Arundhati Roy

By Vijay Vikram

I am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I say this because we desperately require a coherent structural critique of Indian democracy. Naysayers might argue that her critique is far from coherent but that is of little concern here. I am happy that at least somebody is willing to question the nature of Indian democracy, even if that person stares across from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. There seems to be an unthinking; publicly articulated commitment to democratic politics all across intelligent conversation in India. It has become the holiest of our holy cows. The Indian variant of democracy is sustained by a wide variety of adulatory literature, scholarly and journalistic. Perhaps most perversely, in a strange case of the post-colonial disease, Western approval for India’s choice of government leads to much puffing of chests in the Indian middle classes. We are told that it – along with Bollywood – is the source of much of our “soft power”, whatever that is.

I am not going to waste time listing the failures of our unique choice of government. They should be clear to any thinking Indian. What I am going to argue, however, is that democracy could never really have succeeded in the Indian climate. I ask you to be patient because mounting an intellectual challenge against something that possesses the degree of unthinking social acceptability the way democracy does requires effort and often I shall resort to polemic to get my point across.

I say that democracy could have never succeeded in India because India is a feudal society. By feudal I mean a state of affairs where unequal relationships between humans and between groups are socially legitimate. The very idea that humans should be or can be treated equally is an idea that would be alien to a feudal society. It also means that human beings are not viewed as individuals per se – a construct that has been one of the primary outcomes of the European Enlightenment. Rather, a feudal society imagines human beings as part of bigger social groups – religious, ethnic, regional and uniquely in the case of India, caste. Democracy, then, could only properly germinate and take hold in Europe and Europe-inspired societies after the absorption of Enlightenment ideology into the European DNA. The Enlightenment has washed up on the shores of India, yes. But, it has failed to take hold of the Indian imagination. It is groups that assert themselves in India – Dalit assertion, Muslim assertion, Gujjar assertion. The individual is nowhere to be seen.

The Nehruvian project’s central failing was its assumption that the extension of the universal franchise would transform the teeming masses of Hindustan – the various regional, religious and caste allegiances into the intellectually comfortable category of the Enlightenment individual. This was fantasy. Democracy is premised on the notion of the individual, and I use the term in a deliberately technical sense. Democracy can’t create the individual, it depends on the individual for its very existence.

The grafting of democratic government onto a society that has no basis for it has led to a peculiar and perverse state of affairs. Indian politics has become an arena for the contestation of identities rather than competing claims of the common good. As Lant Pritchett has pointed out:

Politicians have been able to survive on creating identities around caste and religion claiming to deliver social justice by the very fact of their election. That is, that someone of their group holds high office in and of itself provides social legitimacy to a group’s claims to fully equal participation in the social and political sphere. Attacks on these politicians for lack of effectiveness or corruption could be seen as, at best, missing the larger social point and at worst, as a retrograde attempt of the forces of the elite to “keep them in their place.”

The degeneration of politics in India and the values it has engendered have infected the country’s public institutions. Naresh Saxena, a former IAS officer who served in Uttar Pradesh, penned a note for the National Advisory Council at the time of the UPA’s first election into office (2004) that is breathtaking in its hard hitting honesty about the current state of affairs (particularly in North India) and which articulates a common view within the elite civil service that things are going downhill, in large part because the integrity and the non-partisan character of the civil service have deteriorated. He says:

…because between the expression of the will of the State (represented by politicians) and the execution of that will (through the administrators) there cannot be any long-term dichotomy.  In other words, the model in which the politics will continue to be corrupt, casteist and will harbor criminals where as civil servants will continue to be efficient, responsive to public needs and change agents cannot be sustained indefinitely. In the long-run political and administrative values have to coincide.

I have often been asked what I consider an alternative to democracy to be. I would imagine that India needs a form of government that integrates market institutions into the fabric of the country without the wholesale import of political norms that have no roots in Indian society. My goal for now is simply to open the debate.


1) You can watch Arundhati’s critique of Indian Democracy here.

2) I owe a substantial intellectual debt to Lant Pritchett and his idea of India as a ‘Flailing’ State. Read his landmark paper here [PDF].

Vijay Vikram is Editor and Co-Founder of Centre Right India, an initiative dedicated to increasing political awareness and nurturing an intellectually vibrant right-of-centre tradition in India. This post is reproduced from Centre Right India with permission of the author.


Tags: , ,

191 Responses to “Arundhati Roy”

  1. Vikram Says:

    To quote from the ‘Burden of Democracy’, PB Mehta refers to Tocqueville, “Politics, in America he argued, danced lightly on the surface only because many of the foundational things below it remained fixed. The mores and habits of civilization, the sense of conscience, a belief in the sanctity of the individual, a minimal sense of reciprocity (at least those who belonged to the same race (and gender)), a providential deference to equality, all stemmed from sources other than the practice of democracy itself.”

    I think that paragraph neatly summarizes what you are trying to say, although your conclusion is not backed by it IMO. There are 2 points I would like to make,

    a) The minimal sense of reciprocity has been reserved for most of America’s history to white males. America was lucky in the sense that there were only two large other groups of people, women and African Americans. And it has not been fun to be either for most of America’s history. India simply has more than 2 groups of people, so its pretty clear that democracy is going to be rocky. But bear in mind that notwithstanding Tocqueville’s praise, America found itself in a very bloody civil war soon after he was dead. There is a very good chance that in the absence of democracy, even in the degraded form it has been practiced in India would have resulted in multiple civil wars. I know this is an old and tired argument but it is one that is backed by history. To an extent, Kashmir gives us another example.

    b) I think neither Lant nor Arundhati are crticizing ‘democracy for India’. Pritchett’s paper is mostly about institutions of governance and the administrative structure. Roy tries to argue that democracy itself can be a mask for authoritarian excess in the absence of liberty, something Tocqueville was very concerned about, except that in India’s case liberty is under threat by both majoritarianism and elite manipulations.

    The process/struggle of making antagonistic subjects into coexisting citizens is a long and ardous one, and history (even of South Asia) shows it certainly is more likely to be accomplished in an ‘imported’ democracy than ‘a form of government that integrates market institutions into the fabric of the country’.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: I have some thoughts regarding the points you raised in (a):

      There is no doubt that the challenge in India is an arduous one and that it has actually done quite well given the odds. However, this does not support the claim that the absence of democracy would have resulted in multiple civil wars. I am not sure what history backs this assertion. The premature introduction of electoral politics resulted in one million deaths and ten million made homeless in 1947. All the conflict in the entire recorded history of India would not cumulatively come close to these numbers. If you take Kashmir as a microcosm, the pre- and post-democracy casualties do not compare favourably either. Add the post-democracy casualties in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and it would be clear that a very heavy price has been paid for an innovation out of tune with prevalent social relations and indigenous modes of managing diversity.

      • Vikram Says:

        SA, I was referring more to post 1950. The violence in Kashmir was in large part a result of authoritarian, non democratic actions. The calming of Tamil Nadu and Mizoram was the result of democratic settlement.

  2. Vijay Says:


    I would disagree with your point about Pritchett. He is very clear that democracy doesn’t serve development well in the Indian context – he calls it the “democracy/performance puzzle” I believe. And of course, his argument IS about administration and governance but I don’t see how that can be divorced from politics. In fact, Pritchett develops it so that he links Indian maladministration to bad politics. The two blocks of text I have quoted should make that clear.

    I find Pritchett’s conclusion quite weak though. After a magisterial exposition on the vicissitudes of democracy he goes on to argue that India will somehow come out of it quite alright and perhaps even better than China. His own arguments and his own data don’t support that conclusion. It is untenable and frankly, a cop-out.

    • Vikram Says:

      Vijay, Pritchett’s main work are the three case studies and from them he brings out very well the inability/incompetence/maliciousness of the Indian administrative system, where it is simply not possible for one to function without being dishonest/corrupt on many occasions. His attempt to link them to the system of politics in India were rather hasty and his analysis there was incomplete IMO. Politics is much more related to society than development, especially in India. You must know as well as I do that development in India varies widely across states, ethnic groups even though the basic political system is the same.

      I agree with your point about China, his analysis there was again hasty, although recent history (especially that of Korea, Thailand) indicates that can be some truth to what he claims.

  3. Vijay Says:

    We will probably end up going round in circles but here goes.

    Yes, he uses those case studies but he argues that the cause of bad administration is the failure of administrative modernism in India which in turn is caused by the grafting of democratic politics onto a feudal society (This is the rational conclusion of his argument as I see it)

    I think the crux of our disagreement is centred on the desirability of Indian democracy. The project of dressing India in democratic garb must come together wonderfully in the visions that Nehru and Ambedkar had for India. But, do you not see that the practise of democracy perpetuates group identity rather than making it weaker?

    • Vikram Says:

      My basic disagreement is with the statement, “failure of administrative modernism in India which in turn is caused by the grafting of democratic politics onto a feudal society”

      Though Prtichett might draw this conclusion (would perhaps be useful to email him and ask) I dont think it follows at all from his research.

      And yes I see democracy perpertuates group identity, but dont you see that the development of a group identity is essential for marginalized groups like Dalits, women and tribals to have access to most resources of the state and the minimum self respect that society currently denies them ? I think this article in the Dawn about the class roles in Pakistan will present another perspective,

      Much of whats said in it applies to India minus military and perhaps the religion angle.

  4. SouthAsian Says:

    I share the thoughts on Pritchett’s paper – an excellent assessment of the administrative malaise based on hard evidence followed by a relatively weak explanation of the causes and a weaker still attempt at prediction. I attribute it to the limitations of a very well-trained social scientist without a sufficient feel for the non-measurable aspects of Indian society (which requires knowing a lot of history) and one yielding to the temptation of wanting to end on a positive note.

    On the issue under discussion, it might prove useful initially to separate the two questions – those of electoral governance and administrative weakness. This might give us the clarity to bring the two strands together at a later stage.

    I would frame the discussion as follows:

    1. Electoral governance was clearly not the outcome of an organic process in India; it was imposed (in a particular way) by the British on a deeply hierarchical social structure. Was this imposition good or bad for India?

    2. If there had been no British interlude in India, would administrative services have been worse, better, or the same as they are today?

    • Vijay Says:

      Well framed.

      1) The first point to recognise – as you do – is that electoral governance was not the outcome of an organic process in India. That really is the first step in developing a coherent structural critique of India’s democracy. As you might imagine, I would be of the persuasion that this imposition has been disastrous. I shan’t recycle the arguments that I hold to be favour of this position, my post does that.

      2) This of course is a counterfactual that no one can claim to answer satisfactorily. We’ll just never know. The countours of world history would be entirely different had there been no Indian Empire.

      Still, I shall risk a prediction. If we were to take a cyclical view of history then it would only be a matter of time that an entity would emerge to consolidate the unitary strategic space that is India – The Mughals did it and before them the Mauryas under Ashoka.

      But, those two dynasties operated in a strategic vacuum, realtively speaking. The industrialisation and rise of Europe would have ensured meddling from the West (which is what happened).

  5. Arun Pillai Says:

    I would like to make a point that is slightly tangential to the discussion but that is relevant to Vijay’s article. In my view, group-based identity is not synonymous with hierarchical identity. That is, group-based identities may be either hierarchical as they largely are in India or not – for example, women’s groups in the post-Enlightenment West.

    India may never develop the kind of individualism prevalent in the US or to a lesser degree in Europe, but I believe that both markets and democracy together will jointly lead India eventually to group-based but relatively less hierarchical relations. The reason for this is that markets tend to disrupt hierarchies but not necessarily group-based identity (e.g. Japan, the most urbanized parts of India, South Asians in the US etc.). The function of democracies in this process is not that it leads directly to individualism – it does not – but rather that it is the most hospitable form for markets to operate in a relatively egalitarian way; note that markets presuppose a legal environment that is provided by the political form (e.g. democracy in India).

    This is unlike the way markets work, for example, in China – witness the large number of state-owned enterprises there and how things like the growth rate are centrally stipulated and lead to market processes rather than being emergent attributes of market processes.

    This is apart from other benefits that democracies provide like civil liberties, at least to those within civil society.

    Even if the view expressed here is right, this process will take at least another fifty years at middle to high growth rates to spread sufficiently among the wider population including, for example, groups like the tribals who constitute as much as about 8% of the total population or about 85 million people and are the worst off group in Indian society.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: There are a number of issues that can be pushed further in this discussion:

      You are right on two counts: First, groups need not be hierarchical; second, there is no need for European history to reproduce itself in South Asia. This means we have to deal with each on its own terms.

      I feel we have to delve deeper into the nature of groups. At the very least we have to distinguish between two types of groups – those into which we are born and those which we join by choice. Pre-Enlightenment/pre-capitalist Europe had groups of the former type; these constraints disappeared with the acknowledgement of the principle of equality of individuals (as famously enshrined in the slogan of the French Revolution); and then people formed voluntary interest groups without compromising their status as equal individuals. The continued existence of the discriminated-against Roma, by its very exception, illustrates the nature of this process.

      We can argue in the case of India that the former type of group is still the rule, not the exception. Groups defined by birth exist and are arranged in a social hierarchy. It is a ‘Roma’ society, though, of course, the structure is changing and evolving. If this characterization is correct, we should expect the politics of Europe and India to be quite different even though both seem, on the surface, to be characterized by groups.

      Now to causality: In Europe it was not democracy that led to individualism but individualism that led to democracy. In India, since democracy was grafted on the type of social order described above, it could lead to any number of outcomes. The most optimistic would be one where all citizens acquire equal civil and political rights (a process outlined in an earlier post on the blog, Democracy in India – 7). But can we be sure this would happen on its own accord? Also, note that the graft extracted a price by forcing apart groups defined by religion that were unable to reconcile their differences with the tools made available by the modalities of electoral governance.

      I am also not sure if democracy by itself is enough to ensure that markets operate in a relatively egalitarian way. For example, the US has seen periods of both declining and increasing inequality and the market is particularly under a cloud at the moment for allowing rip-offs that need to be checked by state intervention. The pattern of growth in India suggests that inequality would continue to increase with the urban-rural gap continuing to widen and fifty years of this type of growth could really exacerbate social tensions.

      You are right to identify the tribals as a test case in India. How the combination of Indian democracy and a capitalist economy deals with the civil and economic rights of this group would shed a lot of light on these issues. This report of the findings of the Independent People’s Tribunal (April 9-11, 2010) does not paint a happy picture.

  6. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    There is little, if any, poit in debating about Arundhati’s article, or the viewpoints expressed in different responses to her piece – without first express agreement on certain basics, some of which are listed below:

    1. One, the progress or development should facilitate the realisation of the potential of each and every individual, commensurate with the level of development of productive forces at a given juncture.

    2. An individual – however ignorant or illiterate one may be – is the best judge of the self-interests; and hence democracy and democratic culture are must for the best possible societal development.

    3. Even if the masses are so ignorant that they cannot understand what in their best interest is, it is the duty of the fortunate ones, those who are more aware and enlightened, to educate the masses and bring them round to their viewpoint – and not to thrust their perception of development on to them.

    4. The peace, ‘roti, kapda aur makan’, health and education – FOR ALL – are the first and foremost requirements of a just society; and, the desirability or otherwise of any form of dispensation obtaining in a society must be judged against the yardstick comprising above requirements.

    5. If highly affluent Indians co-exist with widespread malnourishment amongst Indian masses – even after more than half a century of attaining independence – then there is certainly something fundamentally wrong with the system that obtains.

    6. The political economy informs that the superstructure of polity is supported by the economic base of a given society. That means, it is not the bourgeois democrracy – however limited and distorted it may be – that needs to be replaced by the authoritarian structuers in our society; but it is the capitalist system of relations that need a re-look.

    7. The dictum, ‘from one according to ability; to one, according to need’ may be ‘utopian’; but it does represent the most desirable – even if elusive – ideal for which the enlightened sections of the society need to aspire and work for.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: I have some thoughts on the points you have made. They are listed in the same order as yours:

      1. Agreed. This is a statement of intent. The question is how such development is to be achieved? I think this is the question Vijay is trying to raise in his article.

      2. The first part can be disputed in some cases. For example, the sale of liquor to individuals below a certain age is prohibited in their own interest. Even if such was the case, the second part does not necessarily follow from the first. Other things could be needed for democratic governance to be a viable and effective choice.

      3. One can think of it in terms of duty but how many times in human history have the more fortunate ones fulfilled the duty? How are they to be made to do so?

      4. Agreed. Any dispensation should be judged against this criterion.

      5. Agreed. This is the point that Vijay is making.

      6. I don’t think Vijay is recommending an authoritarian system. Most people jump to this conclusion when the efficacy of democracy in developing countries is questioned. The discussion is about the peculiar form of democracy in India. Could it function better under an alternate set of rules, say proportional representation? What kind of a re-look would you propose for the capitalist system in India?

      7. This is indeed a desirable vision and it has remained elusive. One could argue that it has remained elusive because it is impossible to operationalize. It would immediately give rise to the temptation to play down one’s ability and exaggerate one’s needs; apparatchiks would then be put in place to determine the truth; gulags would follow – Marx was not a good psychologist.

  7. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: You have made some powerful points and the report you gave a link to also makes rather troubling observations.

    First, I agree with you that Indian groups are largely of the first kind, groups that you are born into and that are hierarchical. However, I believe that, at least in the larger cities, this is changing very rapidly. Increasingly, groups are becoming more mixed, partly birth-based and hierarchical and partly based on individual achievements (e.g. Infosys to take an extreme example). Nevertheless, the reality is still quite feudal at this stage, partly owing to just the large numbers involved. Incidentally, the movie “3 Idiots” – while not great from a purely cinematic angle – did show this mixed reality of social relations: on the one hand, the other two idiots are dependent on the main idiot – this is still the old hierarchy; on the other hand, all three idiots go on to make their own lives and the achievements of the other two idiots are not ignored – they are all achievers unlike in most Bollywood films where the hero gets everything and no one else gets anything. So the latter has some element of modernity.

    Regarding the report’s view of neoliberalism, I agree with many of the author’s charges. I do not fully understand why but there does appear to have been a wholesale copout to the large companies as far as land and related rights are concerned. I do not understand why the government has not compensated the tribal population adequately. The blame for this has to go to Manmohan SIngh and while, because of his background, one has had great respect for him as an individual, he has failed grievously as PM.

    I also agree with the report that what is going on is what Marx and other classical political economists called “primitive accumulation.” In my view, primitive accumulation has to occur but not in the way it happened in the early stages of capitalism – that is, unequally and via violence. The Indian state should have ensured something more benevolent and egalitarian.

    However, the author of the report does not present any alternative to neoliberalism. In my view, this is still the best course for India but it should unfold more equitably.

    So I agree with you that democracy by itself cannot ensure that markets work in an egalitarian manner. So the question is: what else is needed to ensure equitable growth?

  8. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I have some further thoughts about the report.

