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The Demands Of Social Justice

Engagement with reasons of justice is particularly critical in identifying the overwhelming priorities that we have to acknowledge and overcome with total urgency. A good first step may be to think more clearly – and a little more often – about what

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The Demands Of Social Justice

Full text of the inaugral Hiren Mukerjee Lecture delivered by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen at Central Hall, Parliament House, New Delhi on August 11 2008

I feel deeply honoured by the opportunity to speak here at our parliament. It is a great privilege to give the inaugural Hiren Mukerjee Lecture, at the invitation of our distinguished Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, for whom I have very great admiration. However, for an academic used to lecturing merely to students, this cannot but be a frightening occasion as well. I had considerable trepidation in taking on this exacting task, but my anxiety has become even greater after seeing the very animated events in parliament last month during the trust vote debate. I remember Manmohan Singh, our Prime Minister and my long-standing friend, had a much easier time lecturing to students at the Delhi School of Economics, when we were colleagues together many years ago. As I was preparing this talk to be give at the parliament, I was reminded a little of the publicity line of a horror movie called “The Fly” released two decades ago, which said, in an alarmingly hushed voice: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Well, afraid I am, and yet if that were to make me speechless, I would betray the lessons we have learned from Hiren Mukerjee’s fearless oratory and his insistence that we must say what we have to say with forethought and self-scrutiny, but also with the confidence that should come from that forethought and self-scrutiny. Hiren Mukerjee has been something of a hero of mine for a very long time. When he was elected to parliament, to the first Lok Sabha in 1952, I was a student in Calcutta at the Presidency College, where Hirenda had studied earlier. Among his remarkable qualities and virtues, there were three things in particular that moved me greatly.

The first was his overwhelming sympathy for and solidarity with the downtrodden people of India – indeed anywhere in the world. The hungry, the deprived, the jobless, the exploited, the insecure, always had the powerful voice of this political leader speaking up for them.

The second feature is Hiren Mukerjee’s foundational reliance on critical analysis and reasoning. He was immensely learned, but also uncompromisingly reliant on the power of reason. There was, of course, no infallibility in Hirenda’s reasoning, but his basic approach throughout was to use his reasoning as best as he could with the information that he had. He did not hesitate to share the complexity of a difficult problem with the listeners, often here, in the Lok Sabha. He also had the courage to differ from the line of his own party, the Communist Party, despite his basic loyalty to it, on a number of occasions, for example in disagreeing with the party that India’s independence in 1947 was “jhoota” or false (the Party itself would change that line in the early 1950s), and in the assessment of Jawaharlal Nehru in which his positive admiration remained in tension with the Party’s largely adverse assessment.

The third characteristic that particularly appealed to me – and this is a bit more personal – was Hiren Mukerjee’s passion for Sanskrit. Perhaps I am biased since I strongly share that fondness for Sanskrit. I remember being quite energized by Hirenda’s apt citations from Sanskrit classics, in a great many of his Lok Sabha speeches, pointing out how old but powerful ideas can throw light on the new issues of the day.


These different priorities of Hiren Mukerjee were not always in spontaneous conformity with each other. For example, in the Lok Sabha session on 5th May 1959, when Hirenda spoke on the Report of the Sanskrit Commission, he opposed – sadly but firmly – the Commission’s recommendation that Sanskrit be made a compulsory subject for study for all secondary schools in India. He spoke, on the one hand, of the importance of the Sanskrit language and literature, describing Sanskrit as “a language of unrivalled richness and purity.” And yet, on the other hand, he reasoned that the recommendation, if implemented, would impose an unreasonable demand on secondary school children. The burden would be too much for secondary school students since, he explained, “English, the regional language and Hindi have got to be learnt at the secondary stage.” Instead, Mukerjee proposed much greater concentration on Sanskrit at a higher level of education and research, coordinated through an active Central Sanskrit Board, so that “we can combine the best of the past with the best of the present.”

