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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 35

Quest for Justice

Monday 18 August 2008, by Avijit Pathak

[(Book Review)]

Justice: Political, Social, Juridical, by Rajeev Bhargava, Michael Dusche and Helmut Reifeld (eds); Sage Publication, New Delhi; 2008; p. 325; Price Rs 650.

We live in a world that continues to surprise us with its paradoxes. Yes, it is a world that promises justice, human dignity and equality. Yet, we find ourselves amidst structures, institutions and everyday practices that continue to degrade our humanity, and reproduce the ethos of violence, hierarchy and exploitation. There are, however, socio-political movements; there is a quest for justice. No wonder, social scientists—particularly those who seek to contribute to the making of a just society—want to make us sensitive through their analytical and creative interventions. Herein lies the relevance of this volume. It emerged out of a conference, which was held in Jaisalmer in November 2003. Its ten essays—written by eminent scholars—make us reflect on diverse dimensions of justice.

To begin with, its three essays that engage with religion are bound to strike the imagination of the reader. Take, for instance, Kunal Chakrabarti’s penetrating analysis of Brahminical discourses. Chakrabarti is a gifted historian. He argues convincingly how Brahminism—a system based on inscriptive status, purity and pollution, and hierarchical gradation of people—negates justice, privileges forward castes, and legitimates differential punishment to different categories of people for the same offence. Yet, a system of this kind sustains itself through the ‘twin conceptions of karman and transmigration of the soul’. For example, it is argued that when a Sudra does his duty properly, his suffering comes to an end with his death and he enjoys residence in heaven; or the soul, travelling from one body to another, is born as a brahmana. Not solely that. As Chakrabarti adds, ‘Brahminism had to create at least one platform—the domain of moksha—where, theoretically, all members, irrespective of caste and gender distinctions, are equal.’ But then, as he cautions us, all these theoretical postulates, concessions, or even alternative discourses have not been able to negate the very foundation of Brahminism.

Only the radical bhakti movements of the medieval period fundamentally critiqued the principle of Brahminical social organisation from within, but these were eventually absorbed by the system itself. The concept of social justice in India has undergone endless revisions, but seldom without reference to caste. The principle of natural inequality, devised by the brahmanas, continues to define the system till today.

Chakrabarti’s arguments make us confront a pertinent question: Is it ever possible for Hinduism to innovate itself, fight the ugliness of Brahminism, and create a new agenda for an egalitarian social order? What about Swami Vivekananda’s ‘practical Vedanta’, Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘dialogical Hinduism’, and Sri Aurobindo’s ‘integral yoga’? Were these radical interventions or merely illusory remedies in an otherwise oppressive Brahminical system? Possibly another essay on these issues relating to radicalisation of Hinduism could have completed the discussion which Chakrabarti initiated with such great rigor.

What about Islam? Najaf Haider takes the debate to a different level. Haider chooses to concentrate on Ziyauddin Barani—a theologian and historian in the first half of the 14th century at the court of Muhammad Tughlaq. For Barani, we are told, the institution of kingship is not in tune with the ethos of Islam. Because the attributes the king claims to possess—pride, dignity, eminence and grandeur—are essentially the attributes of God, and God alone, and hence ‘it is sinful for humans to claim such attributes themselves, and such an action can only lead to darkness’. Yet, as Barani saw, there was no escape from the reality of worldly kingship. Haider argues that it was the concept of justice which enabled Barani to resolve the contradiction at the level of ideas. The king ought to possess an innate sense of justice. No considerations of status, skill, virtue or greatness should prevent him from dispensing impartial justice. For an ideal king, ‘kinsman and stranger, wealthy and indigent, noble and commoner appear one and the same before his eyes during the enforcement of justice’. Indeed, by making justice the primary legitimating criterion for kingship, argues Haider, Barani sought to reduce the possibility of despotism.

As far as Christianity is concerned, it is important to emphasise what Gerhard Kruip regards as ‘faith-praxis’. Granted, there is a merciful God, and, as St Paul once revealed, there can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus’. Yet, confessing one’s faith in such a God will never be credible without acting in a just way or without fighting for a more just world. However, ‘such a strong correspondence between God’s justice and the justice of man’, argues Kruip, ‘was often forgotten in the history of Christianity’. But then, in recent times, as he reminds us, the Latin American Theology of Liberation or other Third World Theologies are giving a refreshingly new meaning to Christianity. It is now asserted that justice would remain elusive unless one combats ‘bad social structures and institutions to liberate men and women in a social, economic and political sense’.

At this juncture an important question arises: Is it possible to remain contented with a culture-specific notion of justice? It is difficult. As Michael Dusche argues in a fairly comprehensive philosophical essay, no culture can remain insulated in the era of globalisation; global issues and concerns are bound to shape our collective destiny; and as a result, justice needs to be cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism is not Euro-centrism; nor is it universalistic in a hegemonic way. And at the same time, cosmopolitanism frees us from the trap of naïve relativism.

