Thursday, October 03, 2013

Equality in times of inequality

CITIZENSHIP AND ITS DISCONTENTS An Indian History By Niraja Gopal Jayal Permanent Black; 2013; Rs 795
Is a market economy compatible with Constitutional guarantees like Right To Education, Right To Work, and the proposed Right To Food? And how is it that these rights have moved to the forefront of political debate at a time when the state has become neo-liberal – a short-hand for economic reforms. Niraja Gopal Jayal’s scholarly and lucid book, based on the Radhakrishnan Memorial Lectures delivered at Oxford University in November, 2009, squarely poses the question in the chapter interestingly titled “Social Citizenship In Neoliberal Times” and observes in an ironical tone: “…in India it is the assertion of social and economic rights, rather than the civil and political rights of citizenship, that coincide with capitalist development.”(Page 178) She traces quite meticulously the idea of what it meant to be a citizen from the colonial times to the early decades after Independence and the adoption of the Constitution. The imperial British government recognised the rights of Indians through groups and communities and not on the basis of individual rights. It seems that even in post-Independence period, the emphasis on groups continued, though based on a different logic than that of the colonial period. Interestingly, Jaya gives a quotation from Congress leader from then United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) Govind Ballabh Pant in his 1946 speech in the Constituent Assembly: “There is the unwholesome, and to some extent a degrading habit of thinking always in terms of communities and never in terms of citizens.”(Page 208) Jayal however walks the fine, scholarly tightrope of looking at the lack of meaning in civic and political rights without the social and economic rights. She also notes that the Stalinist, totalitarian communist states provided the social and economic rights without the civic and political ones. She is however inclined towards an egalitarian political ethic. She also notes that in India the idea of social and economic rights was found in Indian political debates as early as the 1920s, especially in the Nehru (Motilal) Report of 1928 which included rights to education, health, even leisure and old age support, and how the Resolution of Fundamental Rights adopted at the Congress session of Karachi in 1931 was a compromise document forged between a socialist Nehru and an astute Gandhi. She is also of the view that Gandhi was an individualist because of his emphasis on conscience and the right to political dissent, and that the Purna Swaraj resolution adopted at the Lahore Congress in 1930 authored by Gandhi had echoes of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of French Revolution vintage. She writes: “The importance of the individual citizen in Gandhi’s thought is attributable to the place of conscience in his ideas, the reference point of which cannot be other than the individual.”(Page 212) The conflict between individual and groups was played out in favour of the individual which is reflected in Supreme Court decisions of the late 1960s and 1970s where legislation which appeared to violate Fundamental Rights while promoting or favouring a provision of the Directive Principles was struck down as unconstitutional, especially with regard to the right to property (Article 31). She finds that from 1980s and 1990s onwards, the court has expanded the scope of social and economic rights by interpreting Article 21 guaranteeing right to life in ever broader terms, where the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles were seen to be complementary rather than exclusionary. In the thoughtful penultimate chapter called “The Future of the Civic Community”, Jayal ponders over the complexity of the issue of substantial citizenship rights which would include social and economic entitlements of groups while preserving the political and civic rights for citizens as individuals. She refers to the government-appointed Experts Group recommendation “that a composite diversity index be worked out by obtaining a weighted average of the three essential indices – religion, caste, gender – used to incentivize diversity in institutions in the public as well as private sector, in employment as much as in housing and education.” (Page 264) The government has not yet moved on this. And ends with a sophisticated indictment in the final paragraph of the book: “In the many and enduring contestations over Indian citizenship across the twentieth century, one of the bleakest and most telling inversions is that between the Harijan basti (Dalit hamlet) and the gated community.” Here is a passionate argument about inclusive citizenship without political and rhetorical simplifications. There is however a need to argue with Jayal’s basic philosophical notion of equality, and the role of institutions like the state and corporation in creating the egalitarian ecology.

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