Despite Hiren Mukerjee’s obvious love of tradition and heritage, he argued that the role that they should have in contemporary practice has to be based ultimately on careful scrutiny and assessment. In his insistence in relying on critical reasoning, Hiren Mukerjee was in line with an important precept presented with great intellectual force by Emperor Akbar, to wit, while we do have reason to be respectful of tradition, yet ultimately our decisions must be based on “the pursuit of reason,” rather than on blind allegiance to what Akbar called, “the marshy land of tradition.”


In discussing the demands of social justice today, the priority of critical reasoning cannot but be central. But how do we analyse these demands? In probing the idea of social justice, it is important, I would argue, to distinguish between (1) an arrangement-focused view of justice, and (2) a realization-focused understanding of justice. Sometimes justice is conceptualised in terms of certain organizational arrangements – some institutions, some regulations, some behavioural rules – the active presence of which indicates that justice is being done. The question to ask here is whether the demands of justice must be only about getting the institutions and rules right? Proceeding beyond them, should we not also have to examine what does emerge in the society, including the kind of lives that people can actually lead, given the institutions and rules and also other influences? The basic argument for a realization-focused understanding, for which I would argue, is that justice cannot be divorced from the actual world that emerges. Of course, institutions and rules are very important in influencing what happens, and also they are part and parcel of the actual world as well, but the realized actuality goes well beyond the organizational picture.

I feel strengthened by the fact that Hiren Mukerjee’s arguments about social justice were consistently realization-focused, and he did implicitly reject an arrangement-focused view. He spoke powerfully about the need for a social commitment to help produce a society that “enables all people to rise to the full stature of their being.” In his convocation address to Calcutta University in 1995, he reminded the audience of Pericles’s comparison – in Athens 2400 years ago – of youth with the spring of the year, but went on to hope that the students of today will be “inspired by love and guided by knowledge, fighting for our own people and all mankind to have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

As I will discuss presently, this is a critically important distinction in the history of theories of justice, including those in Europe and the West. But I begin with a demarcation that has a clear role in Indian intellectual debates. Two distinct words – “niti” and “nyaya” – both of which stand for justice in classical Sanskrit, actually help us to differentiate between these two separate concentrations. It is true, of course, that words such as niti and nyaya have been used in many different senses in different philosophical and legal discussions in ancient India, but there is still a basic distinction between the respective concentrations of niti and nyaya.

Among the principal uses of the term niti are organizational propriety and behavioural correctness. In contrast with niti, the term nyaya stands for a more comprehensive concept of realized justice. In that line of vision, the roles of institutions, rules and organization, important as they are, have to be assessed in the broader and more inclusive perspective of nyaya, which is inescapably linked with the world that actually emerges, not just the institutions or rules we happen to have.

To consider an example, early Indian legal theorists talked disparagingly of what they called matsyanyaya, “justice in the world of fish,” where a big fish can freely devour a small fish. We are warned that avoiding matsyanyaya must be an overwhelming priority, and it is crucial to make sure that the “justice of fish” is not allowed to invade the world of human beings. The central recognition here is that the realization of justice in the sense of nyaya is not just a matter of judging institutions and rules, but of judging the societies themselves. Whatever the propriety of established organizations, if a big fish can devour a small fish at will, then that is a patent violation of human justice.

Let me consider a very simple example to make the distinction between niti and nyaya clearer. Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman emperor, famously claimed in the sixteenth century: “Fiat justitia et pereat mundus,” which can be translated as: “Let justice be done, though the world perish.” This severe maxim could figure as a niti – a very austere niti – that is advocated by some (indeed Emperor Ferdinand did just that), but it would be hard to accommodate a total catastrophe as an example of a just world, when we understand justice in the broader form of nyaya. If indeed the world does perish, there would be nothing much to admire in that accomplishment, even though the stern and severe niti leading to this extreme result could conceivably be defended with very sophisticated arguments of different kinds.


This distinction is also closely linked with the debate between Arjuna and Krishna in Mahabharata. It is on the grounds of the nyaya of the world that would emerge from the epic battle that Arjuna voiced his profound doubts about fighting in Kurukshetra. Arjuna does not doubt that theirs is the right cause, and that this is a just war, and also that his side will definitely win the battle given its strength – not least because of Arjuna’s own remarkable skills as a warrior and as an extraordinary general. But so many people, Arjuna observes, will die in this battle. Arjuna also recognizes that he himself will have to kill a great many people, and further, many of the people who will be killed, on both sides, are persons for whom he has affection.

