Salmoli Choudhuri

Where is the Public in the Republic of India?

Present people and absent public

Every day in new India carries a forceful reminder of the exceptionality of the present times. A government set out to undo 500 years of perceived wrongs committed by medieval Muslim rulers and lapsed empires, shepherded by its supreme leader styled as the king of Hindu hearts, scornfully dismisses politics as the practice of the mundane and the ordinary. The grand consecration ceremony at Ayodhya on 22 January 2024, inaugurating a temple built on the ruins of a desecrated 16th century mosque, is a decisive gesture of fusing the cosmic and the historical, the civilisational and the national. Corrective of an antique error, the temple is projected to lay the foundation of India for the next thousand years. No wonder, then, that the Prime Minister in his speech hailed the present generation as the chosen one for ushering in a new age—rather, a new cycle of time—and his ministry quickly proclaimed itself to be the ‘Cabinet of the Millennium’.

References to a civilisational past, the use of millenarian imaginaries and the displacement of parliamentary institutions by temples have provoked comparisons of the Prime Minister with kings and priests—figures that are supposedly archaic in a liberal democracy. However, evocations of the past and the future should not distract us from recognising what this phenomenon represents—an absolutisation of the present in which all temporalities are fully absorbed and rendered indistinct. It is in embodying this intense presentism that the Prime Minister’s claim to popular sovereignty must be explained.

Monarchies everywhere have had to jostle with an inner contradiction in kingly sovereignty between transcendentalist authority and transient mortality, famously theorised by Ernst Kantorowicz. In a sharp departure from any such duality, the Indian Prime Minister, closing all gaps and differences, incarnates the People—of the present, in the present—as One. Hailing this unique achievement, his millennial cabinet distinguished India’s territorial liberation in 1947 from the institution of life force (prana pratistha) into the soul of its people, which the current moment represents. The rise of Hindu nationalism and its concretisation in the Ram temple has been described as marking a shift from democracy to autocracy, and secularism to religious majoritarianism.

While the temple consecration event may signal all this, it also instantly monumentalises the ever-present people on the ruins of another popular formation—the public. This article reconstructs the idea of the ‘public’ in modern Indian political thought, moving beyond its reductive conceptualisation as a spatial antithesis to the ‘private’.

Uncontainable within the framework of state and citizenship, the public was recast in the twentieth century subcontinent as a relational idea, a mode of collective belonging that centre-staged the question of ethical association with the ‘other’. It is this relational sense of the public oriented to the ‘other’ that is missing in a unitary and presentist notion of the people.

Anti-colonial and anti-caste public

The public–private distinction emerged in India as a legatee of colonialism on the basis of the individual’s relationship with the state. While civil society became a site of individualised critique of the state, I argue that the public was fashioned in anti-colonial thought as a collective enterprise of world-making. Today, like in most liberal societies elsewhere, the public in India has come to denote citizen ideals and civic practices, with public law entailing constraints stemming from individual rights on state actions. But the idea of the public that evolved in the anti-colonial milieu of the last century breached and exceeded its state-mediated understanding as a space merely governed by communicative rationality and norms of deliberative democracy. As the state under colonialism was unrepresentative and inaccessible, many nationalist political actors and thinkers reimagined the public outside its fold.

Thwarting the homogenising thrust of the state and the nation, Gandhi promoted friendship between Hindus and Muslims as an absolute and asymmetrical recognition of the ‘other’, without any expectation of reciprocity. In working towards unconditional equality, Gandhi discarded not just the paternal (colonial) politics of hierarchy but, importantly, assigned primacy to friendship over (nationalist) fraternity. According to him, Hindu-Muslim unity was not a matter of erasing differences but a matter of choice, consent and agreement which depended on constant renewal. It was this severance of collective belonging from family and kinship that allowed the idea of a ‘public’ to emerge.

Tagore sharpened the discourse on the public in colonial India and named caste as its constitutive negative. His remarks on the immature and nascent public of his country were not related to its modernity or the lack of it. Rather, conceptually, the public constituted an ethos and culture of living in a society of strangers guided by a general code of conduct, something that was in fundamental contradiction with the particularity of caste-bound rules. ‘Public’, without an equivalent Indic terminology, typified its social and cultural alienness. Without exonerating the British practice of divide and rule, Tagore traced the roots of disunity in precolonial society, which was pervasively partitioned following the logic of caste, spanning across religious and linguistic communities. The growth of cities spawned by colonial capitalism forced people, hitherto existing in strict separation, to intermix and cohabit. However, simply huddling diverse people together in city squares, markets, universities, and law courts—the institutions of colonial civil society—failed to produce any real sense of belonging.

