India: A View of People

And Why It Matters

Suresh Kalmadi has something to answer for to the Indian people for the chaotic run up to the Commonwealth Games. But given his belligerent stance it seems he feels he doesn’t have to. This would not be a surprise because in India many have gotten away with much more.

What I do find surprising, however, is that he has not even been called up for something that, in my view, no one should be allowed to get away with in this day and age. With reference to the lack of spectators at the Games, Kalmadi is reported to have said: “We are working on the children from schools, already steps have been taken in that direction…. And also from the low level of society, we have been distributing a lot of tickets.”
What is this about the “low level of society” and how can someone use a term like that without even being conscious of its implications? In fact, the very lack of self-consciousness suggests how deeply the notion might be embedded in the speaker’s personality.

At a time when Indians are protesting the racial and ethnic insults attributed to individuals in Australia and New Zealand, why isn’t this insult of its own people a matter of some concern?

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this does not count as an insult in India. But why not? In the 21st Century, we can talk in terms of lower levels of income or lower levels of education but can we talk of a “lower level” of society as a whole? After all, the Constitution grants every citizen the same political and civil rights. So, in what way is one part of society at a lower level than another?

I know Suresh Kalmadi does not mean it that way; I know what he means. But to be so unselfconscious of language in itself suggests an attitude that possibly sits at the root of many other problems. Language matters because language reflects thought and thought determines action.

This attitude is not limited to Kalmadi alone. In fact, it runs across much of society and that is what makes it an issue to be taken seriously in an India that is grappling with the conflict of old and new values. On this blog we have remarked on this attitude from time to time and here we collect some of the observations in one place to convey a sense of the prevalence of the attitude and the ways it shows up in various contexts.

In the post How Modern is Modern?, we had pointed to a similar usage cited in the work of the historian, Ramachandra Guha:

We can perhaps illustrate our unease by picking up on another comment from Guha’s book (page 736) where, with reference to the 2004 elections, Guha quotes the political analyst Yogendra Yadav as saying: “India is perhaps the only large democracy in the world today where the turnout of the lower orders is well above that of the most privileged groups.”

Lower orders? Without being able to put our finger on it, this formulation seems to represent a worldview that is profoundly un-modern and one that Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book (The Burden of Democracy, 2003) holds responsible for the limitations of Indian democracy.

It is easy to see how this worldview spills over into characterizations that set up the conditions for social conflict. In Democracy in India – 7, we had referred to the title of a journal article that discussed the reality of contemporary Indian life: ‘They dress, use cosmetics, want to be like us’: The Middle Classes and their Servants at Home. In this case the author is quite aware of the significance of language and the ‘they-us’ formulation is intended to highlight the same attitudinal issue that we are discussing here. The social implication follows directly – the fact that ‘they’ want to be like ‘us’ is a violation of the normal order of things.

In the post Jinnah, Nehru, and the Ironies of History, we had pushed this argument further and speculated that the same mindset would continue to give rise to future problems in India:

And here is Jawaharlal Nehru, writing to Chief Ministers of provinces in India in October 1947, pointing out that there remained, within India,

a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want, go anywhere else. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.

… here was Nehru, who had spent the same period of time arguing the secular perspective that everyone was an equal citizen regardless of religion or ethnicity, still thinking in terms of minorities as special groups who needed to be dealt with in a civilized manner and given the rights of citizens… I would have expected Nehru to send out an unequivocal signal: We are all Indians now; there are no more majorities and minorities here.

None of these individuals meant ill and indeed Nehru’s intentions were very laudable. But there is in this unexamined mindset the kernel of the attitude that does not see all human beings as equal. It reflects an acceptance of inequality that can lead to actions governed either by benevolence or exploitation depending on the issues at stake. One could perhaps gainfully examine the attitude of various stakeholders towards the exploitation of minerals in tribal lands in this framework.

Where does this attitude come from? Clearly, it reflects the fact that India was forever an extremely hierarchical society and even as this reality is changing, social attitudes are lagging behind political and economic change. India’s visionary leaders were quite well aware of the contradiction. Here is what Dr. Ambedkar had to say in 1949:

In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?

