Indian democracy and Public Reasoning

Published : Feb 25, 2005 00:00 IST



Interview with Amartya Sen.

NOBEL Laureate and economist-philosopher Amartya Sen's rigorous and meticulous analysis of Indian economic situation has invariably led to a critical engagement with a number of political problems and public policy issues.

In this exclusive interview Professor Amartya Sen speaks to John M. Alexander about the role and importance of public reasoning in approaching the issues of democracy, secularism and social justice in contemporary India. "Democracy," says Sen, "is integrally linked with public reasoning."

Three essential features of public reasoning especially receive continuous attention in this discussion. First, public reasoning involves respect for pluralism and an attitude of tolerance for different points of view and lifestyles. Second, public reasoning demands an open public discussion of issues of common concern. Third, public reasoning encourages political commitment and participation of people in public action for the transformation of society.

The seeds of democracy and the practice of public reasoning, Sen reminds, are deeply embedded in Indian history and tradition for a very long time. However, the achievements at present in India are still far short of these ideals. Sen advocates that, among others, school education, basic health care, land reforms, micro-credit facilities, the protection of minorities and the promotion of human rights require the immediate attention of governments, political leaders, the media, non-governmental organisations and the public at large. Also, Sen relates his theoretical insights to practical issues such as reservation policies, "identity politics", liberalisation and globalisation.

Amartya Sen is currently Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy, at Harvard University, Cambridge, United States. The interview took place on November 26, 2004 at Harvard University. Excerpts:

In the summer of 1997, when asked by a leading Japanese newspaper to name the most important phenomenon of the 20th century, you singled out the rise and development of democracy. Later, towards the end of 1999, in the article for the Journal of Democracy, you argued that democracy was a universal value. Your engagement with the idea of democracy, however, is not anything recent. In 1980, and even earlier, in your analysis of famines and hunger, you pointed out the importance and relevance of democracy in tackling pressing economic problems. Thus, your justly famous statement: "It is certainly true that there has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy." Could you mention some of the reasons for this life-long engagement and unwavering confidence in democracy?

Democracy can make, I think, three major contributions to a country. First, since political freedom is an important freedom, the freedom to participate, to speak and to vote is part and parcel of human freedom that we have reason to value. Democratic freedoms have intrinsic importance, no matter what else they achieve.

Second, a democratic political system is instrumentally important, both (1) because it gives the rulers the incentive to respond to problems and predicaments of the public (the government has to take note of opposition criticism as well as the possibility of electoral defeat), and (2) because information becomes more easily available and shared with democratic practice.

Third, through allowing and encouraging public discussion, democratic political systems can help the formation of values. For example, the importance of gender equality or of protecting minority rights or of taking note of inequalities in the distribution of economic fortunes or social benefits can become more fully understood through forceful democratic dialogue and discussion - but all this can be suppressed if political freedoms and electoral politics are suspended.

What is the best way to understand your universality claim regarding democracy? Should we understand it `empirically' in the sense that in most parts of the world today (especially in the post-colonial and post-communist transition period) people begin to recognise that the best way of governing themselves is through free and fair elections, protection of basic liberties, an effective judiciary, and free and critical media. Or, should we understand it as a normative claim in the sense that it is valuable and desirable for people anywhere in the world?

There are two universality claims. One is a normative claim, regarding the universal importance of democracy and its constitutive features of political participation, shared deliberation and electoral competition. All societies can benefit from these democratic practices. The second universality claim is empirical, and partly historical, namely that the tradition of public reasoning and open public discussion has tended to develop in every society in one form or another, and the history of democracy - in the broad sense of "government by discussion" - is spread across the world and goes back for a very long time.

Your appraisal of Indian democracy has always been, if I may call it, realistic. While appreciating a number of positive achievements so far, you speak of the "gap" or discontinuity between the democratic ideals and institutions on the one hand and democratic practice on the other. What are the best ways to close this gap?

Democratic institutions give people the opportunity to participate in deliberations and dialectics, to press for justice and equity, and to reject socially unacceptable policies. These are matters of public action. Institutions make room for such action and allow its free use. But institutions alone cannot yield public action in any mechanical way. Democratic institutions cannot substitute for public action and participatory politics.