As the account goes, Krishna argues against Arjuna and convinces him that he must do his duty, no matter what the consequence of that might be. When that specific section of Mahabharata is separated out as a religious document, as it has increasingly been, in the form of Bhagavadgita, or Gita for short, Krishna’s teachings are seen as the end of the argument (Arjuna, in this understanding, had doubts, but Krishna dispelled them). But as I have discussed elsewhere, in my book The Argumentative Indian, looking only at the end point of a debate is not an ideal way of understanding discussions in general, and it is particularly misleading in appreciating the rich Indian argumentative tradition.

I have pursued this interpretational issue further in my “Foreword” to the new 7-volume translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, in the Clay Sanskrit Library, which will be published shortly. I have discussed there why the social and moral contents of the epics cannot be understood adequately merely by noting who is supposed to have ended up prevailing in a particular argument – the intellectual content of the epics is much richer than that. Mahabharata gives both Krishna and Arjuna room to develop their respective arguments. Indeed, the tragic desolation, described towards the end of Mahabharata, that the post-combat and post-carnage land faces following the epic battle (with funeral pyres burning in massive unison and women weeping about the death of their loved ones), can even be seen as something of a vindication of Arjuna’s profound doubts.

The point here is not so much to argue that Arjuna would have been definitely right to refuse to fight (there were many arguments against Arjuna’s withdrawal from battle even other than the ones on which Krishna concentrated), but that there is much to weigh and balance here and that Arjuna’s human-life-centred perspective is not dismissable by the mere invoking of some apparent duty to fight, irrespective of consequences. Indeed, this is a dichotomy with two substantial positions each of which can be defended in different ways. If my own understanding of the decisional problem is strongly influenced by the nyaya of the realized world and the importance of human lives (and in that, I am sympathetic to Arjuna’s focus on what actually happens to the people and the world), this does not indicate that I do not see the argument on the other side.


Let me now come back to the formulation of theories of justice. The subject of social justice has been discussed over the ages across the world, but the discipline received a powerful boost during the European Enlightenment, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in the rebellious thoughts closely aligned in many ways to the intellectual background of the French Revolution as well as the American Revolution.

There is, however, a substantial dichotomy between the different lines of reasoning about justice among these leaders of thought. One approach concentrated on identifying perfectly just social arrangements, and took the characterization of the just institutions to be the principal – and often the only identified – task of the theory of justice. This approach, which can be called “transcendental institutionalism” (since it looks for an ideal blueprint of social arrangements that cannot be transcended), goes back in fact to the early invocation of an idealized social contract by Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, and that general approach to justice was fairly thoroughly pursued by a number of Enlightenment authors, perhaps most powerfully by Jean Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant.

In contrast with that transcendental concentration, a number of other Enlightenment philosophers took a variety of approaches that shared a common interest in making comparisons between different social arrangements and realizations, and many of their arguments were particularly focused on removing cases of manifest injustice, without focusing on the nature of the perfectly just social arrangements. Different versions of such comparative thinking can be found in the works of the Marquis de Condorcet, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Jefferson, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, among a number of other leaders of new thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even though they proposed very different ways of making comparisons, they were all involved, in one way or another, in making social comparisons that could identify how a society could be improved and terrible injustices removed. It is possible to argue that the focus of the second group of thinkers was on the comparative assessment of the world in terms of the nyaya of realizations, whereas the focus of the first group was on the transcendental assessment of just arrangements, in the sense of identifying some ideal niti of institutions and organizations.

The distance between the two approaches – transcendental institutionalism, on the one hand, and realization-focused comparisons, on the other – is quite momentous and large. As it happens, it is the tradition of transcendental institutionalism on which today’s mainstream political philosophy largely draws in its exploration of the theory of justice. The most powerful and momentous exposition of transcendental institutionalism can be found in the works of the leading political philosopher of the twentieth century, John Rawls, but a number of other pre-eminent contemporary theorists of justice have also tended to take the transcendental institutional route. Indeed, the characterization of just institutions has become the central exercise in most of the modern theories of justice (Rawls’s “principles of justice” are defined entirely in institutional terms). I would argue for the need for a radical change here, since the perspective of realizations cannot but be quite central to the very idea of justice. I should not go further into those philosophical arguments here, but they are presented fairly extensively in my forthcoming book, The Idea of Justice.