In the post More on the Modern South Asian – 1, we focused on the theoretical expression of this phenomenon:

In Provincializing Europe Dipesh Chakrabarty has defined the phenomenon of ‘political modernity’ as “the rule by modern institutions of the state, bureaucracy, and capitalist enterprise” noting, incidentally, that these cannot be thought of outside the context of the European Enlightenment. Chakrabarty refers to Ranajit Guha to say that South Asian political modernity “brings together two noncommensurable logics of power, both modern. One is the logic of the quasi-liberal legal and institutional frameworks that European rule introduced into the country… [Accompanying] is the logic of another set of relationships… that articulate hierarchy through practices of direct and explicit subordination of the less powerful by the more powerful.”

It is the conflict of these two logics, the logic of equality and the logic of hierarchy, that is still in play in India. Sixty years on, Dr. Ambedkar’s question remains the relevant one: How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? The message of this post is that we need to become conscious of our use of language if we are to resolve this contradiction in the way Dr. Ambedkar intended – in consonance with the values that embody the dignity and fundamental equality of human beings in the 21st Century.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 01:45h, 11 October Reply

    SA, on Nehru’s remark, I don’t find it particularly disturbing. What he was emphasizing, even implicitly, was not the unequal status of muslims but their distinct identity that needs to be respected while administering equal treatment. Equal treatment does not mean we can do away with the distinct identities that communities have. Muslims view themselves as a minority in India. This is doubtless. It is important to be sensitive towards this self-image of the muslims and deal with them in a manner that lets them feel like their distinct identities will be fully respected in India. Equality of treatment often translates in the minds of many, like it or not, as an expectation of uniformity of conduct in all spheres of life from all individuals. Identities are real and important matters and they bring about complexities in the notion of equality.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:51h, 11 October

      Vinod: Three of the observations in the post were obvious and non-controversial. I had added the one about Nehru because it invites discussion. As I mentioned in the post, there is no question that Nehru’s intentions were very laudable. What I want to explore is a sort of path dependence in attitudes – where one comes from shapes how one sees the world and how one acts upon it. So, I wanted to highlight my perception that despite Nehru’s intellectual clarity about equality, he still operated in a frame characterized by the exclusivity of groups.

      One can be equal and different. After all, despite India’s extreme diversity there were no similar concerns regarding protection of different ethnicities or linguistic groups. If they could be subsumed into an inclusive identity without any danger to their distinctness why couldn’t the same logic apply to religion?

      Special protection is required for entities that are endangered (these can be ethnic and linguistic entities as well) but only as long as they are endangered. Otherwise, they can become ghettoized or exotica.

      You are very clear that Muslims view themselves as a minority in India – you use the word ‘doubtless.’ I am not so sure. Do they wish to see themselves as a minority or rather would they wish to be Indian in the same way that Italian-Americans are Americans or Catholics are Americans? Fortunately, this is an empirical question and we need not depend on conjectures.

      The point I wish to argue is that we need to stop thinking in terms of majorities and minorities because such thinking is fraught with dangers. A majority that is benevolent to a minority can very easily turn around and demonize the same minority with horrible consequences. There is no shortage of examples from around the world.

      No group should live or feel that it exists at the benevolence of others. That should not be the default position. Rather, it should be one of full equality where all violations of that equality are culpable under the law. It is a question of rights as against obligations.

      This is the reason I wished that Nehru, having witnessed the horrors of the logic that led to Partition, had said ‘We are all Indians now, there are no more majorities and minorities here.’ I am aware that it might not have been possible at that time and in that environment; I am only posing the counterfactual to make the point that one comes to a formulation like that from a very different frame of reference. We need a different frame of reference now. We might even have to skip a stage and think of ourselves as all South Asians now unless we want to relive the horrors of the past at an even larger scale.