Maximal in its reach but minimal in its assumptions about human beings (as being marked but never determined by their belonging to family, ethnic group, creed or nation), cosmopolitanism proves at the same time large enough in its scope to meet the challenges of a globalising world and unassuming enough to be acceptable to humans simply on the basis of their humanity.

It is this quest for a cosmopolitan conception of justice which, Dusche believes, would enable us to overcome the limitedness of identity politics, and its implicit violence. Cosmopolitanism beings with dialogue and non-violence ‘as a rule of interaction between people of different convictions on a higher plane’. Literature is yet another powerful domain that articulates our collective aspirations and anxieties. That is why, we often reflect on the politics of literature. Does it grasp the agony of the oppressed, and take us to a world that rests on justice? It is interesting that the volume carries two essays which throw light on this question. Udaya Kumar has looked at the problem of justice in the novels of Anand—a leading contemporary novelist in Malayalam. Kumar is analytical, thoughtful and reflective. Likewise, Alok Rai’s critical engagement with Premchand is immensely relevant. Premchand, unlike many of his contemporaries, was critical of the pathology of the hierarchical caste system. Yet, such a sensitive writer could not escape the Dalit rage. His characters, Dalit intellectuals allege, were timid and submissive; they failed to revolt against the system. Why is it so? Is it not possible for a forward caste writer, no matter how concerned, to understand the depth of the Dalit voice? Or is it because Dalits alone can represent themselves? Rai engages with this complex debate, and also understands the fact that ‘when historically submerged groups seek to emerge from the shadows, they find themselves imprisoned not only in physical ways but also….in hegemonic systems of representation, in the narratives of other people’. But then, Rai cautions us: ‘It is possible to suffer from too much difference, just as it is possible to suffer from too little difference.’ Not surprisingly, he pleads for the ‘relative autonomy of the aesthetic domain’ because it can often a ‘liberated, utopian space within which unfamiliar experiences and perceptions may be encountered’.

No discussion on justice is complete without looking at diverse struggles taking place in the political domain. We all know that Marxism emerged as a major political doctrine for liberation. Yet, in recent times political analysts have begun to see the limits to the Marxian analysis—its reductionism and determinism. Because of its over-emphasis on ‘class politics’, it is argued, it fails to make sense of new social movements—the movements that transcend the barriers of ‘class’, and articulate the importance of gender, caste and environment. Herein lies the relevance of Vidhu Verma’s essay. She refers to India, looks at diverse movements, and analyses the factors that have led to the ‘decline of a class-based theory of justice’. Roma Chatterjee gives yet another dimension to the changing political culture as she studies the Dharvi slum in Mumbai as a forum in which justice is articulated. She reflects on civil society organisations that help slum dwellers in forming communities, expressing their demands and experiment with institutional forms of democracy. And Virginius Xaxa articulates the agony of the tribal communities: the politics of ‘development and displacement’, and ‘marginalisation from access to livelihood’. It is revealing that Xaxa makes us aware that not everything about the tribal customary law is necessarily emancipatory, it often does injustice to women. That is why, as Xaxa feels, ‘citizenship rights conferred by the state’ have to be celebrated. And finally, Satyajit Singh has written an illuminating essay on the politics of water. Singh pleads for ‘eco-socialism’ which interrogates the monopolisation of natural resources, and asserts the need for their equal distribution. He refers to a set of ‘irrigation innovative projects’—the Shramik Mukti Dal’s Bali Raja Memorial Dam in Sangli, the Gram Gourav Pratisthan in Pune, and the Sukhomajari Project in Chandigarh. As Singh points out, in all these projects a new method has been designed to allocate water primary to the ‘people’ and only secondary to the ‘land’. If water continues to be distributed in proportion to the ownership of land (and, ironically, that is what public investment in irrigation development does), it would invariably lead to the promotion of rich people’s crops like sugarcane and rice, whereas poor people’s crops like jawar and bajra would suffer. No wonder, as Singh asserts, ‘hydraulic property rights’ to every agrarian family, even if not a substitute to land reforms, is a movement towards justice.

The volume has three editors. Helmut Reifeld has written the preface; Michael Dusche, apart from writing the introduction, has contributed a rigorous essay. But what about Rajeev Bhargava—the lead editor? He has not written a single word. Well, as Reifeld writes in the preface, ‘without his excellent contacts this outstanding group of scholars could not have been formed’. Granted, Bhargava has immense social capital; but he is also a celebrated political theorist, and the reader has every right to expect a substantial piece from him, particularly when he has chosen to be the lead editor. This anomaly notwithstanding, a book of this kind is bound to make its presence felt because it generates ‘empathy’ which, as Dusche writes in the introduction, enables us to subvert the ‘hegemonic normative discourse’. And that is the beginning of a new praxis. n

The reviewer is a Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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