Death of public reason

Print edition : September 02, 2016

Caste consciousness is a hurdle in the way of public reason becoming mature. Here, Santosh Singh, a man from Varanasi, who is on a protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to prove that he is still alive. Allegedly, his marriage to a Dalit woman angered his relatives who conspired with officials to declare him dead and rob him of his 12-acres of land. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

The continuing atrocities against Dalits, including the recent one in Una, Gujarat, and the lack of public outrage are indicative of the death of a consensual common political ground where universal principles such as dignity, self-respect and social justice can be affirmed.

The dalit protest that has come up in the context of the recent flogging of Dalits by cow vigilantes in Gujarat may appear to be a small and even amorphous development, but it is unique, resolute and intensely authentic in its essence. It is authentic as it is not intersected by his master’s voice that one finds muffled in some of the Dalit beneficiaries of political patronage that flows from state power. More importantly, from the affirmative angle also, this “small voice” that has found its expression in the streets of Gujarat is authentic as it underscores the trueness of normative principles such as dignity and self-respect. Dalit protest, both in historical terms and in contemporary manifestations, has always reaffirmed this truth in these universal principles. Conversely, the truth of atrocities on Dalits is that it involves everyday forms of suffocation of these universal principles, which were so dear to Babasaheb Ambedkar. The suffocation of universal principles, however, is the result of not just the belated response of the state but, most importantly, the lack of adequate public support to such principles. Needless to say, the fragmentary impact of caste on the moral sensibility of society is one of the prime reasons for the suffocation of public reason. Since we, in India, experience a lack of public reason, particularly on Dalit issues, we as a concerned collectivity fail to interrogate those who do not give any reason while committing heinous crimes against Dalits. It is in this sense that evil becomes banal. As we will argue towards the end of this essay, fringe groups such as cow vigilantes have no regard for reason coming from the state or reason that was handed down to us by history. The mindless act of cow vigilantes has been detrimental to the prospects of two kinds of reasons—the instrumental as well as public. Both these kinds of reasons would demand from members of society that they should think before they act.

Core questions

Let us therefore raise three core questions which are basically addressed to the vast majority of people who, as the experience shows, seem to have failed to cultivate within them a spirit of public reason. First, what constitutes public reason? And why do we need public reason as an organising principle of our public life? Secondly, what is the “career graph” of public reason; under what social and intellectual conditions does this reason redeem its success? Has it got a fair degree of salience in the social consciousness of people? Finally, what are the challenges that public reason faces in creating a harmonising impact on the social sensibilities that underlie and renew the dangerous forms of hatred stirred by fringe groups such as the cow vigilantes even at the cost of undermining the need for public reason?

Public reason as the moral ground for decent society

In a liberal democratic society, the role of public reason has been considered important for creating a shared ground where not just a citizen but every sentient human being is entitled to receive equal attention from one another. Public reason is the collective search for a common ground that can facilitate not only reciprocal interaction but also convert, through its persuasive power, an individual wound or atrocity into a collective suffering. Public reason leads people to converge on certain basic values such as the intrinsic worth of every human being. That a human being is not less valuable than an animal. Hence, public reason provides the scope within which the issues involving Dalits, women or Adivasis or the minority communities become a matter of collective concern. Public reason demands from the people that they keep their individual reason aside and contribute to creating the moral conditions that would enable public reason to acquire salience. The evolution of public reason, in fact, is based on the moral/ethical stamina of an individual to create this consensual common ground.

In an expansive sense, public reason is devoid of any hierarchy of reasons; on the contrary, it involves an attempt to bring one’s own particular reason into accord with the reason of the other, espousing a common point of view for settling the terms of our political life. Thus, the principle of social justice, built around affirmative action, or the abolition of untouchability built around the value of dignity, has to be defended or shared not for different reasons that we discover but for reasons that enable us to support it even if it may not directly benefit us at the personal level. Thus, public reason involves a moral stamina to develop patience about, for example, the affirmative programmes that the state has undertaken for the well-being of its citizens (Dalits in the present case). The question that one has to raise is the following: has the Indian public developed scope for public reason, which is necessary for converting individual or sectional dukha, or suffering, into a collective dukha and hence the need for warding off this dukha through public reason? The answer cannot be given in the affirmative. The antagonising power of caste has an overwhelming impact on the conciliatory power of public reason.