      I feel this is an involved issue and one I have not been able to do justice to. I hope others will join in the discussion and tease apart its nuances.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:48h, 12 October

      SA, only as a counterfactual I’m inclined to see the merit in your point. Just to be clear, Nehru is not at fault like the way Kalmadi egregiously is. I think we agree on that.

      I think we can stop thinking in terms of majorities and minorities only when indians as a nation recognize the complexity of dealing with identities and stop trying to insist on demands like the Indian identity must include a willingness and pride in singing Vande Mataram. The problem is that at the political front we inadvertently, if not intentionally, give experssion to our specific identities as the quintessential Indian identity and expect equal treatment based on that. It is to avoid this inadvertence that we have to consciously maintain the plurality of identities, that can be starkingly differnet from one’s own, that make up the Indian identity.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:53h, 12 October

      Vinod: What I am trying to propose is the following relationship between equality and difference. We must be equal first by right and then free to be different as long as the expression of that difference does not harm anyone else. We should not be different first and then some be beholden to others for the granting of equality on fulfillment of some condition or another. Citizenship is sufficient condition for right to equality.

      In this framework, the identity of the ‘we’ in your sentence (The problem is that at the political front we inadvertently, if not intentionally, give experssion to our specific identities as the quintessential Indian identity and expect equal treatment based on that.) becomes critical. Clearly, a so-called ‘minority group’ cannot make this demand. For example, in India Sikhs or Christians cannot demand that their specific identity be considered the quintessential Indian identity. Such a demand can only be made by a group that has an a priori belief in an unequal system in which if feels it has some superior claim to legitimacy or patrimony – an ‘India belongs to Hindus’ type of claim. And this claim has to be accepted before the group would accord equality to others on passing tests of allegiance and loyalty.

      If one thinks through the logic of this latter case, I doubt if it can be considered acceptable in this day. The only necessary and sufficient condition ought to be citizenship that is conferred by a state that is representative of all citizens not of any one group. One can reflect on this outside the context of the subcontinent with reference to recent developments in Israel where a related controversy has emerged with the passage of a new bill.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:18h, 13 October

      SA, on the face of it I find no difficulty in agreeing with what you say. But there is a devil in the details of it. One difficulty I find when thinking about equality and identity is that equality of treatment can be inextricably linked to the values that need to be upheld in a particular situation. Often values are apriori determined by the identity one holds. For example, should polygamy be outlawed, may be a question about equality of treatment of women and equality of treatment of civil laws of marriage. For many hindus, polygamy can be seen as unequal treatment of women. For muslims, it may not be seen that way at all. Clearly equality gets almost inextrialy linked with identity here. As another example, whether adultery is to be criminalized and punished, regardless of the identity of the person who commits it, is a question of equality meshed with the values about adultery. Some communities may see it as immoral but not something that can be criminalized by it being a victim-less crime. Others may see it differently deriving their view of adultery from their identities. How does one posit what equality demands here without transgressing on the sacred territory of identity?

      I think there is no major difficulty in meting out equality in economic matters. But in legal and social matters, it starts to get difficult.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:41h, 13 October

      Vinod: It seems to me that you are conflating equality with sameness or being alike. This need not be the case; indeed, it should not be the case. In our discussion we are referring to equality as citizens. For example, a child born in the US of parents of Indian origin has exactly the same rights as a child born of white American parents. The first may be a vegetarian and the second not, and this may involve grave ethical issues of animal rights, but this has no bearing on their equality as citizens. The crucial point is that the group to which the first belongs does not have to seek or be at the mercy of the approval of the group to which the second belongs.

      Issues like adultery or abortion or polygamy are civil issues that are dealt with by the courts in every country without impinging on the equality of rights of citizenship. For example, in the US Republicans and Democrats lean in very different directions on abortion. Prostitution, which has bearing on the rights of women, is legal in some states and not in others.

      Meting out equality in economic matters is particularly problematic and, in general, futile, if we are talking of outcomes. Equality of opportunity, on the other hand, is a sensible objective that ought to be insisted upon.