    In my view, extreme leftists like the author of the report tend to represent the data on poverty and the distribution of wealth in extremely skewed terms. First, no historical context is presented – what was the wealth and wealth distribution and what is it now? Second, while the wealth gap has widened, it is partly because people at the upper end have made relatively more money than others. It is not as if the poor have gotten poorer, by and large. For example, just a short while ago there were less than ten billionaires. Now there are 52. Likewise with millionaires: only a few years ago, there were about 80,000; now there are over 200,000. And the middle class has grown and continues to grow at a dramatic pace. While I agree with someone like John Rawls on what income distribution should be like and am in general against widening disparities, it may be difficult to bring about 8% growth in the economy without such fallouts. And because the overall population is so large, without this high rate of growth it will be very difficult to raise the general standard of living appreciably even within fifty years. Even Pranab Bardhan, whom the author of the report quotes, recognizes in an EPW article the difficulties of walking on such a tightrope, creating wealth on the one hand and trying to distribute it equitably on the other.

    So, the solution is to try to maintain the pace of growth without the disenfranchisement of tribals and lower caste persons. Their rights and economic interests have somehow to be protected. I think this is entirely possible to do within the neoliberal paradigm. Indeed, I would venture to say that it is only possible within the neoliberal paradigm.

    Unfortunately, as extreme leftists are often prone to do, they usually attack the essence of the capitalist system as opposed to its poorly implemented manifestations. Human beings can be extremely greedy and corruptible on the whole and safeguards have to be found to curb such impulses so that the system does not get distorted. I do not believe that capitalism is a zero sum game as some do.

    I should also add that capitalism has many faults, the main one being that those who are already capitalists have an unfair advantage. But there are models – like the social welfare capitalist states of the Scandinavian countries for example – that work reasonably well. Is such a system possible for South Asia?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Re the IPT Report, I would prefer to strip away all that is inessential to the key issue – that of the interaction with the tribals. I feel the entire discussion of income distribution and inequality in the report is not germane to the issue even though it remains important for a separate discussion in its own right.

      The central issue in my view is the following: How can we explain the interaction of the state with the tribals? It seems clear that the value beneath the land on which tribals live has more salience than the people themselves. How can this be justified in a civilized society? I can only concur with Tony Judt that we have lost the language to ask what should be the obvious questions – Is it fair? Is it just? Why do we give precedence to the economic perspective – Does it make sense for such primitive people to hold back the economic development of the country? Why do we want to grow at 8 percent so that we may be in a position to redistribute later to those who may cease to exist by then? How can Indians condemn the fate of American-Indians and not see the reality of Indian-Indians staring them in the face?

      This does beg the question: How does Indian democracy interact with its capitalist economy and social relations to make possible such an outcome and the blindness to its inhumanity? Tony Judt would not be a bad place to start in trying to wrestle with these questions and in thinking of alternatives. We archived his stirring lecture on the blog; that was turned into an essay in the NYRB and has now been expanded into a book – Ill Fares the Land.

  9. Arun Pillai Says:

    I have just heard Tony Judt’s lecture but have not had a chance yet to read the NYRB essay. I found him very inspiring and insightful. His key observation was that the conversation – the language – needs to be changed. So I want to first mention that your blog is doing precisely this – congratulations on a wonderful and heroic effort.

    Regarding what Judt says, I don’t believe it is directly applicable to the Indian situation for the following reasons. India is still poor, the state is relatively weak, and the population is huge and diverse. So it becomes harder to drive a wedge between what Judt calls “economism” – the language of economic efficiency – and what one could call “ethicism” – a language of social justice. In countries like India, the two are deeply intertwined. Even Marx believed this. Because of the extremely large population and the relatively low GDP, India has no choice but to rapidly increase its wealth – not to create more billionaires but to reduce poverty. One does not have the luxury of simply asking “Is it just?” It is necessary to ask that of course but one also has to grow: lack of growth otherwise becomes the biggest injustice.

    I am not at all in favor of *how* this growth is taking place. Because of the weakness of the state, it is currently focused more on a kind of trickle down process with grave injustice to the tribals and lower castes. So the correct question to ask is the one Tony Judt asks at the very end: how do we get there? The wrong question – also as Tony Judt says – is to talk about capitalism (or neoliberalism) as the IPT report does and the Maoists do.

    My response may not be entirely clear if one is not familiar with Judt’s lecture but it would take up too much space to clarify these remarks.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I hope your comment would motivate readers to listen to the lecture by Tony Judt or to refer to his article. It is the most compelling invitation to think I have come across in recent times.

      You have argued that India has no choice but to rapidly increase its wealth and that it does not have the luxury of asking “Is it just?” I don’t see how one can get away from asking that question. And I also feel the question has to be asked before and not after. Put another way, can we really avoid asking the question: How much are we willing to sacrifice for growth? Is India willing to aspire to Chinese rates of growth if it calls for setting aside democracy, imposing a one-child-per-family limit, and preventing peasants from moving to cities? It may not seem we are asking the question but in effect we are; we are just not spelling out all our unstated premises.

      There is another danger in not asking the question “Is it just?” As soon as we forsake the idea of justice or fairness the issue of who is to bear the burden of that injustice arises. And inevitably it is always the weak and the marginalized. What option does it leave them if they are not consulted in this decision?

      And then there is a third aspect. How much growth does it really require to provide basic services to the majority? Can the fact that 40 percent of Indians are illiterate and two-thirds malnourished really be attributed to lack of growth? There are counter-examples within India itself.

      I would really recommend the book that emerged out of Tony Judt’s lecture – Ill Fares the Land. His conclusion (p. 194) is sobering: “Sustained economic expansion in itself guarantees neither equality nor prosperity; it is not even a reliable source of economic development.” And this is followed by the central chapter of the book where Judt puts his finger on the real task before us: “We need to learn to think the state again.” [emphasis in original]

  10. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    I am thankful to SouthAsian for responding to my observations, and apologise for this delayed response.

    1. Regarding “how” the development is to be achieved defies any simple answer. However, as a trategy, there seems to be no alternative but to mobilise the people-at-large through campaigns and struggles, and thereby force the powers-that-be to adopt the path of sustainable holistic development, and move towards a just, equitable and egalitarian society.

    2. When I submit that “An individual – however ignorant or illiterate one may be – is the best judge of the self-interests; and hence democracy and democratic culture are must for the best possible societal development.” I am talking in the context of universal adult franchise in a bourgeois democracy.

    I am not sure about the implications of SouthAsian’s observation that “Other things could be needed for democratic governance to be a viable and effective choice”. Is it implied that in today’s Indian subcontinent, authoritarian disposition of whatever hue is an alternative?

    Notwithstanding limitations of bourgeois democracy, I am of the view that we need to continually struggle to safeguard, as well as enlarge, the sppaces – for societal good – that are available to us.

    3. It is not my contention that the privileged people have in the past, or would in future, fulfil their obligation towards the wretched of tthis earth. My submission is that the enlightened ones can help take the society forward along the desirable path. For instance, SouthAsian is doing its bit through this blog; and so are several others in diverse ways. The majority of the privileged people would not forgo their privileges, and only through collective struggles in different arenas can the desired societal change be brought about.

    4. Good that SouthAsian agrees with the yardstick that “the peace, ‘roti, kapda aur makan’, health and education – FOR ALL – are the first and foremost requirements of a just society”. Not only we need to keep reminding ourselves about this yardstick, but also keep employing it in poractice to judge the desirability of our actions and inactions.

    5. Agreement on something being wrong with the society is the pre-requisite to think for change. But, the change should never take us towards concentration of power, widening of disparities, and/or take away of the hard-won rights of the masses. The dichotomy between the letter of the constitution and practices of the powers-that-be has to be exploited for advancing the cause of the people-at-large.

    6. Mr. Vijay may or may not be recommending an authoritarian dispensation. However, one needs to add to the democratic content of the society, and not reduce it. The limitations of the bourgeois democracy are too many; and one is free to suggest ways to improve the same. But, in order to avoid ‘mis’understanding, one needs to start with the inviolability of adult univesal franchise. Proportional representation can be discussed as an alternative for the Upper House. Howevere, these are largely theoretical issues in the present context. And, even to implement such suggestions, the people-at-large would have to be aroused and mass campaigns and struggles launched. However, in practice, mass movements for much more pressing and basic issues – that comprise the above-mentioned yardstick – would be much more desirable and practicable than these.

    The re-look of the capitalist system of relations is a theoretical question pertaining to the realisation of system’s inherent limitations, which may help one understand the reality, and devise strategies to change it for the better.

    7. Thanks for accepting the desirability of the dictum “‘from one according to ability; to one, according to need’ . It needs re-emphasis that it is the operative principle of an ‘ultimate’ society; one for which an enlightened soul may strive for.

    If ever, the society reaches to a stage where this is the operative principle then it would not to give rise to temptation to play down ones ability and exaggerate ones needs. Because, in that scenario, that cannot be the society’s operatve principle. The fears

    After all, even when today’s society is based on greed, the good samaritans such as SouthAsian do exist. So, when the society’s operative principle is such a dictum, the people-at-large would be more than willing to give their best to the society.

    I would not like to discuss Marx here, and would request SouthAsian not to needlessly drag Marx in our discussion.

    I would request SouthAsian to carefully re-read the concluding point:

    “The dictum, ‘from one according to ability; to one, according to need’ may be ‘utopian’; but it does represent the most desirable – even if elusive – ideal for which the enlightened sections of the society need to aspire and work for.”

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: Let me restrict myself to the points where I feel we need more discussion:

      2. I have mentioned many times that the alternative to democracy is not dictatorship or authoritarian rule – people just jump to that conclusion. Democracy is a generic term – any specific variant is characterized by a set of rules. The US, UK and France are all democracies but their variants are quite distinct. So the question is: What is the set of rules of governance that would best suit the conditions that exist in India? As to what else might be needed to support democratic governance one can mention the rule of law.

      6. One example of rules pertains to basis on which representatives are selected for individual constituencies. It is important to assess whether the present method is appropriate in the Indian context. I don’t see how you can deem it appropriate for the Upper House but not for the Lower House without analysis. I feel Indians are quite capable of handling theoretical issues. And I also feel that if we have poor rules, it becomes much harder to address what you term ‘other pressing issues’. There is nothing more pressing than getting the right rules.

      7. We disagree on “from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” My contention is that it is not possible to organize or structure society according to this set of rules. If you have a family, you can experiment with the rules at home.

  11. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I don’t think we are in basic disagreement. I am not saying that the question about justice should not be asked but that it cannot be asked by itself. This is what I wrote: “One does not have the luxury of simply asking “Is it just?” It is necessary to ask that of course but one also has to grow: lack of growth otherwise becomes the biggest injustice.”

    What is required is growth + equity. I do not know how that can be brought about. Most people emphasize just growth, a few – like the Maoists – talk only about equity. What a poor country like India needs is both simultaneously. It is tempting to think that just the basic needs can be fulfilled without much growth but I believe this is a mistake. A whole system of balanced economic growth + distribution is required to offer even just the basic needs to the entire population – it cannot be done in isolation.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: The question needs to be posed more sharply to determine whether growth or equity would/should yield when one is faced with a choice. Suppose the following concrete proposition is placed on the table: India can have a 1% increment to the rate of GDP growth if a particular injustice is inflicted on a particular set of people (the italics can be substituted to create different scenarios). How would you react to this? Now turn the proposition around: India would have to give up 1% in the rate of GDP growth in order to be a much fairer society? What would be the reaction?

      Can we really get away from the choice? It is being made all the time; it’s just that we believe otherwise.

      Also note that we are not talking of equity but of justice – the two are not quite the same. If you propose that India needs rapid growth and at this time all Indians should sacrifice to achieve that objective, I would react differently. An equally shared sacrifice is a proposition quite different from an imposed injustice on a marginalized group. Do you think this vision would be acceptable to all Indians? Let us (hypothetically) impose an equally shared sacrifice (let alone an ‘injustice’) on a dominant group and see if it is just as readily accepted for the sake of higher national growth.

      As to how much economic growth is needed to begin addressing basic needs we can look at the social indicators in Sri Lanka, Kerala, and the Indian average to test the extent to which there is a correlation between economic growth and social development. If the objective is social development, even a little bit of economic growth can go a long way. Both are needed; the question is one of priorities: Is economic growth to be in the service of human welfare or can human welfare be sacrificed in the service of economic growth? If the latter, whose welfare is to be sacrificed?

      A related point to note is that there is a cap to most measures of human welfare; there is no cap to growth. More economic growth is not necessarily better: while marginalized groups have not been able to make themselves heard, nature may yet wreak its vengeance. See an earlier post on the blog: The Dark Side of Economic Growth.

  12. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: Regarding the choice between whether to reduce growth to increase social and economic justice, it is often a false choice. We have been talking about the tribals: apparently there are large deposits of mineral resources (e.g. bauxite, manganese etc.) under the land and mountains the tribals occupy. Mining these would lead to growth and be good for the country. So it is in everyone’s interest – even the tribals – that certain populations of tribals be moved. Now, in my view, as long as they are *adequately* compensated, this would be a win-win situation for everyone.

    What is adequate compensation? Ideally, it should consist of four things: an initial downpayment; a stake in the relevant companies so they share in the uncertain rewards and risks of the future of these resources; some alternative employment and livelihood opportunities, possibly in the companies themselves; and, finally, some help with cultural assimilation to modern society. If this is done, there would be no need to sacrifice growth or social and economic justice. This is what I meant by saying that capitalism is not a zero-sum game. Everyone would benefit. The underlying reason for this is that capitalism is able to use the inherent fungibility, interchangeability, tradability of many things like land, jobs, etc.

    Of course, this is not at all what has been happening. On the contrary, there has been incredible greed and corruption. And the tribals have suffered grievously. And we are where we are. This is not a critique of markets or capitalism but of how they are realized. I do not know how to change that.

    I do not know much about Sri Lanka but Kerala is currently in dire straits precisely because it has not created sufficient opportunities for growth and an industrial base. While its literacy rate has been touted – an undoubtedly admirable thing – it is a case of where social justice has been at the expense of growth.

    Regarding the points made in the article cited – “The Dark Side of Economic Growth” – I would agree that untrammeled growth can upset ecological equilibria. And that historically, there has been a great deal of exploitation of the poor and powerless. But Marx himself believed that growth was necessary for justice.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: You have described a win-win scenario based on adequate compensation that should come across as both sensible and reasonable. Yet, the Indian state is not subscribing to it; nor, from the evidence, is Indian civil society. The implicit choice is revealed by this stance: growth takes precedence over justice. The question for us is: Why does Indian civil society not support the choice that you have outlined? And how do we get to build support for that position?

      Marx believed that growth was necessary for justice. Could we argue, based on the historical record, that Marx was wrong or only partially right? We need ‘just’ growth (i.e., growth predicated on justice). We should also keep in mind that growth has impacts that go beyond simply increasing the size of the pie – these are generally subsumed under the rubric of ‘quality of growth’. At the very least we need growth that binds society together, not tears it apart. In the big picture and in the long term would growth predicated on justice not yield a superior trajectory?

  13. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I believe the state has not generated such a proposal because it is weak, as I said earlier. Civil society would be divided, I think, about such a scheme. But it is too scattered and diffuse for its opinion to matter. So a few corporations are able to get their way. I do not know what can be done about this?

    It should be mentioned, however, that most activists like Arundhati Roy would either reject such a scheme or would be unreasonable in setting values for the parameters in the scheme (e.g. how much initial compensation, how much share in the company etc.) This is often the sad reality of the situation.

    Regarding your point about *just* growth, I agree with it in principle. One way to make the term “just” more precise is to require Pareto-optimality – no one should be made worse off than they were at the start. But this leaves a lot of options open. How should one choose from among these?

    Let me explain the conceptual process by which one gets admissible trajectories. The first necessary condition is growth. Then one adds further necessary conditions until one feels that the set of worthwhile trajectories has been characterized. So one adds Pareto-optimality as a necessary condition. This narrows down the set but still leaves open many undesirable trajectories. What further necessary conditions could one impose that fit with some intuitive notion of an admissible trajectory?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I would like to follow up on a few points:

      1. What is meant by the characterization of the Indian state as weak? Weak in what sense? Is it really so weak that a few corporations can get their way against the will of the state? Or is the case that the state and the corporations think alike on this issue?

      2. Do you think the activists reject a seemingly reasonable arrangement because they are unreasonable or because they do not trust the state to uphold its end of the bargain? Do you feel they have a reason to be distrustful based on past experience? If this is indeed the stumbling block what might be required to establish the trust that is needed for a fair settlement?

      3. I had refrained from voicing my thoughts on a part of your previous comment but now that you have explicitly employed the utilitarian framework with the reference to the Pareto principle, I feel we can go back to it. In your last comment you had written:

      “What is adequate compensation? Ideally, it should consist of four things: an initial downpayment; a stake in the relevant companies so they share in the uncertain rewards and risks of the future of these resources; some alternative employment and livelihood opportunities, possibly in the companies themselves; and, finally, some help with cultural assimilation to modern society.”

      This is completely consonant with a utilitarian framework but that might not be the operative framework for the tribals. They may subscribe to a different ethical framework so it would be necessary to ascertain their willingness to participate in the kind of transaction you have outlined. For example, the forest is their home and may have a sacred value for them. Similarly, they might not wish to assimilate into modern society. Should such considerations be brushed aside in a democracy in the quest for progress?

      4. If we accept the admissibility of alternative ethical frameworks we might also reconsider whether growth or justice ought to be the first necessary condition in a democratic society. Justice does not rule out growth; it just specifies a different trajectory.

      I am linking an article (Am I a Maoist? by Gladson Dungdung) because it helps sharpen some of the issues in our discussion.

  14. Vinod Says:

    Perhaps one has to revisit the thinking of Nehru –

    One of the comments I read while reading Bipan Chandra’s ‘History of India Since Independence’ is that Nehru recognized that development in India can only be fair if the masses that were mobilized by Gandhi in the freedon struggle continued to be mobilized in the post-independence democratic setup. Here’s the key bit – Nehru expected the left parties to do that. Unforunately for him, for decades the left parties simply continued to stone wall Indian democracy, fantasizing a socialist revolution and characterizing Nehru as ‘neo-colianialist burgeois democracy’ champion. That was unfortunate. Has the left been vindicated after the Nehru era? Some may be inclined to say so, given the drastic fall in the quality of our political leadership and parliamentarians and their abuse of our institutions. But I believe that Indian democratic institutions have proven their robustness and it is only by further mobilization of the marginalized people in the democratic alleyways of our institutions – Nehru’s vision – can social justice be accomplished through growth.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: We operate in a democratic framework and I agree the framework provides the opportunity to mobilize marginalized people. We know that some marginalized people are getting mobilized and others are not. This suggests that there are some complexities in the democratic process that we have not fully fathomed. The geographical distribution of specific marginalized groups may be one factor; the financing of political parties another. We should keep trying to understand the dynamics of political mobilization.

      I have a continuing concern with the notion that social justice can be accomplished through growth. Drawing an analogy with the environment can illustrate the point. There were many who believed we could grow first and take care of the environment later. Now we are faced with the prospect of runaway climate change. I believe similarly that we cannot grow first and take care of social justice later. We have to have an objective that the growth is meant to serve.

      I feel that civil society is divided into two groups and the one that puts growth first is much more powerful and much more impatient with democratic niceties – perhaps Narendra Modi can serve as the iconic figure for this group. Virtually the entire corporate sector falls into this category and the corporate sector funds political parties and provides advertising revenues to the media. We have a mountain to climb.

      • Vinod Says:

        We should keep trying to understand the dynamics of political mobilization

        I agree. Here’s where I’d like to hear from someone who has tried to mobilize some community in some village to get something from the govt. I wonder what obstacles they faced or continue to face.


