There exist several contesting theories of justice in the field of socio-political philosophy, though some have a more dominant presence in our theoretical and political imagination than others. The main theoretical contention, as it has evolved in our times, is between conceptions of justice that are universal in scope and those that are contextually historical and hence defined by historical particularity. At the operative level, both have shown limitations in ensuring justice and also involve certain overlaps.
The liberal and more particularly, the Rawlsian theory of justice, arguably suggests that justice can be universally applicable, specifically in its de-ontological thrust. On the other hand, we have the public conceptions of social justice that reduce the universality of the concept to its historical specificity. In fact, historical specificity decides, or provides an epistemic ground for the universal conception of social justice. But the public imagination, particularly in the Indian context, distorts this necessary ontological relation between the concept and its epistemic ground. The concept of justice is implicated into sociological concreteness that is evident, for example, in Sachar Committee recommendations. Such socio-cultural particulates in societies like India pose challenges to the dominant theory of justice that is singularly associated with Rawls. Further, the continuous process of marginalization and deprivation of some communities has exposed the limits of universal conceptions of justice. The pressure of existential conditions, for example, ever worsening quality of life, is forcing these groups to bring alternate political conceptions of justice to the fore.
On the other side of the spectrum, the liberal conception of justice also offers an opportunity to evaluate the mode of the distribution of social welfarism. The need to evaluate the distributive stamina of the government makes it necessary to provide for the conditions of its successful articulation. Thus, democracy, pluralism and institutional mechanism become the constitutive condition within which justice as a principle becomes operative. Paradoxically, justice as a universal principle of distribution, however, on its way to its concretization, particularly in the form of policy package, generates its own adversary-injustice. The condition of injustice, thus, becomes internal to the very principle of justice. The discourse on justice lands up into the un-resolvable tension between the universal and the particular on the one hand, and justice and injustice on the other.
It is in this general problematic, that the seminar seeks to address the following issues:
First, what is an adequate conception of justice? Can there be one? Can we imagine an expansive conception of justice?
Second, did we ever have such conception of justice in the field of political philosophy particularly in modern times?
Third, what are the conditions for its minimum articulation? Do we have these conditions present in the Indian context?
A two-day national seminar was organized at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla on 20 -21 March, 2015 on ‘Is There An Adequate Theory Of Justice?’ Sixteen scholars converged from across the country to discuss the following issues based on the concept note of the seminar: What is an adequate conception of justice? Can there be one? Can we imagine an expansive conception of justice? Did we ever have such conception of justice in the field of political philosophy particularly in modern times? What are the conditions for its minimum articulation? Do we have these conditions present in the Indian context? The proceedings were organized in seven sessions across two days.
Inaugural Session: Inaugurating the seminar Prof. Chetan Singh, Director, IIAS emphasized the need to discuss the first principles of justice in a country like India where communitarian claims often override individual claims and there is often a conflict between ideas of universal justice and socially-historically specific claims. Arguing that even context specific claims have to carry pretences of universality and vice-versa he raised questions over the situation where all injustices do not get redressed and wondered if justice was dependent upon final conclusions or if it should be seen/perceived to be done. He welcomed the discussion on the conditions of an expansive notion of justice and whether they were present in the Indian context today.
Prof. Gopal Guru, convenor of the seminar, welcomed the participating scholars for agreeing for an honest conversation on justice. Introducing the themes of the seminar he outlined five main issues – 1. While general theory of justice graduates from historicity it is important to consider for whom a theory is adequate and for whom is it inadequate?; 2. What happens to the social when it becomes universal?; 3. How does the question of rights and justice play out in terms of language and does it produce envy and hatred?; 4. Does one look forward to the extraordinary or reaffirm the ordinary in the quest for justice?; and 5. Should one approach justice from an affirmative language or the negative of injustice? While justice remained elusive in everyday life, he emphasized that a discussion on the same was not an exercise in wild imagination as the ‘feeling’ of justice and injustice remained crucial and fundamental to the affairs of both the state and the polity.
Session I: In his paper ‘Outline of a Post-colonial Theory of Justice’, Prof. Partha Chatterjee argued that theories of justice that claim to provide universal blueprints for perfectly just societies were inadequate due to almost unbridgeable gaps between principles and the conditions of their application in different regions and cultures of the world. Examining and comparing the ideas of justice forwarded by Stuart Mill, Adma Smith, Marx, Gandhi, Amartya Sen and others he argued that postcolonial countries required a different theory of justice as they often lacked any social agreement on full citizenship, even while having formal provisions to the effect. He emphasized that postcolonial countries were still torn between democracy and enlightened despotism for ensuring justice; and that while norms of justice remained; there was always a case for making exceptions to the norm. Hence, the need to formulate more contextually grounded theories of justice.
