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Inequality, Instability and Voice

The tradition of heterodoxy has clear relevance for democracy and secularism in India, and may have helped Indian philosophy, mathematics and science, but there are also other issues with which we have reason to be concerned. Does it do anything much in resisting inequality and stratification, or in helping the unity of the country, or in making it easier to pursue regional peace?

Recognition and Inequality

I begin with inequality. India has a terrible record in social asymmetry, of which the caste system is only one reflection. This must be adequately recognized first, even when we resist the temptation to accept over-simple generalizations about an allegedly basic dichotomy between an instinctively even-handed West and a perennially hierarchical India (the stomping ground of what Louis Dumont has called ‘homo hierarchicus’).1 To acknowledge the long-standing presence of remarkable societal inequality in India, we do not have to endorse radical oversimplifications about cultural – not to mention genetic – predispositions towards asymmetry in India.

But how does the tradition of heterodoxy and arguing touch on this aspect of Indian social life? I begin with heterodoxy and inclusiveness, and will take up later on the relevance of arguing. The inclusiveness of pluralist toleration in India has tended mainly to take the form of accepting different groups of persons as authentic members of the society, with a right to follow their own beliefs and own customs (which may be very different from those of others). It is basically a right of ‘recognition’, to invoke a somewhat ambiguous idea with Hegelian heritage, which has received much discussion in contemporary social and cultural theory.2 Since the idea of recognition can be given different interpretations, and may sometimes suggest that all groups are taken to be equal in status and standing, it is important to clarify that something rather less than that is involved in what may be called ‘the equity of recognition’.

Indeed, rather than sticking to the overused expression ‘recognition’, which can stand for many different things, I will use the Sanskrit word swīkriti, in the sense of ‘acceptance’, in particular the acknowledgement that the people involved are entitled to lead their own lives. The idea of swīkriti need not, of course, convey any affirmation of equality of the standing of one ‘accepted’ group compared with another.

Acceptance, in this elementary sense, might not seem like much, but the political value of pluralism has much to do with acceptance – that indeed is the domain in which swīkriti delivers a lot.* If the inclusiveness of India made it easy for Christians, Jews, Parsees and other immigrants to settle in India to lead ‘their own lives’, coming from places where they had been persecuted, the principle that is involved in this ‘equity of toleration’ is one of acceptance – of swīkriti – rather than equality in any broader sense. This remains a substantial issue today, since the extremist parts of the Hindutva movement in contemporary Indian politics threaten – explicitly or by implication – precisely the swīkriti of non-Hindus, particularly Muslims.

Swīkriti is thus a momentous issue, in its own right. But, separated from other objectives and priorities, it does little to guarantee – or advance – the cause of social equality or distributive justice. India’s record in these areas is indeed quite appalling. And this remains so even after more than half a century of independence and the practice of democratic politics.* Inequalities related to class, caste or gender can continue vigorously without being trimmed in any way by recognition or swīkriti. If the norm of acceptance and of participation leads naturally, in the context of a contemporary society, to political equality within the broad structure of a democracy (that translation is easy enough), it does not in any automatic way extend that political symmetry into the promotion ofsocial andeconomic equality.

In fact, B. R. Ambedkar, who chaired the committee that drafted India’s democratic constitution, concluded his presentation with a powerful pointer: ‘On the 26th January 1950 [the founding of the Indian Republic with its new constitution], we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.’3 There is, however, a connection between the two – between democratic politics and resistance to economic inequality. This is not a mechanical certainty (as indeed India’s very slow progress in removing social and economic inequality brings out), but it can be made more effective through committed public action and participatory activities.

