Individuality and a Liberal Error – A Response to Pratap Mehta: Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi

Guest post by HUZAIFA OMAIR SIDDIQI

It has often been broadcast that we live in a post-truth age. In fact we live in an age better envisioned as one of post-certainty, where everything and every fact is liable to be pronounced uncertain and doubtful. The problem with the mainstream liberal discourse is its inability to catch up to the inevitable demise of certainty in the political sphere. What was most certain, according to Descartes, was the being of one’s own ego. In this age of post-certainty, this is the last certainty which the liberal discourse still seems to stick to, in the name of ‘individual rights’, without ever understanding the real essence of the question of individuality.

Muhammad Iqbal was the public intellectual of the last century who made this question of individuality his very own guiding question. This guiding question, how does individuation happen, was part of his desire to formulate his basic question, how does the community of individuals come into being? Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in his opinion piece in The Indian Express has sought to diagnose the tragedy of Iqbal as one which in its sacrifice of the rights of the individual, attempted to pursue the consolidation of the truly spiritual community. Mehta, one of India’s finest public intellectuals, cannot be questioned within this paradigm of liberal thinking.

It cannot and must not be denied that Iqbal was quite ready to forsake the question of individual rights in favour of the wellbeing of the spiritual-political community. Mehta could actually have quoted a very troubling sentence, which highlights Iqbal’s tendencies towards theocracy from The Reconstruction of Religious Thought: ‘The essence of Tauhid, as a working idea, is equality, solidarity, freedom. The state from the Islamic standpoint, is an endeavour to transform these ideal principles into space-time forces, an aspiration to realise them in a definite human organisation. It is in this sense alone, that the state in Islam is a theocracy…”

The real issue is that what, for Mehta and most other political thinkers in India, is a straightforward given, the certainty of the individual’s being, is strangely enough for Iqbal the greatest and most fundamental problem. To truly understand Iqbal it is not enough to criticise him from the liberal standpoint where the individual and his or her rights is given first precedence. We must respond to the problem that the thinker seeks to articulate and this problem has to be apprehended originarily: What does it mean to be a subject? This is a question which political scientists of the liberal persuasion have let slide into obscurity and redundancy. While those on the Right, whether Hindu or Islamic, are responding to this question today, both with greater urgency and a sense of purpose that gives the lie to the idea that they are both thoughtless and uncultured.  The reason behind the immense polarisation between the so called Left and the Right intellectuals all over the world is actually quite an obvious one. It is no longer about different views, opinions or judgements on a given theme, but a conflict over the very definition of that issue itself. While those on the Right are aware that they are fighting to redefine what it means to be an individual, subject or citizen, those on the liberal Left are blissfully unaware that their adversaries do not prescribe to their views on individuality and subjectivity. For those on the Right, a community can no longer be comprehended solely as an aggregate of various atomic and atomised autonomous individuals. Whether in Europe or India, the Right intellectuals are putting forward a new vision of community, where it is no longer simply the aggregation of subjectivities but rather the negation of all subjectivity. The fundamental problem is that these visions of community do not actually need a unifying principle or totem, whether it is the holy cow or a sacred Prophet. What these communities have is in fact the form of a promise: to dissolve the notion of personal subjectivity and negate the certainty of individuality. The source of the immense power these narratives carry is in this promise alone: to free the individual from the burden and the cross of being a subject.

It is not enough, in the face of this promise, to attempt to revive the liberal notions of individuality and autonomy. In point of fact, such notions will quite definitely be powerless and useless to combat the narratives spun by the greater intellects on the Right. It is futile, today, to reiterate the certainty of the subject’s existence in a post-certainty world. The only way we can proceed in the face of this challenge is to work on this negation of the subject from within. And in this project, Iqbal’s thought can be of the greatest help to us. In Iqbal we find a reconstruction of subjectivity which proceeds by accepting, and not rejecting this void of subjectivity. This is why Iqbal wrote, in the last lines of his brilliant epic the Javid Namah:

Art thou a mere particle of dust?
Tighten the knot of thy ego;
And hold fast to thy tiny being!
How glorious to burnish one’s ego.
And to test its lustre in the presence of the Sun.
Re-chisel, then, thine ancient frame; and build up a new being
Such being is real being
Or else thy ego is but a ring of smoke!
The subject is thus nothing more than the recognition of the abyss of personality, an abyss which must be countered by a process which Iqbal quite beautifully, titled reconstruction. Such a reconstruction would be concerned essentially with retrieving the truth of subjectivity, and not merely the question of its sterile certainty. Thus quite essentially, this is a philosophical question; which calls for the patient violence of critical thought, rather than the intemperateness of outrage and the moralistic air of judgement.

Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi is a research scholar at JNU, New Delhi and can be reached at huziomair2@gmail.com

One thought on “Individuality and a Liberal Error – A Response to Pratap Mehta: Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi

  1. K SHESHU BABU

    Iqbal should not be confined to a narrow philosophical sense of religiosity and theocracy he is a universal sociologist with vast knowledge of moral and strong political consciousness

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