Spinning moral compass

AIIMS suicide,Gurgaon rape: Justice is about how we treat each other

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:March 16, 2012 12:05 am

AIIMS suicide,Gurgaon rape: Justice is about how we treat each other

A society ought to be judged,fundamentally,by the quality of social relations. Our colossal political vacuum has,understandably,been the object of much discussion. There has also been much attention to the yawning ethical deficit in society. But this has focused on the issue of corruption. The deeper ethical and social issue of how citizens relate to each other in shared and public spaces has become almost invisible. The two recent stories — the suicide of a Dalit student at AIIMS,Delhi,and the response to rape cases — might,at first sight,seem unconnected. But both reveal this in common: our denial about the corrosion of social relations across lines of caste and gender.

The baseline ethical value of any democracy should be the absence of discrimination. Ironically,while we can talk of other values,reservation,justice,equality,etc,the specificity of discrimination as social practice has dropped out of sight. To a certain extent,there is a usual logic of denial at work: we could not possibly discriminate. But there are newer forces at work as well. The way in which we crafted the discourse of justice denuded it of its specifically ethical qualities. Justice is about how we treat each other. Instead justice became simply confined to distribution of goods or power-sharing. One of the,perhaps,unintended consequences of the focus on reservations was this. The measure of justice became power-sharing. The privileged could deny discrimination by pointing out the fact that power was being,in some senses,shared; and for the marginalised the struggle over distribution is easier to organise than over discrimination. Having reduced justice to a mathematical formula,no one was interested in taking on the ethical labour of transforming social relationships. The ease with which equality of representation in our educational institutions has been combined with segregation is staggering. The reduction of justice was grafted onto another vision,that society is fundamentally a non-zero sum competition between groups. Even those who did not care about purity and pollution taboos acquired a new interest in keeping other groups down.

However,the question of discrimination could not be posed sharply because of other forces as well. Our society’s mad search for unambiguous,non-discretionary criteria of merit has had huge perverse consequences. For one thing,it easily allowed a construction that anyone admitted under reservation was a usurper of sorts and did not deserve to be there. It is hard,even for the most progressive,to shake off the sense that “reserved category” means somehow inferior. This is now compounded by the fact that institutions have,for the most part,stopped performing signalling functions. So your degree from a particular institution does not,as a signal,compensate for the signal being in a reserved category sends. Paradoxically,societies that generally tolerate a diverse set of criteria and a lot of discretion will find it harder to single out affirmative as deviation from a norm. More importantly,institutional pedagogies are not designed to talk to students as much as they are designed to talk at them. The important thing is less what marks students come in with; the important thing is whether structures of teaching can begin from the students’ needs. The honest truth is we have few such structures; but the absence of this support will disproportionately fall on students from marginalised groups.

There are other challenging questions as well. What does discrimination mean in labour markets in a society where informal and network effects count for a lot? Sometimes law can have perverse consequences. Sometimes employers seem to be less willing to hire Dalits,not because of old style prejudice,but new legal fear. There is no penalty for not hiring. But in case you want to fire (perhaps for good reason) or possibly hold accountable,the fear that some legal instrument could be used against you is pervasive. So the default position is that it is better not to hire than risk post-hiring consequences.

The challenge of combating discrimination is complicated. But there is no doubt that despite reservations (or arguably,because of the form they have taken),the texture of social relations between marginalised communities and others is deeply debilitating for marginalised groups,in ways we cannot even imagine. In certain areas,like practices of segregation,the law might help. Assistance to institutions to deal with this form of diversity is absolutely essential. Some programmes have paid dividends. But law,administrative solutions,and reducing justice to a numbers game will only go so far; in fact it can sometimes crowd out and distort the fundamental moral issues. The appalling truth is that there are very few places that the required ethical labour is being done.

In the case of crimes against women there is a parallel issue. They pass a law and call it justice. But the standard pattern of response is appalling. First,the state abdicates responsibility for basic security,then it blames the victim,then it proposes counter measures like restricting work that are blatantly discriminatory. So there are two questions of ethical norms here. First,in a society undergoing rapid change in norms of sociability,how do we ensure that these are not inflected by violence? This is not just a matter for law. Equally seriously,how do we explain the fact that politicians,judges,police officials and even the media will do everything to diminish the enormity of the crimes being committed,and in many ways assault the dignity of the victims even further. What social and ethical labour are we lacking?

It is precisely at the moment at which social mobility becomes possible that the question of discrimination becomes more rather than less important. With more Dalits entering education,the work force and the professional middle classes,the ethical issues underlying interactions among citizens become more important. In the case of women,there is this striking fact. There has been a deeply impressive and steep gain in women’s enrolment in higher education. But workforce participation is inching up only very slowly. In fact,you could argue that the mystery of why we have a shortage of human capital is easily solved. Some of the best human capital we are producing is simply not coming onto the market. This is due to a range of cultural reasons. These are reinforced by new structural realities that employers do precious little to address. But it is disturbing that the new discourse around safety takes the clock back. We are a society whose moral compass is spinning round and round,so no one feels safe,or at home.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,express@expressindia.com

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