What is more, Tagore was highly critical not only of nationalism—about which much has been written—but also of relations determined by capitalist modernity. He complained how ‘today’s public is narrowly constrained by its times. It is bound by the norms of politics, society and religion, and tastes and preferences, of the here and now. We cannot say that it is representational of universal humanity. I can confidently assert that its demands will not match those made after a hundred years.’ These comments draw a contrast between two models of public: one that is fully inscribed in the present, and the other which is aspirational, future-oriented, and universal.

Law and the literary

Political thinking on the public has eschewed not only the nation but also caste, kinship, and the household. What ties these categories together is their reliance on the familial and the intimate. The public, on the other hand, holds the possibility of interaction with the unfamiliar and the stranger. Rather than neglecting or rejecting differences, it involves their reckoning through law and the literary that institute the terms of engagement and facilitate interacting with the ‘other’.

Even at the peak of his despair and disillusionment with the Empire during the middle of the Second World War, Tagore unreservedly celebrated the egalitarian foundations of the rule of law as an outcome of British civilisation that exploded Manu’s social laws of caste. This makes for an interesting parallel with Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s analysis of the Brahmin-Dalit relationship, defined by estrangement, strongly resonated with Tagore. However, while caste was central to Ambedkar’s thesis of segregation, Tagore considered it to be a social condition characterising Indian society more generally. Akin to Tagore, though, Ambedkar expressed fidelity to law as a pathway to emancipatory politics that instituted a contractual relationship between strangers.

What is central in Tagore’s thought is the conception of the public as a differentiated unity, a collective entity where individuals retain their distinctions. Accordingly, civilisation—unlike Manu’s sadachar (code of conduct)—meant sabhyata, which Tagore further glossed as ‘to know oneself in a sabha (an assembly), to truly realise oneself amidst all…the light of man’s self-expression is not confined within the individual but is produced in his union with others’.

Moreover, the public manifested and realised itself in literature or sahitya, which Tagore fashioned as a practice of togetherness (the root word sahit signifying ‘being together’). Literature imagined thus was not the fount of identity for a nationalist community, but an open republic of imagination, expression and affect. In total contrast to the purported civilisational moment of today, where the past has merged into the present and people into the figure of the leader, sahitya signified the coming together of distinct people, places, and times without an erasure of their differences.

Postcolonial future of public

The ‘public’ did find a place in independent India’s constitution alongside ‘People’, albeit as an adjective for order, administration, and the allied official apparatus of the new republic. It is an open question whether public and the people allude to the same idea, but the real anxiety in postcolonial scholarship is how they both got folded in the disciplinary institutions of a centralised interventionist state. The public is invoked in the state’s preoccupation with health, hygiene and sanitation, in contrast to the unruly freedom of the masses claimed on streets and open spaces. This is an elitist idea of the public as an entity formed through a top-down pedagogic mechanism that drowns out popular, performative, and subaltern voices.

I have drawn an alternative genealogy of thinking about the public in India that sidestepped the regime of state and citizenship to address an older problem of caste and social differences. The animating question was how to imagine a free and equal collective without dismissing or suppressing distinctiveness. The widely attended mela, or fair, was offered as one such image of a truly public forum—in direct contrast to the closed-door meetings of the anglicised Congress leadership. Further, the dismay expressed by postcolonial scholars about the pedagogic work of public institutions in a law-and-order state seems dated since the crisis that we face today is their hollowing out.

My defence of early imaginations of the public does not however absolve the founders of independent India. Specifically, two limitations of the initial decades are glaring and grievous. First, as I have discussed elsewhere, the devaluing of the humanities—literature and philosophy—in education, in favour of the applied sciences, depleted the language of critique and creativity. The second error was the complete displacement of public culture from popular and vernacular spaces to the professional precincts of the university and civil society institutions. It should be no surprise then that such a weakened public sphere could be so easily overwhelmed by the noise and fury of a unitary people in the present moment.

About the Author

Dr. Salmoli Choudhuri is Assistant Professor of Law at NLSIU, Bengaluru.