The right to comprehensive participation in democratic politics can be the basis of social and political use of ‘voice’ – through arguments and agitations – to advance the cause of equality in different spheres of life. India’s democratic practice has been less than vigorous in some of these issues, and these lacunae are among the major inadequacies in the use of democracy in India today. The future of stratifications related to class, caste, gender and other barriers will depend critically on how they are addressed in political engagement and participatory social actions in the country.4 Despite the frustration with democracy expressed by many people, disappointed particularly by the slow progress against societal inequality, what is really needed is a more vigorous practice of democracy, rather than the absence of it.5

The Indian constitution itself points to the importance of taking up these issues in democratic freedoms. The constitution not only identifies certain ‘fundamental rights’, such as freedom of speech and association and equality before the law, but also delineates a set of specific social and economic entitlements under the ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’, including ‘the right to an adequate means of livelihood’, ‘free and compulsory education for all children’, and ‘the right to work’.* These rights have been the basis in recent years both of legal decisions by the Supreme Court, and of widespread popular agitation, for example for midday meals in schools, for a general employment guarantee, and other such public arrangements. In a limited way, public voice has already begun to show its effectiveness.

The argumentative tradition can be a strong ally of the underdog, particularly in the context of democratic practice. As was discussed in the first essay, voices of dissent – social as well as philosophical – have often come across barriers of caste, class and gender, and they have not been entirely ineffective. But it is the intermediation of democratic politics that makes the voices of dissent particularly effective in practical affairs. For example, the high proportion of women in leadership positions in Indian nationalist politics and in the post-independence period (discussed earlier) reflects a combination of Indian women’s ability to use their voice and the actual opportunities of public politics (as it happens, in this case, originally within the colonial system of the British Raj, in the form of a national movement against it).

Something similar can be said about the involvement of political leaders from disadvantaged classes and castes in Indian politics today. Counterarguments to the caste system may have had intellectual force in early disputations, even in parts of the Hindu classics (as was discussed earlier), with clear articulation of sceptical questions in various forms: ‘We all seem to be affected by desire, anger, fear, sorrow, worry, hunger, and labour; how do we have caste differences then?’ Or, to consider another classical disputation: ‘Since members of all the four castes are children of God, they all belong to the same caste. All human beings have the same father, and children of the same father cannot have different castes.’6 But the practical impact of such criticisms of societal practice can be quite negligible, unless arguments and dissents are reflected in a politically effective voice and in constructive public discussions. It would be just as much of a mistake to treat the argumentative tradition as being of no relevance whatever to contemporary Indian society as it would be to regard that tradition as powerfully effective on its own, irrespective of arrangements for politics, particularly of democratic politics.

One of the penalties of the increased focus on religious and communal identities, which has recently gone hand in hand with the deliberate fostering of sectarian politics in India, is a weakening of the pursuit of egalitarian commitments, which requires a more integrated focus on the interests and freedoms of deprived groups taken together (related to economic, social and gender-based stratifications).* While political organizations that unite all the lower castes can – and often do – help the underdogs in general, that end is not served by the divisive politics of rivalry between different lower-caste groups (fighting each other, rather than confronting together the top dogs of society), or by religious sectarianism (for example, by the congregation of upper- and lower-caste Hindus carefully set up to jointly push and shove the non-Hindus). The newly erected communal boundary lines are not only divisive in themselves, they also add to the social and political difficulties in removing the old barriers of hardened inequality.

The demands of justice in India are also demands for more use of voice in the pursuit of equity. The argumentative heritage may be an important asset (as I believe it is), but its effectiveness depends on its use. Much would depend on the political deployment of the argumentative voice in opposition to societal inequity and asymmetry, and the actual use that is made of the opportunities of democratic articulation and of political engagement. Silence is a powerful enemy of social justice.

The Unity of India

I turn now to a different issue, that of the unity of India. We can distinguish between two distinct features of the intercommunity discussions arranged by Akbar in Agra in the late sixteenth century. The first was the ‘acceptance of plurality’, embracing the regular presence of a multitude of beliefs and convictions. The second was the ‘dialogic commitment’ in the form of Akbar’s visionary insistence on the need to have conversations and interchanges among holders of different beliefs and convictions. They are interlinked features of a rich and integrated understanding of a diverse society.

