The true professor begins to exist only when we have freed her from all quantifiable evidence, from everything that can equally be manipulated and falsified.
“The work is the revised doctoral thesis submitted at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2004. Written more than one and a half decades ago, it bears the mark of its time, as does everything else of human creation.”
I read these beautiful first lines of a new book – his third – by my friend, professor Saitya Brata Das.
I read these lines and I am moved by them, as I always am when I read professor Das’s writing. I say with some emphasis professor Das, exactly at a time when he has been refused a professorship under the career advancement scheme by the university where he and I teach. Exactly when career advancement programmes, selection committees and vice chancellors of the world fail to recognise and acknowledge one of our most accomplished scholars and philosophers, I attest to the pleasure and privilege of his friendship.
And it is when spurious reasons are offered as alibis for this failure, alibis that crumble before the objective evidence required by institutional criteria – three marvellous books, edited works, myriad articles published all over the world. The true professor begins to exist only when we have freed her from all measurable accomplishments, all quantifiable evidence, from everything that can equally be manipulated and falsified. In fact the professor has discreetly withdrawn from the spectacle, while those sitting masterfully in the audience presume to judge the “performance” as to whether it is worthy of what they call a professor. Like all presumptive people, they are wrong to think they can sit in judgement merely because they have the so-called institutional authority to do so. The professor’s existence is often too discreet for the discretionary authority of the judges to capture. So while the vice chancellor of JNU misses the honour of presenting Das with a professorship, we are honoured to read his work and learn from him – and to greet him in admiration, gratitude and camaraderie: “Professor!”
Yet the issue of justice remains far beyond the vulgarity and deception of the spectacle. The issue of justice for a Dalit scholar born from the soil of caste is institutional, it is social; it is fundamental. To discuss the issue, let us take each of its dimensions, one by one.
The objective, quantifiable parameters for ensuring institutional fairness have a normative reasoning (and a history, which we will come to) that is minimal and built on a negative and a positive premise. The positive premise is that everyone part of the institution has equal access to its opportunities and incentives. This formal homogeneity is counteracted by the negative premise that the arbitrating authority of an institution is subject to contingent corruption of power, corporate-to-individual prejudices as well as ambitions, material temptations and the complicated possibility of being corrupted by another heteronomous but more powerful authority (or when the boss takes orders).
Out of the two premises, a system of what started to be called with the constitutionalist Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes in 19th-century Bonapartist France (from where the model of civil services is derived) “graduated promotion” was devised. Graduated promotion meant that access to every rung of the ladder of promotion in the institution had to be governed by a step-by-step gradation, each step available to the candidate by virtue of an examination or any other objective evaluation, equal for everyone and meant to secure the system against possible malafide intentions and discretionary violence of an arbitrating authority. This is the origin of meritocratic reason underlying modern institutional philosophy; Sieyes and Napoleon, constitutionalist and emperor, were the founding fathers of this philosophy.
Social justice doesn’t start with a premise. It starts with an intervention, a question put to the formal premises of institutional thinking: what happens when society itself is graded in a hierarchical ladder of power and privilege? This is the great Ambedkarite question put to mere formal republican thinking in a kind of virtual dialogue and combat between B.R. Ambedkar and Sieyes. What happens when the arbitrating authority is already biased socially and institutions are already violent structurally? In other words, who judges the judge in Brahminical meritocracy? Who exposes the lie, which at its most innocent, believes that society has changed and now it’s not the old hierarchical order anymore; and which, at its most vicious, manipulates the discrepancy between the formal egalitarian premise and real inequality to , institutionally perpetuate the latter?
When the concrete intervention of social justice makes every formal-meritocratic, every formal-authoritarian, system tremble – they are all trembling today, left, right and centre – it is brutally clear to every party that what is called “promotion” in the language of institutions in the register of politics, is a question of power. And so apart from all individual cases of institutional wrong, the stakes of justice lie in redistributing and reversing the order of power in society. The second Ambedkarite lesson then is – when a Dalit claims promotion to a position of power, it is power itself that makes the Brahminical power-elite tremble. And so there is no shame in defending the political rationale of the demand for reservation even within promotions in so far as society is already given as a ladder where some classes/castes are promoted absolutely by birth.
Yet justice goes beyond the stakes of power. Justice is fundamentally a philosophical notion and it has something to do with the universal axiomatic truth that we are all possessed of intrinsic human worth. Ambedkar saw this clearly but he also saw that this fundamental thesis of egalitarian human worth can never be demonstrated. It must be declared like an axiom is declared, courageously, experimentally and eternally even while it is suppressed by castes and nations; it must be practiced with a new delicacy of conduct and disposition even while the Brahminical hegemons alternate between paternalistic and terroristic control. So justice, at its core, is the thought of equality, unconditionally professed by those who live by it, lived by those who profess it.
By the above definition, Das became a professor a long time ago and has remained one with perfect integrity and equipoise. Jagadesh Kumar, a somewhat older man, presumably having enjoyed several institutional dignities over time and now vice chancellor of JNU, remains disqualified to become a professor by the profound criterion of justice.
Soumyabrata Choudhury is associate professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.