The search for a social ethic

Romila Thapar

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AN anniversary is a time for recollection and one inevitably remembers the summer of 1959, when forty years ago the idea of Seminar took shape. It had been preceded by a period of disillusionment for Romesh and Raj: the politics, the parties, the commitments of the 1950s had not taken the form towards which they had aspired – aspirations articulated in Crossroads and through various publications analysing an uncertain present.

It was in a sense this uncertainty which led them to consider that perhaps it was more appropriate to explore ideas than to insist on the validity of formulations which were in any case being questioned. The exploration of ideas they argued could take the form of a regular publication, somewhat in the nature of a commentary on facets of the present, approaching it from various perspectives. Therefore, why not have a regular monthly publication in the format of a seminar with a selected theme for each month, comprising of essays from a few specialists or commentators on the subject approaching it from various perspectives and the collection resulting in informed opinion: the idea of Seminar was born.



Diversity of views was something new even if the diversity was to some extent directed by the choice of theme and authors. Some feared that this would result in an aimless pot pourri. The insistence on diversity was troublesome to many potential participants. Others, although sympathetic to the idea, argued that the publication would not succeed since a sufficiently informed opinion among Indian academics, journalists and writers was not available to sustain such a publication. Indian writers, it was said, were notorious in not meeting deadlines and a publication such as the one envisaged, would be difficult to coordinate and would run into problems. Even those who found the idea attractive and were supportive, were apprehensive about its feasibility as a regular publication.

The birth of the first issue was momentous. I was then teaching at the University of London and was back for the summer vacation. Arriving in Bombay (as one had to when flying Air India in those days) in July, I was enthused by the discussions on whether the theme chosen, ‘The Party in Power’ was the most appropriate, and the persons listed for contributing, such as K.N. Raj, were the most qualified in terms of exploring the idea. This was crucial as it would establish the difference in concept between Seminar and other serious journals such as the Economic Weekly. The concept was new and it was necessary that its viability be established from the very first issue. The choice was made and commitments to writing received. As it turned out the initial choice set the sights for a high level of analysis and discussion.

There followed weeks of anxiety. Would those who had agreed to write honour the agreement in time for the first issue to be published in September? I was by then vacationing in Delhi and received messages from Romesh and Raj to meet the contributors from Delhi and remind them of the deadline. This was a daunting activity for me since it required me to set aside my diffidence about meeting new people and that too meeting those who were potentially major players on the Indian intellectual scene. It was in a sense my first independent venture into discussions on the current situation in India and I found it exhilarating in its own way.



The 1960s saw journals such as Seminar and later Economic and Political Weekly assuming a centrality in public discourse. This was not surprising. If one can speak of a paradigm shift in Indian thinking, particularly in the social sciences, it came to be articulated in the 1960s although there were murmurings in the late 1950s. The received wisdom of colonial, and to some degree nationalist, explanations of knowledge began to be questioned and alternative explanations were sought. These grew out of an interface between various disciplines. If the major concern at that time was with growth economics and plans for economic development, the questions which this raised were often relevant to new thinking in sociology and history as well.

Characteristic of much of this thinking was the move away from single explanations to considering multiple causes and their diverse effects. Associated with this was the emphasis on priorities in explanation, an emphasis which was to change much of the interpretation relating not only to socio-economic questions of the present but also of the past. The plurality of Indian society was being explored and the recognition of this plurality further challenged the explanations which had been accepted in colonial times. Not only was the plurality being explored but new ways of understanding it were under discussion, some influenced by Marxism and some by other alternate systems. Looking back on that period, it seems to me that it was this which Seminar was attempting to capture.



Forty years on, the scene is inevitably different. Explorations and analyses have resulted in the surfacing of ideas which have provided insightful dimensions and taken us a distance away from the explanations with which we started our studies after Independence. The fundamental change relates in part to these explanations but much more so to the end purpose to which the new thinking has been directed.

