Only a conversation can help evolve a common ethic: political theorist Rajeev Bhargava

He says why the Constitution can be the starting point of all talk around ethics, what is good and bad, right and wrong

January 26, 2023 09:01 am | Updated January 30, 2023 11:54 am IST

‘The Indian Constitution may have been a product of a group of elites, but they came from different regions, religions and political inclinations to form a common mind against British imperialism,’ says Rajeev Bhargava.

‘The Indian Constitution may have been a product of a group of elites, but they came from different regions, religions and political inclinations to form a common mind against British imperialism,’ says Rajeev Bhargava. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Between Hope and Despair: 100 Ethical Reflections on Contemporary India; Rajeev Bhargava, Bloomsbury India, ₹699.

Between Hope and Despair: 100 Ethical Reflections on Contemporary India; Rajeev Bhargava, Bloomsbury India, ₹699.

In many of the essays in  Between Hope and Despair, Rajeev Bhargava takes up a troubling contemporary event and by reflecting on it tries to clarify the meaning of ethical and moral concepts, what is good and bad, right and wrong. He also emphasises the significance of India’s constitutional values and the adverse consequences of undermining them. In an interview with Garimella Subramaniam, who took Prof. Bhargava’s class on political theory at Jawaharlal Nehru University, he explains why despite India’s collective ethical identity being under duress, there’s hope. Edited excerpts:

Your essays help to understand the Indian political situation in a nuanced way. Taking a cue from the title of your book, people would perhaps want to know from you whether there is more hope or more despair.

I leave that answer to the readers, but I can tell you what I feel about the current situation, what gives me despair. The key concepts by which we understand the world, descriptive-cum-evaluative, they are muddled in our discourse. People use these terms — ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘equality’ — in a very cursory, superficial way. One of the reasons for writing this book was for ordinary people to understand the varied, complex, and historically evolving meaning of many of these terms, and particularly of all these ethical and moral concepts that are very much part of our discourse. Also, in the last 30-40 years, for a variety of reasons, we seem to have lost ethical and moral direction. There are many things happening in our society, which prevent us from thinking ethically. I believe that after the advent of neoliberalism, a very robust, ugly form of capitalism encourages people to think only of themselves and their own desires, rather than critically reflect on those desires.

A view of Parliament House in New Delhi and the statue of B.R. Ambedkar, one of the key framers of the Constitution.

A view of Parliament House in New Delhi and the statue of B.R. Ambedkar, one of the key framers of the Constitution. | Photo Credit: PTI

Yes. I remember this from one of your essays on liberalism...

Yes, and it’s also there in the introduction. Liberalism in the era of globalisation has made people more self-obsessed; individual egoism does not allow the acknowledgement of other people having a life of their own, their own point of view. There is also a vicious kind of communitarianism, encouraging people to think in terms of only their own community — caste, religious community, even the nation. This community egoism is equally pernicious because it prevents us from properly understanding other groups, other communities, other nations. So there are lots of reasons why there’s a dearth of ethical thinking. We seem to have even lost a sense of the distinction between good and bad, right and wrong which is the core of ethical thinking. It is important that we all take ethical thinking more seriously and retrieve our ethical and moral compass.

What you emphasise is that the Constitution of India contains a distinct ethical perspective. It provides an ethical framework which should show us a way out of this moral quagmire.

Yes. If there is one direction, which is commonly accepted by all of us, and which we can call an ethical direction, it is found in the Indian Constitution. The Indian Constitution may have been a product of a group of elites, but they came from different regions, religions and political inclinations to form a common mind against British imperialism. They developed a common ethical and moral framework, True, It’s not perfect or unrevisable. But at least it’s a good solid point of departure. As a starting point, I want to tell people that we should examine and reflect on the Constitution and the basic structure of that ethic.

How can the Constitution be tweaked, in your view?

The constituents of the ethical vision in the Constitution are open to revision, but we’ve got to all start with some faith in that document because it represents all of us. Even those who were excluded in the beginning have increasingly felt over the years that it provides them an opportunity to be included. So, let’s start with the document. We can disagree with what it says, we can challenge it, but we should at least start having a conversation. You can’t have a conversation in a vacuum. You’ve got to begin with something where there is some overlap of interests and some common sharing of ethic. Freedom, equality, fraternity, pluralism of goods, moral rights are crucial ingredients of this common framework. I feel that the constitutional ethic provides this.

Members of the Kashmiri Youth Movement hold a peace march in solidarity with Kashmir over the watering down of Article 370, at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi.

Members of the Kashmiri Youth Movement hold a peace march in solidarity with Kashmir over the watering down of Article 370, at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

How would you describe the essays?

Each of these essays, in a sense, reflects this wider vision, even if it doesn’t always do it explicitly. It does do it implicitly; there is a clarification of the conceptual and normative structure of our key concepts, concepts that govern or ought to govern our collective life. And not just our public and political, but also our individual lives. There are about 20-25 out of 100 essays which are about interpersonal morality and ethics, not just about public and political morality.