The power of public reason

Unlike other liberal societies such as Canada, where the success of public reason is fairly noteworthy, it does not have a bright career in the Indian context. Arguably, there is a frustrating dimness about public reason that finds it difficult to become vocal, particularly over the Dalit question, howsoever grave such a question may be. Atrocities against Dalits necessarily result from tense interpersonal relationships in the public sphere. It has become almost customary to mention that atrocities against Dalits are growing in both intensity and magnitude. They are intense in nature as they are committed in full public view. Whether it is parading Dalit women naked or flogging Dalit youth right in front of the police (as in the case of Una, Gujarat). In fact, public reason is supposed to exert its moral force in terms of moderating social tension by arresting, over a period of time, the rising number of atrocities against Dalits. In fact, the mediating role of public reason was supposed to minimise the role of the state, which has adopted from time to time stringent penal and legal disciplinary measures to tame the tormentors of Dalits. The moral force of public reason is supposed to have a pacifying impact on those who otherwise are quite hostile towards Dalits. The aim of public reason is to make the social and locally dominant increasingly hospitable attitude towards Dalits. For example, civil initiatives can try to institutionalise public reason through “samitis for tanta mukta gaon” (committees for conflict-free villages), as in Maharashtra. Despite the very desirable role of public reason in moderating societal tension, the Indian public has not been able to defend the universal principles such as the dignity of the Dalit. Ironically, this failure of public reason is reflected in state attempts at making more stringent laws such as the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. In view of this failure of civil society, it becomes a constitutional responsibility of the state to offer instant security and create an effective degree of confidence among the embattled Dalit community. Hence, Dalits tend to put their trust in the state, expecting that a democratically committed state would stand with them. Needless to say, Dalits, instead of relying on public reason, are compelled to depend on instrumental reason, which operates through the state mechanism. It is quite ironic that Dalits have to rely on the state even if the conviction rate under the 1989 Act is low and there are inordinate court delays in justice delivery. In view of the failure of public reason, it becomes inevitable for Dalits to have constitutional and legal provisions as the cover for protection. State protection comes with a social cost in the sense that these protective legal provisions are based on the criterion of caste. Thus, unfortunately, Dalits have to use caste identity as a carapace that they have to carry on their backs as a means of protection from cow vigilantes. Needless to say, these are protective measures that the Constitution-makers incorporated in it with the intention of inducing reason and thus facilitating the growth of public reason in Indian society. One could raise a question here: if cow vigilantes are hitting Dalits on their backs, are they not beating the Indian Constitution in a symbolic sense? When they were flogging the bare body of Dalits, they were tarnishing the image of not only the Constitution but the state as well.

Passive injustice

However, protective measures with caste as the reference are not the resource that Dalits can ever cherish or sport as a badge of honour on their shoulders. In fact, the use of caste as a carapace on the backs of Dalits has to be seen as a reminder for the upper castes that it is their deeply entrenched prejudice against Dalits that forces Dalits to rely on state for social security. One may thus argue that Dalits adopting caste as a protective mechanism should not be seen as casteism; on the contrary, one will have to consider as casteist those who hold caste like an iron rod in the hand (as the cow vigilantes did in Una) and those who use constitutionally approved caste as a shield on their backs. Arguably, accessing caste involves both fair and unfair aspects. Public reason finds itself ineffective not only against those (like the cow vigilantes) who perpetrate active injustice against Dalits but also those who cause passive injustice by being spectators drawing a vicarious pleasure from Dalits being paraded naked or publically dragged and flogged.

The cow vigilantes in Una obviously disregarded public reason as they became both the state and the judiciary, thus undermining the constitutional existence of the state and the judiciary. When cow vigilantes failed public reason, one would have expected emotions to succeed in morally motivating the larger public to protest against the flogging. However, as the video of the Una incident shows, the public was drawing either a vicarious pleasure from it or were shocked into silence. Contemporary political philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum argue that investment in emotion does yield some result. According to them, the spectacle of tragedy or public display of tragedy might bring into a remorseless public an urgent sense of sympathy. In ancient Greece, the victims of tragedy were taken out in the streets in order to invoke sympathy among its citizens. Thus, in the Greek context, when reason failed to invoke public response to an individual tragedy, emotion was pressed into service in order to compensate for the human moral lapse. In the Indian context, where caste resides deep inside the social mind, it would be absurd to expect that the offensive video uploaded by the cow vigilantes from Una would create sympathy and subsequent support among the larger humanity.

Although the touchable Savarnas from other parts of the country did not openly express their support for the flogging of the Dalits in Una, their resounding silence over the tragedy does amount to what could be termed passive injustice. Passive injustice definitely kills the spirit of being publicly active in favour of human dignity. Secondly, since tragedy becomes the precondition for the very success of emotions, the emotional route is hardly a way out for Dalits.