It is possible that my concern with this is in some ways tied into the nurturing which pre-Independence nationalism provided when I was young. We were aware of two things in particular: one was that there was an Indian identity and it was all inclusive, gathering together many peoples, customs, beliefs and forging what we thought was a homogenous Indian society; two, that Independence was to bring the making of a new society, especially for the young, where the hallmark was to be the removal of Indian poverty. Planting a tree and making a little speech in school on 15 August 1947, one predictably began with ‘... bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven....’ But it is both these issues with which we are still grappling.

The question of identity has now superseded other concerns. It looms so large that it distorts the latter. There has been a reversal of the pre independence mainstream nationalist view of the Indian identity being inclusive and gathering in all those who live in India. Nationalism constructs its own identities and one may not today subscribe to these, but the identity which is now being projected and has wide acceptability, especially among the middle class, is a travesty of what was earlier understood as the Indian identity.



If the earlier one was inclusive, the present insistence on Hindu nationalism presupposes a particular identity which encourages the exclusion of non-Hindu characteristics which in the past have legitimately been included as Indian. The ideologues of this persuasion have neither use nor respect for democratic rights. The methods being used to instill fear among the excluded groups – the Dalits, tribals, Christians and Muslims – are nothing short of fascist. They endorse the use of violence – the burning alive of Christian missionaries, the organising of anti-Muslim riots and the threatening of those Dalits and tribals who seek other means of redressing social inequality.

There have been disjunctures in the last forty years and these seem to have accelerated in the last decade. Pertinent to the perceptions of an Indian future are the economic interventions of globalisation and their involvements, as well as the need to integrate perspectives arising out of the two most significant movements of recent years – those related to changing the quality of life for Dalits and for women. The way in which globalisation is changing the economy, both in positive and negative directions, has been widely discussed, but for obvious reasons the way in which a globalising economy is affecting our social attitudes is ignored. Some would relate the increase in social insecurity of all kinds and the dominance of money and/or political patronage as the ultimate measure of social effectiveness to globalisation.

We have welcomed the market and the radical change in the economy which this involves, even if half the population continues to be below the poverty line or generally impoverished. The important lacuna is that we have avoided discussion on the ensuing change in social and individual ethics, brought about by globalisation: a change which is only too evident in daily life. If money is to be the major criterion of human worth, then will the social ethic of earlier times and situations have to be replaced? By social ethic I mean the totality of the ethics of a society. To treat globalisation as entirely a matter of changing the economy is to hoodwink ourselves.



The lack of social ethics shows up in multiple ways. We spend hundreds of crores on detonating a nuclear device – a futile attempt at mega sabre rattling – yet when it comes to a war and human life is involved we send our soldiers to the firing line ill-equipped and without the most efficient technological support, even something so crucial, for example, as landmine detectors. On both counts this is a negation of the value of human life and the contradiction makes the negation even stronger. The well-known technique of deliberately trying to shatter the self-respect of a citizen by accusing him or her of being unpatriotic is also being resorted to. The targeting of individuals such as Dilip Kumar is a pernicious way of both trying to break the individual and give strength to those making the accusation and to underline the fact that a social ethic has no place in our society.

Two groups which today are demanding participation in power are the Dalits and women. The marginalisation and oppression of both Dalits and women was inherent in the traditional institutions and norms of many aspects of earlier Indian society. The democratic solution of making equality more feasible and opening up opportunities to the marginalised should have taken the form of a programme of radical change: conceding their participation in power and extending facilities to them through initiating compulsory education and professional training, providing health care and social welfare.



Such facilities should have been open to all segments of society. Little of this is done, not even now, as a back-up to the policy of reservations. Instead the politically easier way was chosen with the introduction of reservations. With every political pressure the number is enlarged. The concern is not with fundamental human rights and furthering the functioning of democracy. Instead it has become a question of numbers since it is easier to play politics with numbers. Reservations will continue to be demanded by more and more groups. Yet virtually nothing of significance is done at the essential level to democratise Indian society. This is not negligence but deliberate policy to prevent the real empowerment of marginalised groups. Caste has to be assessed in terms of multiple articulations – tied to economic, political, social and religious factors – of which the first two frequently have priority in changing the rules of play.

