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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 12, March 9, 2013

Social Justice for Inclusion

Sunday 10 March 2013, by Arvind Kumar


Non-discrimination and Equality in India: Contesting Boundaries of Social Justice by Vidhu Verma; New York: Routledge; 2012; xv+pp.269; £ 85.00 $36, hdbk; ISBN: 978-0-415-67775-2

The book under review is an unprecedented work on the subject as it has set an agenda in the very opening line of the introduction that the concept of social justice is familiar to most Indians but one whose meaning is not always understood as it signifies a variety of government strategies designed to enhance opportunities in employment, education and political representation for under-privileged groups. The author has correctly remarked: “Existing theories proposed by many political philosophers to explain social justice have failed to capture the way people think about these issues in the heart of the matter is the claim that social justice involves a departure from a fundamental juridical norm of non-discrimination or equality of treatment. (p. 1)

She has further clarified how the existing notion of social justice in India has been under attack on four principal counts. First, how entrenchment of the neo-liberal economic model is resulting in disparity and inequality and it has resulted in pushing social inequality to the forefront of the political agenda. Second, the argument challenging the existing discourse has resulted out of the discriminatory experience of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians who have started demanding affirmative action policies. Third, challenge has come from the disabled groups whose experiences are shaped by exclusion from unsupportive social environment and cultural mileu that brand them as less able. They too, have demanded representation and reservations. Fourth, challenge has arisen from the partisans of privatism. The queer theory has gradually transformed public sensibilities towards sex, gender and sexuality and has confronted laws like 377 of the I.P.C. that by nature are discriminatory towards sexual minorities. The principal concern of the book remains reappraising the validity of existing philosophical and constitutional arguments and their justification in the contemporary political context.

Although the author traces the idea of social justice emanating from the long intellectual tradition in Western political theory and mentions earlier writings on social justice by Westel Willoughby, R. H. Tawney and L. T. Hobhouse which mainly reflected upon socialist denunciation of land ownership, private ownership of industry, inherited wealth and inequalities led by capitalism, for the purpose of this book she has primarily considered John Rawls’s social justice vis-à-vis institutions in liberal democracy and Amartya Sen’s idea about the purpose of justice-theory to ‘reduce injustice’ rather than elaborating the characteri-sation of ‘institutions’ in perfectly just societies. And in the Indian situation, therefore, her focus remains on discriminatory moral rules and sanctions that exhibit why certain groups are invisible in public institutions and public domains. (p. 5-6)

There is no denying the fact that development of the social-justice discourse in India has remained controversial for various reasons. The author has identified the three most important ones. First, the social-justice discourse has emerged in response to the fixed ascriptive positions and religious sanctions of the age-old caste system clashing with a counter-claim that the hierarchical system did not imply rejection of claims of collective identities in modern times. Second, India is often viewed as emerging global power but its attempt to promote equality of opportunity to groups is less known and this has become even more controversial since 2006 when reservation in higher studies and private sectors were advocated. Third, as the polity became more and more representative with mobilisation of various disadvantaged groups, particularly OBCs, the neutrality of public institutions and the prerogative of elites deciding the contours of social justice are being questioned. (p. 8)

THE overall perspective that has been developed in this book is that as per the Indian Constitution ‘social justice’ makes a corrective remedy for social discrimination and reservation policies are well-justified when a group has suffered from discrimination and its present disadvantaged status is substantially attributable to such discrimination. (p. 17) And the sole purpose of the book, as has been claimed by the author, is to examine different approaches towards social justice, revisit and review the historical background and evaluate contesting arguments in contemporary times.

The very first chapter discusses the evolution of the social justice discourse in the colonial context. It attempts to offer a context for social justice by evaluating two contrasting themes on social justice, that is, social reform discourse (individual responsibility) and Dalit-bahujan discourse (annihilation of caste). This section has also deals with the issue of construction of monolithic Hinduism and how ‘Hinduism’ even in contemporary times is equated with ‘Nationalism’. The Bhakti discourse has also been discussed critiquing the notion of social inequality. But the most subtle criticism emerged from proponents of the Dalit-bahujan discourse like Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar.