      The bottom line of the argument is that there ought not to be any second-class citizens. This does not mean that citizens cannot have different practices or rituals. Nor does it mean that others cannot lobby against particular practices in an open and democratic system. The campaign for and against same-sex marriage in the US is an example.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:44h, 18 October

      Issues like adultery or abortion or polygamy are civil issues that are dealt with by the courts in every country without impinging on the equality of rights of citizenship.

      Issues like adultery, polygamy and abortion impinge on the right to follow one’s religion.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:47h, 18 October

      Vinod: You are right. It is a question of prioritization. Equal access to justice and equal protection against violence are high on the list if everyone is to feel equal as a citizen. These are aspects where there can be no exceptions. Next come rights of groups to specific practices, customs, rituals, etc. Here we can refer back to the discussion of the use of the veil in France. I feel Russell’s principle provides a good starting point to avoid the tyranny of the majority.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 19:21h, 30 October

      Interestingly, while listening to lectures on the intellectual history of 19th century Europe I got to know that there was a fundamental contradiction between equality and liberty (my ref to identity here can be seen as part of liberty) that was seen by the liberal thinkers. John Stuart Mill and Tocqueville wrote on this subject. When I have more on this, I’ll let you know.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:05h, 31 October

      Vinod: Why don’t you write a post on the relationship between equality and liberty? That would give a focus to your reading.

      Your comment provides an opportunity to extend our recent discussion about education in South Asia. First, these kinds of essential concepts should be introduced in the culminating years of high school or in the first years of college. They should not be left to accidental discovery in middle age. A simple essay assignment to explore the difference between equality and liberty would get a student thinking about the subject and the motivated student to dig deeper into the history.

      Second, note that our first references are to the Enlightenment thinkers (although the roots of that tradition go back to the Greeks). We should also be aware of what the indigenous South Asian traditions have to say about the same topic but we have even less knowledge of that than we do of the Western tradition.

      Third, we should remain conscious that ideas are rooted in reality and the tension between equality and liberty that emerged in the minds of the Greeks and the Enlightenment thinkers reflected the nature of their societies at those points in time. So, we should not abstract the discussion from the contextual conditions of today. These are very different in Europe and South Asia, for example, so we should not expect the same answer or conclusion for both.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:52h, 01 November

      SA, your suggestion is a worthwhile project to endeavour. But my current reading/listening list is already set and is unalterable. I will therefore only be able to mention briefly in this comments area from what little I heard and can recollect about Toqueville’s thesis. You’ve already covered the essence of his thesis in this blog – the tyranny of the majority. I will just mention something specific from the thesis. Toqueville himself reined from an aristocratic family. His great grandfather was a lawyer in the French King’s court. Both the monarch and his great grandfather had been executed after the French revolution. Toqueville’s family was very conservative and averse to what they perceived as a fashionable cry for equality. While Toqueville was sympathetic to monarchy he recognized that democracy was the future. His focus was on the nature of equality in democracy. He believed that the cry for equality was so shrill that it could seriously infringe upon liberties. It had become a cry for social conformity instead. He was gravely concerned about this. Toqueville saw the artistocracy as not merely a social class that was known was apathetic exploitation. Here’s the key bit – he saw it perform a key role between the individual and the State – of critically questioning the State. The aristocracy, with its claim to status and prestige, shielded from the arbitrary powers of the State, was somehow at liberty to think freely and prevent the tyranny of the majority that could come about through the State (clearly one can see his great grandafather’s execution to have had an emotional effect on his thinking here). He believed that there ought to be more such institutions that could question the State and not let it get away with any measure. Toqueville got a chance to tour the newly formed United States. He saw how democracy could become a stable form of political organization. But in the US, he saw the cry for equality elbowing out liberty. He believed that Europe had more liberty than the US although it was not as equal in its social organization as the US.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:50h, 01 November

      Vinod: Yes, this is a fair characterization of the concerns of Tocqueville. For us what is of interest is to think through the implications of the tension between equality and liberty for South Asia today. And for that we would have to define the terms more clearly. Sen always begins his discussions about equality by asking: Equality of what? Equality within whom?