In his paper ‘Rationality of Justice’, Prof. Sundar Sarukkai argued that experiences of justice become available to people primarily through the experiences of injustice. The question was – how to restructure the experience of injustice into a theory of justice? Since any notion of theory is intrinsically linked to the idea of rationality, which in turn is related to the notion of logic, he emphasized the need to explore different logical schemas to construct different theories of justice. Drawing upon the unique categories of Indian logic like Nyaya, Buddhist, Advaita, Jain and Vedanta traditions, he proposed that conceptions of justice in India needed to be re-examined and re-informed by these traditions in order to develop other rational modes of describing the concept of justice and to make justice possible.
Session II: In ‘Beyond Rawls: Why do we need the Ancients?’, Prof. Gurpreet Mahajan argued that Rawls’ intervention in the theory of justice had limited the scope of the discussion to the principles through which institutions could function in a fair manner. However, the problematic, she emphasized, must also include concerns of the Ancients, like - how should a just person act or how do individuals act when in office. Calling for revisiting dominant theories of Rawls or Nozick, she contended that without a moral force influencing individual action, a rational consensus on justice could become an empty concept or a rhetorical devise open to mere instrumental use.
Prof. Sobhanlal Datta Gupta in ‘Marx and Justice: Reviewing a Contested Issue,’ suggested that an essentialist, transhistorical and normative understanding of justice was inadmissible to Marx. His conception of justice as meaningful only under communism was perhaps not an act of negating normativity, but projecting an alternative normativity in politico-historical terms. However, the weakest and most ambiguous aspect of Marx’s understanding of justice was the notion of moral relativism in the absence of any proper theory of the Party or exist strategy from class society into communism. Hence, the transformation was justified as a journey from ideology to science. This, he argued, provided clues to understanding the distortions in the practices of socialism.
Session III: Dr. Arshad Alam in his paper ‘Justice for Whom: Sachar Committee Report and Reservations for Muslims,’ argued that the publication of the Sachar Committee Report signalled a shift in the discourse on Indian Muslims from questions of identity to those of empowerment and inclusion. While the Report emphasized inter-group equality, a close reading of the report also indicated significant intra-group inequalities and stratification, especially on the aspect of caste. Any consideration of reservations, therefore, must not involve glossing over intra-group inequalities as reservation for all Muslims would not only be unjustified, but also disastrous for the majority of Indian Muslims deserving reservations.
In ‘Indian Secularism: Political Philosophy Threatens Social Justice?’, Dr. Parthasarathi Mondal emphasized the need for clarity in the relationship between secularism and social justice for the sake of furthering the Dalit movement. Joining issues with Rajeev Bhargava’s notion of ‘Indian’ secularism as having a more frontal engagement with religion as opposed to the ‘confessional’ secularism of the West, he argued that there were flaws in the conception of ‘confessional’ Western secularism as well as a ‘positive’ accommodation of religion in the conception of ‘Indian’ secularism. Addressing the aspects of naming and exclusion involved in conceptions of religion, he argued, was crucial to the ideas of secularism as well as social justice.
Session IV: Prof. Pradeep p. Gokhale presented a paper titled ‘Dialectics of the Concept of Justice: With Special Reference to Ambedkar’s Thought.’ He argued that Ambedkar presented many interesting ideas of an egalitarian theory even while the presentation of a systematic theory of justice remained in doubt. He examined the triad of liberty, equality and fraternity in Ambedkar’s thought in the light of three phases of his intellectual development, namely, Hindu reformist phase, Threshold phase and Buddhist phase. The interrelationship between the three principles was conceived of as a unity of interdependent principles or a kind of dialectical unity. Ambedkar’s adoption of Buddhism, he argued, opened up a different way to the notion of egalitarian justice than that conceived by Rawls.
Dr. Prasenjit Biswas examined Gopal Guru’s understanding of victimhood as not just an experience of being tormented but also as a non-hegemonic space of reasons, sentiments and articulations. In his paper ‘Re-Signification as the Moment: Gopal Guru’s Theory of “Adequacy of a Theory of Justice”’, he explored the possibilities opened up by Guru’s phenomenological intervention in the radical description of experience, wherein a theoretician of justice is not just an author of theory or the experience of justice, but also someone who while being outside the experience can yet stand in the space of the reproduction of experience. Thus, a theory of justice can write about justice and also give birth to radical moments in theory.