There are a number of ways one can try to reduce the gap between democratic institutions and practice. For instance, achieving greater democracy at the local levels, especially by way of initiatives to promote panchayati administration and decisional power can go a long way in transforming the practice and quality of Indian democracy. Similarly, democratic institutions cannot function adequately if political leaders, judges, civil servants and others could be induced to act on private and special interests.

Along with that we should also try to bring in more transparency and accountability at all levels. In the absence of adequate public accountability, government schools, health centres, the public distribution system and other development schemes have continued to provide poor service to people. Political commitment and involvement of people in public agitations and protests are also among the ways of strengthening the practice of democracy.

In recent years, there have been conflicting claims on the effects of liberalisation and the economic reforms introduced by the end of 1991 on Indian democracy. The previous coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party in some sense tried to exaggerate it through its "India Shining" campaign. But others, however, point out that it has made very little difference to the vast majority of population in the country. How do you view liberalisation and its effects on Indian democracy at this moment? You have often pointed out that debate should focus not on liberalisation per se but on issues "beyond liberalisation". What does that refer to?

My position has been that Indian policymaking and planning have suffered both (1) from "the licence Raj" with an overactive government in some fields (stifling industrial initiative), and (2) from the "neglect of social opportunities" with an underactive government in other areas (such as school education, basic health care, land reforms, micro-credit facilities). Liberalisation addresses the first problem, but not the second.

There is a growing fear that globalisation is not strengthening the democracies around the world, including Indian democracy but rather it has especially aggravated the levels of inequality and deprivation. Democratic governments and institutions have to explicitly or implicitly follow the logic of global capitalism and toe the line of Western multinational corporations and international institutions. This concern has been gaining momentum in recent years especially in the form of anti-globalisation movements and the World Social Forum. How do you view this phenomenon? And how should one judge the process of globalisation, which is, in some sense, inevitable?

For thousands of years, global contacts and interactions in science, mathematics, engineering, literature and economy have constituted a positive force in the world. They still remain a source of benefit for all countries. But the sharing of benefits can be made less unequal through global as well as local policies.

The former requires a better system of technology movements and use of innovations and intellectual properties as well as more welcoming trade policies on the part of the rich countries in the world.

But there are also issues of local policies, to make a country move forward in benefiting from the opportunities of global exchange of ideas and commodities. The lessons that China offers in this second respect have to be viewed more seriously in India - there is much to learn from, there. To admire China's performance, but to ignore what makes that possible, cannot be a sensible attitude.

In contemporary philosophical discussions of democracy, we could broadly identify three influential conceptions: liberal, participatory and deliberative democracy. Liberal democracy, especially the one articulated by Rawls, recognises a set of basic liberties and tries to address the demands of equality and efficiency in the economic sphere. Participatory democracy emphasises the idea that citizens should actively participate in politics. And deliberative democracy stresses the idea that individuals as free and autonomous persons engage with one another in open and public deliberation on issues of common concern. So far, you have not limited your views on democracy to any one particular conception. On a close reading of your writings, one can find that values of freedom, equality, participation and public discussion all receive significant attention. Could we, therefore, take your approach to be a "hybrid" view?

Those cannot really be isolated conceptions of democracy, since democratic politics requires the protection of political freedom (such as free speech, uncensored media, freedom from political prosecution or persecution), as well as public participation and social deliberation. Broadly speaking, democracy is integrally linked with "public reasoning", and the three different features to which you refer all fit into that broad understanding of democracy.

You had strongly condemned the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and the communal violence that followed across the country especially in Mumbai. In the article "The Threats to Secular India" published in the New York Review of Books (April 8, 1993) you described the claims and activities of the Hindu political extremists as threats to secular India. But when it comes to the understanding of the concept of secularism in the Indian context, there are a number of critics who point out that it is an "obscure" and "empty" concept and is based on an arbitrary distinction between what is religious and secular. Would you agree with that observation?

No, I don't agree at all. It is not "obscure" to demand that everyone be given the opportunity to practise his or her religion without having to face violence or vandalism. Nor is it "empty" to demand that no religion should be politically favoured over others.