      As you know, equality and liberty were distinct demands on the French Revolution and mentioned separately in its motto. They could be distinct because equality was defined as equality under the law. When, following the revolution, the notion was extended to equality of outcomes, the tension with liberty arose as a consequence because it was not possible to achieve the former without encroaching on the latter. Mills and Marx could be said to represent the opposite ends of this tension.

      The issue of the tyranny of the majority we have mentioned elsewhere on the blog. This was the concern that exercised the Greeks and re-emerged during the Enlightenment – the fear that democracy was an unstable system that could degenerate into despotism because individuals were susceptible to be swept by emotions and prejudices and strong institutions did not exist to stand in the way of tyranny. It may well turn out that the period of peaceful democratic governance in the West might turn out to be a long exception. Hitler was a frightening example of what is still possible and the rise of extremist parties (of which the Netherlands is the main example at this time) point to the ever present danger.

      What conclusions should we derive for South Asia today?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:16h, 01 November

      I have a few thoughts which I believe are part of elementary political theory.

      I will ask what politically influential and effective platforms exist in South Asia today for rigorous discussions on not only topics where the underlying tension is that between equality and liberty but any topic.

      (i) Wasn’t is supposed to be parliament? What is the quality of the discussions in parliament? How can the opposition constructively critique the ruling goverments proposals?

      Political parties will tend to wane in this commitment when the general quality of political culture itself deteriorates. How can this be prevented? It has to come down to the citizens/civil society and their relationship to political leaders. How do they collaborate now? If there are such avenues for citizens to participate in (Town Councils?) then I along with other citizens am bound to participate through these. These organizations then must use what Sen calls the power of Voice to point out the deficiencies in the ideas of parties. I know it does happen to an extent. The right to food movement and right to employment movement brought about the free afternoon lunch in school and NREGA from the goverment. I’m one among those citizens who has no clue about how these interactions happen.

      Do political parties have a duty to consult such bodies which perhaps meets a standard of critical thinking?

      (ii) Is the media – newspapers in particular, doing this? Isn’t this part of their ethical duties?

      (iii) Both the above then boil down to the quality of citizens produced through our educational system. If our educational setup is producing yes-men individuals or apathetic citizens, then the rot is at the grassroots. With specific focus on religious educational institutions, there should be some sort of oversight or collaboration to ensure that extremist, polarizing teachings are weeded out.

      During my schooling, there was the national Youth Parliament competition. I never participated in it. Reflecting back, the reasons for that was the poor quality of teaching of the humanities. History, Geography and civics were taught as nothing more than facts-memorization and regurgiation. It was all about names and years. I clearly recall the relief I had when I moved into the science stream after O levels where these subjects were no longer there. The Commerce and arts section were reserved for what I then thought as ‘the dull ones’. What a pity!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:42h, 02 November

      Vinod: In a country like India, rigorous discussion cannot be expected from parliament. Parliament represents the people and if the people are not engaging in rigorous discussion, parliament will not either. A representative does not get elected on the basis of providing rigorous discussion. He/she gets elected on how much of the pie he/she can extract for his/her constituency, amongst other things. The media is unlikely to do so either because it is driven by profit. Is there a market for rigorous thinking? Given the situation, and the domination of corporate interests, the only place from which rigorous discussion can emerge is the university or the independent think tank or journal and for that the schools have to do a good job. But educational institutions have turned into trade schools for the job market. Note how much of the rigorous discussion about India is coming from academics abroad. Within India all that is left are the odd balls.