A realization-focused perspective makes it easy to see the importance of the prevention of manifest injustice in the world, rather than focusing on the search for perfection. As the example of matsyanyaya makes clear, the subject of justice is not merely about trying to achieve – or dreaming about achieving – some perfectly just society or social arrangements, but about preventing manifestly severe injustice (like avoiding the dreadful state of matsyanyaya).

For example, when people agitated for the abolition of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were not labouring under the illusion that the abolition of slavery would make the world perfectly just. It was their claim, rather, that a society with slavery was totally unjust. That much, they argued, was absolutely clear, even if it might be very hard to identify (not to mention, achieve) a perfectly just society. Abolition of slavery was a matter of prevention of severe injustice and a significant advancement of justice; it was not meant to be an answer to the transcendental question of identifying a perfectly just society, or ideal social institutions. It was on that basis that the anti-slavery agitation, with its diagnosis of intolerable injustice, saw the pursuit of that cause to be an overwhelming priority.

That historical case can also serve as something of an analogy that is very relevant to us today in India. There are, I would argue, similarly momentous manifestations of severe injustice in our own world today in India, such as appalling levels of continued child undernourishment (almost unparalleled in the rest of the world), continuing lack of entitlement to basic medical attention of the poorer members of the society, and the comprehensive absence of opportunities for basic schooling for a significant proportion of the population. Whatever else nyaya must demand (and we can have all sorts of different views of what a perfectly just India would look like), the reasoned humanity of the justice of nyaya can hardly fail to demand the urgent removal of these terrible deprivations in the world in which we actually live.

This is not only a matter for political philosophy, but also a central issue in political practice. It is easy enough to agitate about new problems that arise and generate immediate discontent, whether it is rising petrol prices or the fear of losing national sovereignty in signing a deal with another country. These too are, of course, issues of importance, but what is to me amazing is the quiet acceptance, with relatively little political murmur, of the continuation of the astounding misery of the least advantaged people of our country. The crowding out of political interest in the colossal and persistent deprivation of the underdogs of the Indian society through the dominance of more easily vocalisable current affairs (important as they may be) has a profound effect in weakening the pressure on the government to eradicate with the greatest of urgency the most gross and lasting injustice in India. There is something peculiarly puzzling about the priorities that are reflected in what seems to keep us awake at night.


Would it make a real difference whether we pay more attention to actual realizations of societies, rather that sticking to our favourite recipes about rules and institutions, be it free market, state enterprise, or support for or opposition to globalised economic relations? Is there a case for judging our favourite recipes through examining how they would influence the lives of people? And can we make the working of institutions and rules better in terms of their impact on social realizations? Let me devote the rest of the time I have in this lecture to examining just those questions, in the context of two specific institutions of rather different types: one, the social role of the trade unions in the enhancement of justice (especially for the very deprived), and two, the nature of democracy and its contribution to social justice in the actual world (two subjects in which Hiren Mukerjee himself was deeply interested).

Consider the place of unions of organized workers in the social fabric of the country. It is often pointed out that only a very small proportion of the working population of India belongs to any union, and it could be asked whether it is an important enough example for me to consider as my first illustration in dealing with the distinction I am trying to discuss. The fact is, however, the life of nearly everyone in the country is affected in one way or another by the activities of unionized workers, especially in the public services, from school education and primary health care to railways and postal services. What their rightful role should be in generating social realizations is, thus, a momentous issue.

However, one difficulty in getting to the right question arises from the fact that trade unions tend to excite two quite divergent reactions, neither of which is, I would submit, very helpful. Fierce critics of unionism very often have an unconcealed disdain for the unions as just a nuisance (the less of them, the better), while others less hostile to the unions, tend to treat them as being just fine – in no need of alteration – no matter how broad or narrow the goals are that they pursue. What is needed instead, it is my claim, is a kind of constructive partnership that gives the unions an integrated role as important partners in social and economic progress for people as a whole, not just to serve as watchdogs of sectional interest represented by the respective unions. At the centre of the question is the subject of the public responsibility of unionised labour linked with rightful recognition of its constructive capacity.