Consider, first, the far-reaching relevance of the former – the more elementary – feature of Akbar’s vision, the acknowledgement and recognition of the internal diversity of India. The extent of that diversity has baffled many. Indeed, many centuries later, when Winston Churchill made the momentous announcement that India was no more a country than was the Equator, it was evident that his intellectual imagination was severely strained by the difficulty of seeing how so much diversity could fit into the conception of one country. The British belief, very common in imperial days and not entirely absent now, that it was the Raj that somehow ‘created’ India reflects not only a pride in alleged authorship, but also some bafflement about the possibility of accommodating so much heterogeneity within the coherent limits of what could be taken to be a pre-existing country.

Yet, as is discussed in Essays 7, 8 and 15, general statements about India and Indians can be found throughout history, from the ancient days of Alexander the Great, of Megasthenes (author of the Indika, in the third century BCE), and of Apollonius of Tyana (an India-expert in the first century CE) to the ‘medieval’ days of Arab and Iranian visitors (who, like Alberuni, wrote so much about the land and the people of India), all the way to the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment Europe (with heroic generalizations about India presented by Herder, Schelling, Schlegel and Schopenhauer, among many others). It is also interesting to note that, in the seventh century CE, as the Chinese scholar Yi Jing returned to China after spending ten years in India, he was moved to ask the question: ‘Is there anyone, in the five parts of India, who does not admire China?’7 That rhetorical – and somewhat optimistic – question is an attempt at seeing a unity of attitudes in the country as a whole, despite its divisions, including its ‘five parts’.

Akbar was one of the ambitious and energetic emperors of India (along with Candragupta Maurya, Ashoka, the later Candragupta of the Gupta dynasty, Alauddin Khilji, and others) who would not accept that their regime was complete until the bulk of what they took to be one country was under their unified rule.* The wholeness of India, despite all its variations, has consistently invited recognition and response. This was not entirely irrelevant to the British conquerors either, who – even in the eighteenth century – had a more integrated conception of India than Churchill would have been able to construct around the Equator.8

The features of India’s unity vary greatly with the context. Some of them are more often recollected than others, though they all have their specific relevance. Consider, for example, the emergence, far less often discussed than it should be, of the city of Ujjain, in the early centuries of the first millennium CE, as the location of the ‘principal meridian’ for Indian calendars, serving for Indian astronomers as something like an Indian Greenwich. As is discussed in Essay 15, it is still the base of the Indian standard time today, nearly two thousand years later, an awkward five and a half hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. That technical development clearly had much to do with the location of imperial power as well as scientific research at that time. Ujjain (or Ujjayinī, as it was then called), as an ancient Indian city, moved from its role as the capital of Avanti (later, Malwa) in the seventh century BCE, to become the capital of the Śaka royalty, and most prominently served as the base of the later Gupta dynasty, in the period of the flowering of Indian mathematics and science.

Ujjain was, as it happens, also the home of many leaders of India’s literary and cultural world, including the poet Kālidāsa, in the fifth century. It was this connection, rather than the scientific one, that attracted E. M. Forster – that profound observer of India – to Ujjain in 1914. He was struck by the lack of contemporary interest in the history of that ancient city: ‘Old buildings are buildings, ruins are ruins.’9 In Kālidāsa’s long poem Meghadūtam, described in Essay 1 (as giving a united view of India as a country with very rich variations), a banished husband, who asks a cloud to carry across India his message of love and longing to his far-away wife, insists that the cloud must undertake a detour to see the magnificence of Ujjain. Of course, here too – as elsewhere in Kālidāsa’s sensuous writings – he cannot resist dwelling on the feminine charm that could be found. As he visits modern Ujjain, E. M. Forster recollects Kālidāsa’s description of the beauty of Ujjayinī women, and how the fifth-century city livened up in the evening as ‘women steal to their lovers’ through ‘darkness that a needle might divide’. The cloud is firmly instructed:

Though it diverts you on your way northward,

Do not fail to see the roofs of Ujjayinī’s stuccoed palaces –

If you are not enchanted there by the way the city women’s eyes

Tremble in alarm at your bolts of lightning,

You are cheated.10

Kālidāsa combines his observation of diverse charms and beauties across India with a determination to provide a full view of the entire land that lies on the way from one end of India to another on the route that the poet determines for the messenger cloud.

