Amartya Sen’s wrong idea of justice

Social justice is not justice, and it is dangerous and wrong to conflate the two

It’s not out yet, but we are at imminent risk of being drenched by a book on the principle of justice written by an celebrated expert on…economics. Now, no one would give too much credence to a book on nuclear physics written by a professor of English literature,if not for the Law of Indian Expertise (LIE). That law says that an Indian who has achieved distinction in one area is immediately considered an expert in all others. If you have a Booker or a Nobel, you will immediately be taken seriously by many people on almost anything…including nuclear physics.

According to the Times of India Amartya Sen’s latest book, “The Idea of Justice”, is “his most ambitious book yet.” When Rashmee Roshan Lall asked him to summarise his key argument, Dr Sen’s response was incomprehensible.

Justice is a complex idea (I was not surprised that it took me 496 pages to discuss it), but it is very important to understand that justice has much to do with everyone being treated fairly. Even though that connection has been well discussed by the leading political philosopher of our time, John Rawls, I have argued that he neglects a couple of important connections. One neglect is the central recognition that a theory of justice has to be deeply concerned with systematic assessment of how to reduce injustice in the world, rather than only with the identification of what a hypothetical “perfectly just society” would look like.

There may be no agreement on the shape of perfect justice (and also perfect justice will hardly be achievable even if people did agree about what would be immaculately just), but we can still have reasoned agreement on many removable cases of manifest injustice, for example, slavery, or subjugation of women, or widespread hunger and deprivation, or the lack of schooling of children, or absence of available and affordable health care. Second, analysis of justice has to pay attention to the lives that people are actually able to lead, rather than exclusively concentrating only on the nature of “just institutions”. In India, as anywhere else, we have to concentrate on removing injustices that are identifiable and that can be remedied. [TOI]

Hasan Suroor’s report in The Hindu is more helpful. It says Dr Sen has argued “that there was no such thing as “perfect” justice; that justice was relative to a situation; and that instead of searching for “ideal” justice, the stress should be on removing the more visible forms of injustice such as subjugation of women, poverty and malnutrition.”

It is unjust to criticise Dr Sen’s book before reading it. But it is not unjust to criticise what he says about its contents.

Going by what Ms Lall and Mr Suroor write, he is engaged in the dubious enterprise of conflating “justice” with “social justice”. This is a dangerous argument: for delivering justice is the basic function of the state, and to do this efficiently, a parsimonious definition of justice is necessary. The simplest definition of justice is the redressal of a violation of rights. On the contrary, Dr Sen’s definition is expansive—covering everything from gender inequality to poverty to malnutrition. The more you ask a justice delivery system to do, the less efficiently it can do it, everything else being the same. Since Dr Sen professes to be concerned with practical delivery of justice, he contradicts his own objective by enlarging the scope of what justice should mean.

Then comes his reported contention that “justice is relative to a situation”, which is slippery and dangerous. Justice is the response to an objective evaluation of a deviation from a normative code—for practical purposes, a written or an unwritten constitution. In a rule-of-law environment, justice cannot be “relative to a situation”, but rather, has to be uniform across situations. If violation of rights is objective, how can the redressal be relative and just at the same time? (It’s like saying that justice should be, as a norm, different for a poor burgler caught stealing from Mukesh Ambani’s house and well-fed burgler caught stealing from mine.)

Dr Sen’s line is dangerous because it threatens to reduce the importance of individual rights and freedom, and supplant them with the discourse of social justice. It is dangerous because the premise of justice being relative befits an environment where the law of the jungle prevails, where the more powerful can make subjective decisions that the less powerful have to accept as justice. In a rule-of-law enviroment, the more powerful might still violate the rights of the less powerful, but it can’t be passed off as “justice”.

Related Post: Dandaniti, Arthashastra and Andre Béteille’s observation on Indian constitutional morality

Movements that just won’t take off

Selective outrage

In his piece on the readiness with which people come out on the streets to protest against Israel, Mark Steyn writes:

Only Israel attracts an intellectually respectable movement querying its very existence. For the purposes of comparison, let’s take a state that came into existence at the exact same time as the Zionist Entity, and involved far bloodier population displacements. I happen to think the creation of Pakistan was the greatest failure of post-war British imperial policy. But the fact is that Pakistan exists, and if I were to launch a movement of anti-Pakism it would get pretty short shrift. [Mark Steyn/National Review]

Socialising assets, privatising liabilities

What do you with a problem like Gyanendra?