The second chapter looks at the Constituent Assembly Debates and examines the limit of liberal constitutionalism. A pertinent, as well as contentious, issue emerged in the Constituent Assembly Debates with the Objective Resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru on December 13, 1946 that sought adequate safeguards for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes. This chapter further illustrates the justification of reservation as argued by B.R. Ambedkar on the basis of specific social discrimination; historical exclusion and under-representation in detail. Another important issue that witnessed extensive discussion in the Assembly and was finally declined was that of reservations based on religious identity.

 The third chapter discusses notions of equality and non-discrimination as was visualised by the Indian Constitution. There is no disagreement that the Indian Constitution is one of the most debated, well-thought-out and forward looking documents, yet there are limitations and Ambedkar has eloquently illustrated on January 26, 1950 that Indians were “going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality...we must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment.” And there is no disagreement that despite the all-encompassing efforts of the Indian state in last six decades this contradiction was not been removed. This chapter further studies the case of discrimination relating to disabled and sexual minorities. A crucial point, well-articulated by the author, is the justifi-cation for reservation policies which were both backward and forward-looking at the same time. They were backward-looking as they sought to remove historical discrimination led by hierarchical caste-system and forward- looking as the programmes pursued to create an egalitarian Indian society where individuals will be valued and respected for their worth. (pp. 91-92)

The fourth chapter looks at normative princi-ples of the developmental state and its relation-ship with welfare and social justice. Here is an attempt to demonstrate how democracy has led to gradual vernacularisation of the social justice notion. The fifth and sixth chapters deal with the latest issue of opposition to the politics of affirmative action as proposed under what is popularly known as Mandal-II. The beginning is a little abrupt as no background has been discussed of how Mandal-II emerged as a legislation. Here arguments, both in favour and against, have been discussed at length. The most popular argument against reservation has been that it undermines merit and excellence and it also harms the interests of the communities, especially the economically weaker sections of the beneficiaries, as quotas are cornered by the affluent among them known as ‘creamy layer’. Another subordinate argument talks about the ‘polarisation-rationale’ and ‘stigmatisingratio-nale’ which will result in greater assertion of identities. On the other hand those in favour of reservations denigrate merit as a concept that is overstated as it is fraught with human subjectivity and contextual sensitivities. But opposed to both these positions, the author takes a mature and academic path that there is a need to accept that reservations are only a partial remedy against inequalities and a more robust policy must address historical discrimi-nation. (p. 120)

In the following chapter the issue of reservation in the private sector has been discussed in detail. And the author has rightly summed up: true, there are complexities in determining merit but it is a folly to assume that reservation always promotes non-meritorious candidates. (p. 160)

 The last two chapters attempt to examine the pluralism of the discrimination disadvantage by various groups in the contemporary political milieu. The chapter dealing with gender justice and quota situates the long due agenda of gender equality by unearthing the theoretical issues concerning it. Both the liberal and radical feminists’ perspectives have been accommo-dated. The former argue for separate quota for women and how the latter view reservation as less confrontational, aiming simply at inclusion and not a substantial change. Both the ‘Standard Justice Argument’ (SJA) and ‘Series Argument’ of Iris Young have played a pivotal role in building the justification of the reservation for women.

This chapter also discusses in detail the Women’s Reservation Bill which has already been passed by the Upper House of Parliament; yet is dying a slow death as it is being bulldozed by different political parties like the SP, BSP, JD(U), RJD etc. Three crucial aspects of opposition to this Bill have come from overlapping quota or ‘quota within quota’, elite women grabbing the pie and the whole question of ‘gender’ as a political category. This part of the book could accommodate, however, the academic arguments for overlapping quotas as endorsed by feminist scholars like Nivedita Menon and Krishna Menon.

The book ends with a discussion on the case of religious minorities and de-clustering their disadvantages. Both the Ranganath Mishra Report and Sachar Committee Report are unanimous on delinking the SC status from religion by amending the 1950 Presidential Order that (despite two amendments in 1956 and 1990) refuses SC category to Muslims, Christians, Jains and Parsis and hence deprives them of reservation benefits. (p. 200) This book is an apt and timely academic intervention
and will find wide readership among students of politics, social system, policy studies, discrimination and exclusion studies, to name a few.

Dr Arvind Kumar teaches at the Dr K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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