  • Sakuntala
    Posted at 13:20h, 11 October Reply

    I am questioning even the use of phrases like “lower levels of income and lower education”, there are shades of implicit assumptions — arrogant ones — here too. By “education” does one mean “fewer degrees or alphabets after one’s name”? Is a wise sage, a villager who never went to school, a person of “lesser education”? Do our educational institutions today impart knowledge of the right kind — and what do we mean by the right kind anyway? I see youngsters who are computer savvy, carry a laptop and earn fat salaries by working for MNCs, but don’t have the courtesy to give up their seats for an elderly or ailing person on a bus. “Educated” ? As for income, in money terms, yes perhaps, but what about dimensions of the quality of life that cannot be measured in money terms? Aren’t we, then, using language spawned by a western outlook on “the Third World” (in evaluating ‘education’, ‘income’, etc ? Sure, Kalmadi comes through as crass and arrogant, but we now have a whole class of the “elite” whose only claims to being “elite” rise from a western perspective of what is “better” or valuable. Between a learned and erudite Sanskrit pundit who turns up, on foot, wearing a dhoti and chappals, and a safari-suited politician wearing designer sunglasses, and arriving in a swanky car with a red light on top, who commands instantaneous respect ? Why? How many of those who discuss ‘democracy’ ponder over such facets of contemporary realities?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:03h, 11 October

      Sakuntala: These are valid observations. We live in a world where counting has gained increased legitimacy and household income and years of schooling are the most commonly counted variables. These can serve as objective indicators for some public policy purposes as long as we are clear of their limited applicability. As you rightly point out, income has no relation to worth and education has no relation to wisdom. So, even for these indicators the use of the word ‘level’ is to be avoided. But when one speaks of a lower level of society or lower orders, it is entering an entirely subjective domain and making a statement that lacks any kind of precision for use in policy formulation. Rather, it is a reflection of a hierarchical world view.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 21:24h, 11 October Reply

    You know, there is something peculiar about how India’s middle class and elite (including myself and close friends, family) ‘celebrate’ candidates successful in the IIT/IAS exams who come from deprived families. It is not surprising to see stories like ‘Sweepers son/daughter passes IAS’ etc with the readers posting congratulatory comments in the hundreds.

    Nobody I know seems particularly keen on asking why such stories are an extremely tiny fraction of the overall picture. Just their existence is taken as a reassurance that the ‘system’ is fair. One of the ‘lower orders’ has ‘qualified’ to become one of us.

    I would claim that perhaps more than traditional caste hierarchies, it is India’s education system that has perpetuated the kind of thinking Kalmadi has displayed. Note that Kalmadi went to a St. Vincents High School, followed by India’s Defence academies, so he is quite a good representative of a high achieving middle class Indian.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 08:55h, 13 October

      I want to second Vikram’s post. My Indian friends too quote from their life experiences with no knowledge of the overall picture to argue against reservations and caste politics. Even when I look into my life experience alone, caste has played a very little role. I haven’t witnessed any caste based discrimination or atrocities directed at the lower castes. But I have learnt to see this only as a tiny footprint of reality. I’m aware of the larger picture. The Indian education system, atleast during my time, did not touch upon these topics. There were no discussions about them. There was no raising of consciousness about suh issues in society and what could be done about it. We were all given one goal – the IITs or the top engineering and medical colleges. Everything else didn’t matter except to get extra curricular credits to get admission into the IITs and engineering colleges.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:38h, 17 October

      Vinod: I see two dimensions here. First, as you mention, schools and colleges feel no need to allocate scarce time to such issues. Second, there seem to be no other institutions either that are raising the issues for discussion. The latter is a little bit more surprising. Here, as Foucault would have argued, discourse reflects the distribution of power in society. What gets talked about and, more importantly, what does not get talked about, both reflect the distribution of power. As had been mentioned earlier, the Indian government refuses to even let the issue be tabled at UN fora that have been specially established to examine cases of discrimination in its member countries.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 02:55h, 16 October Reply

    Vinod: One may or may not agree with Praful Bidwai on the logic and wisdom of the Ayodhya vedict but his position on citizenship is relevant to our discussion. One can get some sense of what the difference between equal citizenship and second-class citizenship can mean. Is he right? I hope this triggers a discussion.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 13:20h, 17 October

      So, what exactly is Mr. Bidwai’s position on citizenship? Is the Babri mosque the one, only and overriding marker of the Constitutional rights of India’s Muslims? Dont get me wrong, I understand the complete criminality and the deep scars and divisions that resulted from the demolition.

      But to equate the whole future India’s Muslims from Kerala to Assam to this single event seems overly dramatic and a bit trite.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:10h, 17 October

      Vikram: Praful Bidwai’s op-ed was particularly likely to be misinterpreted in the charged environment. I didn’t read it as equating the whole future of India’s Muslims from Kerala to Assam to a single event. Rather, it seems to be using the event to highlight what he feels is a reality – and one can disagree with his position. One can argue that when lightning strikes it can help us see better in the dark. Some events can throw in sharp relief what is mostly invisible to the naked eye. In that spirit, the verdict, not the event, can make us take another look at something we might be thinking is quite normal. This could be a different illustration of what you pointed out as the misplaced perception on caste discrimination. People can continue with that complacent perspective till some lightning strike exposes its fragility. I am not saying that commonly held views are always wrong. Rather, that these are opportunities to re-examine our views and test them against reality.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:31h, 18 October

      SA, I think the Prof is arguing for constitutionalism, rule of law and scientific determination of facts which one can say has connections with citizenship. Our constitution does tell us something about citizenship and perhaps that is the way to go in our politics judicial system.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:40h, 18 October

      Vinod: What I take away from the argument is that there should not be a disconnect between de jure and de facto rights of citizenship. Almost all constitutions guarantee universal equal rights but the practice falls very short of the ideal in some countries. Eliminating this gap is a goal that requires a political struggle.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 14:55h, 26 October Reply

    Vinod: You had posed a very difficult question about religious rights in a secular state and the question has been addressed in a recent volume. Here is the beginning of the summary by Professor Stanley Fish who poses the issue as follows:

    A few weeks ago, the Cardozo School of Law mounted a conference marking the 20th anniversary of Employment Division v. Smith (1990), a case in which the Supreme Court asked what happens when a form of behavior demanded by one’s religion runs up against a generally applicable law — a law not targeted at any particular agenda or point of view — that makes the behavior illegal. (The behavior at issue was the ingestion of peyote at a Native American religious ceremony.) The answer the court gave, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the majority, was that the religious believer must yield to the law of the state so long as that law was not passed with the intention of curtailing or regulating his or anyone else’s religious practice. (This is exactly John Locke’s view in his “Letter Concerning Toleration.µ)

    The following paragraph is of special interest:

    On the one hand, there is the liberal desire to accord one’s fellow human beings the dignity of respecting their deepest beliefs. On the other hand, there is the fear that if those beliefs are allowed their full scope, individual rights and the rule of law may be eroded beyond repair. It would seem, at least on the evidence of most of these essays, that there is simply no way of “finding a viable path that accommodates diversity with equalityµ (Ayelet Shachar), that is, accommodates tolerance of diverse religious views with an insistence that, in the last analysis, the rights of individuals cannot be trumped by a theological imperative. No one in this volume quite finds the path.

    The reason for its interest to us in South Asia is that the dilemma does not remain confined to minorities. Could one interpret the recent Ayodhya verdict of the High Court as explicitly accommodating the religious beliefs of the majority rather than insisting on the principle of individual rights under secular law? This debate would have no bearing on the wisdom of the decision because that would raise another contentious issue of whether human lives can be sacrificed to the upholding of an abstract principle that, perhaps, ought not to be even applicable in a given society at a given time.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 09:10h, 04 November