Your position on secularism is succinctly summarised in the sentence found in the above mentioned article: "Given the diversity and contrasts within India, there is not, in the comprehensive politics of the country, much alternative to secularism as an essential part of overall pluralism." Here, you point out that any attempt to reflect on secularism should be always placed in the larger horizon of pluralism and advocate a "symmetry" interpretation of secularism. Could you elaborate these with some examples?

There are two ways of understanding secularism: focussing respectively on (1) political neutrality between different religions, and (2) political prohibition of religious associations in state activities. Indian secularism has tended to emphasise neutrality in particular, rather than prohibition in general. In contrast, it is the "prohibitory" aspect that has been the central issue in the recent French decision to ban the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women students, on the grounds that it violates secularism.

The secular demand that the state be "equidistant" from different religions (including agnosticism and atheism) need not disallow any person individually - irrespective of his or her religion - from deciding what to wear, so long as members of different faiths are treated symmetrically. The immediate issue here is not so much whether the French ban is a wrong policy. It could, quite possibly, be justified for some other reason (different from the alleged violation of secularism), for example on the grounds that the head scarves are symbols of gender inequality and are offensive to many women, or that women (especially young girls) don't really have the freedom to determine what to wear, and that dress decisions are imposed on them by more powerful members of families with male dominance. Those can be important concerns (I shall not undertake here a critical scrutiny of their comparative relevance and force), but they are distinct from the demands of secularism in terms of the equidistance approach, which has emerged powerfully in India, of which a good example is Akbar's legal principle: "no one should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him". In this sense, the acceptance of the legitimacy of pluralism is central to secularism.

The tolerance of religious diversity is implicitly reflected in India's having served as a shared home - in the chronology of history - of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, atheists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Baha'is, and others. The Vedas, which date back at least to the middle of the second millennium BCE, paved the way to what is now called Hinduism (that term, was devised much later by Persians and Arabs, after the river Sindhu, or the Indus). Buddhism and Jainism both emerged by the sixth century BCE. Buddhism, the practice of which is now rather sparse in India, was the dominant religion of the country for nearly a thousand years. Jainism, on the other hand, which was also born at the same time as Buddhism, has survived as a powerful Indian religion over two millennia and a half.

Jews came to India, it appears, shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, though there are also other theories of earlier arrivals. Christians too came very early, and by the fourth century, there were large Christian communities in India. Parsis started arriving from late seventh century, as soon as persecutions of Zoroastrianism began in Persia.

The Baha'is were among the last groups to seek refuge in India - in the last century. Over this long period, there were other migrations, including the settlement of Muslim Arab traders, which began on India's Western coast in the eighth century - well before the invasions that came from other Muslim countries via the more warlike northwestern routes. There were in addition many conversions, especially to Islam. Each religious community managed to retain its identity within India's multi-religious spectrum.

Tolerating and even celebrating diversity have also been explicitly defended in strong arguments in favour of the richness of variations, including fulsome praise of the need to interact with each other, in mutual respect, through dialogues. Defences have come from emperors like Asoka in the third century BCE to Akbar in the sixteenth century CE, and also from such spokesmen of public tolerance as Kabir, Dadu, Mirabai and other poets.

When the flames of intolerance are being fanned by some sectarian groups, it is important to remember Asoka's argument, presented 2,300 years ago: "He who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own sect, in reality inflicts, by such conduct, the severest injury on his own sect." The arguments for secularism in the sense of symmetry and equidistance have a long history in India, and they have stood their ground despite the presence of much military confrontation and sectarian violence over thousands of years.

I believe one of the clear advantages of the "symmetry" model of secularism is that it offers people an opportunity to choose a life of freedom in general, including religious and cultural freedom. In the Human Development Report 2004 (chapter 1) you argue that the concept of human development should be further deepened to include cultural liberties. In that connection, you even speak of the right to one's identity. But when this is translated into political practice in India it invariably generates "identity politics" that hardens group identities and polarises society along the lines of caste, religion and language. Could this tension be resolved?

The right to choose one's cultural practice need not lead to "identity politics." Quite the contrary. Identity politicians deny the right of anyone to choose his or her religion. They also try to instil an intolerance of the cultural lifestyles of others.