Caste consciousness that shows unconditional affinity to fellow caste members defeats moral consciousness, which forms the basis of public reason. Thus, caste consciousness is a kind of hurdle in the way of public reason becoming mature. But there is another kind of difficulty for which the governing class and its supporters are responsible. This section necessarily seeks to insulate the Dalit question from receiving public support, if any. Even in the case of the Una incident, spokespersons from the ruling party were seen questioning, seemingly on grounds of morality, the initiative taken by the leaders of the opposition to share the Dalit predicament. What is the moral criterion that the ruling party is suggesting to raise the Dalit question above the politics of atrocities on Dalits? Can we really insulate regular incidence of atrocities on Dalits from the larger politics of subjugation and social dominance? These are perennial questions and they often involve socially sensitive issues. The politics of insulating the Dalit question from larger concerns and support would ultimately leave Dalit protest to be undertaken by only Dalits. Such a reasoning has the following implications. First, the Dalit question should never be supported and articulated forcefully by the larger public; secondly, it should remain a small and sectional shrill cry of Dalits themselves. This would, by consequence, embolden the fringe groups such as the cow vigilantes to exist both outside the framework of reason as well as the reasonableness of the state structure.

Public reason is dead, long live dead cow

In the absence of any sound reason, cow vigilantes tend to act on the basis of rumours and prejudice against Dalits. Prejudice can be defined as the attempt made by the dominant groups to impose their own limits on weaker sections. Prejudice necessarily replaces the need for giving reason. This results in a kind of predatory or natural form of judgment, which is announced unilaterally against the victim without giving him/her any opportunity to put up his/her own case. When prejudice prevails, a cow vigilante need not get reasons from outside, particularly from the state, so that he could act in a more reasonable way. On the contrary, such cow vigilantes have contempt for administrative procedures and provisions like the Right to Information Act. They neither blew the whistle nor took recourse to the RTI to get information about the skinning of the dead cow. To say the least, they were not interested in taking the help of reason that was necessary for them to make their act publicly defensible. For example, in all the incidences where cow vigilantes have attacked Dalits, such attacks were based on their arbitrary will. In the case of Una, the cow that was being skinned by the Dalits was killed by a lion, while in Karnataka the cow was bought by the Dalit concerned. Reason demanded that the cow vigilante respect the rationality of the transaction between those who sold the cow and those who bought it. When cow vigilantes become both the state and the judiciary at the same time, one cannot expect them to follow reason, which necessarily operates through modern regulative procedures. The cow vigilantes have respect neither for the Constitution nor for the judiciary, nor for history, which in some sense does provide a reason to act with some sense of discretion. Reason in history would not leave any ground for the vigilante to attack Dalits on the charge of skinning a cow. Let us briefly look at the historical role that instrumental reason played in making the skinning of a dead cow conflict-free.

The history of skinning a dead cow starts with the emergence of civilisation, which is constitutive of an aristocratic lifestyle where music was used to cater to the aesthetic taste of the social elite and to fulfil the devotional needs of society. After all, musical instruments such as the mrudangam, which is used in classical music enjoyed by the elite classes, could only be made with cow skin. Invocation of god is possible only with the beating of drums, which were made out of the skins of dead cows and played by Dalits, not only in India but also in Nepal and Sri Lanka. Leather garments and footwear, which signified the aristocratic lifestyle in the feudal past, were possible only with the production of finished leather derived from the skin of dead cows. Leather buckets that were used for irrigation were made out of the skin of dead cows. During the premodern times, the peasant had a share in the skin of the dead cow and other cattle. In fact, Mahars, who have a demographic presence in Maharashtra and parts of Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat, were given land to skin the cattle, including the cow. This was called “Hadki Hadoli”. Today, in the leather parks housing modern technology, the leather bucket has been replaced by the electric motor and leather footwear has been replaced by synthetic material. Dalits have stopped eating the flesh of dead cattle and many of them have moved out of their traditional occupation of skinning the dead cow.

We have no history of Dalits killing the cow for skinning, although we have instances of concocted history where Dalits have been attacked for poisoning cows. In this regard, it is important to cite the observation made by the Census Commissioner of the Bombay Presidency on the Dalits of Gujarat. He observes: “Most of the dheds (Dalits) are scrupulous [about] not killing the animal for the sake of their flesh; they content themselves with the flesh of cattle which have died a natural death.” Even in today’s context, it is hard to believe that they have become powerful enough to kill a cow just for skinning purposes. But the fringe groups find their own purpose and relevance only by attacking the Dalits. They are held guilty before they are proved guilty. Caste domination supplants the need to follow any established legal procedures.

Ambedkar had predicted that Indian society, where caste is a parallel regulatory mechanism, would not allow public reason to succeed. Hence, he suggested that the development of public reason has to be aided by reason that has to be brought from outside the society, particularly through a state based on the principle of constitutional democracy.


1. Rawls, John, Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, page 7.

2. Nussbaum, Martha, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

3. Atre, Traymbak Narayan, Gaon-Gada, (Marathi) Nag Nalanda Publication, Islampur, Maharashtra, 1915, reprinted in 2011, page 106.

4. Ibid, page 101.

5. Bahishkrut Bharat, Marathi fortnightly started by Babasaheb Ambedkar in 1927, reprinted by Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, 1990, page 237.

6. R.E. Enthoven, The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, Volume I, Low Price Publications, Delhi, 1922, reprinted in 2008, page 328.