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Report on the Eleventh International Conference


The tensions inherent in the standard liberal democratic theory of the orthodox enlightenment makes us skeptical about its capacity to address in an unprejudiced manner remarkable developments such as identity politics, politicization of religion, unilateralist and undemocratic tendencies all round the world. The Eleventh International Conference sought to diagnose the limitations of enlightenment thought and think towards deeper and more philosophical answers to the questions that liberal theory had hitherto given token recognition. The conference was organized by the Forum on Contemporary Theory in collaboration with the Department of English, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi at Diamond Hotel, Varanasi during 18-21 December 2008. The conference was conceptualized and also convened by Akeel Bilgrami, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University and Director, Heyman Centre for the Humanities, USA. In his thematic introduction, Prof. Bilgrami claimed that to conceptualize such a theme he drew inspiration from the critique of modernity by Gandhi. He opined that Gandhi’s critique is more or less a religious critique and has a minimal aspect of political dimension in it. He also stated that the theme was formulated to stress upon the inherent tensions between liberty, equality and fraternity. Further, Dr. Bishnu Mohapatra, Program Officer, The Ford Foundation, New Delhi, spoke about the incongruence between promises of democracy and practices of democracy, a serious problem of our time.


Delivering the inaugural address, Fred Dallmayr, Professor, Department of Philosophy and Politics, University of Notre Dame, USA, began with signifying both theory and praxis of democracy that suits our time. In the lecture, “Liberal Democracy and Its Critics: Some Voices from East and West,” Prof. Dallmayr, reflecting upon American pragmatism and its promise of democracy all over, opined that the democracy in our time should oppose the predatory capitalism widespread in different forms. Through critical to certain aspects of American democracy, Prof. Dallmayr emphasizes on the reinstating the importance of pragmatism of John Dewey. Common good becomes a vital concern here as is seen in the writings of Jurgen Habermas. Questioning the identification of liberal democracy, he reflected upon the democratic framework implicit in the West, the South Asia and the East. For Prof. Dallmayr, the problem in the west is that of minimal state vs. public minimalism, more or less seen in the writings of Robert Dahl, Giovanni Sartori, and Karl Pooper. In the case of South Asia, making reference to Gandhi, he argues that Hind Swaraj is the outcome of shortcomings of the British Model. However, this idea of Gandhi is not as radical as Tolstoy or Ruskin, but is grounded in the principle of interconnectedness and interdependence. Another vital difference that Prof. Dallmayr mentioned is that unlike in the case of Hobbes and Locke who a priori assume that we are free and equal, Gandhi’s approach was that equality and justice are to be attained. He also mentioned about Islamic democracy and staunchly critiques the deluded assumption that all Islam is terroristic. Referring to East Asia, he states that there are aspects beyond liberal democracy like Confucianism that talks about the relationality and the impossibility of democracy. Amid the presence of various perspectives, Prof. Dallmayr suggests that we have to rethink about our traditions if they are sterile. Finally, he remarks that democracy is an end incompletely realized and supports the Derridan idea of democracy to come.


In his Keynote address, “Why Edmund Burke Impeached Warren Hastings” David Bromwich, Professor, Department of English, Yale University, USA, made an in-depth analysis of the fit between Edmund Burke and Warren Hastings showing the paradoxical nature of the case. The paradox was/is the assumption that enlightenment democracy is about the just rule. Reflecting upon Burke’s notion of impossibility of non-despotic democracy, Prof. Bromwich explains three principle requirements for good governance for Burke: freedom of elections, freedom of courts and power of impeachment. Nevertheless, the case of Burke’s impeachment of Hastings represents an out-of-the-ordinary motive, yet brought forth the necessity of procedures of justice in a democratic framework like impeachment.


In his plenary talk, Prof. Bilgrami dealt with the historical/genealogical account of disenchantment in the framework of liberal politics. Discussing the relationship between metaphysics, science and religion, he raised certain complications in the fixation of the normative in the social context. He further questioned the Hobbesian understanding of human nature in Leviathan bringing forth the understanding of the normative through the Freudian conscience and conflict (anxieties and irrationalities). The pathological condition is that enchantment and disenchantment co-exist or co-habit. For Prof. Bilgrami, one finds in Hobbes and Locke only formal theoretical constructs about how to survive, a counter factual relationship between the state of nature and the state of society. On the contrary, we can find practical possibility of the same in the Gandhian thought. The developments of the later modern period one could trace the source of disenchantment amid the growth of political economy. Prof. Bilgrami drew the distinction between the western world and the eastern world in terms of solidarity of community where the former lacks self-knowledge and transparency; a kind of ignorance and moral depravity. Pointing out at the recent developments in America, he has raised the very problem of religiosity in the contemporary world. He referred to the idea of false consciousness seen in the Hegelian dialectics and that of the later Marx. The paradox here is the contrasting relationship between the belief in democracy and the values of the electorate.