One of the areas that call for urgent attention in India is the efficiency of delivery of public services. That there is a large lacuna here has been brought out recently by a number of empirical studies from different parts of India, including some that we have done ourselves for the Pratichi Trust – a charitable trust I had the opportunity to set up about a decade ago with the help of my Nobel money, which, among its other activities, have been conducting investigative studies in east India on the delivery of public services in elementary education and health care. While our studies indicate some reason for celebration, there is a remarkably high frequency of neglect and lack of accountability in the primary schools and health services.

Consider the working of state-run elementary schools. Even though a great many primary school teachers are extremely devoted to their work and to their students, we observed a shocking incidence of absenteeism and delayed arrival on the part of many teachers in other schools. The reliance on private tuition, which should be entirely unnecessary in primary schooling, has been quite widespread among those who can afford it. The neglect of teaching responsibilities is particularly strong, we were distressed to find in our studies, when the students come mostly from underprivileged classes, for example from families of landless labourers and very low earning workers. And this has a profound effect on the schooling of poor and underprivileged children – sometimes first-generation school-goers unsure of their rights and unable to raise their voice.

The fact that the inspection system of schools has broken down fairly comprehensively in many parts of India makes the problem harder to tackle, and there are administrative reforms that are urgently needed. However, the problem cannot be tackled by administrative changes alone.

There is a similar picture of uncertain and disparate functioning in the delivery of primary health care. The reliance of even very poor people in India on private health care providers – some times even medical pretenders who combine quackery with crookery – is caused not only by the lack of enough public health institutions (and that is problem enough in itself, needing urgent expansion of facilities especially in the rural areas), but also by the poor functioning of existing public institutions for which government financing is actually available. In reforming the culture of work, and in cultivating responsibility and accountability, the unions can have a hugely positive and constructive role.

I recognise that bringing about the necessary changes across the board in public sector performance through active cooperation of the unions is not an easy task. But the need for such a reorientation and change is urgent and extremely important, and it calls both for greater recognition and respect of the place of unionized labour in society, and for more deliberated determination of the unions to play their part in the progress of the country. While it is often assumed that the only responsibility of the unions is to enhance the well-being of its members, and to look after their sectional interest, the union movement across the world has, in fact, been inspired time and again by broader objectives and commitments.

But is such a change really feasible in India? I would argue from my own experience, limited as it is, that it is very much a possibility. Indeed, the Pratichi Trust has been working very closely with the primary teachers unions in West Bengal. The Pratichi Trust has had several joint meetings with the ABPTA (All Bengal Primary Teachers Association), which is by far the largest union of primary school teachers in West Bengal (it is, as it happens, a CPM-linked union), including a very large meeting last week in Kolkata attended by representatives of primary teachers from every part of the state. I must confess that I am very encouraged by the fact that the leadership of ABPTA and also that of the other unions of primary teachers have been remarkably cooperative in trying to change the culture of work in the delivery of school education, emphasizing for example the need for guaranteed and timely presence, as well as the urgency of paying greater attention to the content and style of teaching and of regular discussion in parent-teacher meetings. There is still a long way to go, but over the last few years the signs of a radical and positive change in the functioning of primary schools in the areas involved are quite unmistakable and strong, as our on-going empirical investigations indicate.

Perhaps there is too much pessimism – indeed fatalism – in India about the alleged unalterability of the working of established institutions and of behaviour patterns. Despite our lapses, which are large, our ability to respond positively to reasoned appeal and arguments remains strong enough.


I turn, finally, to democracy. We have reason to be proud of our determination to choose democracy before any other poor country in the world, and to guard jealously its survival and continued success over difficult times as well as easy ones. But democracy itself can be seen either just as an institution, with regular ballots and elections and other such organizational requirements, or it can be seen as the way things really happen in the actual world on the basis of public deliberation. I have argued in my book The Argumentative Indian that democracy can be plausibly seen as a system in which public decisions are taken through open public reasoning for influencing actual social states (I go more extensively into this question in the forthcoming book, The Idea of Justice). Something of the focus of nyaya on the lives that people can actually lead has to rub on to the demands on democracy itself, not leaving it all only to the niti of having right institutional arrangements.

