Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo's book Gadflies in the Public Space: A Socratic Legacy of Philosophical Dissent uncovers a rich dissenting tradition in philosophical thought stretching back to Socrates. Perhaps being a gadfly whose opposition to his native Iranian state earned him a four-month prison sentence makes him peculiarly suited to comment on the struggles of non-conformists. Indeed, Jahanbegloo is no stranger to the struggles of Indian gadflies against conformity. A frequent visitor to India from his adopted country of Canada and now vice-dean of Jindal Global Law School, he has spent many years studying the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence.
We are now perhaps more than ever in need of the kind of dissent profiled in the book, given the takeover of our public space by lumpen elements.
Certainly, his insights come at an opportune time. We are now perhaps more than ever in need of the kind of dissent profiled in the book, given the takeover of our public space by lumpen elements. Two recent occurrences in Delhi bear testimony to the atmosphere of intolerance that has infected our public discourse. A video of students blocking JNU professor Makarand Paranjape from entering his office was joined online by film capturing the violent thuggery deployed to prevent JNU student Umar Khalid from speaking at Ramjas College. The fallout from the Ramjas incident continues to cast a pall over the right to protest, as woman protestors are trolled with ugly rape threats. Those who express views antithetical to the larger establishment are being silenced for their temerity.
Opposition to orthodoxy, inspired by the example of Socrates and his philosophy of rebellion, unites the figures profiled in Gadflies. Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes that would be spent on the Mexican war. If he were alive in India now the punishment would probably be far worse—indeed, given today's deeply polarised politics, Dr. Martin Luther King would have been smeared as anti-national for opposing the Vietnam War and Gandhi's critique of unjust laws would have earned him the label of seditionist, which indeed Socrates was, for corrupting the mind of the youth, i.e., encouraging them to question the powers that be. Albert Camus' expression of disdain for the "machinery of government" much to the chagrin of both Left and Right is very much an outgrowth of the philosophy of rebellion birthed by Socrates.
The banishment of these gadflies from mainstream acceptability bears a chilling similarity to the vilification of Kanhaiya Kumar and ilk for committing the crime of challenging orthodoxy. Students who wish to gain an insight into non-servility would do well to read this book—indeed, it could well serve as a manifesto for the current uprising of young people taking place in Delhi and elsewhere. The wellspring of non-servility for the gadflies is their conscience, referred to as "daimon" by Socrates. Whereas most people in most times succumb to "conformism and complacency" the book's gadflies feel that to submit to these tendencies is to submit to enslavement. So to invoke JFK's famous phrase, they are willing to pay any price, bear any burden, and meet any hardship for the sake of their freedom.
Whereas most people in most times succumb to "conformism and complacency" the book's gadflies feel that to submit to these tendencies is to submit to enslavement.
That is why Socrates refused to stop philosophising, why Dr. King did not flinch in the face of white supremacy and why Gandhi stood by non-violence in the wake of Chauri Chaura. Hence Jahanbegloo's assessment that "loneliness is one of the fundamental features of a Socratic gadfly who is always expected to take a position independent of those in power and sometimes in direct opposition to the opinions of the larger society." He does not see this as a religious conviction, although Gandhi and Dr. King drank copiously from the well of spiritualism and viewed their conscience or inner voice as the manifestation of a higher power.
The gadflies appreciate the comforts of life as much as anyone, but their inner voice persuades them to maintain their revolutionary focus. An incident from Dr. King's life provides a vivid illustration of the operation of the inner voice and the spiritual power it bestowed. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King encountered many hardships including numerous death threats. After one such incident during which his family was threatened he almost gave up on the civil rights movement. Reeling from the shock of this menacing threat delivered over the phone late at night, he felt an utter hopelessness and paralysis come over him until he heard a voice from within that encouraged him to stay in the movement and continue doing God's work. The rest as they say is history. Guided by the invisible hand of his inner voice, Dr. King ensured that his people got to the promised land of a desegregated America, much to the dismay at the time of many in the political establishment.
Similarly Gandhi found himself torn and confused at many points during India's struggle for Independence but marshalled the strength to carry on until Swaraj became a reality, because of the power supplied by his inner voice. As Jahanbegloo narrates, the identity of injustice via this inner voice is complemented by the voice's call to action. There is at heart in the gadflies of the book a deep and courageous desire to spark a transformation of society. This is what the author refers to as Socratic praxis in the book's concluding chapter.
There is at heart in the gadflies of the book a deep and courageous desire to spark a transformation of society.
But the powers that be don't wish for change—in fact they bitterly oppose any destabilisation of the status quo. That is why three out of the five figures profiled in the book meet with an untimely death, sometimes through agents of the government. While Socrates was tried and condemned to die by a state court, Gandhi and Dr. King were assassinated.
Hence it is not surprising that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recently called for a moratorium on free speech for student gadflies. Jaitley clearly does not share Jahanbegloo's assessment that for Gandhi to philosophise is to act. Unlike Gandhi, Jaitley wants to denude the public sphere of activity. To be a gadfly, as Gandhi says of Socrates, is to practice what you preach, especially if you are preaching against the injustice of the state. That is the concept of civic action so dear to the author's gadflies—to identify wrongdoing in society and take action against it. Thus the message Jahanbegloo leaves us with is that it is not enough to engage in the politics of spectacle, which raises visibility but eschews action. We need to support the clarion call for action issued by those challenging the power of the state to silence them so that they are not sidelined and marginalised like the gadflies of yesterday. Today's Socratic gadflies like Gurmehar Kaur and Rajshree Ranawat need our support and commitment—to remain silent is to betray their bravery.