Similarly, Akbar not only noted the variations across India, but also made serious attempts at some standardization. Indeed, both his abortive move to initiate an integrated calendar for India, the ‘Tarikh-ilahi’, and his unsuccessful efforts to have a synthetic religion, the ‘Din-ilahi’, drawing on the different religions known in India, reflected a constructive search for an overarching unity, combined with a firm acknowledgement of plurality. The recognition of heterogeneity has much to do with an understanding of India’s qualified solidarity that emerges in these diverse literary, scientific and political efforts. Neither a homogeneous conception of a unitary India, nor a view of isolated segments, could take the place of the idea of a pluralist India that was firmly established well before Lord Clive began erecting the foundations of the Raj.

Solidarity and the Subcontinent

The earlier conceptions of India as a country have had to undergo some cutbacks over the last century, through the partition of 1947.11 But there are clearly many shared elements in the subcontinental heritage, drawing as they do on the multicultural history of the region. These elements have a widespread bearing on the search, now extremely important, for a safer and more prosperous South Asia.12 They apply in particular to the fostering of discussions and dialogues to counteract the tensions created by – and the actual dangers resulting from – the development of nuclear bombs and deadly missiles in both India and Pakistan, and of course to resolving long-standing differences on Kashmir.*

Hopeful developments have recently occurred in the dialogic direction. There are constructive intergovernmental initiatives and one hopes that they will be more stable and resilient than past attempts in that direction. For the strength of the dialogic process, it is important that the dialogues involve civil societies as well as government. There have, in fact, been important and constructive moves through citizens’ seminars and colloquys for peace and human rights in South Asia, initiated by non-governmental regional organizations. There is much reason for hope in the fact that these citizens’ meetings, whenever organized, tend to attract extensive participation even in the most unfavourable circumstances. For example, there was a meeting of South Asians for Human Rights, a remarkable inter-country citizens’ organization (led by Asma Jahangir and I. K. Gujral), in New Delhi in November 2001, attended by more than 700 citizens from different parts of the subcontinent (of whom I was one), just as India and Pakistan seemed to be heading for a violent military confrontation. The media, too, has a critically important role to play in advancing a dialogic approach.*

There are also important issues to be addressed in the other inter-country affairs in the subcontinent. For example, relations between Sri Lanka and India have been vitiated by much misunderstanding about what India should – or can – do to help resolve the issue of Tamil separatism. Similarly, relations between Bangladesh and India demand much subtlety of perception, linked as the two countries are not only by history, but also by language and literature (Bengali culture flourishes on both sides of the border), religion (the Muslim minority in India constitutes about the same proportion of the Indian population as the Hindu minority does of the Bangladeshi population), migration (fairly extensive, taking the illegal with the legal), politics (both secular but with a substantial presence of religious sectarianism in both countries), and economics (great potentiality of close economic ties that continue to remain largely unrealized). There are manifest problems to be addressed on the basis of a fuller understanding, and the use of the deliberative approach – with a long heritage in the joint history of India and Bangladesh – has much to offer here as well.

The dialogic commitment related to the long multicultural history of the subcontinent is indeed deeply relevant for regional solidarity as well as national unity and social justice. Even though this book is mainly concerned with the problems of India in particular, I should emphasize the importance of drawing on the dialogic heritage both of India and of the region as a whole. We are indeed fortunate that this tradition exists and is reasonably well established in the subcontinent. There is basis for some hope for the future in the lines identified by that remarkable observer of the subcontinent Octavio Paz in his book In Light of India:

Of course, it is impossible to foresee the future turn of events. In politics and history, perhaps in everything, that unknown power the ancients called Fate is always at work. Without forgetting this, I must add that, in politics as well as in private life, the surest method for resolving conflicts, however slowly, is dialogue.*

The argumentative route has its uses. We can try to out-talk the ‘unknown’ – and dumb – power of Fate.

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