The society which was to be constructed after 1947 was based on Enlightenment notions of the state and the nation. The state was to be directed to make the necessary changes and the state would provide for all. And the state did make some fundamental changes: adult franchise, for example, would still have been beset with obstructions but for the intervention of the state. Despite the ballot box being captured or interfered with or Dalits being prevented from voting in some constituencies, there are many in which the process has a meaning and conveys the opinion of the voters.



In our more doubting moments it is salutary to recall that the Emergency was voted out through an election. There is an argument that adult franchise encourages majoritarian politics and this is inimical to democracy. The defence of democracy does not lie, however, in denying adult franchise but in protecting democratic functioning and preventing predetermined majoritarianism. This introduces the centrality of the freedom of expression and of opposition to censorship. It also makes it incumbent upon us to prevent the misuse of liberal democracy in the name of democratic functioning.

However disillusioned we might be with the state now, it is as well to remember that in the 1950s it was viewed as the major agency of change. Some today scoff at Nehru’s sentiment that dams are the temples of the twentieth century. Yet at that time the construction of dams by the state had a historical context and was viewed as a mechanism of socio-economic betterment for the less privileged, as was claimed not only in the building of the Dneiper dam but also in the project of the Tennessee Valley.

The failures have been less of the dams and more in the distribution of the resources which ensued. What actually has happened with this distribution subsequent to the construction of the dams needs to be made public. Which categories of people have been the beneficiaries of big or small dams? Was the water released for irrigation and if so was it made available to the small peasant to enhance his production? Have those who have had to undergo the horror of displacement, and sometimes repeatedly, benefitted? The beneficiaries are more frequently government departments and contractors hand-in-glove with politicians, all out to make a fast buck. But who has the courage to name names and expose such connections? The callous manner in which communities are uprooted because of submergence, often without seeing them properly resettled prior to constructing dams, reflects not only an inability to comprehend the human dimensions of a project but also an unconcern with the life and well-being of such communities.



In the case of some small dams the distribution has seen a judicious use of the technological benefits, but such examples are limited. State enterprises when they become too large nullify their own effective functioning. We may well decide not to build any more big dams, a decision of which many of us would approve. But this in itself will not solve the problem of those below the poverty line. The alternative has to be a demonstrated plan in consultation with those most closely affected to terminate the condition of poverty.

It is fashionable in some circles today to project the state, the nation, the processes of modernisation and secularisation as the source of evil. The emphases of the Enlightenment are regarded as a disaster and a preference for the fragmentary surfaces. This seems to be part of the present problem. Our comprehension of India is far better than it was four decades ago, but in the process of teasing out the intricacies of problems and of unraveling the skeins of the argument, we seem to have forgotten why we are doing this or whether there is even a purpose in this exercise. Is it merely to understand better or are we also concerned with bringing about change? Teasing out and refining the threads of ideas outside a context of reality, can become a privilege distanced from the world. This neither provides alternatives to the state, nor gives direction to the state.



If the state is the repository of power then this power has to include groups which have been denied power so far. This will require a radical change in the nature of the state. In changing the representations and concerns of the state a greater consciousness of the role of civil society comes into play, a role which in the past has been neglected. This is not to suggest that there be a switch in the roles of the state and of civil society, but rather that there be a strengthening of the function of civil society so that it can be used to pressurise the state into action.

Strengthening civil society also relates to the concerns of those groups who are now being recognised. This will also involve adjustment to changing gender relations and to Dalit groups. Needless to say such a strengthening of civil society would be resisted by those who have worked out methods of manipulating the legislative processes and would view the new form as problematic. It will also be resisted by those who have a limited definition of Indian identity.