Session V: Dr. Sanjeeb Mukherjee in his paper ‘An Other Theory of Justice’ argued that Ralws’ theory of justice was based on the presumption that poverty and deprivation were states of exception. And Locke presumed that nature is bountiful and hence there is plentiful for all to enjoy. However, both these presumptions are fraudulent, especially in the context of non-Western societies. Moreover, the liberal conscience that is outraged by the denial of freedom often accepts death and suffering due to hunger, disease, inequality, poverty or war. Amartya Sen’s idea of capabilities also suffers from conceptual flaws. But an alternate principle of justice as the right to live a full and free life could be ensured only if natural and cultural resources were shared on the basis of Gandhian notion of trusteeship.
Dr. Samir Banerjee in ‘Adequate justice and the fecundity of choice factor’ argued that adequacy could imply both a temporal restriction and a requisite response that is acceptable. In either case, conceptions of justice in society are anthropocentric and do not move beyond the human. Moreover, is justice to create the condition to provide ‘freedom from poverty, subjugation, deprivation and so on’, or is it to help ‘acquire the freedom to gain the competence to eliminate poverty, subjugation and so on’? The contingency of substantive justice makes this choice problematic.
Session VI: Dr. Tanweer Fazal in ‘Deconstructing Article 341: Implications for a theory of justice’ examined the deliberations surrounding Article Three41 and the promulgation of Government Order of 1950 in the Constituent Assembly, subsequently in the Indian Parliament, in the courts and the public domain. Though the Article deviates from a universalist framework of justice, the barring of low castes of non-Hindu denominations from availing the entitlements of SC status, indicates the complexity of identity and the universal theory of justice, requiring interrogation of the actual processes through which policies are framed and recipients of justice identified.
Dr Albeena Shakil in ‘Women’s Aazadi: The Universal/Particular Paradox of Justice’ explored the paradox of universal and particular conceptions of justice vis-à-vis women’s rights in the context of the anti-gang rape movement of 2012. The universalist appeal of the slogan of ‘aazadi’ and the particularities of sexual violence in contexts of caste, class, religion, family and state often came in conflict during the actual conduct of the movement leading to fragmentation, most notably on the question of the participation of men on women’s rights. Suggesting that the women’s question was transitioning into one of gender on the streets, the paper argued for seeking universality with particularities.
Dr. R. Umamaheshwari raised questions regarding the inadequacy of compensation in event of displacement for tribal communities in her paper ‘“Oustees” of the Contemporary system: Understanding Displacement and Idea of Justice’. She argued that the significance of history, memory and culture of the displaced people is completely missing in the mainstream understanding of R&R. The imposition of one universalist knowledge system over a general or generic citizenry within which notions of justice are experimented with, actually ends up reinstating caste, tribe and other social identities as the histories and historical agency of some communities are sacrificed for the ‘larger public good.’ The paper interrogated the inadequacy of justice on issues of displacement.
Session VII: In ‘Globalizing Justice under Non-Ideal Conditions’ Dr. Ashok Acharya discussed the continued invocation of Rawls’ distinction between ideal and non-ideal accounts of justice in contemporary conceptions of justice in different contexts – domestic as well as global. While cosmopolitans seek to construct a global ethical framework for a context-informed inclusive conception of justice, critics of Rawls emphasize the need to re-engage with the non-ideal variant. Mapping the non-ideal variant remains plausible in the context of the national political community but, he argues, while remaining politically attractive, poses moral limits in the global context.
Dr. Maidul Islam in his paper ‘The Elusive yet Necessary Idea of Justice’ argued that despite debates within a long tradition of political philosophy, there is hardly any conclusive, comprehensive and consensual theory of justice. In fact, there can never be an adequate theory of justice. Despite ideological contestations, both liberals and Marxists are preoccupied with distributive justice. Rather, particularly for the Left, it is imperative that both distributive and social justice be addressed. The more fruitful politico-intellectual task is to give primacy to politics and initiate various hegemonic political struggles in the name of justice, albeit elusive. He argued that ideas of justice are not truths but necessary for politics and mobilization.
The seminar ended with a Vote-of-Thanks.
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