        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vinod: I have requested a few experts to shed light on this aspect. In the mean time, I found an insightful passage (p. 139) from Sunil Khilnani’s book The Idea of India in which he describes the politics of Bombay. The passage highlights some of the peculiarities of the functioning of democracy and politics of mobilization in India:

          The result is a city that blisters with the aspirations, disappointments and the anger of the poor and the lower middle classes. Condemned to desperate conditions, they have to put up with governments and politicians who chatter in the language of equality while acting and conniving in quite opposite ways. In Nehru’s picture of Indian politics, democracy would in time enable the disadvantaged to pursue their own interests. Social conflict would centre around a struggle between rich and poor, as the poor came to organize for themselves and press for better terms. Yet this anticipated democratic struggle against poverty and inequality has no more emerged in India’s modern cities than in its villages. The poor are now acting in politics as never before. They have understood that elections can be used to chastise and deliver small advantages: an electricity connection, a water tap, an access road. But even in cities, where traditional bonds of community have loosened, a society of individuals banding together to pursue their several purposes through interest-based associations – the Edenic image of the liberal West – has not emerged. Urban economic inequalities and social diversities have given rise to politically devised communities of religion and caste. These proudly particularistic groups rarely ask the state to accord universal rights and provisions for better treatment for all; instead, they insist on privileges and protections to be given exclusively to their community, while others are neglected.

          How do you interpret this analysis?

          • Vijay Says:

            South Asian: This is a beautiful passage. It captures everything that I hold to be rotten about the Nehruvian-democratic project in India. Thank you for posting it.

            Khilnani echoes the sentiments (albeit with pleasing eloquence) that are to be found in Pritchett’s paper. He points out a study that analysed the records of various Panchayat meetings. Instead of focusing on issues of common interest, they were, predictably exercised by issues of communal identity. As Khilnani puts, interest-based organisations, the Edenic image of the liberal West are nowhere to be found in India. Of course NRI’s do their best to set these up in the metropoles.

            India and the Subcontinent hasn’t quite kept to the script and with the benefit of hindsight we know why that is. It is time to chalk out an alternative route to Modernity.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vijay: The textbook expectation in a democracy is that the electorate would use elections to hold their representatives accountable. It is quite clear that in India the electorate is using elections to satisfy their social aspirations instead. The typical response is to express impatience with such behavior, in effect saying: We have given you a great modern system, now you should behave in accordance with its imperatives. If one thinks about it, this is silly. One has to begin with the social reality as it exists and find a system that is compatible with it. When there is a mismatch, one changes the system, not the people.

            I don’t find it convincing to be judgmental about the priorities of people. If those who have felt oppressed for thousands of years place a higher initial priority on sharing political rather than economic power, it is their prerogative. An institutional arrangement has to be found that recognizes this reality rather than dismissing it as irrational or unenlightened.

        • Vinod Says:

          Very insightful passage from Khilnani. Thanks for posting it, SA>

          I see the picture a little more clearly now. But I do not see any failings of the Nehruvian vision here. His vision was social and political. He could only implement the political part. He got involved in governance issues.
          Governance too is a crucial part of the picture. In a society as diverse as India, I cannot imagine any other political system than a democratic and secular one.
          Could the details of this system be different for India? Possibly. Nehru and his colleagues’ vision was not a rigid one (except for tenets like crushing communalism and separatism etc). Nehru was quite amenable to dialogue and modification of his vision. Nehru did not believe he had worked out the final solution for India. His contribution is that he did set off India on the right path. It is important to make sure his political measures are seen in light of his vision.

          Interestingly, Gandhi wanted Congress to be disbanded at independence. He belived that Congress should not get into governance. It was not set up with that purpose. It was set up with the sole purpose of social mobilization. He was willing to compromise to see a spin off from Congress itself a aprty that would focus on governance. Gandhi’s vision of the future of Congress did not ofcourse materialize. The rest, as they say, is history. But let us not fail to notice that Gandhi (and his protege Nehru) knew well that they were setting India on a certain direction, a direction which they knew was right but whose details had to be worked out y subsequent generations.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: This is a combined response to your two comments of May 6.

            1. You write that Gandhi and Nehru “knew well that they were setting India on a certain direction, a direction which they knew was right.” Would it be more accurate to say that it was a direction they believed was right? They could not have known for certain; it was their best judgement.
            2. You write that “the Congress of today has little resemblance to the Gandhian era Congress.” Has it become better or worse? If the latter, could part of the problem have been with the direction that was chosen? Or is the blame entirely on the subsequent generation? If so, was it a case of misjudging the abilities of the subsequent generation? If a general has a brilliant strategy but a force ill-equipped to execute that strategy, should he go ahead with the strategy? Or should the strategy be based on the capabilities of the force?
            3. Given 1 and 2 why should our rethinking be constrained by the starting vision of the founding fathers? Especially given the fact that the founding fathers themselves had varying visions out of which one came out on top.
            4. But more importantly, we cannot be selective about our founding fathers. All the big decisions were already made by 1947 (perhaps the most important being how communities were to be represented and how centralized the power structure would be) and the founding fathers involved in these critical choices included Jinnah and Bose. If we take this perspective, how do we use the vision of the founding fathers as the starting point?
            5. Even if we restrict ourselves to post-1947 India how do we deal with the varying visions of Nehru and Patel? Random events add their own fascination to history: Nehru and Patel were equals with different visions but as Khilnani has noted “At the end of 1950 Patel suddenly died, and with this chance event the command of the party passed into Nehru’s hands.” (p. 38)
            6. We are mostly amateurs and lack the time or the training to read and interpret source documents. That task has to be left to specialists. What we can do is to ask questions and look to secondary materials or discussions amongst ourselves for answers. If some questions are left unanswered we can hope that new researchers would find them interesting enough to tackle. That is how an intellectual tradition stays alive and vigorous.

          • Vinod Says:

            SA, thanks for your comment.

            1. It was their best judgment, but a judgment formed after rigorous debate among their peers and Congress cadres.The Congress was a party that had a healthy democratic culture rooted bottom-up. It wasn’t a judgment plucked out of some jurisprudence or political philosophy text book.

            2. The ‘direction’ included mobilization measures and other caveats to the superstructure that were often not diligently adhered to or followed up post independence for reasons that are only partly blameworthy. This caused a weakening of the moral fabric of the next generation’s political brass which further accelerated the fall. It is not uncommon for a leader to have a great vision but a tardy execution plan. Sometimes it is a moral failure and not a failure of the vision per se.

            3. Note that the varying visions of the founding fathers were still distillable into a consensus set of principles. They still managed to work together in Congress as a platform and even when they separated there was sufficient camaradie with the Congress leaders. I don’t think an absolute consensus should have been achieved. But a consensus (of a vision) that spans leaders from multiple ideologies is the desired goal. That is what the founding fathers achieved.

            Bipan Chandra makes a case that the differences between Patel and Nehru have been exaggerated over the years by researchers.

            I believe it would be of great benefit if Khilnani and Bipan Chandra have a conversation about India’s freedom movement leaders and the Nehruvian era. We’re encountering divergent views on that era that is driving us in different directions.

            Again, from Bipan Chandra on mass movements in India-

            I think we can all agree that political parties should first be social movements, that is, movements with deep roots even into the Indian society with a clear pulse on the citizen’s needs and with a clear and shared vision for India. (Quite scarily, the communalist parties have continued this since independence adding to the communal sentiment in India. They have been checked mostly by the deeply ingrained tolerance of Indians) Congress used to be this or atleast it was converted to this form by the time of Gandhi. In our times, all parties have become focussed on election-to-election strategies. Power grabbing has become their goal. Parties have also become corrupt in their own organization. There is no democratic culture within them. Sycophancy and obsequiousness holds sway. NGOs have taken the place of what parties used to do. But NGOs, for the most part, lack the mobilization potential of party cadres. Just once in a while, an odd NGO movement may gain enough momentum to be picked up by a political party and converted to a national movement.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: The disconnect in this particular argument stems from the fact that we have different starting dates. You are starting from 1947 and I am starting from around 1900. Given this difference, we could both be right. The record of Indian leaders post-1947 can be considered quite good given the complexities of the challenge. But many decisions of the founding fathers between 1900 and 1947 could be considered very poor. We are still paying the price of those poor decisions.

          • Vinod Says:

            Which decisions of our forefathers do you have in mind. I also think it is important to distinguish in their writings and speeches the visions they had and the particular decision they supported.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: There are two aspects to this issue if we go back to the motivation for Vijay Vikram’s article – the critical choices the founding fathers did not challenge and the mistakes they made.

            1. The key decisions were made by the British and the Indians had no say in it. These included the model of representative government and elections following the first-past-the-post system. The latter may have been alright for Britain (note the current controversy over it) but was there was no reason to assume it was similarly so for India. There was no deliberation on this key mechanism of electing representatives. On the other hand the Indian leaders accepted the ruinous logic of separate electorates based on religion.
            2. The founding fathers became part of a representative system but were not acculturated to the imperatives of that system which is founded on the need to compromise. They held out for their maximum positions and left a number of decentralized alternatives leading to a ruinous solution.
            3. There could not have been a founding father whose vision included the human tragedy of partition. Thus clearly their visions were flawed and they had no clue to where they were leading the people.
            4. It is easy to dodge this charge by removing Jinnah from the rank of founding fathers, declaring him a villain, and pinning all the blame for what went wrong on him. But that is nothing more than a lazy reading of history. Refer to Khilnani (pp. 162-163) where he elaborates this beginning with: “Yet recent historical research has complicated the conventions of this picture.” Or read the book by Jaswant Singh.
            5. Earlier you had mentioned the importance of source documents. There is no more meticulous reading of the Transfer of Power papers than the one by HM Seervai (Partition of India: Legend and Reality). It is an analysis by an eminently credible constitutional lawyer with no apparent axe to grind. You will get a comprehensive account of all the mistakes that were made by the founding fathers.
            6. We should not expect the founding fathers to have been perfect but by the same token we should not shy away from discussing what we might consider to have been flawed judgments on their part.

        • Vinod Says:

          I recommend reading the meeting minutes and speeches of the erstwhile pre-independence Congress meetings. That would give an idea of the ethos in which the national leaders operated and envisioned the future of India. The Congess then was able to get diverse groups on the same platform. Infact, the Congress was less a party and more a platform for people of various ideologies. It was the Congress’ focus on issues that matter to the common man – land reform, education, food etc – that made it whatit was then (the Congress of today has little resemblance to the Gandhian era Congress). Note that Congress was able to retain stalwarts minority groups like muslims, Christians and Dalits. It was able to engage them in negotiations. And it was able to articulate clear agendas to the British rulers of India. This, they did, even when the Viceroy openly challenged the Congress leaders that India was “not a nation”. It could “never have a constitution” etc.

          My point – if we’re considering a fundamental rethinking of India’s political system, it has to start with the vision of our founding fathers.

  15. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    SouthAsian: The points that need more discussion in your opinion are briefly discussed below.

    2. The question “What would suit India best” may lead to wishful thinking, divorced from reality. For the desirable and realistic changes, the people-at-large would have to be mobilised; and that can be best done by organising them on the basis of their concrete and immediate needs of peace, “roti, kapda aur makaan”, health, education, and other real and felt needs. There is no doubt that people also need to struggle for framing of just rules, observance of rule of law and every inch of democratic space in the society.

    6. “There is nothing more pressing than getting the right rules”, says SouthAsian. But, these rules would not be made by the powers-that-be as these would not suit their vested interests. And, it is more practicable to organise and mobilise the people-at-large for their immediate interests, i.e., changing their material conditions for the better, rather than rules (of representation).

    7. SouthAsian is fully entitled to differ; but please re-read my submission with regard to “from one according to ability, to one according to need”, because an erudite person such as SouthAsian should not misunderstand my repeated submissions on this point. It is not my contention that a society can be organised according to “this set of rules”. This dictum represents the ELUSIVE IDEAL, for which the more enlightened human beings can strive for.

    Simply put, any one [such as SouthAsian Weblog, or people contributing voluntarily to Wikipedia movement] who gives his or her time or money for any cause that does not immediately or directly serve his or her interest, but is in the larger interest of the society, is working for that ELUSIVE IDEAL. WHEN – AND IF – this quantitative change accumulates to become a qualitative change, then the operative principle of the society gets transformed to the elusive dictum.


    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: I have the following responses:

      2. I agree that people need to be organized/mobilized on the basis of their concrete needs. But the essence of mobilization is in the details: How are people to be mobilized? We know the different platforms for mobilizing that have been employed: Maoist, Stalinist, Gandhian, Fabian Socialist, Liberal Democratic, Islamic, etc. Implicit in all of these are different sets of rules that the mobilizers feel offer the best prospects for achieving their objectives and for just governance. We can’t get away from rules – the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was a mobilizing vision based on a set of rules.

      6. This is just a continuation of the above point. If we choose the wrong set of rules the mobilization can end in catastrophe rather than progress. Indian Muslims asked for and the British encouraged the rule of separate electorates. You can trace a direct link to that choice and the sharp increase in communal conflict.

      7. I feel you are conflating two activities – work undertaken for a living and hobbies undertaken for interest. In the latter, individuals offer according to their abilities but do not expect anything in return. In the former, individuals expect a return commensurate with their effort. It is my feeling that the ideal would remain elusive; the concrete actions of real people would not cause that ideal to be realized. I submit again that it can put to a simple test in the home. It will not work because it violates people’s essential sense of fairness – why should a wastrel get the same reward as someone who works a lot harder?

      I came across this essay today – Priorities, Evidence, and Integrity: A Plan for Humanity. It should prove a useful input in our discussion.

      • Vinod Says:

        SA, on point 2

        I believe that one should strictly not approach mobilization with a preconceived set of rules or an ideology. The rules need to be built based on what the need is of the people. The needs and the problems get identified first, the blocks in resolving the issues be noted and then the specific step forward in terms of rules be thought of. These rules need revisiting and modification as the steps taken start to show result or otherwise. I believe that the rise of the NREGA movement and the Right To Information movement are good examples to study on mobilization. If only we had the details on them.

        I also want to add to the above, when thinking about rules one has to resist the temptation of system-overhaul type of thinking too early in the process. There is no need to throw out the cooking pot of stew just because it tastes bad and start all over when a little bit of yogurt can salvage it and make it good.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vinod: I agree with the sequence you have mentioned – problem assessment followed by identification of constraints leading to the strategy for solution. This strategy could be within the existing rules or it might require changing some of the rules – this determination varies from case to case. Once again, the environment provides a clear illustration – the problem is global warming, the cause is carbon emissions, and in this case the solution cannot be found within the existing rules.

          But do note a big irony here: The British-style electoral system of governance (the really big set of rules) was chosen for India before there was a problem assessment and before the constraints associated with the problems of Indians were identified. Isn’t this the point that Vijay was trying to make in the post that started this discussion? How can we be sure that this was the best choice given the specificities of the Indian situation?

          Given that we are now committed to that choice, I do agree that one should not jump to wanting to change the entire system at the outset. If a little bit of yogurt can yield a solution, there’s nothing like it. However, sometimes the yogurt is not enough. Note that getting adequate political representation for women has required changing some rules.

        • Vinod Says:

          The British-style electoral system of governance (the really big set of rules) was chosen for India before there was a problem assessment and before the constraints associated with the problems of Indians were identified.

          I doubt this, SA. There was sufficient discussion about this. The problems were indeed identified by the national leaders. They were enlightened enough to see that India needed a unique solution. I recommend the reading of the chapter on ‘Legacy of the National Movement’ in Bi Pan Chandra’s ‘History of India since independence’ for further details. I wish the book was with me to give you the details of how the Indian consitution and form of governance were made sufficiently distinct from the British/American models. Unfortunately for me, I have given the book to someone.

          The point I want to make is that Arundhati Roy’s criticism are nothing new. They have been there since the time of the national independence struggle itself and our national leaders already debated and discussed them in detail.


          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: This reading of history is contested. I will be brief:

            1. Nationalism needs to be separated from the choice of the modality of governance. The first major manifestation of Indian nationalism was 1857 – the nationalist leaders aimed to get rid of the British not adopt their ways. All such nationalist leaders were eliminated – some hanged, some blown from the mouths of cannons.
            2. It was after 1857 that the British felt the need for a different mechanism to rule India and representative politics was introduced (not that this was well before Independence). The Indian Congress Party was itself formed by the British and Macaulay’s mission went into overdrive to create a local elite that was “Indian in colour and blood but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
            3. It is not an accident that the next set of Indian leaders were all lawyers trained in England. Nehru did not emerge as an Indian leader from the bottom; in fact, Nehru discovered India after he became its representative. He is quite candid about this in his Discovery of India: “I approached [India] almost as an alien critic, full of dislike for the present as well as for many relics of the past that I saw. To some extent I came to her via the West and looked at her as a friendly westerner might have done. I was eager and anxious to change her outlook and appearance and give her the garb of modernity.”
            4. It is for this reason that Pratap Bhanu Mehta observes in The Burden of Democracy that democracy in India was “an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics.”
            5. Sunil Khilnani has an excellent chapter on Democracy in his book The Idea of India in which he writes that “Democracy itself was certainly not the object of close study. India’s history in the first half of the twentieth century teems with new ideas, arguments, languages, hopes, but amidst these intellectual festivities the idea of democracy stood in a lonely corner. Then, after 1947, it swept all before it. But there was no surrounding world of arguments, theories, commitments or speculations about the consequences of implanting it on Indian soil.”
            6. Only Gandhi with his preference for Village Raj could be recognized as a dissenting voice but his vision was swept aside by that of the modernizers. And even among the latter, some knew that they had taken an immense gamble. For example, in 1949 Dr. Ambedkar said “In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”
            7. Khilnani writes that “Nehru’s view of historical possibility was determined by his understanding of the West’s historical trajectory, in which he saw universal significance.” Was Nehru right? The jury is still out on whether India handicapped itself by accepting in a “fit of absentmindedness” a system of governance that was not best suited to its social and economic structure.

            As for Arundhati Roy, I agree her criticism is not new although our national leaders did not really debate the issues. But the emerging social and political cleavages (e.g., the Naxal movement) are new and that is what should be the focus of our attention. Are these tensions reflecting weaknesses in the system of governance and would the system be able to accommodate them?

  16. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: Once again, you are raising difficult issues for which there are no ready answers. Let me try to respond.

    1. I don’t think the corporate world and the state think alike on this issue. Indeed, even the whole corporate world does not share the same opinion. One reason why the state’s view is different is that it structurally has to entertain both sides of the issue (e.g. via Parliament, for example). I don’t have a theory of how the Indian state functions today, but like all modern states it probably has its own imperatives (e.g. to get re-elected) and is also subject to pressures from external interests like corporations. Partly, the issue also has to do with the legacy of neglect of the tribals, something even Gandhi was guilty of. But I am mystified why many sensible people in positions of political power have not expressed dissenting opinions. I find it hard to believe it is because they “think alike.” I think it has more to do with the power of corporations. That is why I think the state is weak although I grant that one needs both evidence and a more detailed argument.