On different occasions, you not only object to a Hindutva's idea of India and its interpretation of India's past but also find a certain affinity between Hindutva and the tendency of certain Western interpretations of India? Could you comment on this connection?

Even though the early colonial administrators in late eighteenth century - Warren Hastings among them - took a very broad interest in India's intellectual past, the narrowing of the imperial mind was quite rapid once the empire settled in. The demands of coercion and dominance were strong for the kind of distancing that could sustain the "autocracy set up and sustained in the East by the foremost democracy in the Western world" (as Ranajit Guha has insightfully described colonial India). India's religions and mystical thoughts did not threaten to undermine that imperial intellectual distance. There was no great difficulty in providing encouragement and assistance to those who gathered and translated "the sacred books of the east" (as Max Muller did, with support from the East India Company, commissioned in 1847, resulting in a 50-volume collection). But in the standard fields of pure and practical reason, the propensity to see a gigantic intellectual gap between India and the West - stretching long back into history - was certainly quite strong.

Let me illustrate. Consider, for example, the originality of Aryabhata's work, completed in 499 A.D., on the diurnal motion of the earth (disputing the earlier understanding of an orbiting sun) and the related proposal that there was a force of gravity, which prevented material objects from being thrown away as the earth rotated. The most influential colonial historian of British India, James Mill, took these claims to be straightforward fabrication. It was clear to Mill that the Indian "pundits had become acquainted with the ideas of European philosophers respecting the system of the universe", and have then proceeded to claim that "those ideas were contained in their own books". Mill's Indian history, which Macaulay described as "on the whole the greatest historical work which has appeared in our language since that of Gibbon", was tremendously influential in the intellectual world of the British Raj.

As it happens, however, the scientific ideas in dispute were well reported not just in Indian books, but also in the accounts of outside observers. In particular, they received careful and detailed description - as did other early Indian works in astronomy and mathematics - from Arab and Iranian mathematicians, who also translated and extensively used (with generous acknowledgement) some of the relevant Sanskrit books. For example, the Iranian mathematician Alberuni, commented specifically on this particular work of Aryabhata (which Mill took to be the result of 19th century fabrication) in an Arabic book on India (Ta'rikh al-hind) written in early 11th century. Indeed, Alberuni presents Aryabhata's arguments in some detail.

The Hindutva activists are, of course, keen to take pride in India's past, but seem to have some difficulty in knowing what to take pride in. The focussing on religion is similar to a part of the British imperial reading of Indian history. The neglect of real Indian science and mathematics, which began flourishing from the first millennium CE, in favour of some imaginary view of "Vedic mathematics" and "Vedic science", plays right into the hands of James Mill's charge of Indian fabrication. Also Hindutva's hostility to the Arab civilisation, because of its Muslim connection, overlooks the fact that the Arab and Iranian commentators always gave full credit to Indian mathematical and scientific accomplishments. The fruits of Hindu mathematics, from Aryabhata onwards, went to Christian Europe almost entirely through the works of Muslim Arab and Iranian mathematicians and astronomers, who explained the nature of the Indian contributions to the European readers.

In 1973, you dedicated your first edition of On Economic Inequality to Antara and Nandana with a rather unusual and interesting expression: "with the hope that when they grow up they will find less of it no matter how they decide to measure it." Now that more than 30 years have passed, do you think inequality in India has reduced?

First of all let me say that when I made that dedication, I was hoping for a reduction of inequality in the world everywhere not just only in India. The book is not particularly India-centered, but is concerned with general theoretical issues that are relevant everywhere, including of course India.

Now, concerning the reduction of inequality in India, I think it depends on which area one looks at. In terms of income inequality, I think the picture is much the same. I don't think there has been any dramatic change one way or another.

But if you look at some other areas, there seems to be some improvement, and this of course varies from region to region. If you, for example, consider land ownership in places like West Bengal and Kerala, there has been considerable progress. However, such progress has not happened in most other regions. Similarly, there have been some signs of improvement in the spread of opportunities for education reported in the National Sample Survey, although there is nothing nearly as much yet as I would like.