From Nepal comes news of an royal billing dispute. After doing away with the monarchy and nationalising many of the royal assets—including the main royal palace—the government of the new republic wants King Gyanendra to cough up payment for the electricity the royal family used while he was still the monarch.

Oh, it is quite likely that Mr Gyanendra has a lot of private wealth arising from his numerous business ventures, but that’s not the point. Billing him for the electricity he used after stepping down is fine. The question is whether the financial liabilities he accumulated during the period he was the monarch can be turned into his personal liabilities now, when his royal assets have already been nationalised.

Lest you wonder—yes, the Maoists are in power. Going after the former monarch is the beginning of the slide down the slippery slope. Big landowners would be next. And rich businessmen might follow.

What’s Left?

Not respect for the office of Prime Minister. Not even courtesy

The Communists didn’t even wait for the Prime Minister to come back from his trip to Toyako, where he is meeting G8 leaders. They just pulled the rug. And that should be the least bit surprising. A bunch of people who never cared about India’s substantive interests can hardly be expected to care for symbolism.

Elections can’t be all that far away. It should now remain for the Indian voter to give the Communists the drubbing they deserve. Somewhere, one of history’s dustbins is waiting for them.

Less than three seconds, actually

To realise that some people don’t get it.

Dilip D’Souza disagrees with the view that “”projection of power is necessary to create the conditions for human development through trade and culture”. He cites a small sample of countries that, according to him, have succeeded in spite of not projecting power.

According to Dilip, these countries are: “Iceland, Singapore, Korea, Norway, Taiwan, Japan and Germany after being devastated in WW2, arguably even Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Botswana until it was hit by AIDS a decade ago.”

Let’s see if they really meet his own definitions:

1. Iceland, successful, but member of NATO. NATO, it turns out, is an organisation invented to project power against a neighbouring superpower. Realpolitik suggests that tiny Iceland could hardly ensure the well-being of its people if it did not “hold its own” against the Soviet Union, and since it was too small to do it alone, it joined NATO, for collective security.

2. Singapore, successful, but not projecting power? It consistently spends over 5% of its GDP on defence, among the highest in the region, has compulsory military service for all adult males, and provides naval bases for the region’s big powers. For good reason: “by holding its own”, its armed forces and strategic partnerships deter adversaries who might interrupt with “ensuring the well-being of its people”. According to one of its founding fathers: “The war-making potential of a small, vigorous, well-educated and highly motivated population should never be underestimated.”

3. Korea (err, which one?). The successful one that could focus on the development of its own people by “outsourcing” its strategic security to the United States? Or the failed one that concentrated solely on holding its own, but neglected the development of its people? [Note the difference: no one argues that merely holding one’s own is sufficient, rather that it is a necessary condition] Coming under a superpower’s security umbrella, like joining an alliance like NATO, is not a rejection of power projection. Rather it is an acceptance that such arrangements are necessary, at a particular period in time, to “hold one’s own”.

4. Norway, successful, and like Iceland, a member of NATO.

5. Taiwan, successful, and like Korea, under the US security umbrella. And if it is not holding its own, why is the People’s Liberation Army not liberating it?

6. Japan & Germany. After the World War II, both Japan and Germany came under US protection. But the story of Japan and Germany’s rise to the top league of human development hardly started in 1945. It started at least a century earlier.

7. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. These, according to Dilip, are examples of success of delivering development and well-being to their people. Really? It is easier to argue—as is commonly done in Colombo and Dhaka—that they owe their failures, at least in part, due to being at the receiving end of Indian hegemony. The Sri Lankan government can’t buy weapons to fight the LTTE without running the risk of rubbing India on the wrong side.

8. Botswana. That’s one example that proves exactly the opposite of what Dilip would like. It started out with no army at all. It was only after it realised that this provided an invitation to South Africans and Rhodesians to attack that it set up its own armed forces. And how much does Botswana spend on defence? A whopping 8% of its GDP. That’s excluding a security relationship with the United States.

Realpolitik merely suggests that a stable balance of power creates the conditions (of stability and security) that best allow states to pursue their domestic goals. But Dilip confuses the “projection of power” with the aggressive use of military force. Perhaps because he spends only three or four seconds thinking about it.