    2. Regarding the activists, I think it is less a matter of trust than of being blinded by ideology. It is always possible to reduce the reliance on trust (though not eliminate it completely) in any practical arrangement. The activists do not make demands in these practical ways. Instead, the Maoists and Arundhati Roy see capitalism as inherently evil and unjust so any compromise is seen as “selling out.” The Maoists are influenced by thinkers like Alain Badiou whose ethical thought involves violence in an integral way. So the kind of economic compromise I suggested would be unacceptable because it is a matter of two *systems* clashing rather than two negotiators clashing. Negotiation requires acceptance of some shared framework which does not exist in this case. Of course, human beings are also adaptable and pragmatic and they may change from intransigence to compromise if the circumstances are right. As can be seen from the recent article by B. G. Verghese in the current issue of Outlook Magazine, the demands the Maoists are making in order to have a dialogue are completely unreasonable. This shows their mauvais foi or bad faith.

    3 & 4. This is a large issue and also one that transcends the particular issue of Indian tribals, so I will discuss it in a separate post.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I would like to follow through on the following points:

      1. It is plausible to argue that the state is influenced by the power of corporations. But in most places there is a significant element in civil society that is resistant to the aims of big business – the anti-globalization movement in the West is an example. Why is India an exception? Why is there so little civil society support for the rights of the tribals against the non-transparent strong-arm tactics of the mining companies? Is this due to indifference for the fate of the tribals or tacit support for the imperative of economic growth? Could Indian exceptionalism stem from its steep social stratification?

      2. Could a shared framework be attained via extended conversations? What you have said meshes so well with the suggestion of Tony Judt in the interview that was excerpted on this blog:

      In my second marriage I was married to someone who was a very active American feminist and very anti the antiabortionists. I would find myself listening to her angrily say that abortion is a good thing and these people are crazed fascists and so on, and I’d think, This conversation is taking the wrong turn. What you have here are two powerfully held moral positions, incompatible socially, backed by different perspectives. But it’s not a question of one of them being immoral and the other being moral. What we need to learn to do is conduct substantive moral conversations as though they were part of public policy, so that abortion is a terrible thing and a necessary thing, and both statements are true. You see what I mean? With decent medical services and proper prophylactic facilities and real contraceptive education and proper support for young people, particularly in poor areas, abortion would not be nearly as big an issue as it is. Then you could learn to think of difficult moral issues as part of social policy rather than just screaming at each other from either side of a moral barrier. Then we could reintroduce what look like religious kinds of conversations into national social policy debates.

      Could this be the only way forward? If so, what could be our next step? An extended argument articulating the rights of the marginalized? An open letter to Arundhati Roy?

  17. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    I do not think that one can expect bourgeois democracy to be people-centric, because the system is based on private profit (or greed, in other words). The corruption – one factor that makes all the positive declarations of intent into their opposite in practice – is endemic in society as it is an integral part of the social system.

    Can one tell that why an aspirant should spend upward of Rs.1crore to contest the election for Parliament? Could it be to serve the people? Or, should it be considered as a highly risky investment of Rs.1crore to make profit, super profit, in case one wins?

    The state and the corporate are broadly together in the project of taking society on the path of lopsided development, where the large number of people continue to be deprived of the basic amenities of life, despite the high growth rates and the increase in millionaire and billionaire Indians.

    So, is it really unreasonable to consider the present system moribund and incapable to ameliorate the condition of the deprived multitude?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: This might be too much of a generalization. One would have to explain why bourgeois democracy has worked in Western Europe. In the US, the cost of contesting elections is even higher and the influence of corporations even greater. Corruption is equally high in many other democracies. What one really needs to dissect is why the present system in India is moribund (if you believe it to be so) and incapable of ameliorating the condition of the deprived multitude.

  18. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: You have raised the question of the tribals having a different ethical framework from the state’s utilitarian framework. For example, they may consider the land and forest they occupy sacred. Or they may not want to become modern. Etc. This kind of difficulty is both intellectually fascinating and probably impossible to resolve. The only quasi-solution is probably to step outside the framework of both sides and adopt a third framework that encompasses the other two as accurately as possible. I can only think of another utilitarian framework that would do justice to both sides. That is, in a broader framework, one would assign values to the forest being sacred, their not wanting to modernize etc. and then decide on a course of action.

    In my view, there is also another dimension to such situations that is ignored by people who are too concerned about ideology. This is that people are more than their belief systems and are adaptable. Just as the notion of God has changed in every culture with economic development, so the God of the tribals also has to give way to modifications for the greater good.

    Finally, regarding the procedure for figuring out admissible trajectories, the concept of “just” is unclear (though it may be partially intuited); the concept of growth is clear: a positive rate of growth of the GDP. So if an admissible trajectory is one which exhibits just growth, the former term has to be clarified. One has to look for a *definition* of the form:

    A trajectory is deemed admissible if and only if

    1) It shows an increase of GDP annually.
    2) It is Pareto optimal
    3) It respects Rawls’s principles of justice etc.

    Then one would get the class of trajectories that are admissible. It does not matter whether the clauses pertaining to growth come first or last.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: In the first part of your comment do I detect an uncritical attitude towards progress and an impatience with the God of the tribals that is standing in the way of that progress? What exactly is the ‘greater good’ and what is the guarantee that the sacrifice of the God of the tribals would lead to that greater good?

      As to the second part, the concept of growth (as defined by you) may be clear but isn’t it empty? Growth cannot be an end, only a means to an end. So, what is the end we have in mind? Wouldn’t the content of growth (e.g., whether its labor or capital intensive, rural or urban focused) depend on the specification of that end?

      And why is the concept of ‘just’ unclear? Even if it is, can we not specify it explicitly? A notion of justice is part of the Constitution in the sense of equality of rights. Justice requires that the strong are not advantaged over the weak, that ownership over assets is not acquired by violence or fraud, that an elite conception of progress does not take precedence over the people’s conception of progress, however retrogressive it may seem to the former.

  19. Vinod Says:


    Absolutely profound posts. I loved them all. Keep it up and continue to enlighten us.

  20. Arun Pillai Says:

    Thanks, Vinod. I greatly appreciate your comments.

  21. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian:

    1. I believe there is relatively little support for the adivasis for the following reasons:

    a. Relative ignorance about their condition, even their number.
    b. It is only recently that the benefits of India’s growth have spread to a wider number of people and so there is widespread support for this growth.
    c. The activists have done little to garner wider support. Apparently there are many non-Maoist NGOs working in tribal areas but there is hardly any information about them.
    d. It is difficult for ordinary people to channel their private opinions publicly. Most people are not activists.
    e. As I had written earlier, the adivasis were ignored even by Gandhi. So I think it is more that their situation is just off the radar. They are not even part of the hierarchy.

    2. Would an extended conversation help to create a shared framework? Maybe, but I am skeptical. Whoever participates in it would have to have far more knowledge of the ground realities than any of us have. The other parties, whether someone from the government or someone like Arundhati Roy, would simply say you are too naive about the other side and you don’t really know what you are talking about.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: This is what worries me: Given that there is so much ignorance about the adivasis and they are not even part of the hierarchy what is the basis for assuming that they would get a fair deal?

      Do you think an extended conversation could begin without detailed knowledge of the ground realities? Could one begin by articulating the rights of the adivasis as citizens of India and spelling out what they should be entitled to? This would dispel some of the ignorance you have mentioned. Could one also ask for the details of the MOUs signed with the mining companies to be made public? This would provide a basis for discussing whether the deals are fair to the adivasis and indeed to the rest of Indians as opposed to being lopsidedly in favor of the companies. Could one disseminate the good practices established by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and insist they be adhered to in India? This would bring a neutral watchdog into the process that is opaque thus far.

  22. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I did not mean to recommend progress uncritically. The extent of poverty makes me say that without adequate growth in the next fifty years there is no hope. The kind and quality of growth are of course extremely important and this is where I was hoping readers might contribute more and more necessary conditions to the definition of admissible trajectory. Each proposed condition could be discussed and accepted or rejected. One could put in conditions like how much growth should be rural or urban or whether it should be labor or capital intensive or how to maintain ecological balances as you have suggested. The idea is to keep narrowing down the set of trajectories until one is satisfied that all remaining trajectories capture the concept of “just growth”. I was in fact providing a methodical way to make the concept explicit rather than implicit. Otherwise any characterization of just growth could be ad hoc and partial. The method of necessary and sufficient conditions I outlined allows one to capture explicitly what we may know only implicitly. It is the method followed by Socrates when he asked what justice was.

    Regarding the God of the tribals, I was not suggesting that their God needs to be abandoned. I said that every culture has to adapt to development and in doing so its ideas change. The God of every major religion has undergone change from earlier times under the pressure of developmental forces. I was saying that the God of the adivasis could change and adapt in similar ways. Perhaps their God could become less site-specific and more abstract or more mobile or whatever. Cultures change and adapt in unpredictable ways to external pressures. It is a natural part of life. For example, when a person emigrates to a different place, his or her views change and adapt. It is just that kind of transformation I was referring to. The problem is that Arundhati Roy and perhaps all of us are looking at the tribals from an external perspective – what anthropologists call “etic”. This is the same kind of attitude that, say, a typical Western tourist adopts when visiting an “exotic” culture – all of us are familiar with how perfectly ordinary things are seen as extraordinary from the outside. What is required is an emic or internal perspective. Hinduism itself was relatively pantheistic and in some ways still is. Yet, Hindus have adapted to progress and their pantheism has adapted itself in various ways.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I am not arguing against growth nor I am I proposing preservation of tribals as museum pieces or exotica. What concerns me is the fact that for sixty years the tribals were forgotten, ignored, and left as museum pieces. If as citizens of a democratic country they too had received their share of schools, clinics, roads, power, water, etc. they very well might have been willing participants in using natural assets for development. Now, all of a sudden, mineral wealth has been discovered in their habitat and they are required to step aside for the greater good of the state that has ignored them all this time. Something is not quite right in this perspective. This is not an ethical approach to dealing with human beings and if an ethical alternative requires deferring the use of the resources for a decade that should be considered an acceptable price for an unacceptable lapse by both the state and civil society.

  23. Arun Pillai Says:

    Here is some more insight into the definitional method. One can take any concept – justice, love, just growth, table, chair etc. – that is understood implicitly and partially and try to make it explicit by “reducing” it to other concepts that are simpler and better understood. If one is able to carry out such a reduction, then the complex term can always be replaced by the conjunction of simpler terms.

    If one is trying to define the concept of a chair, for example, one may at first say that it is something with four legs that allows one to sit. So one would write this as follows:

    An object is a chair if and only if

    1. It has four legs.
    2. It allows a person to sit on it.

    Here the more complex concept of chair is reduced to the simpler concepts of having four legs and allowing sitting. But it is not an adequate definition in terms of our implicit understanding of what a chair is because someone may say that there are chairs with three legs sometimes and also that many other things (e.g. tables, sofas etc.) also allow sitting. So neither condition can be said to be necessary. Can we find other necessary conditions building on our first attempt? Here is a second attempt:

    An object is a chair if and only if

    1. it has a flat surface above the floor level.
    2. It is conventionally used for sitting by a single person.

    This definition is a little better. But it is still not perfect. A bean bag is a chair and does not have a flat surface. Also, an Indian flatboard satisfies both conditions and yet is not a chair.

    And so the process goes on. We may never be able to define or reduce the concept satisfactorily but the process is nevertheless very helpful because it helps one to become much clearer about something that was only implicit earlier.

    The same thing can be done with our concept of “just growth.” We can say:

    A trajectory exemplifies just growth if and only if

    1. The GDP grows annually.
    2. It is Pareto-optimal.

    In other words, many more conditions are needed and it is also possible that the ones I have listed are not correct. But by a process of trial and error – by constantly making the intuitive concept explicit, one can get a clearer idea about just growth.

  24. Vinod Says:

    I want to make a mention here of something I read in ‘The Idea of Justice’ by Sen. It seems to have some kind of relevance to what is being discussed here.

    When famines occur, it is often seen that analysts and governments helplessly say, after applying their flawed but sincere attempts at analyzing the causes, that the agricultural output was not enough to avoid it. Sen has argued in academic writings outside of ‘The Idea of Justice’ that a simple redistribution of agricultural output can prevent a famine. He states that it is poor reasoning that leads to the usual erroneous conclusion.

    In the same vein, it can perhaps be said that with ‘better reasoning’ about growth and justice we can grow in a more just way avoiding civil disorders. We need a Sen (Anil?) to articulate the framework of this better reasoning.

  25. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: There is cause for concern as you say. But I don’t understand exactly what you are proposing. Activists have already asked for the MOUs to be made public for example. I am sure the real concrete situation is a hundred times messier than the discussion here allows. But if you feel like drafting an open letter, you could.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I see no harm in a wider citizen’s initiative. Some activists may have asked for public disclosure but clearly that has not had an impact – perhaps the activists are being branded as belonging to the extremist fringe. There seems no alternative to strengthening the voice on this issue. I agree the concrete situation is messy, but which concrete situation isn’t? That should not stop citizens from asking for adherence to some essential principles. For example, could there be anything in the messy situation that requires the MOUs to be kept secret?

  26. Arun Pillai Says:

    Vinod: I think you are quite right to bring in Sen. His “Aristotelian” view is opposed to the utilitarian view of Rawls that I have mentioned. He talks about empowering people in incremental ways – increasing their “capabilities” to lead a free and fulfilling life – and I find this approach very compelling too. I have not thought much about how the two views – Rawls and Sen (their offices at Harvard faced each other about five feet apart at one time) – might be made to cohere. One way to contrast the two views might be to say that Sen’s view is practical and optimizes “locally” (incrementally) whereas Rawls’s view is relatively theoretical and optimizes globally. The Socratic method I suggested above is more in line with Rawls’s view where one seeks an abstract definition of just growth. In my view, it is worth pursuing both avenues.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: In the context of your response to Vinod, could you read an earlier post (Justice, Truth, and Power) again and see how the two views might cohere. You had commented on the post but perhaps we could develop the ideas further in relation to this discussion about the ethics of mining in tribal lands.

  27. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    SouthAsian: You have asked to explain “why bourgeois democracy has worked in Western Europe, when in the US, the cost of contesting elections is even higher and the influence of corporations even greater, and corruption is equally high in many other democracies”.

    If there is something called ‘imperialism’; there is something called ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ of capitalist development; there is something called ‘advanced nations’ and ‘junior partners’ – then how can one equate India with US.

    What is our yardstick of judging effectiveness of democracy? Has ‘bourgeois democracy’ really worked satisfactorily in US, and has no ‘hand’ in the distorted functioning of ‘democracies’ and other state systems elsewhere in the world? Has US democracy played, and continues to play, no role in arms race, the Starwars, the exploitation/ appropriation of others’ resources all over the world, the wasteful expenditure of resources, the use of secret servies for creating and perpetuating monsters and propagating ‘clash of civilization’ theory etc?

    Colonialism may be by and large over in the twenty-first century, but not imperialism – even if we do not wish to acknowledge and appreciate the same.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: In your previous post on this topic you had made the general claim that one could not expect bourgeois democracy to be people-centric because the system is based on private profit, there is corruption, and the cost of contesting elections is high. The state and the corporate sector together give rise to lopsided development in which large numbers of people remain marginalized. My response was that this may apply to India but might not hold about bourgeois democracy in general.

      What you are saying now is a different dimension – the fact that the existence of democracy within national borders has no bearing on the behavior of a country outside its borders. This is well known (though surprisingly little discussed) from the colonial period and exemplified today, as you rightly point out, by the neo-imperialism of the US. Democracy in India will not prevent it from acting in the same way when it becomes a global power – one can see this already from the Indian position on Burma. But note that socialist USSR and monarchical Japan were equally imperialistic. This phenomenon is related to how the world is organized as nation-states and has little to do with the mode of governance inside a country. (To connect it to the point made by Arun about the utilitarian ethic – acting to achieve the greatest good of the greatest number – the nation-state assigns zero weight to people outside its national boundaries.)

      We would gain more insight by ignoring the special case of the US that is the only imperial power in the world today (without denying the validity of the observation) and by going back to the original, more limited, point. One would ask if democracy works within Norway, Holland, or New Zealand (all non-imperial countries now) in the sense that it delivers good governance that is acceptable to the majority of citizens? If we wish to take a developing county as a comparator one could consider Brazil. We could ask if, at the very least, democracy works better inside these countries than in India? This would help us evaluate whether the problems in India stem from generic problems in bourgeois democracy or from specific conditions in India that make bourgeois democracy unsuited to its governance.

  28. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I would not be against postponing mining operations. But the natural question is how that deferral would help the adivasis. Perhaps a decade of tribal-centered development is what you are proposing. This would not be bad but how could such a policy ever be brought about?

    It is usually better to try and find win-win solutions so they are acceptable to all parties and so easier to implement. If mining operations were permitted, then the revenues generated therefrom could be partially utilized to help the tribals.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: This is a consolidated response to your two posts of May 6.

      1. I agree that mining revenues could conceivably be utilized to help the tribals. But it is understandable if the burden of history makes the tribals leery of such promises. The first task is to re-establish the trust. An essential requirement of a win-win solution has to be its willing acceptance by both sides. If it requires a decade of tribal-centered development, should that not be acceptable?
      2. How could such tribal-centered development be brought about? I don’t see why it should be difficult. The state could declare a unilateral moratorium on mining in tribal lands; determine the needs of the residents; propose a development package that responds to those needs. All this could be negotiated through a mutually acceptable group of intermediaries.
      3. On the citizen’s initiative I feel we are not in disagreement but failing to understand each other fully. A citizen’s initiative need not be limited solely to activists. People write books, articles, op-eds and deliver public lectures not because they are activists. But such outputs encourage and inform activism. A wide-ranging debate is valuable in and of itself. Don’t you think an intervention by Amartya Sen would be invaluable in the existing situation? Sen has deep knowledge of India, has immense credibility with the Indian state, intelligentsia, and people, is a leading international authority on the theory of justice, and has proposed a practical approach to move incrementally towards a fairer society. Where would he come out on the issue of mining in tribal lands? How would his approach differ from that of Arundhati Roy? I can’t imagine anything more stimulating at this point. Could we work on getting an opinion from him?

      • Vinod Says:

        SA, A question that has plagued my mind in many different unrelated issues is (I think this question has to go into the ‘Ask a Question’ section?) –

        How does one develop trust between two parties where the bad blood spilt in history has reduced trust to very fragile levels?

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vinod: The encouraging aspect of such a situation is that there are many cases where trust has been rebuilt between two parties from very fragile foundations. France and Germany, Germans and Jews, Japanese and Koreans, etc. So, the outcome is not impossible. Some larger objective needs to be found that requires cooperation – like when conflicting individuals find themselves together in a sinking boat. Perhaps the environmental challenge might provide such a situation in the subcontinent. One positive example that comes to mind is the manifestation of a Punjabi identity in the US that is stronger than religious or national affinities (see This also shows that conflicts are contextual – one needs to change the environment in some positive way.

          This last point has a bearing on my claim that if the British had organized the electoral system in India along provincial or linguistic lines instead of religious ones, there would have been much less conflict simply because the number of constituent units would have been much larger. There is a theory that argues that when the number of constituent units is small the situation is unstable and the choice of religion polarized it into two contending parties. The fact that the number of provinces is absurdly few in Pakistan (and its leaders have failed to see the downside of that) is also responsible for the perennial instability in that country.

