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Demise of the individual

Renegotiating the relationship between the individual and the collective

Demise of the individual

The relationship between an ‘individual’ and a larger ‘human collectivity’ is a political issue of considerable complexity, and has drawn the attention of political theorists belonging to all ages.

In most of the theoretical formulations, collectivity has been accorded precedence over the individual, whether by Plato, Hegel, Marx or Ibn Khaldun. In a social contract (like that propounded by Rousseau) which binds the individual with the collective, the individual is supposed to concede ‘rights’ and ‘privileges’ for the collective good of fellow humans inhabiting the same social space. It was only in 1960s that the scholars of the Frankfurt school challenged the collective-centred paradigm. Horkheimer, Marcuse and Adorno, for example, followed by Foucault, Derrida and Habermas tried to give primacy to the voice of the individual with far reaching theoretical impact on the human and social sciences.

It is, therefore, strongly advocated that such movements and their impact should be made a part of undergraduate history and political science curricula.

In a changing socio-political situation, the relationship between the individual and the collective gets renegotiated. In days of peace, harmony and relative affluence, the individual usually has greater space and flexibility than when insecurity is rife and economic opportunities are scarce. During the medieval age, the political elite dreaded an increase in the space for the individual to manoeuver, lest it might lead to anarchy, and, therefore, the emphasis remained on the preservation of the order where collectivity was given precedence over the individual. The only individuals who could realise their true potential, according to Hegel, were the monarchs or the rulers. The rest of humanity was condemned to living subdued lives.

With the onset of modernity, the relationship shifted away from the individual, with the hold of the collective substantially tightened. The advent of the nation-state and its growing strength during the 19th and 20th centuries institutionalised the supremacy of the collective. The ugliest manifestation of such a political dispensation was the Nazi and Fascist states under Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini respectively.

Ironically, some of the most renowned intellectual figures from the Muslim world took fancy to these personalities and their style of rule. Majlis-i-Ahrar and Khaksar Movement organised their cadres exactly along the Nazi/Fascist model.

The struggle for a separate homeland waged by the Muslims of South Asia was in the name of the collective. It was a contest between relatively larger and smaller collectivities. Thus, one group (Muslims) managed to liberate itself from the other (Hindus). In that process, the entity of the individual was absolutely lost.

Unfortunately, humans have failed to conjure up any socio-political dispensation where multiple truth claims can coexist happily. Historical sources reveal that the situation under the Ottomans and Mughals were conducive enough for the multiple truth claims to reside in synchrony. One must, however, not ignore the fact that the formulation of policy and its execution was contingent on the particular propensity of the king or sultan. The affairs of the state were, in a certain sense, modelled on the whim of the king. It not did matter whether Akbar or Aurangzeb was on the throne.

Despite this, the general social ethos prevailing in those days allowed greater room for religious or cultural difference. This begs the question of whether the transition from an empire system to a nation state results in a monolithic political orientation which does not allow any difference (political or religious) to exist?

Scared of being branded as someone completely overtaken by romanticism, I may conclude that up till the early modern period, the intellectual milieu of the subcontinent was such that the pursuit of subjective truth was possible. Not only did people have their respective allegiance with more than one mystic order but also from within the same order. Various Sufis used to chart a different course of action. Shah Waliullah and Mazhar Jan-i-Janan both adhered to the same Naqshbandi Order with different political and social visions.

Similarly, in the good old days, Shia and Sunni both used to attend the same Farangi Mahal Madrasa for religious instructions. Not only that, but the followers of both sects offered Juma prayer on the same premises till the 18th century.

Unluckily more than two centuries later, living in the same vicinity with all such differences has become markedly difficult.

One may argue here that it is largely because of one state underpinning a single ideology.

Examining rights of the individual in the state of Pakistan, which are flouted more often than not, leads us to conclude that the nation-state with an exclusionary ideology is bound to disregard the individual’s rights. Any state failing to safeguard rights of the individual is bound to fail to serve the interests of the collective. The task becomes even more daunting when the collective is as big as the Muslim Ummah.

The nation-state with an ideology with universal agenda will be a reminder of the Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy and not the State of Medina, established by the Holy Prophet.

The rights of the individual need to be upheld no matter which faith s/he belongs to. The individual in its very essence is most important.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

One comment

  • Tahir Kamran Sahib:
    What a nice article! I enjoyed reading it. Totalitarianism could be both secular and religious. In the past century we witnessed the demise of secular totalitarianism, this century we hope to witness the irrelevance of religious totalitarianism in places like Pakistan and other Muslim countries. My hunch is that factors contributing most to the empowerment of the individual vis-a-vis the state are globalization and technology. Who needs a state like Pakistan anyway where citizens are expected to adhere to Islamic ideology whether he/she agrees with it or not. Hence I agree with the existentialist notion that individual should feel free to make his/own choices and take responsibility for it. This way the world will be a better place. The problem is we have to first teach citizens to be independent and critical thinkers. It’s a tall order but has to be done.
    Iftikhar Ahmad

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