, where cooperation in strategic situations yields a better outcome than unilateral action (driven purely by self-interest maximization). Moral Philosopher, Derek Parfit argues that a better societal outcome can involve making people to cooperate for purely moral reasons, where he proposes that the way to achieve such a “moral” solution would be to educate society about the value of cooperation (in the Prisonner’s Dilemma context).

On the contrary, in the country we live in today, the government and political establishment’s view on justice as fairness seems to be transcending more towards the practice of matsyanyaya i.e. ‘justice in the world of fish’, where a big fish can freely devour a small fish. The complete disregard shown towards the religious, class, caste minorities, accompanied with the idea to homogeneously envisage a diverse country is precarious.

In such a system, it may soon become just to prosecute an individual for being anti-religious, after he/she criticizes a religion that is practiced by the majority of one’s country or holds a contrarian ideology to the most. The deliverance of economic justice shall be dependent on the actions of those belonging to the top 20% income class bracket that made a killing by exploiting and monopolizing profits from the lower income class groups further, restricting upward mobility in terms of real income growth.

The soundness of our democratic system (the world’s largest democracy) can be judged not just by a higher level of economic growth rate nor by the existence of formal institutions per se, but by the extent to which different voices (including the ones of dissent and resistance) can be heard and openly debated upon. It is imperative that our leaders, media representatives, political groups etc. are all thus, exposed to a robust epistimic training in the field of history and philosophy (both Western and Indian) that is germane for the long term endurance needed in addressing our political, socio-economic challenges through the pursuit of reason and critical thinking. The only form of governance and political capital that can safeguard this by enhancing the well-being of its citizens rooted in their freedom to choose is a government by discussion[iv].


[i] Abu’l-Fath Jalal ud-din Muhammad Akbar, popularly known as Akbar I (literally “the great”; 15 October 1542– 27 October 1605) and later Akbar the Great was Mughal Emperor from 1556 until his death (1605). He was the third and one of the greatest rulers of the Mughal Dynasty in India. (See The Mughal state, 1526-1750 by Alam, Muzaffar; Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (1998))

[ii] A Formidable scholar in Sanskrit as well as Arabic and Persian

[iii] A floating governance model can defined here as one in which the government allows the market forces to allocate resource distribution (in terms of income, opportunities and wealth) across varied societal groups to a certain extent but intermittently regulates and monitors it through an increased institutional control. This borrowed reference is derived from the concept of floating exchange rates in currency exchange markets.

[iv] An idea first advanced by John Stuart Mill.

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