Many years ago Jawaharlal Nehru wrote about Indian society that the group was of paramount importance whereas the individual had only a secondary place in it. He had in mind the three basic institutions of traditional Indian society, the village community, caste and joint family. He himself believed that caste and community should not be allowed to intrude unduly into the domain of public life in a democratic society. Communalism and casteism were regarded by him and his whole generation as unmixed evils which ought to be weeded out from public life.
The question whether the individual or the group should be treated as basic came up for discussion in the Constitution Assembly. Dr. Ambedkar argued forcefully in favour of individual and observed, “I am glad that the draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.’ To be sure, he advocated special measures for the benefit of Harijans and Adivasis. However, these measures, though widely endorsed, were also regarded exceptional in two important respects: there were to apply to limited sections of the population and there were to be time-bound. Dr. Ambedkar himself took pains to point out that the special measures should not be allowed to ‘eat up’ the general provision of equality of opportunity for all individual citizens.
The Constitutional Assembly met under the shadow of Partition of India and the fratricidal divisions that accompanied it. Those who met in it believed sincerely, if a little naively, that communalism and casteism were plainly and simply creatures of imperial policy of divide and rule. They felt that, even if they made very generous provisions for the Harijans and Adivasis, they could still build up a structure of equal opportunities for individuals as a bulwark against casteism.
If the years immediately following independence, the Indian intelligentsia, at least outside peninsular India, was on the whole reluctant to concede that caste might play a continuing role in public life. Evidence of the continuing role of caste in politics began to accumulate from several parts of the country during and after the election of 1957. It took sometime for the weight of this evidence to make itself felt, and in any case the evidence was not all of the same kind. The pressure of caste did not remain confined to electoral politics but began to influence government policy in regard to distributive justice, haltingly at first, but with increasing vigor after 1977.
Caste and community are now factors in public policy in a manner and to an extent no anticipated by the makers of Constitution. Quotas in education and employment can no longer be treated as exceptional, either in regard to the number of groups whose claims are admitted or in regard to the time span over which such claims may be expected to prevail. A major factor, in my view, has been the change in the attitude of the higher judiciary, which may be seen by comparing Justice Gajendragadkar’s arguments in Balaji’s case (1962) with those of Justice Krishna Iyer in the case of N. M. Thomas (1976).
No doubt the judges decide in the interest of what they consider to be equality and social justice, and one prominent advocate of a comprehensive system of quotas has argued that there must first be equality among castes before there can be equality among individuals. As against this it may be argued that, while the gains to equality from such a system of quotas are at best doubtful, its immediate effect is to strengthen the identities of caste and community and to slow down the growth of individual initiative.
It is believed that in traditional India caste and community provided security to all individual members of society and that society in turn discouraged individual initiative and enterprise. Perhaps the system of quotas, which has spread itself so widely across the public domain in the last couple of decades, corresponds to a sense of social justice that lies very deep in the Indian consciousness. But does the general acquiescence in a comprehensive system of quotas for castes and communities indicate that the structure of the old society, which the Constitution sought to dismantle, will recover the entire ground it appeared to have lost? Such a conclusion will be premature and probably wide of the mark.
Indians may yearn for the security assured by quotas, but many of them have also acquired a taste for the sweets of success in competition. One has only to see what goes on in the schools of our metropolitan cities to appreciate this. Middle-class Indians not only strive to secure whatever benefits their community has at its disposal — and where necessary to enlarge those benefits by collective actions — they also seek to get ahead as individuals. And it may not be altogether unusual for the same person to try for both.
While our legislators and judges might be attentive to the claims of groups in their concern for social justice, the prime minister is keen to carry the country forward into the twenty-first century. That means putting the accent on technology, management, dynamism, efficiency and achievement. There are the virtues of a competitive society — competitive capitalism, if one prefers the phrase — which appeal to many Indians of the younger generation besides the prime minister. Competitive capitalism has also its own sense of justice, but that is a very different kind of justice from the one which appeals to the majority of our legislators and judges; hence when one points to the virtues of capitalism, one points to efficiency rather than justice.
The spirit of competitive individualism is now in full cry in some of the countries regarded until the other day as models of socialism. In India it has to contend with the demand for parity or balance between castes and communities in the public domain. That demand, as I have suggested, corresponds to a sense of social justice that is widely shared by people in many walks of life. It is articulated by politicians of all complexions, and the government itself has created an elaborate apparatus to give satisfaction to it. It is difficult to see how that apparatus can be dismantled in the foreseeable future. But what cannot be dismantled may be bypassed, and that would be in keeping with the Indian way of dealing with conflicting demands.
Wherever a government is involved directly in distribution — whether in employment or in education — that distribution will be governed by considerations of social justice in which the claim of castes and communities feature prominently. This is not to say all such claim will be received with equal enthusiasm by every government, but few will have the energy to resist the claims, and most will find it easier to acquiesce in them. It would be shallow to attribute all of this to the cynicism and opportunism of politicians. A deeper cause lies in the unwritten sense of justice carried by most Indians according to which groups, and not just individuals, have legitimate claims on the government. That sense of justice seems to tell them that if such claims could have been admitted in a hierarchical society, there is no reason to deny them in an egalitarian one.
It is not as if Indians are unable to recognize today that individual have claims as well. But the majority of them feels perhaps that individuals should be encouraged to look after themselves without grudging too openly what the government set apart for groups. They have in fact shown considerable private initiative and enterprise in opening up new fields outside of government control, and forging ahead in these fields. Methods and styles of management, publicity and advertisement are rapidly changing so as to keep pace with the advances in the rest of the world. The rewards of success are very high here, and they go to individuals without much attention being paid to caste or community.
There are indications that best products of our colleges and universities are turning more eagerly to careers in management than in the civil services. Even the Indian Administrative Service has lost the social cachet it enjoyed in the years immediately following independence; it has become crowded in by too many new entrants who settle too easily into careers in which real challenges and legitimate opportunities have become steadily restricted. Below that level, in the states the machinery of government has become a vast and unwieldy apparatus where administrative procedures are hamstrung by caste quotas on the one hand and political patronage on the other. These are safe places where nobody looses his position or misses his promotions and where there are caste quotas not only for appointments but also for promotions. But they are not the places where the race is to the swiftest or where efficiency brings one any special advantage.
It does not appear that the present government is keen to discourage the growth of a sector, outside its immediate control, in which efficiency, competition and individual initiative will be allowed to free play, unimpeded by those considerations of distributive justice form which it is unable to free the public sector under its own control. The former is as yet a relatively small sector, but India is a large country where it may not be too difficult to find space for its further growth and development. The orientations of the people who operates in these spaces will be very different from those whose primary concerns are with distributing justice and the balance of power between groups. No developing society can sustain itself solely on distributive justice; it also require a work ethic. It is as yet too early to say how far such an ethic will grow in the new spaces being opened up in Indian society. But the really important question is whether such an ethic, if and when it grows, will succeed in infusing a new meaning into our conception of social justice which appears bland and colourless, and a little sickly in its prevalence form.
March 29, 1988
Times of India