Strengthening the role of civil society involves the secularisation of Indian society. Unfortunately in India the debate on the process of secularisation has tended to confine itself to the issue of religion in public life and is treated solely as a form of anti communalism. But it involves far more of equal significance which is conveniently set aside, such as the insistence on human rights and social equality, gender justice, and a more equitable distribution of national wealth. These are concerns which have to be demanded and nurtured and do not come automatically.

An emphasis on civil society in itself is not the answer, for it is not just an antidote to the state. Priorities within the concerns of civil society and how best to make these effective are essential. Civil society is not necessarily a neutral arena for it is also a site of contestation depending on the directions of the pressures. But to the extent that it can provide a solidarity and create a sense of community which cuts across identities, it becomes an effective agency for change.



The agenda for making the institutions of civil society more effective in the demand for change would cover various areas of routine activity. Existing rights according to the Constitution have to be implemented, and for levels of society which up to now have not received adequate attention. There is already in theory the equality of all before the law but in many situations this is nullified not only by concessions to social status and political clout, but also by not conceding in practice the access of all to the law. Those whom the law admits to its presence and to whom legal assistance is given are the privileged few. Even the registering of an fir in a police-station often requires the backing of the powerful. Would legal advisory groups in neighbourhoods and a time limit on the decision of cases in the courts help make the law more accessible to the underprivileged? These would have to be so structured that they are not merely another stumbling block.

Some investigation into clearing out the blockages inherited from a colonial system of justice and administration require attention. The ethos of a colonial system runs contrary to that of a democratic society. Perhaps informal citizens courts could process the simpler cases and explore out-of-court settlements – a procedure which has historical antecedents, but also carries the danger of social pressure from the privileged. The system itself needs to be made more user-friendly, both for those administering it and for those at the receiving end. There is scope for negotiation in this procedure and the underprivileged have at least a sporting chance of some concessions which could well be absent in the perceptions of a court of law.

However, negotiation as a procedure of public functioning introduces other problems stemming from the present centrality of corruption in public functioning. The rules are set aside and each requirement has to be individually negotiated. This encourages an aggressive attitude since aggression gives an advantageous edge to negotiation. Such aggression is frequently explained away as an assertion of equality, but in effect it also reflects prevalent norms of behaviour.



If social change is to involve as it should, the quality of life, then the fundamental requirements are obvious: compulsory education upto school leaving standards, the providing of basic health facilities and of social welfare. Education is included in the Constitution but rarely effectively implemented, doubtless through fear that it would challenge the status quo. There would have to be thousands more of schools, but if the teachers are from the village or from the neighbourhood and given training, there would be more chances of their remaining on the job. The achievements of Kerala and Himachal Pradesh are a pointer to this requiring an effort of will rather than lavish expenditure.

The emphasis on the village and on the urban neighbourhood providing personnel for medical clinics would also reduce the distance between the person and the institution. Informal organisations need not replace the more advanced institutions but could fill the interstices left by the latter. A sense of participation in the process of acquiring knowledge or healing one’s body can be effective in itself.



We cannot rely solely on governments to see us through, although the constant prodding of the government to act in a manner beneficial to the citizen has to remain unabated. We still have to work towards insisting that the state take positive actions and this pressure is necessary at least to ensure the legislating of change. But there can also be pressure from other directions and this can be better articulated if there are institutions however informal, which are geared to making people aware of their civil and human rights and helping to ensure that these rights are practiced. Suffusing all this is the need to replace that which we have lost – the ethic of human behaviour.

This is again a period of disillusionment and uncertainty. But hopefully we can still recapture the mood which demands and works towards a more purposeful society, a venture in which Seminar can continue to participate as it has been doing, both in articulating demands and in suggesting ways of achieving them. If one may rephrase a well-known quotation: the choice before us is one of either limiting ourselves to understanding Indian society, or, of deciding on the basis of that understanding to move further and change it for the better.