I want to turn to several essays on the subject of rights, but I am particularly struck by one essay that juxtaposes rights with duties, where you say the vulnerable have rights, and that they must assert that they need these guarantees to be protected against infringement, and that the powerful have duties to protect these rights.

The first thing I wanted to clarify through some of these essays is that rights and duties shouldn’t be seen as delinked from each other; every right entails a duty. If I have a right to something, then others have a duty to ensure that my right is protected. The rights discourse is actually also a discourse on duties.

From this second point, another thing follows. The value implicit in the inter-related system of rights and duties outlined above is equality. If equality is removed and inequality or hierarchy introduced, then rights and duties are separated and differently distributed socially. In some societies, if a powerful person, say somebody from the higher caste, from the aristocracy, for example a maharaja, has a right, then everybody else has a duty to make sure that the interest that is behind that right is satisfied, advanced and protected. Now, that’s fine for hierarchical societies. So when it is said that we have hitherto focused too much on rights, and must shift attention to duties, we are likely saying that we must go back to a hierarchical society. But that is totally against the egalitarian ethic of our Constitution. Yet, because it continues to be a feature of our social and political reality, it sounds plausible to many. Indeed, it is music to the ears of many, precisely because they want that inegalitarian society back.

However, there is one important sense in which even in egalitarian societies, some duties are independent of rights. Here it is legitimate to say that people should not only focus on rights but also attend to duties. These are duties which are not entailed by rights. For example, when a doctor performs a surgery, the patient has the right to have his full attention during the performance of the surgery but once it is over, he doesn’t have any obligation to attend to the patient unless there is a medical emergency. He doesn’t have to assume the role of a healer or take care of the patient’s mental state, allay his anxiety; that’s not part of his duty. But it would be great if the doctor was also able to do that. Or someone else in his place — nurses and the rest of the hospital staff — were to be compassionate and to do all the mental healing that is required. I don’t think that this can be put down as something which is entailed by the right of the patient. But it would be good to have this as a set of duties of the entire medical team. In that sense, I am an advocate also of duties which are separate from those that are entailed directly by rights.

The underprivileged children of Muzaffarpur district.

The underprivileged children of Muzaffarpur district. | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

In one essay, in the context of the Muzaffarpur deaths, you make a case for a charter of basic rights. But are they not already contained in the fundamental rights and duties in the Constitution?

The Supreme Court has tried to make the right to food as part of our fundamental rights. I would designate this right as basic. I don’t know what they have done about the right to clean water or the right to clean air. These are basic needs and therefore, should be basic rights too. In short, I would designate some fundamental rights as basic. Of course, not all fundamental rights are basic. A right is something that is owed to us; it is not a favour. So rights help the recognition of anything that satisfies basic needs as an entitlement. Basic rights are claims against the state to provide us with goods and services that satisfy our basic needs. Second, when something is identified as a basic right, it puts the state under a duty to enable its exercise. The state becomes its guarantor. For example, the right to physical security, the first basic right, is socially guaranteed when the state provides its people a well-trained, professional police force. When society and its government renege on its commitment to do so, we hold them accountable. It follows that basic rights are a shield for the defenceless against the most damaging threats to their life.

What about the right to free speech? It is fundamental but may be deemed as not basic. However, I wish to argue that one component of free speech should be a basic and not be just a fundamental right. Consider this: What if the state is not able to satisfy your basic needs? You must have a right to complain. This can be expressed privately or publicly, in a political forum. I don’t care where it is expressed, but the non-fulfilment of basic needs is something that demands some expression somewhere in some forum. And I would consider this, along with economic subsistence and basic security of your life, as a basic right. The right to express my views on a public policy is my fundamental right, but in my view it is not basic.

What purpose am I trying to achieve by drawing the distinction between fundamental and basic rights? The non-fulfilment of basic rights needs immediate attention. They have an urgency about them which fundamental rights might lack. When our fundamental rights are violated, we may go to the court and the entire process may take long, demanding that we be patient. But when a basic right is violated, there is no room for such patience. If I am not getting food or clean water, I must have them immediately. Those responsible must be punished immediately if I don’t get them. Likewise, if I am unable to make public my inability to get food or water, those who fail to provide me with the means to express my grievance must be held immediately accountable. Governments that allow children to die, as in Muzaffarpur, should be punished immediately. That it is not something that should be left to the next election. The officers should be immediately punished for violation of a fundamental duty.

I don’t see why a government should not be dismissed when it allows a tragedy like Muzaffarpur to take place. This is the kind of issue or state of affairs that I had in mind when I wanted to make a further distinction within fundamental rights between basic and other non-basic rights.

The writer is Director, Strategic Initiatives, AgnoShin Technologies.

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