Indeed, the successes and failures of democratic institutions in India can be easily linked to the way these institutions have – or have not – functioned. Take the simplest case of success (by now much discussed), namely the elimination of the large-scale famines that India used to have right up to its independence from British rule. The fact that famines do not tend to occur in functioning democracies has been widely observed also across the world.

How does democracy bring about this result? In terms of votes and elections there may be an apparent puzzle here, since the proportion of the population affected, or even threatened, by any famine tends to be very small – typically less than ten percent (often far less than that). So if it were true that only disaffected famine victims vote against a ruling government when a famine rages or threatens, then the government could still be quite secure and rather unthreatened. What makes a famine such a political disaster for a ruling government is the reach of public reasoning and the role of the media, which move and energize a very large proportion of the general public to protest and shout about the “uncaring” government when famines actually happen – or come close to happening. The achievement in preventing famines is a tribute not just to the institution of democracy, but also to the way this institution is used and made to function.

Now take some cases of lesser success – and even failure. In general, Indian democracy has been far less effective in dealing with problems of chronic deprivation and continuing inequity with adequate urgency, compared with the extreme threats of famines and other emergencies. Democratic institutions can help to create opportunities for the opposition to demand – and press for – sufficiently strong policy response even when the problem is chronic and has had a long history, rather than being acute and sudden (as in the case of famines). The weakness of Indian social policies on school education, basic health care, elementary nutrition, essential land reform, and equal treatment of women reflects, at least partly, the deficiencies of politically engaged public reasoning and the reach of political pressure.

Only in a few parts of India has the social urgency of dealing with chronic problems of deprivation been adequately politicised. It is hard to escape the general conclusion that economic performance, social opportunity, political voice and public reasoning are deeply interrelated. In those fields in which there has recently been a more determined use of political and social voice, there are considerable signs of change. For example, the issue of gender inequality has produced much more political engagement in recent years (often led by women’s movements in different fields), and while there is still a long way to go, this development has added to a determined political effort at reducing the asymmetry between women and men in terms of social and economic opportunities.

There has been more action recently in organized social movements based broadly on demands for human rights, such as the right to respect and fair treatment for members of low castes and the casteless, the right to school education for all, the right to food, the entitlement to basic health care, the right to information, the right of employment guarantee, and greater attention on environmental preservation. There is room for argument in each case about how best to proceed, and that is indeed an important role of democratic public reasoning, but we can also see clearly that social activities are an integral part of the working of democracy, which is not just about institutions such as elections and votes.

A government in a democratic country has to respond to on-going priorities in public criticism and political reproach, and to the threats to survival it has to face. The removal of long-standing deprivations of the disadvantaged people of our country may, in effect, be hampered by the biases in political pressure, in particular when the bulk of the social agitation is dominated by new problems that generate immediate and vocal discontent. If the politically active threats are concentrated only on some specific new issues (no matter how important they may appear), rather than on the terrible general inheritance of India of acute deprivation, deficient schooling, lack of medical attention for the poor, and extraordinary under- nourishment (especially of children and also of young women), then the pressure on democratic governance acts relentlessly towards giving priority to only those particular new issues, rather than to the gigantic persistent deprivations that are at the root of so much inequity and injustice in India. The perspective of realization of justice and that of an adequately broad nyaya are central not only for the theory of justice, but also for the practice of democracy.


I end this lecture with paying my tribute again to Hiren Mukerjee. We remember today not only his basic human sympathy, but also his reliance on critical scrutiny, his heterodoxy, and his reasoned priorities. His understanding of justice linked closely with the enhancement of human lives and improving the actual world in which we live, rather than taking the form of some transcendental search for ideal institutions. Engagement with reasons of justice is particularly critical in identifying the overwhelming priorities that we have to acknowledge and overcome with total urgency. A good first step may be to think more clearly – and a little more often – about what should really keep us awake at night.

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