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Social justice and the voice of the subaltern (Seemant): Prof. Ramesh Chandra Sinha

Written By mediavigil on Sunday, February 11, 2024 | 1:24 AM

Excerpts from the lecture on Social justice and the voice of the subaltern (Seemant)

The term Seemant requires explanation especially in its relations with social justice. Those who are on the margin are known as Seemant. They are besides the main structure of the society. In one sense we can say that Seemant is different from proletariat. Proletariat is an economic expression stipulated by Karl Marx where as Seemant is a cultural concept. Even the economically well-off people can be called Seemant because they do not have share in decision making either his/her own family.

Relating to the question of Seemant I would like to refer one article entitled ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ written by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In this article she contends that subaltern cannot speak. She gives an example of Sati-pratha practice in India. My contention is that with the passage of time we find that subaltern can speak. The demand of social Justice is that subaltern should raise their voice for fair share in the power structure. A group of historians led by Prof. Ranjit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak started the Subaltern studies group. Being a subaltern historian, their treatment was descriptive. They were concerned with the events and they have given description of the historical facts and figures. By the subaltern they mean common man. And they contend that history should be written  from the common man’s point of view. 

But my approach different. It is neither ther descriptive nor historical. It is conceptual and logical. The term "subaltern" was used by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. I have used this term in the field of ethics and my approach is conceptual. I have written an article entitled Anya Ki Naitikta or "The Ethics of others". So, the "other" stands for those on the margin.

Later on, one evening I was roaming on the college street, Kolkata. There were heaps books on that street. All of a sudden, I picked up a book entitled Seemantako ke Anveshak: Shyamacharan Dubey edited by Sudhish pachauri and Dr. Leela Dubey. This title struck me and I shifted from Anya to "Seemant. The expression Seemant explains the depth of my concept of morality of others. So, Seemant includes the people those who are marginalised. Generally, there is a misconception that subaltern is a Marxist expression, first used by  Antonio Gramsci to indicate the people of inferior rank. But I contend that this is a logical expression stipulated by Greek philosopher Aristotle while explaining the relation of opposition of proposition. Aristotle also known as the father of logic. The term "subaltern” in Aristotelian logic denotes the relationship between two propositions. The proposition is subaltern to another if it is implied but does not imply. In this relationship, if the universal proposition is true then particular must be true but not vice versa. It means universal implies particular but particular does not imply universal. So, subaltern is implied but does not imply any other proposition. In this relationship, two propositions can be true together and also false together. Subalternation is the relation between two propositions having the same subject and the predicate but differing in quantity and not in quality. Resistance to the elite class and emancipation of subordinate class may be considered as subaltern social justice.

Seemant consciousness is concerned with the justice to subordinate or deprived people. The subaltern justice postulates that subaltern communities are not entirely controlled by the dominant communities. The Seemant naitikata attempts to redefine moral behaviour. It inculcates people those who are deprived due to caste, colour, gender and even poor economic status. So, those people who are: marginalized hey need fair share in the society. Social justice anticipates that the marginalized should get their due. In Indian society, hierarchical caste happens to be the root cause of exploitation and discrimination. This breeds inequality in society.

Social justice mitigates discrimination. The concept of social justice comprises components, one is equal rights, the other is equal opportunities and third one is equal treatment to the members of society. Here, I would like to contend that by social justice I mean distributive justice. By distributive justice I mean social capital should be distributed equally. Social capital comprises economic goods and cultural values. In ordinary parlance, by social justice we mean equal distribution.

Equal justice is fraught with certain flaws: For instance. we decide to distribute milk equally to A, B and C. Apparently, equal distribution meets the primary condition of social justice. But when a philosopher probes deeper in the concept of this sort of explanation, he/she will realize that its serious limitations. We can illustrate this by giving one concrete example. If we distribute the milk in equal quantity to A, B, and C, ordinarily it meets the criteria of social justice. Let us examine it with another concrete example. A is a wrestler, B is an infant and C is a diabetic  person. If we distribute the milk equally to of these three, actually we are not going to do justice. If the wrestler gets one glass of milk he/she will be starving. If the baby gets one glass of milk, he/she will be over fed and if a diabetic person gets equal amount, then he/she will be suffering.  So, the criteria of equal distribution do not meet the condition of social justice. The equitable distribution implies that one should get their share according to their requirement, which is the true menaing of social justice.

The present paper takes seriously the specific manner by which the institution and ideology of caste engenders a contextual manifestation of Seemant, which is intrinsically tied-up to social justice in India. The Seemant, thus are the communities that are cumulatively and comprehensively disadvantaged and subordinated. The words of Partha Chatterjee are relevant here: "...no matter how we choose to characterize it, subaltern consciousness in specific cultural context of India  cannot but contain caste as a central element in its Constitution."

Let us understand the social relation in a logical way as conceived by Aristotle in his relation of proposition. In society some people are marginalised economically as well as culturally. There is a dominant group of people who are well off economically and are also occupying higher strata in society. In view of the Aristotelian logic, the relation of universal affirmative and particular affirmative is the relation of subaltern. The upper class and the subordinate class may be symbolized as A and I. A stand for upper class and I stands for subordinate class. A implies I, but I do not imply A. If A is true, I must be true but not vice versa.                                     

This relation is best exemplified in the following excerpts from The German Ideology authored by Marx and Engels: "The idea s of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it."

The emerging school of "Cultural Marxism” seems more relevant framework within which to interpret subaltern social justice as encountered by Ambedkar. This complex interweaving of domination and subordination, on the one hand, and compliance and resistance, on the other is capable of realistically holding together the camouflage of submissiveness, which characterises the overt behaviour of subaltern class. Seemant people are deconstructing the old structure and and itching to come in the centre of the power. The idioms of domination, subordination and revolt, are often inextricably linked together. If this is true, it follows that subordination and domination is seldom complete. The process is marked by struggle and resistance. 

 Prof. Ramesh Chandra Sinha is former Chairman, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, New Delhi and former Professor & Head, Department of Philosophy, Patna University.  His lecture was delivered on May 15, 2023.

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