        • Vinod Says:

          Thank you for the answer. It was very enlightening and heartening.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: In continuation of this discussion I want to point out something very obvious. Observe two people who fall in love – suddenly everything else, religion, nationality, ethnicity, language, color, status, begins to seem irrelevant. There is a lesson in that. We have to connect as people first – when we share an interest or an objective or a dream it would cease to matter on which side of a man-made line we are located. It is absurd to let artificial lines dictate how we behave towards each other.

  29. Arun Pillai Says:

    A wider citizen’s initiative is very desirable. But who would initiate the initiative? How will it gather momentum despite the reasons I outlined earlier? For this you need activists and we are back to square one.

  30. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    SouthAsian: Okay, let us restrict our discussion to India. The problems, or their solutions, in case of India, are not to be searched for in the superstructure of politics, but the economic base – notwithstanding that the economic base is influenced by the political superstructure. What is to be produced, and how the resources are to be shared, are important questions that are ‘apparently’ decided by the polityical class or the powers-that-be. But, the powers-that-be emerge from the real Indian society. And, the system of representation is so structured that the lopsided development, with concentration of capital and accentuation of the gulf between the haves and have-nots continues; the very logic of capitalist development (in a junior partner of global capital) dictates the distinction between the core and the periphery within the national boundary as well. Also, in the present times of instant connectivity and co-option of the national bourgeoisie by imperialism, the influence of imperialism cannot be underestimated.

    On the practical plane, there is no alternative to building the mass movements on issues that are of practical and immediate relevance for the people-at-large. And, in these mass movements, all pro-people forces would have to be together. The agenda of desirable chanegs in the superstructure of political governance can be taken up, then.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: You are saying that the political superstructure in India is such that it favors lopsided national development with the support of global imperialism. If this claim is correct what is the implication for the building of mass movements? Should such mobilization be within the rules of the existing superstructure or as a challenge to it?

  31. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: While I agree in principle with the points you are making, I think what you are suggesting as follow-up action is impractical. Also, you write: “The state could declare a unilateral moratorium on mining in tribal lands.” This too seems utterly impractical to me. As you wrote elsewhere, we are amateurs in these matters with neither the time nor the expertise to act. In my view, the best thing is to keep clarifying ideas. But if you wish to act, please go ahead.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: What I had written was that we are amateurs with neither the time or the training to read source documents. If acting were to be reserved for experts there would be no mass movements. Our difference turns on the interpretation of the word ‘act’ – I have a broader one than you do. I feel that by engaging with the issue we are acting and contributing. There is always the choice of walking away from the issue but I don’t think you are recommending that. Whether this engagement adds up to anything remains to be seen. It could depend on how well we put out point across and how many others we are able to become interested in the issue.

      Could you elaborate on why you think a unilateral moratorium on mining in tribal lands is “utterly impractical”?

  32. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    The building of mass movement for basic needs of the people is a perfectly legitimate activity, and has full sanction of the Indian constitution as well as the popular Indian perception.

    It is not that already people are not trying to get organised and struggle for their real needs; but that has yet to transform to a mass movement.

    In fact, in every arena, the struggle against injustice and for fair play has to be waged. Honesty, leave alone in the broader sense, even in the narrow sense, is an exceptionally rare commodity. And, that is why the honest professionals like Hemant Karkare deserve to be honoured, saluted and remembered with gratitude.

    All those, who are interested in a fairer world, would have to perform dual tasks: One, they have to be honest to their work, in the broader sense; i.e., struggle against the vested interests wherever they are working. Two, they have to put in some extra bit – in the area of their choosing – to help take the society along the desirable path.

    There is no substitute for vigilant citizens, whatever the form of governance. And, that is why it is said that “apathy of the common man in a democracy is worse than the tyranny of a dictator”.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: There is no denying the need for mass mobilization. The question is whether you feel the objectives of the mobilization (meeting real needs) can be achieved within the existing rules of the game? How will the mobilization differ from that of the past sixty years and why would it yield better results?

  33. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: It is not clear to me what kind of action you are recommending and how it would be carried out. Please spell out the details.

    A unilateral moratorium on mining in tribal lands for a decade is impractical because of the current imperatives of the state. How are you going to deflect that?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: As I mentioned earlier I feel we are ‘acting’ already. Our actions consists of raising the issue, highlighting the principles involved, explaining why it is important to the health of a democracy, bridging the gulf between the key stakeholders, and getting the debate to the attention of a wider audience. As I also mentioned earlier, I feel getting an opinion from Amartya Sen would be a very valuable contribution at this stage.

      What are the current imperatives of the state that make a moratorium impractical? Do these imperatives imply over-riding the principles of just growth that you have helped identify? If so, our task is to build moral pressure against such imperatives. In a democracy that is the only avenue available to us to deflect actions we believe to be unjust.

  34. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I agree that we are acting already. However, you seem to be wanting to undertake some further action beyond the blog. That is what I was referring to. Please specify in detail how you would like to contact Amartya Sen. You seem to have some plan in mind. Please specify the details.

    How would you build moral pressure besides blogging?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: At this time I am not thinking of any action beyond the blog. But the Internet is a powerful medium and there is a lot that can be done with it. For example, the influential Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is an outcome of an Internet campaign Publish What You Pay by a small NGO Global Witness. The point is that we don’t have to do everything. The blog can potentially reach similar NGOs and activist groups and empower them with support and suggestions.

      As to contacting Amartya Sen, I plan to approach him directly through email and also locate people who might have better access to him than I do. This might not get anywhere but it is worth trying.

      PS: This morning’s op-ed in the NYT by Paul Krugman (Sex & Drugs & the Spill) about the Gulf oil spill could be an example of what we have in mind. Krugman is not an activist activist in the sense of being on the barricades. He is an analyst raising issues using the media and generating both awareness and pressure. In this particular column (relevant because it is about natural resources) the message I like is that “what really needs to change is our whole attitude towards government.” We could ask what are the imperatives of the US government for off-shore drilling, why these have been so contentious, what USG has to do to ensure the safety and rights of citizens, and what are the institutional mechanisms that ensure these obligations are honored? Sen’s voice would be at par with that of Krugman’s which is why we should try and have him weigh in on the issue in India.

  35. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    SouthAsian, the mass movement for the real needs is perhaps the only way to take the society on the right path for several reasons.

    The awakened masses are the biggest force on earth and, in any and every country, in the ultimate, can EVEN make revolution! But, that is possible only when the masses themselves get convinced of their power.

    The involvement of the masses is the best safeguard against the leaders getting co-opted by the vested interests.

    The struggles by the masses would not only help improve their real conditions, but would also help expose the limitations of the rules and/ or the system, thereby making it possible to struggle for their change as well.

    The mobilization has to be on a scale, as large as possible; the larger the involvement of masses, the brighter would be the chances of making a difference.

    And, let us not forget that whatever pluses have accrued over last fifty-sixty years, the credit, to a great extent, goes to the organised struggles of the people. To cite few examples: The establishment of the Public (or State) sector, and the universal Public Distribution System (PDS) where the basic food items were sold at a controlled rate. (The government also used to buy wheat etc. directly from the farmers.) The co-operative movement that gave birth to phenomenon like ‘Amul’. The establishment of government hospitals for free treatment etc. etc.

    As the above gains are frittered away, the resulting ills slowly, but surely, start manifesting; and that should make us more acutely aware about the importance of mass struggles even to safeguard the existing rights of the people.

    In the societal realm, the existence of draconian laws, and contemplation of their invocation even in case of civil rights activists, tells its own story, and should help us focus on the real-life issues.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: As I mentioned in my previous comment, there is no disagreement on the importance of mass mobilization. The point is that if mass struggles are needed even to safeguard the existing rights of the people, something must not be right with the present system. So, the real issue is to identify what is not right and how it is to be fixed. Once that is clear, the mass mobilization would make sense. Otherwise, there would continue to be the see-saw between temporary gains that are frittered away. Just to repeat that mass mobilizations are needed can take us only so far.

  36. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I don’t know about the origins of EITI and what the Internet had to do with it. But if the blog reaches NGOs and others and does some concrete good, that would be wonderful.

    Your plan for contacting Amartya Sen also sounds good. Please post what the outcome was.

  37. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    SouthAsian: You want me “to identify what is not right (with the present system) and how it is to be fixed”.

    Sir, the organization of society, based on capitalist system of relations of production, is the fundamental source where from all ills – directly and/ or indirectly – emanate. And, that cannot be “fixed” – DIRECTLY.

    It is through collective struggles in every sphere of life that the small and modest gains accrue to people and society, which – IN THE ULTIMATE – help make the society better for ALL.

    As is well known, the idea, when catches the imagination of the people, becomes the material force. And, the societal changes (for the better) cannot be brought about through ‘fixes’; struggles are inevitable even to safeguard the interests of the people, as vested interests work overtime and are powerful.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: This argument has become circular. Perhaps we can move forward if you define precisely what you mean by the capitalist system of relations of production.

  38. SouthAsian Says:

    Vijay: I am redirecting the discussion about the ethics of mining on tribal lands back to you. What would be the position of the responsible Right on this issue?

  39. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    In the ‘Capitalist system’, the objective of production is not to fulfill the needs of the people, but to maximize profits for the capital. And, there is a world of difference between the two. The latter targets the resourceful persons, whereas the former focuses the Have-not.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: We can work with this. I would like you to consider the following: Where a capitalist system of production exists in a democratic system of politics, the government is the representative of the people. The people elect the government to protect their interest. Why does the government not tax the profits of the capitalists and resourceful persons and use the revenues to fulfill the needs of the people?

  40. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: The problem is my lack of familiarity with the details of Sen’s views and my not remembering the details of Rawls’s views. But at a very broad level, Rawls would want a certain ideal arrangement for the tribals and Sen would recommend certain changes in existing arrangements so that one moves incrementally towards greater justice. Both are useful exercises to carry out. It is not necessary to think of Rawls or Sen; one can simply ask “what might the ideal arrangement be?” and “how can one can get there?” or “what incremental step would increase justice?”

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: At a very broad level, the distinction you mention is adequate enough. One can think in terms of an ideal system or of a small positive change. In any concrete situation, one would need to exercise judgment: Is the existing system so oppressive that no small change would be effective? Or what would be the best small change that would lead towards a better system?

      In this framework, we can interpret the current positions in the case of mining in tribal lands. The Arundhati camp seems to be arguing that no headway is possible within the existing system: either the system has to make a credible gesture or it needs to be fought. What some of us are saying is that a temporary moratorium on mining, for example, could be both such a credible gesture and a positive small change in the situation.

      That much is clear. The reason I wanted you to re-read Justice, Power, and Truth was to bring in the point made by Foucault into this discussion. I feel he was right to say that often how we think of or talk about small steps is a function of the larger system. This is also the point Tony Judt makes when he points out the tenor of our conversations today – the majority does not ask what is just or fair but what is efficient and profitable – which reflects the hegemony of production over people. And of course, how we pose the question determines which small step seems pragmatic or utopian. So, this is a bridge between the two perspectives and should give us some ideas about how we address the issue of mining in tribal lands. I wanted your thoughts on this dimension which should be possible without a detailed reading of either Sen or Rawls.

  41. Vinod Says:

    I think this lecture will interest everyone here –

  42. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: Foucault comes in where the perception of what is feasible is involved. Neither Sen nor Rawls deal with this aspect of the problem. In the abstract, it may seem that a moratorium on mining is better; however, when existing arrangements are taken into account, it may appear that what I was suggesting earlier – the win-win solution – is more easily realizable. Thus, of two feasible solutions – moratorium vs. win-win – the latter would score higher as the solution that can actually be realized in existing society.

    I think Sen would go further and say that of the two solutions the win-win solution is better because everyone benefits and the resources required to improve the lives of tribals also become available. Judt would also say the same – he is all for doing what is within the reach of the state and a moratorium would be too costly. Where will the state get the resources to help the tribals if there is a moratorium on mining? It has so many goals to realize – the tribal problem is just one of its many tasks.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: You are right in your interpretation of Foucault but in my view the conclusion you draw illustrates the very problem Foucault is trying to highlight. The thinking and discourse that the macro system legitimizes makes us believe that one situation is a win-win and the other very costly. Would we have thought the same way, say, in Ashoka’s time? A new book by Bruce Rich (To Uphold the World: A Call for a New Global Ethic from Ancient India) can help us in this discussion.

      There are some conclusions following from your line of argument that I wish readers to respond to:

      1. Why should a particular solution be considered “win-win” when one party does not believe it to be so?
      2. Why must the lives of tribals be improved only with resources that lie under their homes? Were/Are they not entitled to an equal share of the national resources that already exist?
      3. What are the implications of (2)? Suppose there is a region in India devoid of all resources. Would its inhabitants not receive any help because they are unable to offer anything for a win-win proposition that could generate the resources to be allocated to them?
      4. Isn’t this what Foucault points out? Our very notion of “feasible” has become so narrow and constrained that we find it normal to argue in these terms of contract while ignoring claims of fairness and justice?

  43. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    SouthAsian: You ask that when “people elect the government to protect their interest, why does the government not tax the profits of the capitalists and resourceful persons and use the revenues to fulfill the needs of the people?”

    Constitutionally, every citizen above a particular age has one vote; and, therefore, theoretically, the elected representatives represent the will of the majority. But, in practice, the government works on behalf of the capitalists, because it is the capitalists and resourceful persons, who appropriate surplus value, and are threrefore in a position to provide resources for sustenance of the political system, political parties and elctions.

    If above were not the case, our wishes of a just society would have been realised long long ago. Any phenomenon that exists on a substantial scale has to have objective reasons; and, in the ultimate, the society moves along the vector product of the societal forces.

    The forces of change have to catch the imagination of the people-at-large with revolutionary ideas and unite them in action. And, there are no short cuts to a just and sustainable society.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: If we accept this generalization (government works on behalf of capitalists and therefore a just society cannot be realized), we would have to explain the existing situation in Scandinavian countries. They have amongst the world’s highest standards of living and no protest about injustice. These are based on a capitalist system of production and a democratic system of politics. The governments tax the capitalists and resourceful persons and use the revenue to spend on the welfare of all their citizens. How can this be explained in the light of your generalization?

  44. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: This is what I had said above:

    “What is adequate compensation? Ideally, it should consist of four things: an initial downpayment; a stake in the relevant companies so they share in the uncertain rewards and risks of the future of these resources; some alternative employment and livelihood opportunities, possibly in the companies themselves; and, finally, some help with cultural assimilation to modern society. If this is done, there would be no need to sacrifice growth or social and economic justice. This is what I meant by saying that capitalism is not a zero-sum game. Everyone would benefit.”

    You called this scenario win-win. Why do you think one side would not accept such a proposal? Arundhati Roy may not accept it but who cares about what she thinks?

    I did not imply that the lives of people should be improved only from resources in the land they occupy. I am saying that the state has many tasks to fulfill and is not a storehouse of money. It has to generate money through taxes and other means. In the situation at hand, I am proposing a way to improve the lot of the adivasis through a practical scheme. What is wrong with that?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I am questioning the premise of this win-win scenario. For sixty years the adivasis were forgotten – they did not get the fair share of the available resources to which they had a right as equal citizens in a democracy. Now resources have been found in their habitat and suddenly they are considered important. Why should they put their faith in the promise of the state? What is the contract they are being offered? What guarantees that it is a binding contract? What would prevent them from meeting the fate of the American Indians?

      There is (justifiably so) a deficit of trust and the state has to repair its credibility. The first practical step needs to be one that establishes this credibility. What is the set of such first steps that would get this process moving in the right direction?

  45. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: It is wrong to view the Indian state or any state for that matter as a purely benevolent entity. It follows its own imperatives and is pushed and pulled in a multitude of directions. It can do some good things but it can also do some bad things. What Foucault and especially Judt are urging is that we see what is possible within this context.

    I think the scheme I have described – which *you* initially described as win-win – is itself quite impractical. However, if it were proposed, perhaps some watered-down version of it could be possible to implement. (This is just like the watered-down versions of health and financial reform in the US.)

    What you are proposing – a ten year moratorium – is completely out of the pale of possibility. This is not because I am perceiving what is feasible in a very narrow way; it is rather that I am expressing what I feel is at the margins of possibility.

    Let me put it another way. Instead of asking for a moratorium, why don’t you ask for something more, for example, say, the state provide all kinds of developmental assistance to the adivasis? About 40% of the Indian population is poor; the adivasis are about 10% of the population. The state is unable – at the current wealth levels – to look after its poor because it lacks the resources. Given its population size, India is one of the poorest countries. It has no choice but to try to grow rapidly but as equitably as possible. Otherwise, the poor will be even worse off.

    I grant you that today the number of poor have increased from the 90s. It is unfortunate that growth is not occurring in a more just way. So this should be the effort of activists – to redirect growth to be more just, rather than simply say that growth should be halted until credibility is restored.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I am not suggesting that growth be halted till credibility is restored. India has been growing at almost double digit rates for more than a decade without recourse to the mineral resources in tribal lands and it can continue to do so in the future. The mineral resources can indeed provide incremental growth. Clearly, the existing growth has been lopsided. I don’t believe more growth alone is the answer (that would be the old trickle-down paradigm); rather the priorities have to be adjusted – we need growth that is more fair.

      I am not sold on a ten-year moratorium. I am suggesting some action that gives a credible indication that the priorities (in terms of the objectives of growth) have indeed shifted. Otherwise, it would be reasonable to expect that the outcome of the incremental growth would be no different from that of the past growth. And clearly, we are not satisfied with the outcome of the past growth (we can consider the extent of malnutrition in India as just one indicator). In that sense, we are agreed that the task of activists is to press for growth that is more fair and just.

      In this quest, I see both Foucault and Judt as allies providing important insights. I don’t see them as saying that one should be constrained by the context in defining what is possible. Indeed, both are asking us in different ways to focus our attention on the constraints and not to take them necessarily as unalterable. An equally important task for activists is to make the constraints explicit and to introduce a discourse that questions their legitimacy. At one time divine right was the framework that dictated the limits of the possible; at another time it was the supremacy of the free market. It was only when these frameworks were challenged that new approaches became possible. I am simply questioning the premise that the state is unable to look after its poor because it lacks the resources.

  46. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I see a fairly broad band of feasible growth paths for India, some with greater fairness than others. However, I do not think it is feasible to overthrow the current system of capitalist democracy the way it was possible to overthrow monarchy. I also do not think it is desirable to overthrow the capitalist democratic system as on the whole it can be a decent system. It is, as Churchill said, the worst form of government except for all the others.

    So, it is prudent for activists to focus on what is feasible and desirable. The best they can do is to shift growth towards greater and greater fairness. There is a great deal to be done: helping to educate the masses, to increase opportunities for them, to pressure political representatives and the party in power to deliver on their promises and to adopt fairer growth policies, to create public debates of a practical and conceptual sort, and so on. If all this leads to something entirely new, to an entirely new set of political arrangements that is superior to existing arrangements, wonderful. But the goal should simply be to get things going for the poor and disenfranchised.