Mani Shankar Aiyar’s freudian slip

Towards the end of his lecture on “inclusive growth through inclusive governance” (yes, yes, the title tells the tale), Mani Shankar Aiyar says:

I speak for the inconsequential Indian, the unsuccessful Indian, but also for the Indian who crucially determines the outcome of the democratic process. [The Hindu]

The Indian voter, in other words, is inconsequential according to Mr Aiyar, even after ‘crucially determining the outcome of the democratic process’.

Isn’t it at once apt and ironic that Mr Aiyar should say this in a lecture on inclusive governance?

My op-ed in Mint : Ten years after Pokhran-II

The payoffs are clear, unambiguous and long-term

In an op-ed to mark the tenth anniversary of India’s second round of nuclear tests, I argue that they made India a far more credible international actor. And that while India is reconciled to the ownership of nuclear weapons but remains unclear what they are for. I also point out that the conventional military balance remains as important despite nuclear deterrence being in place; and that our political leadership needs an altogether different level of skill to translate the nuclear advantage into foreign policy outcomes.


“Real strength lies in restraint,” Sonia Gandhi said ten days after India conducted its second series of nuclear tests on May 11th and May 13th 1998, “not in the display of shakti.” She could not have been more wrong.

At the time of Mrs Gandhi’s speech, India had spent a decade fighting a proxy war against a Pakistan that China had brazenly armed – with American connivance – with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. India’s protestations that it is a victim of both cross-border terrorism and illegal nuclear and missile proliferation got nowhere. The nuclear powers had perverted the entire edifice of nuclear disarmament by legitimising their own nuclear arsenals in perpetuity. They were coercing India to constrain and give up its nuclear weapons programme. It was abundantly clear that India’s display of restraint was being exploited as a sign of weakness.

Pokhran-II changed that. Because it demonstrated to the world that India was ready to incur costs in the defence of its national interests. [Mint]

Thanks to Kedar Wagle, Anand Sampath & V Anantha Nageswaran for providing inputs and comments

A lesson in statecraft, for Mr Varadarajan

Nepal is Nepal, and India is, well, India

“If the Indian Maoists have something to learn from their Nepali comrades,” Siddharth Varadarajan argues, “the same is true of the Indian establishment as well. While Nepal’s erstwhile ruling parties are building peace with their Maoists, India is stuck with the disastrous Salwa Judum.”

Now the use of Salwa Judum by Chattisgarh is wrong, and is the most obvious indicator of the UPA government’s failure to develop a cohesive strategy towards subduing the Naxalite movement. But it is also important to remember that Salwa Judum is a relatively new phenomenon (India’s Naxalites have been around for almost four decades) and is restricted to just one state. So to equate India’s long war against the Naxalite movement is more misinformation than analysis. Mr Varadarajan ignores the anti-Naxalite strategies adopted in other states and at other times. For instance, under Chandrababu Naidu’s chief-ministership, the Andhra Pradesh police almost broke the Naxalites’ back. That advantage was lost not because the use of force by state authorities didn’t work. It was lost because the Congress Party decided to lower the heat and attempt negotiations. The Maoists used the opportunity to regroup and before long, returned to their armed struggle.

But what of Mr Varadarajan’s lesson in statecraft, from Nepal to India? Well, he argues

“If the Indian establishment wants the Maoists to give up their armed struggle and take part in elections like their Nepali comrades, it will have to rely on more than political osmosis. For the Nepali ‘model’ is not just about the Maoists adapting creatively to changes in the national and international arena; it is equally about the ‘bourgeois’ parties there demonstrating a degree of statesmanship that has so far been completely absent in their counterparts south of the border.

Indeed, so backward is our political culture in relation to Nepal’s that instead of seeking ways of peacefully ending the naxalite insurgency, the Government of India has actually fuelled a new civil war.