While I was writing the book in 1973, the opportunities for education were indeed extremely limited and much governed by class and gender. But now this situation seems to be changing. One could hope to go much further in that direction. In having the fruits of higher education shared, there has been much more equality in that respect; the fruits of higher education are now shared by a bigger part of the society than three decades ago. On the other hand, the gap between the highly educated Indian and the illiterate masses remains extraordinarily large. Therefore, the determination to face the issue of inequality fairly and squarely still remains extremely important and relevant even today.

Does that mean you would keep the same dedication?

Yes. I don't think there is a need for a different dedication today. The aspiration for more equality and justice is very much relevant even in today's context. We need to still keep the commitment to work for a more egalitarian society.

In recent years, Indian democracy has witnessed the emergence of a variety of social movements: Dalits, civil liberties, human rights, women, tribal, environmental, self-help groups and so on. Although each of these has its own unique emphasis and agenda, most of the activists of these groups think that social justice will be effectively realised by formulating their claims in terms of rights. However, you advocate an ethical approach of `broad consequentialism' that seems to integrate rights as well as other social goals. Do you think that this is a good way of approaching the issue of social justice? Does this not minimise the importance of rights?

It is an important question. I don't think my approach would minimise the importance of rights. Indeed, I take rights very seriously. Rights constitute a good way of formulating social goals in terms of the individual lives involved. I don't like formulating social objectives in aggregative terms like economic prosperity, modernisation and so on. We will have to see in what way different social objectives can really affect the lives of people.

Of course, human rights enter this story in a big way. We must not confine our conception of rights only to traditional individual liberties but also include the rights of people to lead a free life like freedom from premature death, morbidity, to hold one's head high, to practice religion and so on. All these freedoms are covered by a broad cluster of human rights. It is the personal coverage of human rights that I see as very important.

Along with rights come duties. Rights also generate duties on the part of others in society - what they are able to do, for instance, for people who have the right to literacy but do not get the opportunity for school education. A politician, or a journalist, or even a general citizen has duties to see what he or she can do to help the realisation of rights of people.

However, human rights are not exactly the same as legal rights. There are a lot of things that can be demanded as human rights without wanting these demands to be legal rights in every case. While it is useful to make some rights legal like, for example, the Supreme Court's judgment on the right of school mid-day meals, there are others which should be approached from the view of human rights.

Consider, for example, the issue of minority rights. When minority rights are violated, three terrible things are happening. First, the human right of the minority not to be terrorised or killed is violated. Second, there is the violation of what Immanuel Kant called a perfect obligation or duty, that no one should violate other people's rights. And here, it is being violated by those who are injuring and killing the minorities. Third, there is the non-fulfillment (to use Kant's term again) of the imperfect obligations of others, which refers to the failure of others in the community to protect the minority as in the case of Gujarat. The third may not be a legal duty but it is a human duty. The potential victims have not only a legal right not to be attacked by anyone, but also have a human right to receive assistance from anyone who can help. So, we need an ethical approach that would address all these inter-related rights and duties.

At the heart of most of your writings are the ideals of freedom (liberte) and equality (egalite). One could even argue that freedom and equality are more tightly linked in your approach than other competing theories of justice. But what about a third accompanying ideal of fraternity (fraternite) understood in the sense of sympathy and solidarity for fellow human beings? Unless one has a sense of solidarity for fellow citizens, no number of fine-grained theories of justice would help to build humane societies. How should we think of the relationship between justice and solidarity?

I think solidarity fits in well within the framework of freedom and equality. Solidarity, as I see it, has two different roles in this framework. First, among the freedoms we value is the freedom to be loved rather than hated by others. In that sense, solidarity is part of the infrastructure for human freedom and has to be constitutively valued.

Second, in order to advance different kinds of freedoms, solidarity can play an instrument role. A sense of solidarity, for instance, can play a positive role in making people accept that there needs to be a reduction of inequality in society. If, for instance, medical care for all requires sacrifices on the part of the rich, then solidarity suggests that you have to appeal to that rather than insisting that this must be done through some clever policies without people making sacrifices for each other. So, solidarity in the sense of willingness of people to take other people's lives and freedoms seriously, and to do appropriate things for advancing them, could be central to the pursuit of freedom and equality.