      SA, in this matter I’m inclined towards what Millbank in that opinion piece had to say. It really is a clash between communitarianism and individualism. How can a secular legal system get the support of the strongly religious? I believe that at the level of human psychology and sociology this links to the problem of ghettoization. Religious communities need to feel that justice has been served by the secular state. I believe that current rejectionism prevalent in many religious communities has to do with the general insecurity they feel living in South Asia. The ‘tyranny of the majority’ has made them very defensive and adopt a rejecitonist posture. I believe that this breakdown of trust between the majority and minority has happened due to a lack of sufficient dialogue at the critical levels of the state. Dialogue is the key to creating trust. Many may ask how can dialogue happen when there is a fundamental mistrust in place. I believe that there are individuals on both sides of the communities who derive their sense of hope from higher ideals and are not rendered hopeless by the brutal inter-community interactions of the past. Such individuals will step forward on both sides and believe in making a trusting relationship. It is the dialogue between such individuals that can construct the bridge. Once the bridge is made I’m positive that the right balance between religious laws and secular laws can be struck. In fact, if the trust is carefully nurtured there is no reason why the communties cannot lead a peacefully coexistent life under secular laws alone. I think the communitarian instinct has to do with a need for a sense of justice and if it comes from secular laws then it can reshape a religious identity into a secular one.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 09:40h, 04 November

      Vinod: For a long time, it has been felt that the tension between the community and the individual has been resolved in favor of the individual. But this has given rise to new dilemmas that will become more acute with increased globalization. I think the tension still remains and perhaps, as Stanley Fish said, it will always do so. The best one can do is to find the most acceptable compromise. The dialog that you suggest is absolutely vital to the finding of feasible compromises. And the middle on both sides has to realize that the danger emanates from its own fringe. Trying to placate the fringes ultimately yields them the upper hand despite their smaller numbers. This is the difficult part of the process – both the middles have to come to an understanding that they will not let their fringes dictate the agenda.

      Stanley Fish has an update to his last column:

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:21h, 13 November

      Vinod: You may find of interest this response to Stanley Fish’s position on the place of religious law in a secular state:

    • Vinod
      Posted at 11:12h, 16 November

      In this debate, the major disadvantage that muslims in the UK face is that they cannot point to a muslim country that has Shariah which the majority non-muslim community in UK can feel comfortable with. The reports from minorities in majority muslim countries are not exactly singing praises either. In contrast there are many functioning democracies that give immediate reassurance and serve as easily adoptable role models, notwithstanding the criticisms of democracies in theory and practice. I don’t think this is merely due to a media bias. Whatever tolerant Shariah is mentioned in public debate is so far in the minds of a select few muslims only. It takes courage to trust them while overlooking the Saudi-style Shariah operating next door.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:19h, 16 November

      Vinod: I feel that fair-minded people would have to agree with your observation. I would be curious to see how someone can argue the contrary position.

      There is a new UNDP report which does point to interesting developments in North African Muslim countries. This does not quite provide the comfort that you are looking for but is of interest nevertheless to a related discussion we have been having, i.e., what kind of growth do we need if our primary interest is in the welfare of people?

      An excerpt:

      Take Tunisia. Much of its progress in education can be traced back to a set of reforms adopted early after independence in 1956 by the administration of Habib Bourguiba. A vital step here was the 1958 educational reform, which established a timetable for enrollment of all 6 year olds by 1966 and full enrollment of all primary school aged children by 1971. There is now substantial evidence that the health and schooling of children can be raised by empowering women, and this is precisely what Tunisia did when it raised the minimum age for marriage, revoked the colonial ban on imports of contraceptives, instituted the first family planning programme in Africa, legalized abortion, made polygamy illegal, and gave women the right to divorce as well as the right to stand and vote for election.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 12:04h, 03 November Reply

    Serious Men by Manu Joseph has won the 2010 The Hindu Best Fiction Award for a “groundbreaking examination of caste in modern India.”

    “Indian writers in English usually take a very sympathetic and compassionate view of the poor, and I find that fake and condescending,” he explained.

    “It’s a class thing,” he suggested. “Most Indians readers of literary fiction written in English are of a certain class, and one of the recreations of the Indian upper class is compassion for the poor. I think the poor in India are increasingly very empowered, and the time has come when the novel can portray them in a more realistic way.”

    It would be good to get feedback from readers.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 21:23h, 06 November Reply

    It is ironic that a ‘slight’ by a foreign government regarding the access of a Chief Minister to a function featuring the American president created more ruckus than the insult Mr. Kalmadi heaped on the Indian people.

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