In his plenary talk “Gandhi and the Violence of Politics,” Uday Mehta, Professor, Department of Political Science, Amherst College, Massachusetts, USA, focused on the relationship between religion and politics, claiming that violence has been a constitutive aspect of the modern western political thinking. Contrastingly was Gandhi’s moral claim against violence and killing that was critiqued by Prof. Mehta. According to him, Gandhi’s notions of truth and untruth clouded problems of everyday life and were quite abhorrent of war, violence and priority of politics. It is merely a non-political approach. He argues that we have to recognize that war and politics are backed by communal rationale and a justificatory framework of a ‘higher’ goal. Prof. Mehta seems to defend war like situation as implicit in the political community, resounding Raymond Aron’s notion that peace is pursued in the shadows of war, thus making the former no different from that of the latter. When violence and politics are interrelated in the modern world, a world of the ashram approach of Gandhi makes him an anti-political thinker like that of Kant. Prof. Mehta argues that we have to investigate into how coherent is Gandhi’s critique of modernity. For him, violence becomes legitimate in the modern thinking of peace and order where politics do not have a wholehearted commitment to non-violence.      


In his plenary talk “Politics, Experience and the Colonial Framework,” Vivek Dhareshwar, Fellow, Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, Karnataka, approached critically to the understanding of politics by both left and liberal and argued that most of their conceptions are still colonial. Speculating about the possibilities of interrogating philosophical concepts within modern conception of politics, Dr. Dhareshwar says that as “How does capitalism reproduces itself?” is central to Marx, so is “How does cultural learning reproduces itself?” is central to Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. However, the notion of politics is not obvious in Gandhi. For Dr. Dhareshwar, politics sets up different sites of learning. He opines that some aspect of the Gandhian thought can be traced in Foucault’s last work “Hermeneutics of the Subject” that understands the western subject. What becomes more pressing here is how the self develops into an ethical self within a particular domain and experience of knowledge. Thus, there is a peculiar relationship between politics, normativity and experiential knowledge. Dr. Dhareshwar looked at this from the point of colonialism and Gandhi’s point of self-knowledge and learning in particular.


The conference proved successful with participation by philosophers, literary scholars, historians, and social scientists from several corners of the country and abroad. Nearly 45 papers were presented on several themes falling within the purview of the theme of the conference. The conference provided an interdisciplinary space for a critical dialog among the scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds. The sessions were held under these subthemes: “Literature”; “Perspectives from Literary Theory”; “International Political Perspectives”; “Democracy and Minorities”; “Art Historical Perspectives”; on “Gandhi”; “Historical Perspectives”; “South Asian Perspectives”; Political Theory”; “Democracy, Capital and Practice”; “Religion, Ethics and Morality.”


The last session of the conference was a special session on the critical reading of Raag Darbari, chaired by Vivek Dhareshwar, and Bishnu Mohapatra, Sur P. Rath, Professor, Department of English, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, USA and Prabhat K, Pandeya, Professor, Department of English, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, presented different perspectives on the way the novel had imbibed the understanding of democracy and its function. In the absence of Prof. Rajeev Bhargava, there was a panel discussion by all the plenary speakers Akeel Bilgrami, David Bromwich, Vivek Dhareshwar and Uday S. Mehta, and the discussion was moderated by Ravina Aggarwal, Program Officer, The Ford Foundation, USA. Reflecting through their respective frameworks, the discussants agreed to the fact that owing to the contemporary developments the emphasis of liberal democracy has to be more on the aspect of ‘fraternity.’


In continuation with our incessant pursuit to retain some of the ideas deliberated in our international conferences, the conference volume of selected papers of the Tenth International Conference organized on “Thinking Territory: Affect and Attachment towards Land in South Asia” titled Thinking Territory: Some Reflections was released by Prof. Fred Dallmayr. The volume is edited by Bed P. Giri and Prafulla C. Kar and published by Pencraft International. The 27th volume of The Journal of Contemporary Thought, a special issue on the theme “Revisiting the Political” was also released by Prof. David Bromwich.


Participants of the conference had a memorable experience of the spectacular vocal performance by Pandit Chhunulal Mishra at Jnana Pravaha near the Ganges, at the Centre for Cultural Studies and Research, South of Samne Ghat, Varanasi. The Forum expresses its gratitude to Jnana Pravaha.


The Eleventh International Conference on “Democracy in Our Time: The Past and Future of the Enlightenment” is an indication of the Forum’s enthusiastic commitment to critical debates on democracy in terms of theory and praxis bringing together scholars from Humanities and Social Sciences. The outcome of the critical dialogs taken place during the conference definitely have shown some new avenues in understanding democracy and political thinking, and the extent to which values of enlightenment modernity entail upon us, persuading us to look into the resources that could cope with the contingent conditions of liberal democracy in our time . The Forum always believes in ending with a new beginning. The conference ended with an open appeal to active participation and the necessity to begin new ways of thinking thus avoiding every sense of closure. The Forum also announced its Twelfth International Conference around the theme “Race, and Gender” to be held in December 2009 in Kerala.


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