    Unfortunately, activists in India have typically not acted this way. It is very easy simply to criticize so-called “neoliberalism” but absolutely no one has offered a concrete alternative. I find such complaints counterproductive because all they do is grind the only machinery that exists to a halt.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Just to clarify. I am not advocating overthrowing the capitalist democratic system in India. I am questioning the trickle-down paradigm of development and suggesting that the shift to fairer growth would require us to question some of the priorities of the existing system and to work to reorder them. Some dogmatic aspects of the neoliberal economic model can certainly be criticized (as in the critique of the Washington Consensus) but that does not imply overthrowing the democratic capitalist system. So, we are on the same page in suggesting the way forward.

    • Vinod Says:


      As Kant would say it, a man’s sense of justice and thereby dignity, is most violated when he feels he is being used as a means to an end and not viewed as an end in itself. For the govt of India to step in to the tribal areas and start negotiations on how they can be resettled elsewhere smacks precisely of that indignified treatment, even if the terms of the negotiation are as you put it. I think it was SA who once said tyhat (am paraphrasing) it is not poverty itself that hurts so much, it is the humiliation that the poor have to face that is actually the cause of the hurt. In other words, the adivasis wouldn’t mind so much being neglected by the govt of India all these years but to be approached in the manner mentioned in the start of this post, is more hurting than underdevelopment itself.

  47. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I agree with you in your criticizing market fundamentalism (the Washington Consensus). There are very many theoretical and practical reasons especially now in the wake of the financial crisis and the new behavioral paradigm in economic theorizing to consider laissez-faire liberalism obsolete.

    However, I do not believe that Arundhati Roy and her ilk are limiting their criticisms to just this version of neoliberalism. They are more broadly against (global) capitalism as such whatever its manifestation.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Agreed. There is definitely a corner position at the end of the spectrum. But there are many other positions along it. What we have to determine is the minimum systemic change (and its nature) that is required for individual incremental actions to amount to anything. We are aware of some very dedicated NGOs that have been active for decades without being able to redirect growth on to a just trajectory.

      What do you make of this BBC story (India diverts funds for poor to pay for Delhi games) today about the priorities of the state?

  48. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: The BBC story is shocking and disgusting. There is just so much of this kind of thing that it makes one’s blood run cold. There is little more I can say.

  49. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: The only thing one can do in the face of such inhumanities to fellow human beings is to retreat into the world of music or some such world that can offer temporary solace.

    I have to confess that at rock bottom I am a pessimist and feel there is no getting away from man’s inhumanity to man. Nevertheless, one has to go on and one has to keep trying.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Yesterday I read the review of a new book (Force for the Good – Moral Combat: A History of World War II by Michael Burleigh). The last two paragraphs of the review are worth quoting:

      What’s the moral of Michael Burleigh’s book? It is that only by relating to other people can we remain moral beings. If we choose not to relate we will no doubt act immorally, whether we consciously elect to do so or not. There’s nothing inside us – there is no built-in human solidarity to serve as a moral reference point. We are only moral beings in conversation with other people.

      Kant’s key insight was that we should respect our enemies if we want the peace that follows war to last. It was an insight rarely applied in the Second World War. Kant saw that the moment you externalise violence and project it on to the ‘other’, you may well fail to acknowledge the impulses within yourself that permit you to carry out indefensible acts. In the end, watching at a distance, you end up dismissing Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib as regrettable but inevitable. ‘Stuff happens.’

      It is a coincidence but I also spent a lot of today withdrawn in the world of music.

    • Vinod Says:

      SA, I have believed for a while now that man’s moral fabric is partly made up of the relationships he is in. But I am a little surprised by the claim of that book that man’s entire moral fabric is made from relationships alone. I wonder though, whether these relationships include man-God relationships, like the way a man would see how his actions impact on his relationship with God? If not, then would such relationships count as instrinsic morality of human being? Just some thoughts for another post, perhaps.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: I am responding to this question without the benefit of any scholarship. This is just my gut feeling. I would exclude the relationship with God simply because humans tend to believe that their God is squarely on their side – they are really one and the same. Morality (in the sense intended in the review which is different from a sinner’s morality) enters the picture when one is dealing with someone who is different from oneself. If one could conceive of a relationship with a God of another faith, we might have a parallel to work with.

  50. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    SouthAsian: I think we were discussing the concrete Indian reality, and I would like to remain within that confine. And, now, you wish me to explain Scandinavian reality. I am not conversant with their historical baggage nor with their present political economy. Moreover, an advanced capitalist nation comprising small populace – and educated at that – cannot be compared with the lopsided development of continental India.

    If we wish to have a meaningful discussion – to better comprehend South Asian reality – in order to improve state of affairs in South Asia, I think it would be prudent to first come to some broad conclusions in respect of the concrete realities of different parts that constitute South Asia.

    If interested in the above agenda, please feel free to outline the contours of future discussion; if not, I bid good bye.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: The difficulty is that you attributed the problems in India to the capitalist system of production that puts profits before people. This left me with no choice but to make the point that this is a problematic generalization because there are many places in the world where the same capitalist system of production has yielded the opposite results. The Scandinavian countries are one example.

      Now if you say that things work in Scandinavia because they are advanced capitalist countries then one could conclude that a capitalist system of production can lead to advancement. If you say they are educated then the same system is not anti-people: it allowed them to become educated – they could not have been fully literate from day one. If you say they are small, one could conclude that India would be much better off if it is reorganized as 50 smaller countries – but Indians would be up in arms against any such suggestion.

      The point is that one cannot use general categories like capitalism and democracy without referring back to their roots and origins. The problem is we continue to do so without realizing that the democracy of India shares very little with the democracy of Europe – perhaps nothing more than a name and balloting. Ditto for capitalism.

      So, if we want to confine ourselves to India we have to describe the situation in India in its own terms without using inappropriate general categories. If you feel the problem in India is with its system of production, you have to describe how it is organized. If you feel, the problem is in the politics, you have to describe its structure. What are the specifics of production and politics in India that are contributing to its lopsided development? Or, is the problem somewhere else altogether – perhaps in its social organization that affects both its production and its politics?

  51. Arun Pillai Says:

    Vinod: I don’t understand why you think it would be humiliating for the adivasis to be approached by the government. It depends entirely on how it is done. It is true that the approach could be executed poorly but it could also be executed well.

    • Vinod Says:

      Indeed. But then where do you think the govt of India, which has neglected the development of tribal areas for decades, and which now wants to approach them with a development package in exchange for the resources in their lands, have to start? Can the adivasis escape the feeling of being used as a means in such an approach? If so, how? Would it be so outlandish for the adivasis to demand that the govt rebuild their credibility and trust in the relationship with them by focussing only on development in the tribal areas (which really is just asking them to do their job) for the next two decades without getting anything in return?

  52. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    SouthAsian: I think we differ on the basic understanding of the society, and our approaches also differ. And, without solving the general issues, unawares, we would come across those very issues in different forms, from time to time. Having realized that, unsurprisingly, I find this discussion leading to nowhere.

    I understand capitalist system in a (densely populated, largely illiterate and highly differentiated) backward Indian society to be the root cause of our ills. You suggest that “Or, is the problem somewhere else altogether – perhaps in its social organization that affects both its production and its politics”.

    Now, social organization, like ideology, does not fall from heaven; but is a consequence of the objective conditions. However, there is no denying that like the political superstructure influences the economic base, the social organization also does. But, are we idealists or materialists? Do we give primacy to thought or concrete object. Is thought/ idea primary or a product of our experiences – not denying the genetic influences for the individuals?

    How are the resources and the surplus value appropriated in our society? Is it the most fundamental question or not? Does that – along with the specifics of our historical development and the world order – place the limits on the evolution of society?

    Is contradiction the root cause of motion/ evolution or not? Is there a core and periphery of global capitalist system or not?

    You conclude that a capitalist system of production can lead to advancement. Surely, that is what the societal evolution shows. For any one even slightly familiar with dialectical and historical materialism, it goes without saying. The capitalist epoch was a historical advancement over feudalism.

    The capitalist system is ‘pro-capital’ – and, in that sense ‘anti-people’; the objective of the capitalists is to maximize the returns or profit for the capital; and super profits make the capital blind.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: I agree we are far apart at this time but that should not be seen as a negative. We have to keep pushing our assumptions to see if we can identify the reasons for the difference. I have two observations on your comment:

      1. In India, the social organization (which is unique in the world) predates both the capitalist system of production and the democratic system of politics. It should therefore be reasonable to expect that the former has influenced the nature of the latter two. As far as the evolution of the latter are concerned the social organization represents the objective conditions. Do you disagree with this claim?

      2. Your argument is that the capitalist system of production is the root of the problem of lopsided development in India. Also, that this cannot be mitigated by politics because the capitalists control politics in India despite each person having a vote. You also recommend very strongly the need for mass mobilization. Could you clarify what the objective of the mass mobilization would be? Would it be overthrow or reform the capitalist system of production? If the latter, what would be the nature of the reforms? And what would be the political process of achieving them?

  53. Arun Pillai Says:

    Vinod: I don’t believe there is anything in the scheme that involves treating the tribals as a means. They are in fact being treated as ends where they are being offered compensation for the land they occupy. If you feel this is itself humiliating then every scheme where someone is offered compensation for something they have would have to be seen as humiliating. Also, governments everywhere frequently do this kind of thing (e.g. when a railroad has to be built and the tracks go over someone’s home).

    I am not against having the government offer them development for any period. The question is not its desirability but its feasibility. Not everything desirable is feasible. If you think this option is feasible, tell me how you would go about securing it. In my view, even the scheme I have suggested is impractical. The state is unlikely to oblige but if activists and public opinion were to shift towards asking for something like this, there is a very slim chance that some watered down version of it might emerge. I see no such hope for the developmental scheme you are proposing. (I am assuming the idea is to propose feasible options, not just desirable options.)

    One fact about the tribal population is that no political leaders have arisen from their midst as has happened with the lower castes. So they have never enjoyed representation in the political process. If they had, things might have been different.

    • Vinod Says:


      1. Perhaps we need an agreement on a moral framework to assess developmental strategies. Note that it is not the fact of compensation that is the humiliating element. It is the combination of all round neglect through the decades and the apparent immediate care demonstrated only as part of a larger scheme of corporate appeasement that constitutes the humiliation.

      2. Perhaps a little too much has been compromised at the alter of practicality or feasibility. It may be time to stop and question whether some idealism needs to be injected into development policies.

  54. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: Regarding the callous misuse of funds meant for the poor mentioned in the BBC article, I would say that this is what makes overly utopian schemes difficult to consider. I really think one has to be extremely down-to-earth, the way one is in a business negotiation (e.g. when buying a car), and see the best that is possible to achieve within rather circumscribed limits.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: We have converged on two perspectives:

      1. Accept the limits as they exist and try to do the best within them.
      2. Do the best within the limits and also try to change them.

      I prefer the second to the first – more so because I intensely dislike the way cars are sold.

  55. Arun Pillai Says:

    Hasan: The theory of historical and dialectical materialism that you cite and the view of capitalism that flows from it is a very rich theory but it is also one that is fatally flawed for at least the following reasons:

    1. A detailed examination of so-called “dialectical” processes shows that it is too mechanical a model for the understanding of the complexities of history. The actual empirical path of history is too complex to fit within this framework. It is arguable that some of Marx’s own historical writing transcended his framework.

    2. It is not even entirely clear what the “mode of production” in India is. Is it capitalist? Is it feudal? It seems to have features of both and possibly its own indigenous features as well.

    3. The idea of contradiction, which comes from Hegel, is too imprecise to be of help in trying to understand the movement of history.

    4. The labor theory of value which is at the core of the theory of capitalism has been discredited by almost everyone.

    5. A very important criterion for a scientific theory is that it should be falsifiable by empirical data. Is there any data you would admit as showing that the theory is false? What about the Scandinavian countries as South Asian cited – there do not seem to be any contradictions in those societies pushing towards transformation.

    Nevertheless, many of its rich ideas have percolated into many many fields of social inquiry so in many ways we are all Marxian to a certain degree. And there are new defenses of the theory that appear every day, some of them quite good. But the fact remains that the perspective has many flaws.

    So the task is to build a better understanding of social phenomena. This is in part what this blog and our discussions are about.

  56. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I would agree with you on the second perspective. We should also try to change the limits where they are undesirable. However, sometimes, trying to change limits comes in the way of achieving goals that are within reach if a practical approach is followed. I dislike the way cars are sold as much as you do – I do not in fact own a car – but it is difficult to try to change the system of selling cars while simultaneously trying to buy a car. I would say – and this is a long term perspective – that the best chance the tribals have to improve their lot is to get some decent compensation from the government, use the results of that to educate themselves, then enter the current political and economic systems by both standing for elections and also getting employment in the modern economy, and then changing their material and other conditions in various ways.

    In my view, two attitudes come in the way of such enduring change. One is wanting the change too quickly and so wanting to give up immediate gains like possible compensation for their land to ask for something even more – developmental assistance – which is one-sided, even though the government owes it them on ethical and even perhaps constitutional grounds. This is where Sen scores over Rawls: move incrementally rather than try for perfection in the first shot.

    The second attitude is that activists worry about what the mining companies will get. They feel this is undeserved. Whatever the merits or demerits of the mining companies, here again, it is practical to take adequate compensation oneself without worrying too much about what the other party is getting. Too many conflicts are vitiated because each party is over-concerned about what the other party gets. I say this even though this goes against Rawls’s Difference Principle which I think is a good principle for a just society to embody. The reason I am willing to forgo it is that society today is far from just and the question before us is how to advance in unjust circumstances. If just measures were immediately available, no discussion would be required.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I don’t own a car either. In some cases one can opt out of an unpleasant situation – I don’t care sufficiently about cars to participate in that struggle. But I won’t feel the same way if the adivasis get a raw deal – the adivasis are clearly resisting and that resistance needs to be joined at many levels.

      We agree that any deal should be fair and with the acquiescence of the adivasis. I would also say that they are entitled to fair deal quite irrespective of what they might wish to do subsequently, i.e., it should not be conditional on their use of the proceeds in any particular way.

      My own sense is that it is not the particulars of a deal that are the stumbling block in this situation. It is rather the concern that the deal would not be honored, that the adivasis would suffer the fate of the American Indians – and there is justification for this concern. So, it is not a case of the adivasis wanting to give up immediate gains. Rather, the state needs to defer its immediate gains (which it can afford to do) till it manages to sufficiently allay the concerns.

      On the second point, the definition of ‘adequate’ compensation could be problematic. There is a huge asymmetry of information (much more than in the sale of a car) and I can understand the concern of the adivasis that they may be gypped. Once again, the state can arrange to ease these fears – it should not be difficult to get an objective, third-party assessment of the potential value of the resources.

      This situation needs both gestures of good faith, negotiation in good faith, and mutually acceptable guarantors and arbitrators. Any indication of the state being in the pocket of the mining conglomerates would doom a win-win settlement. Civil society can redress the balance and prevent a force majeure by lining up behind the demand for a just deal.

  57. SouthAsian Says:

    In continuation of our exploration of the issues involving the lives of tribals, I am archiving here a tribute to Professor GS Ghurye (1893-1983) considered to be the founding father of sociology in India. The tribute includes a number of insightful observations and many useful links for further reading.

    Excerpt on Scheduled Tribes: “Professor Ghurye wrote on the grand theme of ‘Integration of Tribals’ in 1943 and it was essentially in reply to the ‘isolationist’ approach of Verrier Elwin, which formed the basis of the British colonial policy. Professor Ghurye viewed that the only solution to the problem was their progressive assimilation with the farmers and peasants of the adjoining districts. He had the vision to conclude that the major problems of the tribals were never different from the problems of poor rural people in general. In the subsequent editions of the book ‘The Scheduled Tribes’, Professor Ghurye was critical of independent India’s government policies which sowed the seeds of disintegration by its internally contradicting steps of laying down the integrationist approach in the Constitution and on the other hand promoting fission by giving importance to the idea of Scheduled Areas.”

    Excerpt on Caste: “In the concluding chapter of this great work (Caste and Race in India), Professor Ghurye gave an incisive analysis of contemporary India and rightly apprehended in 1969 that India will develop into a plural society and not a casteless one, which was a dream of the architects of her Constitution.”

  58. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    SouthAsian: You have noted two points in your latest response to my submission.

    1. Yes, I agree. There is little, if any, doubt that the social organization (caste system) predates capitalism and present day democratic structures, and that it has an influence on the Indian society. And, it is an objective factor. But, even the caste system has seen great transformation over time. And, also, it is not the most crucial primary determinant. That, to my mind, remains the private ownership of the means of production – the control over resources and the distribution of the surplus value.

    2. Yes, you have got me right in respect of the diagnosis.

    The objective of the mass movements would be to struggle for the achievement of the realizable concrete basic needs of peace, roti, kapda aur makan, health, education etc. Strictly working within the Indian constitution, with time, in the process of achieving small successes, the mass movements would become stronger, and their agenda would keep getting enlarged.

    IF AND WHEN the quantitative change would get transformed to a qualitative change, and the STATE would get reformed or transformed, I cannot foretell.


    Arun Pillai: I had not quoted Marx, and had just mentioned that “any one even slightly familiar with dialectical and historical materialism … The capitalist epoch was a historical advancement over feudalism”. And, it is unfortunate that, needlessly, you have sidetracked the issue and made sweeping statements in respect of fundamental philosophical insights of Marx. However, I do not wish to join issue with you – even if your understanding appears highly misplaced to me.

    Incidentally, you may be aware that Marx was declared intellectual of the millennium (was it by the Times magazine) – and that too in the backdrop of disintegration of USSR and anti-Marxist environment.

    And, around two years back, when the world saw the ‘housing bubble’ burst, the UN-appointed committee, headed by Joseph Stiglitz, had Prabhat Patnaik, a known ‘Marxian’ economist on it.

    With regard to Scandinavian countries, or any country on earth, – even if all citizens have equal access to resources and are not discriminated on any count whatsoever, and also that these countries are not involved, directly or indirectly, in exploitation of other people – those societies are not devoid of CONTRADICTION on two counts. One, a basic contradiction of IGNORANCE, or lack of complete knowledge about Nature, where Nature encompasses all, can never be overcome. And, two, given the interconnected nature of the world, these countries cannot divorce themselves from the existing reality in the rest of the world.

    I, however, entirely agree with you that “the task is to build a better understanding of social phenomena. This is in part what this blog and our discussions are about”. Notwithstanding the towering intellect of Marx, the society – and hence the thought – continues to evolve. And, therefore, it would be better if we try to focus on the essence and main arguments.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: I have difficulties with your arguments in the following places:

      1. You agree that the social organization predates capitalism and democracy in India and constitutes an objective factor in the shape the latter have taken. Then you say that it is not the most crucial primary determinant; that remains the private ownership of the means of production. That may be true but you cannot simply assert it; the primacy has to be established. There have been thousands of studies pertaining to the profound influence of caste on the evolution of Indian society – what is the basis for rejecting their claims? So what if the caste system has seen great transformation over time? What hasn’t? We don’t have the same primitive capitalism any more; it is increasingly regulated in the interest of the consumers. We don’t have the same democracy with franchise limited to male owners of property; everyone has a say in governance. These are equally profound changes.