Take for instance human rights. Human rights can be seen as political and ethical claims that in an open public discussion will survive and even receive a lot of support. So public discussion and public reason are central to an understanding of human rights (as I have argued in my paper "Elements of a Theory of Human Rights" in the Fall number of Philosophy and Public Affairs). Human rights can survive in public reasoning through opening up the issue from being a narrow concern of one single individual to the concern of community as a whole. And for that we need solidarity. So solidarity is very much an underlying factor in what emerges in public reasoning.

Also, solidarity is important for the success of democracy. Let me illustrate it with the thesis, to which you pointed earlier, that there has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy. Why would this be so? If you take the percentage of the potential victims of famines, they are relatively small. Often it is around 5 per cent, and normally this does not exceed 10 per cent of the total population. If these 5 per cent or 10 per cent do not vote for you, your government need not fall. So, we need to ask the question again: why is famine a big threat to a government in democracy? It is not just because the famine victims will vote against you, but because through solidarity and public reasoning others will also criticise you and possibly vote against you. So, solidarity plays a central part in the way public reasoning works.

You have a short but an excellent essay "Merit and Justice" which could bring some clarity to one of the most contentious issues of social justice in India: affirmative (reservation) policies in politics, public employment and education. The issue has recently come to the fore again in the form of a demand for reservation in the private sector. The basic argument of this essay is that the notion of merit and the related idea of efficiency cannot be viewed in isolation from the notion of a good society and especially society's distributive goals. How would you relate this argument to India's reservation policies?

The whole idea of merit is a contingent one; it really depends on what things are to be valued. We cannot disassociate the idea of merit from the idea of a good society, from the idea that people have reason to value what is seen as merit. It is not so much a question of being generically for or against reservation policies. In fact, one has to judge the policies of reservation in terms of whether it will actually promote equity, as many people claim, or whether it does no such thing. These are serious issues to be discussed.

Moreover, in discussing the issue of reservation policies, we must understand that it is not based on an argument of intrinsic merit but that of social merit. By social merit I mean first and foremost whether the recognition of something as a merit improves the achievement of social goals, including the reduction of deprivations.

Of course, one of the difficulties to consider is that once some people are favoured through "reservation", this would generate a pressure group identity in that direction. Among the dangers to look at is to what extent it splits society. We have to see whether the beneficiaries of these policies are deprived groups and how these policies would enhance their lives and standing in society.

By way of analogy, the Indian situation could be compared up to a point to the situation in 19th century Europe when the leftwing parties (the Labour Party, the Socialist and the Communist parties) were trying to advance a class-based struggle. The argument on the other side was to say "what do you mean by class, we are all the same"; "we do not distinguish between upper class and lower class"; "we are all just human beings"; and so on. The insistence to avoid "class" came mainly from the upper classes and the conservatives. Those who wanted to change the system and bring the underdogs up were the ones who wanted a class-based discussion.

Similarly, the argument that caste must be avoided in politics can be seen, at least partly, as a move to escape addressing issues of inequality linked with caste. It does depend much on who is invoking caste and why. If the upper caste Hindus want to go around terrorising and killing landless lower caste peasants (as has happened in, say, Bihar), then caste is being used for anti-egalitarian regressive politics. But if caste is used for solidarity of the lower castes in order to demand some right and to have a less unequal society, then it has clearly a positive function. The problem, however, is that even for lower castes, sometimes the identities are so divisive that instead of being a source of solidarity against the top-dogs of society, they end up being internally divisive for bottom-dogs.

Will not the attempt to balance between merit and equity create incentive problems?

Incentive is an extremely serious issue. One can't ignore incentives and just say we will do the right thing no matter what the result is. However, people often underestimate the reach of incentives. Incentive is not just a desire for more income. Incentives include wanting a fulfilling life. There is benefit also from participatory satisfaction. If people acted only on the basis of narrow selfish interests, then we will have problem in motivating people to vote. Because every individual can say that his or her vote is not going to make a difference. One of the reasons why people vote is because they have an incentive to participate in a political process. So if you take that into account, we need to understand the whole issue of incentives more broadly.

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