In Nepal, the political parties and the Maoist rebels realised that the civil war in their country would not be resolved militarily. The king was the only one who failed to recognise this reality and paid the price for his folly. In India, however, despite the military stalemate which prevails, both the establishment and the Maoists continue to believe in the supremacy of arms.” [The Hindu]

Mr Varadarajan, like some other people who write in the opinion pages of the Hindu betrays a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the Indian state. He fails to understand the fundamental difference between legitimacy of a democratic republic and that of a sometimes-absolute, sometimes-constitutional monarchy. Even if one were to ignore the immense differences in the state’s hard capacity—in the ability to muster up economic and military resources—the government of India enjoys a moral strength (of course, the Naxalites and their apologists will deny this) that no government of Nepal ever had. [See There are alternatives to Naxalism]

In other words, unlike Nepal, the Indian state won’t simply lie down and surrender. Here Mr Varadarajan would do well to learn some lessons from Indian history: in the end, it is the insurgents who cry Momma. The second lesson for Mr Varadarajan is that the democratic nature of the Indian state allows these militarily defeated insurgents to honourably enter mainstream politics.

Indeed, Mr Varadarajan might discover the ultimate lesson of statecraft were he to examine how Nepal’s Maoists came to power. Narratives of Indian pusillanimity apart, does he really believe that Pushpa Kumar Dahal would be so close to political power, and legitimacy, if the ‘Indian establishment’ hadn’t allowed it?

It is not as if negotiations haven’t been tried in India. They have. That they have not led to the Naxalites dropping dogmatic armed struggle and entering mainstream politics tells you where the problem lies. It is understandable that Mr Varadarajan is heady with vicarious triumphalism due to the success of Nepal’s Maoists. He should restrict himself to savouring the moment. As for lessons in statecraft, there’s a lot that Maoists—on either side of the India-Nepal border—have to learn.

Prachanda’s learning curve

New dogs, old tricks

Some commentators have characterised the electoral performance of the Maoists in Nepal’s constituent assembly elections as catching India by surprise. That’s not entirely incorrect. Though polls have a tendency to get pundits wrong, election results surprised most people, including the Maoists themselves.

Does this mean India should be more worried about its relations with Nepal?

Not quite. Once Comrade Prachanda becomes President or Prime Minister Pushpa Kumar Dahal and comes to grips with the reality of running a state—as opposed to running a revolution—he will realise that he has about as much policy flexibility as his predecessors.

He has already declared that Nepal would maintain “equal distance from India and China”. He also uttered phrases like “historical relationship with India”, “open borders” and developing “closer ties”. The phrases might well have been uttered for diplomatic purposes…but it might well be that the Maoists have come to understand that “equal distance” on a two-dimensional map is quite different from equal distance in three dimensional reality. High Himalayas are very three-dimensional.

For India, the main issue is having to handle a new government in Kathmandu that must learn the ropes of governance while coming to terms with the gap between a revolutionary Communism and mundane reality. In the domain of international relations, it is quite possible that the new government would do things to show that there is a new show in town, and that it has other friends, and pose for its domestic constituency. While it might well be necessary to indulge them a little, Indian and Nepali interests will both be best served if Messrs Dahal & Co’s learning curve is short.

On arming citizens to fight insurgents

The battle in the Supreme Court

The correct way to challenge dubious government policies is to take them to court. So the citizens who filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against the Chattisgarh government’s use of an armed militia to take on the Naxalites did the right thing.

The case is still in progress, but the court’s early comments—well publicised by the media—were noteworthy.

“The allegation is that the state is arming private persons. You can deploy as many police personnel or armed forces to tackle the menace. But, if private persons, so armed by the state government, kill other persons, then the state is also liable to be prosecuted for abetting murder” [TOI]

The court is on the right track. Armed militias like Salwa Judum are not only unconstitutional but actually inimical to internal security. They should go.

The government’s defence has been injudicious so far: it was wholly unnecessary to bring in the bogey of an adverse judgement undermining the strategy of using village defence committees (VDCs) in terrorist/insurgent affected areas. For there is a difference between VDCs and armed militias.

The difference lies both in orientation and organisation. VDCs are about empowering citizens to defend themselves and their properties. They are localised units, small in size and with limited capability. Salwa Judum on the other hand has offensive capabilities, an organisational structure with paid cadres and covers large areas. VDCs are more akin to security guards than to armed militias. The government’s counsel would do well not to conflate Salwa Judum with VDCs. (And ensure that VDCs don’t become Salwa Judums)

According to the government, the allegations against Salwa Judum are overstated. That may well be true. It is likely that the court will appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate into the allegations. Yet, it would be far more prudent for the state to conduct ‘flag operations’, demonstrating that the state is capable of delivering governance. For whether the state cedes ground to Salwa Judum or to the Naxalites, it is the state that loses.