      2. Be that as it may, let us for the sake of argument accept your claim that the private ownership of property is the most crucial determinant of lopsided development in India. You follow this by recommending mass movements focused on small successes strictly within the Indian Constitution. Since these small successes will do nothing to change the private ownership of capital, I presume they would use the political process to ameliorate the problems caused by the capitalist system. But this is exactly what I had tried to posit with the example of the Scandinavian countries – the political process can be used to ensure that the capitalist system works to the benefit of the people. This route has proved more durable than the one premised on abolishing the private ownership of capital. It is also an evolution of the capitalist system that was not accounted for in the Marxist model.

      3. With reference to the last point I am puzzled by the fact that while your argumentation rests squarely on the Marxist framework, you are averse to any discussion or critical examination of that framework in the modern context. Can this be an acceptable expectation in an academic debate?

  59. Arun Pillai Says:


    1. A moral framework could be of help – we were trying to build one by listing some necessary and sufficient conditions for just growth. And also by references to Sen and Rawls.

    2. Your point about what could be humiliating is well taken. But, remember, the state is not necessarily a benevolent entity. If I were a tribal and if I were offered a fair deal, I would accept it and set aside my emotions in the hope of getting out of the rut of poverty.

    3. I have been urging practicality only because the state has not been on the side of the tribals. How would idealism help? Privately, it is possible to say anything. Why do you think the state would care what you or I think?

    • Vinod Says:


      1. If you were a tribal, I’m not sure you can trust the govt to offer you a fair deal. You are likely to suspect that the govt is short changing you, given the past treatment of the govt towards you. Fairness is a notion that also takes into account the quality of the relationship between the parties.

      2. When idealistic notions are elbowed out of a public discourse on development, it is a sad state of affairs, don’t you think? I think the pessimist in you is on the verge of taking over completely, although I can sense the warmth from the dying embers of the past idealism in you. :)

  60. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: A propos your note on Ghurye, I would also recommend Ramachandra Guha’s biography of Verrier Elwin – “Savaging the Civilized.”

  61. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I agree almost entirely with this latest post. Gestures of good faith are needed by the state though I do not think it would gyp the tribals if it decided to offer a deal. The hard thing – as I have tried to emphasize all along – is that even the kind of deal I was suggesting seems quite impossible to realize. Even as we discuss this, the central government is contemplating air strikes because the state governments have been requesting it. And the Maoists have killed several dozens more, many of them completely innocent passengers on a bus.

  62. Arun Pillai Says:

    Hasan: I believe it was the Economist that chose Marx as the economist of the millennium, a choice I agree with. Newton could also be called the scientist of the millennium but his theories have not stood the test of time. Likewise, all I was trying to say was that you seemed to be repeating stock phrases from Marxian vocabulary (e.g. “objective conditions”, “contradiction” etc.) but these ideas might no longer be valid. I did say that Marx’s influence has been immense.

  63. Hasan Abdullah Says:


    1. What is primary? Are material needs of food, clothing, shelter, health and education most basic or not? Are these dependent on access to resources or not? Does the existence of human life not depend on the fulfillment of material requirements? If answer to these is “yes”, then perhaps it can be inferred that ownership of the means of production – a major determinant of access to resources – is the most fundamental issue.

    However, by no means, I am denying the disadvantage of cast (for Dalits) or even religion (though to a lesser extent) in the Indian context? In fact, Dalits (and also most tribals) are the most disadvantaged Indians; and that is why Indian constitution provides for affirmative action for them.

    2. I have never denied that the the “political process can(not) be used to ensure that the capitalist system works to the benefit of the people”. But, in the Indian context, the mass struggles are required to force the Legislature to adopt pro-people measures. (After all mass movements are also a form of political process/ activity.)

    Framing of Right to Information (RTI) Act – because of the pressure of mass movement – is a very good example of advancing people’s interests through mass mobilization.

    Such struggles would become ever bigger with success, and the demands would become more advanced and all-encompassing with time.

    And, I reiterate my concluding paragraph: “IF AND WHEN the quantitative change would get transformed to a qualitative change, and the STATE would get reformed or transformed, I cannot foretell.”

    3. My argumentation does not rest on the Marxist framework, but on the philosophical insights of Marx. And, I am not a votary of any ‘model’, as the reality is supreme, and need not fit in any model. That is why, here, my submissions are on the practical plane; and I am not much interested in theoretical discussions on ‘models’, because “Philosophers have long interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it!”.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: We are closer on some of the points now than before though not on all:

      1. Material needs have been the most basic since human life began but systems of production have varied greatly. The point is not to deny that ownership of the means of production is important but to stress that the particular nature of a system of production is affected by the organization of society. We are not talking about a capitalist system in the abstract but about its specific mutation in India. A system of production is more than just the form of ownership; it also includes the division of labor and the qualifications for ownership. The organization of society in India has a special bearing on these quite distinct from the European experience. Our interest is to examine how the specifics of this variant of the production system affect the development prospects of India.

      2. On this point we seem to be agreeing that the political system can be used to ameliorate the outcomes generated by the system of production.

      3. Reality is indeed supreme but reality is also very complex. There is no alternative to simplifications in order to understand its dynamics. And every simplification constitutes a model. We have to make sure that the model is robust when we use it to argue about the reality.

  64. Arun Pillai Says:

    Vinod: I don’t think I am rejecting idealism. I think it is important to press for whatever changes are possible. The problem is that so-called idealism is often expressed in rather bald black and white terms that do not allow nuance. Ultimately, one wants particular gains for the tribals and the language of traditional idealism (e.g. Arundhati Roy) does not permit this because it is extreme. Genuine idealism is committed to concrete particulars guided by general principles of justice etc. It permits the possibility of compromise, of negotiation with people who may be regarded as “enemies,” and of arriving at two-sided solutions that are win-win rather than win-lose. If one thinks more broadly about the many conflicts in the world today, it is the only approach that can succeed without much bloodshed. When I use the word “practical” I do not mean to imply something lowly or half-hearted but rather something that embodies genuine idealism.

  65. Hasan Abdullah Says:


    1. You concede primacy of basic material needs of each and every human being. And, then, with a “BUT” – “but systems of production have varied greatly” – change the track.

    You conclude that “Our interest is to examine how the specifics of this variant of the production system affect the development prospects of India”. Please go ahead. I am afraid that I would not be able to participate in that ‘examination’.

    2. The political system is a part of the society; and, every positive societal action – whether directly or indirectly, whether appreciable or imperceptible – does make a positive difference to the society as the direction of societal movement is the vector product of societal forces.

    3. No two opinions that “Reality is indeed supreme but reality is also very complex”. I would prefer to concentrate on the harsh realities (plaguing India) and participate locally. You please go ahead with what interests you.

    • SouthAsian Says:


      1. I guess I did not make the point clearly enough. The BUT was not intended to change the track; it was essential to the point.

      I wished to argue that saying basic material needs like food are primary is a statement of the obvious. It is like saying that air and water are primary because without them people would die. BUT this has been so ever since humans have existed AND their primacy tells us nothing about what kind of system of production would exist at any point in time nor does it have any bearing on the latter. RATHER, it is the system of production that determines how and how well or badly the primary material needs are satisfied.

      This is also the point you have been making. BUT in discussing a specific case like India we cannot get too far by talking about a general or theoretical system of production. We have to speak about the system of production as it exists in India. Here you claim that you will not be able to participate in this specific examination. However, in point (3) you say that you wish to participate in a discussion of the local problems of India. I am perplexed how you can discuss the local problems without examining the local system of production.

      2. Societal movement could be described as a vector product of societal forces. BUT societal forces are both positive and negative. AND analysis is required to determine which of these is stronger at any time. Your claim is that the system of production in India is exerting a strong negative force. AND we have agreed that the system of politics can be used to generate positive forces that can counteract these negative forces. Therefore the aim of mass movements should not be to replace private ownership of capital with public ownership BUT to increase the accountability of the political system to control private ownership of capital in the interest of society. Would you agree with this conclusion?

  66. Hasan Abdullah Says:


    1. The system of production in a country EVOLVES from the concrete historical and material specifics of the society, and is also influenced by the rest of the world as well.

    What I said in the last point was that “I would prefer to concentrate on the harsh realities (plaguing India) and participate locally”. In other words, I would like to be an activist in the local grass-root movement(s), and would not be able to participate in the further theoretical discussions in this blog.

    2. I had categorically mentioned the aim of the mass movements, and wish to reproduce the same:

    “in the Indian context, the mass struggles are required to force the Legislature to adopt pro-people measures. (After all mass movements are also a form of political process/ activity.)

    Framing of Right to Information (RTI) Act – because of the pressure of mass movement – is a very good example of advancing people’s interests through mass mobilization.

    Such struggles would become ever bigger with success, and the demands would become more advanced and all-encompassing with time.

    And, I reiterate my concluding paragraph: “IF AND WHEN the quantitative change would get transformed to a qualitative change, and the STATE would get reformed or transformed, I cannot foretell.”

    And, it is in such struggles that I would like to actively participate.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: I feel we have reached clarity on most points. The ideal situation is one where theory is enriched by practice and practice is guided by theory. One of our difficulties stemming from the period of colonization is that most of our theories are not derived from our own practice. We must remain cognizant of this fact and its consequences.

      This is a serious issue but I will provide a somewhat amusing illustration. Writing in 1874, the Bengali intellectual Rajnarayan Bose complained: “The English style of exertion is not right for this land. The custom that the present rulers have introduced of working continuously from ten to four is not at all suited to this country. The body is quickly exhausted if one exerts oneself when the sun is still strong.”

      Could this be the reason why office culture is so inefficient in South Asia? Should we have adapted the custom to our environment by introducing something like the Spanish siesta (which we follow in the rural areas)?

      [Illustration from Provincializing Europe by Dipesh Chakrabarty, 2000, page 214.]

  67. Hasan Abdullah Says:


    Good that you find clarity on most points, and I agree that the general theories also need to incorporate the specifics of the local. After all, reality – the specific reality at a given space and time – is supreme, and must be taken due cognizance of.

  68. SouthAsian Says:

    On the completion of the first year of the UPA government’s second term, Praful Bidwai questions “its zealous promotion of gross domestic product (GDP) growth regardless of the displacement and dispossession of vulnerable people.”

    The opinion goes over most of the points we have discussed and asks the key question: “does local democracy, for which the UPA claims much credit, going back to Rajiv Gandhi’s 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, have any meaning?”

    Bidwai says: “Instead of addressing these issues, and promoting equitable growth and defending vulnerable livelihoods (promises that won it the 2009 election), the UPA is blindly pursuing bankrupt, destructive neoliberal policies.”

    He questions the grow first-distribute later model: “People like Rahul Gandhi want vigorous GDP growth which will boost state revenues, which the government can target at worthy schemes like the NREGA to help the poor. This approach is flawed because it uses the fruits of rapid GDP growth to redress problems made worse by the growth process itself.”

    And concludes: “Growth, or rather development, must become inherently inclusive, immanently equitable, and based on people’s participation and consent. Sustainable development must be need-based, green and gender-just. It must not negate the worthy ethical imperative of defending the rights and interests of the poorest of the poor — not even temporarily.”

    As concerned citizens our task is not to castigate or advise the government. The imperative is less to point out what needs to be done but to explain what is going on. In particular, we need to address the following questions:

    1. Why is a democratic government acting in this way?
    2. What are the factors that determine the government’s actions?
    3. What feasible actions could lead to a change in this dynamic?

  69. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: This is an excellent set of quotes from Bidwai for two reasons.

    The first is that this is what all of us have agreed on, essentially the need for “just/equitable growth” rather than mere growth by itself. My impression is that Rahul Gandhi is well-intentioned but inexperienced and if he were made fully aware that mere growth exacerbates the very problems to be addressed, he would listen.

    The second is that Bidwai is taking what I have been calling a practical/feasible approach: rather than simply demand just growth or demand other actions from the government (or adopt violence), he is asking for analysis of the government’s actions and a feasible plan of action. Bidwai even uses the very word “feasible” that I have been urging.

    In my view, a feasible plan would be two-pronged: to raise public awareness of these issues and to chalk out a win-win plan to be discussed with the government.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I agree but some doubts continue to nag:

      Could the actions of the government really be attributed to ignorance that would be ameliorated by the presentation of win-win alternatives by the public? The present government includes a galaxy of globally renowned technocrats (starting with the PM) who by all accounts are compassionate individuals. Is it conceivable that they are unable to arrive at a win-win option on their own? If not, how do we explain this behavior that we agree is inappropriate in a democracy? What gives in this scenario?

  70. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: It is difficult to know the mindset of others. But it is conceivable that the government is so taken up with India’s becoming an economic power and with a myriad other problems (e.g. water scarcity) that they have become blinded to the problems their strategy is creating. I think public awareness and articles in the press and elsewhere can play an important role.

    Bidwai concludes: “Growth, or rather development, must become inherently inclusive, immanently equitable, and based on people’s participation and consent. Sustainable development must be need-based, green and gender-just. It must not negate the worthy ethical imperative of defending the rights and interests of the poorest of the poor — not even temporarily.”

    All this is fine to say and many people say it. The difference between success and failure in these matters is *how* one approaches it. One can be oppositional or one can be win-win. In my view, that makes all the difference. This is partly because however much growth is maligned it is also very necessary for the alleviation of poverty. The only important qualifier is that it be equitable.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Read this report of a press conference by Dr. Manmohan Singh yesterday in Delhi. He says (quite rightly) that it is difficult to do a deal with Pakistan because of a ‘trust deficit’. But if the tribals say there is a trust deficit with the Indian state standing in the way of a deal, the argument cuts little ice. Instead of building trust (as is the aim with Pakistan), the state prefers the use of force in the case of the tribals? I can’t figure out this disconnect.

      Personally, I find it very hard to believe that a government so well endowed with human capital and with access to multiple think tanks can be blind to the injustices inherent in its strategy. That notwithstanding, I believe strongly in the importance of public discourse. It is the only viable avenue for advancing an alternative perspective and building a constituency for it.

  71. Arun Pillai Says:

    We have mentioned both Rawls and Sen in this discussion. One important omission is Habermas. Although I do not like his ponderous language I see his major contribution as urging the creation of a public realm where there is open critical and rational discussion. This, too, is an essential element of society as it is only when such a public realm exists that problems of poverty and other social ills can be addressed by the population. In particular, the government’s policies can be openly discussed and criticized.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: We have been following the path recommended by Habermas. There is little alternative to critical and open discussion in the public realm. In my view, and I mentioned this in some comments, the more important omission is Foucault. Only Foucault addresses the issue of the distribution of power in society and how it affects not just outcomes but discourse itself. See also the post Justice, Power, and Truth.

  72. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I agree, I keep forgetting Foucault mainly because I am less familiar with his writings. But the essential points about how power can shape what we see as true and also how institutions can themselves shape our ideas of what is feasible are very true.

  73. SouthAsian Says:

    Read this story, watch the attached video clip, then reflect on the following:

    India is a democracy, China is an authoritarian state. Now replace urban residents with forest residents, and real estate developers with mining corporations. Note: the behavior of the two states is so similar, their sympathies so congruent, their objectives so uniform, and the outcomes so alike. How does one explain this phenomenon? Does form really matter?

    Does it matter that India is a self-styled socialist secular democratic republic and China is a self-styled people’s republic?

    This May 2010 interview with Pranab Bardhan about his new book China and India: Awakening Giants, Feet of Clay will be of interest to readers.

  74. Arun Pillai Says:

  75. SouthAsian Says:

    Arundhati Roy on The Trickledown Revolution:

    Are there any disagreements with Arundhati Roy’s analysis? Are there any issues we can pick up for further discussion?


    If you pay attention to many of the struggles taking place in India, people are demanding no more than their constitutional rights. But the Government of India no longer feels the need to abide by the Indian constitution, which is supposed to be the legal and moral framework on which our democracy rests.

    There’s nothing small about what’s going on. We are watching a democracy turning on itself, trying to eat its own limbs. We’re watching incredulously as those limbs refuse to be eaten.

    Here in India, even in the midst of all the violence and greed, there is still immense hope. If anyone can do it, we can do it. We still have a population that has not yet been completely colonized by that consumerist dream. We have a living tradition of those who have struggled for Gandhi’s vision of sustainability and self-reliance, for socialist ideas of egalitarianism and social justice. We have Ambedkar’s vision which challenges the Gandhians as well the Socialists in serious ways. We have the most spectacular coalition of resistance movements with experience, understanding and vision.

    The first step towards re-imagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination—an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment. To gain this philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past, but who may really be the guides to our future. To do this, we have to ask our rulers: Can you leave the water in the rivers? The trees in the forest? Can you leave the bauxite in the mountain? If they say cannot, then perhaps they should stop preaching morality to the victims of their wars.

  76. Vinod Says:

    Analysis?! SA, it was more polemical than analytical. Facts get pressed in the service of ideological rhetoric. Connections are made without establishing causal links. Issues get conflated. Blame is thrown around. In the midst of all this there is also legitimate analysis. I don’t think I can deal with all of them together.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: Arundhati’s political writings have a way of spinning out of control. My suggestion is to focus on two very strong claims made by her:

      If you pay attention to many of the struggles taking place in India, people are demanding no more than their constitutional rights. But the Government of India no longer feels the need to abide by the Indian constitution, which is supposed to be the legal and moral framework on which our democracy rests.

      There’s nothing small about what’s going on. We are watching a democracy turning on itself, trying to eat its own limbs. We’re watching incredulously as those limbs refuse to be eaten.

      We should bring our own observations and evidence to bear on these claims to assess if they are right or wrong. If they are right, or even partially right, we should infer the implications for the future of India.

  77. SouthAsian Says:

    Arundhati Roy’s contrary opinion on Kashmir in the New York Times:

    Should she be harassed for her opinions?

    • Anil Kala Says:

      Is anybody harassing her? Is noise made by political parties, harassment? She appears to be moving without any restriction, no fake case brought againt her by government of India. Where is the harassment? Do you mean people have no right to vehemnetly oppose her views?

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Anil: Vehement opposition to views should be alright. I guess, it would depend on how much vehemence is considered acceptable. Arundhati Roy feels breaking into her home and threatening to teach her a lesson crosses the line and constitutes harassment. This is the Guardian story about the incidence:

        • Anil Kala Says:

          I am sorry, I missed this incident.

          • Anil Kala Says:

            Vinod, where did you get that idea?

            India is doing fine. Until a large multitude in India has its secondary needs satisfied, we cannot expect liberal attitude. No, education alone will do not that. People become magnanimous when they feel secure. We have examples of Eastern Europe as well as much advanced US. Otherwise composed Americans became hysterical at first sign of jobs moving out to India and other countries.

            So relax, Indians are making progress.

          • Vinod Says:

            Anil, please help me understand how material advancement of a country and maturity of response to provocation of nationalistic sentiments are related.

          • Anil Kala Says:

            As a little boy I was smug about my religion. I had this condescending attitude towards other religions, ”Yeah, they are religions too, just a guy running the show.’ I was overwhelmed by the dazzling religion, the sense of participation was very satisfying. When pundit tied crimson thread around my wrist before yagn with chanting of sacred mantra, I felt exalted. Other religions seemed bland, very primitive therefore their followers worthy of sympathy for being religiously deprived. Never a sense of competition with them; the tolerance came from smugness. I read somewhere that felony like treason was also taken lightly during Gupta period in Indian history.
            The assumption is empirical. Once we feel secure about future, we relax, begin to have sympathy or indifference to others fellows on the other hand if we do not feel secure we tend react with suspicion to every move which our linear thinking suggests a threat to our security needs. We have example of Europe, eastern side and the western side. Both the parts have invested heavily on education, therefore literacy is not a factor there. A provocation in Eastern and western part of Europe evokes different response.

