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Updated: February 8, 2013 15:44 IST

Equality as an absolute

Suguna Ramanathan
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Any society, while pursuing justice, needs to look after the most vulnerable sections

n a country as diverse as ours which side, or rather whose side, should one take if justice is to reign? This question is debated at length and in depth by well-known sociologist Rudolf Heredia in his book Taking Sides: Reservation Quotas and Minority Rights. The subtitle proclaims his thrust, no surprise when one remembers he is a Jesuit, seeing the world through a moral lens. As one ponders the nature of justice before reading the book, the question arises whether the concept of justice changes with cultures and time periods.

When one remembers that Plato’s Republic was based on a society under-girded by slaves, and that the dharma of ancient India, while advocating ‘daan’ to the less privileged also maintained that certain castes should not be touched nor approached nor seen, one understands that social and cultural norms give rise to different understandings of justice and that modernity has given us equality as a touchstone. And if equality seems to be the product of a Western consciousness, so be it. Once recognised, one knows it stands as an absolute, is not inherent in culture. But our traditional society is laced through and held together by sanctioned inequality.

The author maintains that Laws do not by themselves generate justice (there can be unjust laws); the other way around, the goodness of justice should generate laws to ensure that all members and all communities of a society have liberty and equal rights and experience solidarity. The corollary is that any society in general, and Indian society in particular, while pursuing justice, needs to look after the most vulnerable sections comprising three groups: oppressed castes, minorities both religious and linguistic, and women. Society implies interconnectedness and Heredia carefully unravels the knots of interdependence, laying open a pattern of rights and obligations one to another, based not on traditional notions of hierarchy but on the entitlement of all persons to dignity, security and freedom.

He maps the terrain in the first chapter, arguing for an equitable and just society, asking “Why are the poor poor in the first place?” The land being uneven, inequalities should not be allowed to accumulate — hence the need for reservations. The second chapter traces the history of schemes that include all, with the Constitution safeguarding the interests of the ‘last and least’.

The abstract concept of Justice discussed in chapters 3 and 4 was, for this reader at least, the most interesting and essential in the whole book, clarifying our understanding of the moral imperative embedded in human consciousness.

Vulnerable groups

The succeeding three chapters look at the vulnerable groups he identifies: Scheduled Castes and Tribes, minorities (chiefly religious though linguistic minorities are mentioned in passing), and women, who ‘hold up half the sky.’ A concluding eighth chapter points to the ongoing struggle to achieve the full freedom dreamed of by our founding fathers.

What kind of society do we want and how do we get there? This is the question he raises repeatedly. “In an unequal society, treatment as an equal requires preferential treatment if all are to enjoy equal respect and concern.” Ay, there’s the rub, one might say, for we may not all concede that basic premise. Modernity may have altered the surface of the discourse, but underneath lies a stubborn holding on to difference and privilege among those already privileged, and a refusal to let go of the reservation branch once it is grasped by what we call ‘the creamy layer.’

Heredia pays careful attention to the problems that arise. Among these are arguments about merit, the cementing of caste identities, creation of caste based vote banks, and, irony of ironies, the fight of so called ‘upper castes’ to be placed on the Scheduled list so as to obtain the ‘dhaklo’ that gives one a reserved seat. This strange situation, shot through with contradictions, with sizeable sections of the ‘upper’ wanting to be the ‘lower’ makes one wonder (almost hope) whether indeed the hierarchy in the mind is being slowly dismantled, but one knows it is not, that it flows like an unseen current beneath the surface. One needs only to note the persistence of caste among those who have gone outside the fold through conversion.

Minority rights, Heredia says, are threatened by both rational secularists, who do not want religion in the public domain, as well as by religious-cultural nationalists who consider minority rights to be unwarranted and a threat to national interests. Minority rights unfortunately can, and do, lead to identity politics. He remarks rightly that ‘the constitutional compact between communities can only be premised on trust.’ This is delicate ground where one’s step may falter, but the argument made for a pluralist society, of dialogue between alternative moralities, is made without aggressive posturing.

Women

The discussion of women starts with the Hindu Code Bill and women’s struggles to gain gender-sensitive citizenship rights, a battle that is clearly far from over. Only the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament can, he maintains, enable women to address the issues politically. He says that the struggle for gender rights against personal law, the recognition of women as oppressed, and the patriarchal values embedded in males are issues that can be dealt with only if women’s voices are represented in the legislative process. Identifying caste, religion and patriarchy as the main resilient obstacles to a just society, Heredia calls for a renewed struggle against ‘the covert imperialism of our own people’. He speaks of the need to transcend our fear, both individual and collective, and to engage in continuous dialogue to find the right speech situation, to borrow a phrase from Habermas.

This is a thoughtful and compassionate book. The ground it covers is hardly new and for that reason it does not make one sit up as his earlier work Changing Gods did. The section on Women’s Rights in particular yields little new insight, and linguistic minorities, though mentioned more than once, are not really discussed. There is a certain degree of repetition, which can be helpful when one dips into chapters but is obtrusive as one reads it through. That said, this work provokes debate on the vexed question of merit as on the issue of the creamy layer, on ‘appeasement of minorities’ as on a uniform civil code, and on democratic representation for women in Parliament. Its great virtue is that it clarifies and illuminates these areas extraordinarily well.

Overall, Rudolf Heredia is a highly persuasive writer and one of the rewards of the book is its elegant and lucid prose.

Reservation Quotas and Minority Rights in India: Rudolf C. Heredia; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.

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