            But maverick leaders can make a difference for no reason at all, like Hitler did.

        • Anil Kala Says:

          SA would you call it harassment or a case of vandalism? ‘Harassment’ in the dramatic manner you have posed question, would be sustained effort by the state to make life miserable for Arundhati Roy with the intent of making her tow official line with regard to Kashmir. It has never worked in past it will not work with Arundhati Roy. I know of Nikhil Wagle editor of ‘Apla Mahanager’ (I suppose defunct now) who criticized Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray as a consequence Sainiks vandalized Mahanagar office multiple times. Nobody called it harassment.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Anil: There is a fine line between vandalism and harassment. If someone vandalizes my home and threatens to fix me, I would call it harassment. It may not be the state doing it and it may not be sustained, but it is still harassment. Arundhati seems conscious of this distinction when she says “I wasn’t arrested that night. Instead, in what is becoming a common political strategy, officials outsourced their displeasure to the mob.”

            Also, I am not sure I would subscribe to the claim that harassment has never worked in the past. In statistics, this would be the case of missing observations. We never hear of all the people who were deterred from criticism because they were afraid of the harassment that might follow. I am also not sure if Apla Mahanager is defunct now because it was repeatedly vandalized and threatened. The outcome is important – it is defunct – whether it was because of vandalism or harassment seems to be incidental. If vandalism is good enough to do the needful, why resort to harassment?

            The real point is this. Voicing critical opinions is a free speech right that is protected under the Constitution. Vandalism and threats are clear violations of the law that need to be charged. So, one would expect perpetrators of vandalism and threats to be booked. If they are not, then Arundhati’s claim has credibility.

          • Anil Kala Says:

            I think we are moving in different tracks. You are expecting an idealistic response from Indian public and superman’s job from Indian state. You cannot expect the same kind of maturity from Indian public, you expect from western developed societies; there is still a long way to go. If the state knew about imminent organized attack at Arundhati’s house and did nothing to protect her even then it is one off incident, certainly condemnable in strongest words but cannot be called systematic harassment. As for as Arundhati’s statement is considered, there no reason to accept it as gospel truth. There are two very level headed men viz. P Chidambaram and Dr. Manmohan Singh who would think a thousand times before out sourcing harassment, the kind Arundhati is accusing. Let somebody else say that other than her.
            “The real point is this. Voicing critical opinions is a free speech right that is protected under the Constitution. Vandalism and threats are clear violations of the law that need to be charged. So, one would expect perpetrators of vandalism and threats to be booked.”
            Absolutely right! But do you think only Arundhati is victim of this problem? How many Shiv Sainiks have been booked, how many Bajrang Dal hoodlums have been booked for vandalizing M F Hussain’s work, there are many other cases, I don’t recall if ever anyone had been booked in such cases? This is a general problem of Indian society.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Anil: I feel you have misunderstood my intention. It is not that I care about Arundhati alone. I mentioned what I felt was the real point: free speech is protected under the constitution; vandalism is a violation of the law. The fact that Arundhati is not the only victim does not make it alright nor would it satisfy me if Arundhati was spared but others continued to be affected. I don’t believe that the state is unable to apprehend the perpetrators of vandalism. The fact that it does not is a serious issue that encourages more vandalism. Our responsibility is push the state to live up to its responsibility not to make excuses for its lapses.

            The question we should ask about Jane Fonda is whether she was right or wrong about Vietnam not whether she antagonized American public opinion. We now know that Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident just as Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So we should appreciate the courage of dissidents who risk vandalism and harassment and censure to speak what they believe to be the truth. They may be wrong at times but the way to respond to an argument is with an argument, not with a threat for which there should be zero tolerance in society.

          • Vinod Says:


            I can’t help notice that there is a tone of moral fatalism in the above comment of yours. To your credit you end the comment admitting that it is a problem. But sadly you start off by stating that removing the problem is idealistic and that somehow Indians are less capable of displaying that than westerners. I find very visceral and cerebral reactions in me against that.

          • Anil Kala Says:

            Btw I meant harassment of celebrities has never paid. America did correct thing when Jane Fonda went to North Vietnam at the height of war to say nasty things about US. She only antagonized public at home and faded. Arundhati is doing the same to one of the most powerful player in Kashmir problem. She is antagonizing Indian public. There are only four real players who matter in Kashmir case, they are public and political opinion in India and Pakistan. World can only make noise, nothing more. We have examples of North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Sudan etc.

          • Anil Kala Says:

            SA, I think you are also misreading me. Did I say I approve vandalism? There is no shame is accepting ground realities. The truth is government lacks desire to punish vandals this however should not be construed as work of an agenda. Your comment on harassment of Arundhati Roy was loaded!

            Jane Fonda as well as Arundhati are both either dumb or fake. They are dumb because what they are saying should be addressed to target audience in most persuasive manner not with belligerence. In both the cases decisive opinion that matters is back home, therefore convincing them only works. If you succeed, victory for you if not, bad luck. Shouting in belligerent tone to foreigners give them brightest arc light but will it mould opinion back home?

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Anil: We are indeed misreading each other and stressing different points. Perhaps that is because we are starting with different premises. Only when we examine the latter would we know if we really differ on substance. One way would be to step back and ask a few questions of clarification:

            1. What are the ground realities we have accept before advancing the discussion?
            2. Why does the government lack the desire to punish vandals? Is it because it is unable to or is because it does not want to? If the latter, why does it not want to?
            3. In what way was my comment on Arundhati loaded? What was it loaded with?
            4. About the issues Arundhati is raising, do you have somebody in mind who is raising the same issues in a persuasive manner to which the audience is listening?
            5. Should interacting with foreigners be restricted?

          • Anil Kala Says:

            You put up a link stating Arundhati’s contrary view on Kashmir in New York Times and then dramatically posed,
            “Should Arundhati be harassed for her opinion?”
            All my replies relate to your this comment, suggesting that nobody is deliberately trying to harass her.

            1. What are ground realities? I have already explained. It is that a response to perceived provocation in India may not be as mature as one we may expect in more advanced society, therefore violent reaction should not be considered systematic harassment. I gave enough such examples which nobody in India considered harassment.

            2. Why does government lacks the desire to punish vandals is entirely different matter but it certainly does not imply that government is out sourcing harassment. The simplest reason that occurs to me is that government of the day feels utterly lethargic, sees no value in it for itself or simply tomorrow their own may be in the same boat.

            3. A loaded question has presumption of guilt, that’s what your question implied.

            4. I don’t know if there are others raising issues which Arundhati is raising in more persuasive manner or whether audience is listening to them.

            5. Absolutely not! Arundhati is doing it. I merely made a point that she is doing her cause no good. The manner in which she makes her point antagonizes people back home, that’s all to it. It occurred to me that opinion of people back home is more important if she is sincere in seeing her views implemented.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Anil: I don’t think we can close the gap because our premises are indeed different. But at least we know why we see things differently.

  78. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I have not followed the whole Kashmir story closely so my remarks here should be taken as provisional and tentative.

    My impression is that for twenty years the Pakistan government and its ISI worked closely with terrorist organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba and sent thousands of terrorists into Kashmir to destabilize it. For the first decade there were many many terrorist incidents in Kashmir. This led to reprisal by the Indian government and naturally, as always happens in military conflict, there were mistakes and repressive measures on the local population. Earlier, there was only a very weak movement for a free Kashmir. It is only more recently that it has grown as strong as it has owing to the militarization of Kashmir.

    So, while Arundhati Roy is taking the side of the Kashmiris, she seems to be completely silent about how this situation came about. It was engineered by Pakistan.

    If what I am saying is correct, then it muddies the situation considerably. The movement for freedom in Kashmir is completely engineered by outside forces. How should one treat such a situation? The answers are not so clear.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: The history of Kashmir is over 60 years old. You have accounted for 20 of them. This leaves a gap of 40 years which is too long to initiate a meaningful discussion. For example, with this gap you will not be able to explain why in 1953, well before the ISI and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Shaikh Abdullah, who had favored the accession of Kashmir to India and was a personal friend of Pandit Nehru, was arrested by the Government of India and kept imprisoned for 11 years. Nor would you be able to explain why an American anthropologist was denied entry to Kashmir in 2010 (see here). You can pick up the thread at either end and explore the details of these specific incidents. They would give you a more nuanced understanding of the history, without negating what you know already, and provide the basis for a forward-oriented discussion.

      I would suggest you undertake a quick backgrounder to fill in the gaps. The Open Society Institute video discussion moderated by Steve Coll of the New Yorker that we had linked earlier could be one source (Solve Kashmir First: Rethinking South Asia’s Longest War). Basharat Peer’s book (Curfewed Night) could be another. The advantage of both is that they are free of distorting propaganda from Pakistan.

  79. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I watched the video. While I got some useful facts about the early years right at the beginning of the discussion, I found much of the discussion undirected and substandard. Perhaps the intractable nature of the problem makes it hard to say cogent things. Pankaj Mishra was especially disappointing as I have occasionally liked his written work.

    In any case, my basic thoughts were reinforced by the video. First, independence for Kashmir does not seem like a viable solution. This is what the panelists themselves said. Second, apparently both India and Pakistan came close to an agreement involving shared sovereignty and limited autonomy in 2007. This sounded quite sensible. Unfortunately, the Mumbai terrorist attacks followed and things have now worsened.

    The upshot of this is that much of the trouble stems from terrorist activity abetted by Pakistan. If Pakistan were to somehow be able to focus on a more constructive growth path the way India has, there could be real scope for neighborly cooperation and the whole Kashmir issue could be defused. I do not know how this might happen but the costs to itself of promoting terrorism must register at some time and perhaps this will make people turn to productive activity. It also needs to overcome its India paranoia.

    At the same time, India should definitely curtail its repressive measures in Kashmir but it would have to maintain its military presence. Strangely, everyone talks about the half a million Indian soldiers there but no one mentions terrorism. I find this a kind of double standard.

    In this context, I have to say that Arundhati’s remarks are really way off track. In my view, this is her logic:

    1. India is pursuing neoliberal policies.
    2. Neoliberalism is evil and must be overthrown.
    3. Find all the human rights and constitutional violations that India commits and ascribe these to neoliberalism rather than to contingent factors like corporate greed (in the case of Naxalism) or terrorism (in the case of Kashmir).
    4. By ascribing them to neoliberalism, it becomes possible to critique the Indian state itself as being repressive or authoritarian or violent.
    5. This sounds both more intellectual and serves the anti-capitalist stance.
    6. Ask for solutions that will ultimately dismantle the Indian state e.g. let the bauxite remain in the mountains i.e. anti-development and anti-growth; or let Kashmir become independent i.e. let India break up both in the north and north-east.

    I have to say that I find both her reasoning and her stances extremely childish and dysfunctional because she could be playing a much more productive role.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: We have gone over Arundhati’s position in the context of the discussion on Adivasis, so we would be repeating the arguments here. The central point of the post written by Vijay Vikram was that India is better off with an Arundhati than without one. That still remains the central point of the discussion.

      There are two quite distinct aspects we have to consider. Arundhati is raising issues that she feels passionate about; and she is providing an explanation for why the issues have emerged. We disagree with the logic of her explanations but that does not imply that the issues do not exist. Let someone else provide a better explanation that would advance the debate. We can’t insist on Arundhati playing the productive role that we want her to play. Her role is productive enough if she is forcing some people to pay attention to the issues, get familiar with their histories, and provide alternative explanations.

      At the same time we should remain cognizant of the possibility that our own explanations, which we have yet to provide, might also be wrong. Everyone has a right to be wrong. But let us not forget the issues in the process. Of course, if the position is that there are no issues, just the figments of Arundhati’s fevered imagination, then we would have a different discussion altogether.

  80. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I agree with Vijay Vikram that dissent is always valuable as everything is fallible and we should have a healthy dose of skepticism towards all views including our own.

    There are real issues to consider. And Arundhati is bringing attention to them.

  81. SouthAsian Says:

    An article in The Guardian that agrees Arundhati Roy is “a good thing.”

    From the article:

    Her prose takes few prisoners, and runs against the grain of urban India’s swelling prosperity. A common criticism is her refusal to balance the bad against the good. Yes, the greed is spectacular. Yes, the corruption inside government may be obscene. Yes, 800 million people exist on less than 20 rupees (about 35p) a day. But look on the bright side. That leaves another 400 million doing better than ever before, in an economy growing at dizzying rates, with India now receiving the obeisance of the west. So why write so narrowly and speak so angrily?

    Roy has a standard reply. “Suppose there are 10 people in this room. Seven are starving, and one is winning medals, and two are doing OK. And I say, ‘Look at these seven people who are starving,’ and you say, ‘Oh don’t be so negative, no, things are not so bad – look at the other three.’ Really?”

  82. Arun Pillai Says:

    As I have said several times above, Arundhati is not merely saying that there are seven people starving in the room. As I explained in a couple of posts above this one, she gives reasons why they are starving and gives solutions for how to stop them from starving. Both are way off. So while her presence as a gadfly may be useful, I don’t consider her a serious part of the diagnosis or solution.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Yes, you have said that several times but the counter-argument has also been made that there is nothing that precludes you from offering a better solution. The point at issue is whether Arundhati is a “good thing” for raising the issue, for providing a platform where competing solutions can be debated which is the essence of a democratic dispensation.

      The originating post was by Vijay Vikram who is the co-founder of Centre-Right India and he put the proposition very clearly: “Naysayers might argue that her critique is far from coherent but that is of little concern here. I am happy that at least somebody is willing to question the nature of Indian democracy, even if that person stares across from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.”

      The Guardian article ends on the same note: “There are many cleverer people, just as concerned with injustices, who have more rounded and considered views. But there’s nobody else who’s as critically engaged with the state as she is and so willing to take it on. So is she a good thing? Yes.”

      So the argument is among those who think Arundhati is “good thing” and those who think she is a “bad thing” independent of the solution she is proposing. You are straddling the divide by arguing that her presence “may” be useful and tying the judgment to the fact that her solution differs from yours.

  83. Arun Pillai Says:

    Above my previous post and your Guardian post, I said unequivocally that her writings call attention to various issues that need to be debated and that is a good thing. I tend to qualify this sometimes because there are relatively few public intellectuals in India and a relatively smaller public sphere for debate. I can think of only Ram Guha who has taken her on directly. In such situations, an extreme voice can drown out more reasonable voices, a phenomenon that is commonplace in the world. It is hard to say if this is happening, but if it is then her presence may not be such a good thing. For example, many urbanites are somewhat sympathetic to the Maoists and this is perhaps partly due to her. If there had been more moderate voices in the fray, they might not have been so swayed.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Arundhati became known to the general public when she won the Booker Prize in 1997. Her career as an activist didn’t start till later. So, at most she has been on the scene for ten years. The Naxal/Maoist movement dates to 1967 and the attraction of a certain segment of urban youth for Leftist politics has been a constant for longer and not just in India. It seems a bit unfair to pin the sympathy for Maoists on to Arundhati. It also seems not just a bit unfair to blame the paucity of moderate voices on Arundhati given the brief time she has been active.

  84. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I just meant to be raising other possibilities. I didn’t want it to seem as if the proposition was obvious and did not need some debate. At the level at which the question is being defined, it does appear obvious: is any additional voice good in a democracy? Of course, the more the merrier.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: There is definitely need for debate but there are two debates, not one. The one you are stressing (Does Arundhati’s solution make sense? Is her voice too shrill?) assumes meaning only within a larger debate that has priority – Is there room in India for a voice that is shrill (leaving aside how we define shrill) or not? The reason this debate is important is because there seem to be many (how many?) who feel Arundhati is un-Indian, a traitor or an external agent just because she has raised these issues.

      The big question pertains to the kind of India we want. MJ Akbar said recently that if Salman Taseer had been an Indian he would have been alive today. Can we hold India to that?

  85. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    There was no mention earlier – as far as I can recall – of people who find Arundhati un-Indian or a traitor. This is a new angle you seem to be introducing in light of her recent comments about Kashmir. In such a debate, I have no hesitation in echoing the quote attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    I am concerned though that there are not enough analytical voices in the debate.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: It was a comment on a different post (To Whom Does India Belong?) where Arundhati was included amongst “Indians who have been groomed by the Western Liberals to badmouth India.”

      I agree that for a good debate we need more views on each topic. The pattern of one-to-one discussion that has become the norm on the blog is not the ideal. How we move from one to the other I do not quite know.

  86. SouthAsian Says:

    Here are three articles that together can move this argument further. The first elaborates on the big hole in the idea of India. The second can quite readily be reinterpreted in the Indian context – Arundhati Roy is doing nothing more than pointing to that big hole that has somehow become invisible to those who can repair it. The third documents the terrible road that the forgotten have had to travel elsewhere. Do the forgotten in India have to travel down the exact same road after 200 years or can the idea of India include them in a meaningful way?

    1. An essay: India@61: An Idea Gone Astray:
    2. Malcom X in 1964: The Ballot or the Bullet:
    3. An account of a slave revolt 200 years ago in the US:

    • Vinod Says:

      SA, I read the three of them. They all had an emotional impact on me. Thanks for the links. I wish I could compare the then situation in America and the current situation in India objectively. But all that I have is my subjective feel on this comparison. Education in India has produced a middle class that is not proud about the caste system. The divide between the rich and the poor in India by itself is insufficient to create any civil war. What matters for any social unrest is the treatment given to the persons of the poorer classes and their resources. If the ruling classes treat these as if the people there don’t count then there is a big problem brewing. I wonder what the cause of this blindness to the state of the poor masses in India is. I can’t see an ideology at work. Is it just general moral decadence and apathy?

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: Your comment should initiate a very useful discussion and I hope other readers join in with their views. You have enquired about the cause of the blindness regarding the state of the poor in India. In my view, it is not moral decadence or apathy. If you ask individuals most of them would express awareness and sympathy and a desire for things to be better. This kind of blindness can only result from an ideology; in India it is the ideology of economic growth and the blind belief that it would be the growth that would be the instrument of alleviating poverty.

        This does not mean that one has to flip over to an anti-growth position but one has surely to question this blind faith. The US South got immensely rich from the plantations (much richer than India) but there was no trickle down of prosperity to the workers. They had to revolt and wage a prolonged struggle to wrest their rights.

        Growth is necessary but one has to ask the question: growth for what and growth at what cost? Turning the aspiration for a 10% annual growth rate into a fetish without looking at the cost to humans and nature that stand in the way is a sure sign of blindness. It is strange indeed to sacrifice the lives of precisely those people in the quest for growth whom one wishes to help with its fruits. These people include not only those in farming or living atop mineral resources but the urban middle class that is being deprived of an education in the rush to provide the skills required as fodder for the impersonal engine of economic growth. It is only the blindness of an ideology that can make such obvious costs invisible to most people.

  87. SouthAsian Says:

    Amitava Kumar’s interview with Arundhati Roy:

    AK: What is it about Roy that so irks the Indian middle-class and elite?
    AR: The Indian elite has seceded into outer space. It seems to have lost the ability to understand those who have been left behind on earth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: