Pearson, Gujarat and editorial independence

The next time one of its publications claims editorial independence, it’ll be a little less credible.

Pearson, the company that owns the Economist, Financial Times and fDi Magazine—an offshoot of the latter—can no longer credibly claim that its publications enjoy editorial independence. It just showed that the proprietors of the company can overrule the decisions of one of its publications’ editorial management team, albeit in response to vociferous lobbying. Surely it is reasonable to assume that if Pearson’s management can yield to one group of well-connected lobbyists, it can also yield to others? Of course, if governments exert pressure on media companies it is coercion; if shrill members of ‘civil society’ do it, then it is not only acceptable, but accepted.

We are talking about the episode of fDi Magazine’s Personality of the Year 2009 Award, which now has been given to the Indian state of Gujarat. Gujarat became a personality after the Gujarati personality it was initially awarded to was suddenly found unworthy of the award—although the factors causing the unworthiness were not hidden to the people who initially gave the award. When it first recognised Narendra Modi—fairly in the Acorn’s opinion—for his achievements in attracting investments to Gujarat, fDi magazine certainly knew that his role in the post-Godhra riots of 2002 was under judicial scrutiny. Now, there have been arguments that Mr Modi’s achievements are overstated—just as there have been arguments that Manmohan Singh’s role in the post-1991 reforms, and indeed those reforms themselves have been overstated. It is inconceivable that a publication with the FT pedigree could have been unaware of these criticisms. (See V Anantha Nageswaran’s post). They still chose to give the award to Mr Modi.

But Mr Modi’s detractors couldn’t digest that. They targeted the management of Pearson in an email campaign, dropping names of people and organisations that Pearson’s CEO was affiliated to and demanded not only that the award be taken back, but also a “public statement of regret” from the publication.

In such circumstances, you would expect a media organisation of repute to stand behind the decision made by its editors. It would not have been difficult for Pearson’s management to respond to Mr Modi’s critics—that he is innocent until proven guilty by the Indian justice system, and that they would be prepared to rescind the award in the event that he is pronounced guilty.

But in this case Pearson caved in. In a laughable move, it gave the Personality of the Year award to a region, and to boot “decided to highlight the geographic regions of all the other winners.” But it is unclear whether Iraq’s al-Anbar province, Nigeria’s Lagos state, Denmark, Mexico’s Yucatan state and United States’ Louisiana are also recognised as ‘personalities’ now (psst if you are a critic of Bobby Jindal—you know what to do!). fDi magazine also airbrushed Mr Modi from its webpages. (The original pages live in Google cache, for now).

Pearson comes out of this one with its reputation dented. The next time one of its publications claims editorial independence, it’ll be a little less credible. That’s a pity, because without the presumption of independence, it would only be fair to question the motives of the highly opinionated views coming from the Economist and the Financial Times. You know, someone might just have dropped the name of the president of the club that the editor is a member of…

Tailpiece: This episode shows that Mr Modi’s critics are the mirror image of his supporters. The former see him exclusively in the dubious context of the post-Godhra riots (where he has much to answer for) while the latter see nothing but the post-Godhra economic take-off that took place under his watch. And by ignoring reasonable arguments from the other side, they damage their own.

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

Duh Roy

And duh Dilip?

Arundhati Roy asks rhetorically (via Dilip D’Souza who asks inquiringly):

Roy: I think speaking out against the occupation is the bravest thing that a soldier can do. I have always admired the U.S. soldiers who spoke out against the Vietnam War. In fact, in places like India, when people get randomly racist and anti-American, I always ask them: When do you last remember Indian soldiers speaking out against a war, any war, in India? [War Times]

Imagine you were an Indian soldier. Would you speak out against war when Pakistan attacks India at Kargil, Pakistan-sponsored terrorists attacks the Indian parliament, when terrorists habitually kill your fellow citizens and conduct ethnic cleansing in your own country? Or when terrorists kill your own family members? Would you speak out against war when a murderous Pakistani military dictatorship is conducting genocide in Bangladesh driving 10 million refugees into India? Or when the Sri Lankan government is brutally repressing the Tamil minority, again driving refugees into India?

If you were an Indian soldier, you would be very unlikely to speak out against a war that is imposed on you.

And let’s not forget that the Indian armed forces do not engage in public debate over policy, but professionally execute the political decision to use military force. And that’s generally a very good thing.

By Invitation: Why human rights activists must be unreasonable

Because it is not for them to provide solutions

By Salil Tripathi

[Background: This is Salil’s response to the criticism that “human rights folks, at least in India, are terribly context insensitive. In practice, you can’t even talk about enjoying human rights (as opposed to possessing them) unless the state is capable of maintaining rule of law. By relentlessly criticising the government, and not having much else by means of a positive solution (beyond platitudes), human righters are hampering what capability that already exists. That’s contradictory. That they have for company, intellectuals who condone and incite political violence in the name of whatever cause, makes them all the more suspicious.”]

Human rights folks will be unreasonable, everywhere, to restrain the state. This is not to defend them, but to explain where they come from. The moment they become “solution providers” they have to begin modifying the message and make it more context-specific. Once they do that, the moral sharpness of their message—that the victim is most important (and they sometimes exalt victims to a holy status)—is lost. This is not to judge victims or human rights groups.

Whether it is ACLU or the Center for Constitutional Rights defending the indefendable folks in Guantanamo Bay cases, or Liberty supporting some committed Jihadists in Belmarsh jail in London, they see their role as defending the indefensible, so that the rest of us won’t get caught out. If they were to begin appearing reasonable, they’d lose resonance. More important, nobody will be speaking out for the innocent who will otherwise go to jail. (Pastor Nimoller’s poem about not speaking out when they came for
gays, leftists, Jews, etc).

Guantanamo prison, like Abu Ghraib, has many bad people. But it also has some innocent people. The state should not be allowed to get away with that.

I remember reading about Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese dissident, who had to leave China – after several years in jails. In “Bad Elements” Ian Buruma paints a very gripping and vivid picture of him—of Wei driving through red lights in America, ignoring traffic discipline; smoking in places where smoking is banned. He is stubborn, because the only way he can deal with authority that he has known—China—is by being uncompromising. It does make him look “uncouth” in civilized company.

And yet, unpleasant though he might be, Wei matters. Just as Solzhenitsyn matters even though when he came out of the Gulag, and once he started talking about Mother Russia, he sounded like an embarrassment.

The point about human rights activists in India is that like Teesta Setalvad, Sandeep Pandey, Aruna Roy, Binayak Sen and others, should remain unreasonable. Let the think tankers and policy-makers become practical. Because otherwise, everyone will support the idea of safety-over-liberty, and we would all be losers.

Think Franklin.

This is, again, not to defend or condemn the human rights brigade, but to explain why they are the way they are. In some ways, they are like evangelists, which makes them suspect for some, saviors, for others.

However, there is some awareness growing among human rights folks, that they should not forget victims of terror. If you see Amnesty International, they issued a statement after Jaipur blasts in which they condemned those who committed the acts. They called 9/11 “a crime against humanity”. At a recent human rights seminar in London, two important things came out: one, that if human rights lawyers don’t need to explain why torture is bad (because it is, period), why can’t they also argue that terrorism is
bad, period? Why do rights advocates contextualize terrorism? Why do they call it “the weapon of the powerless” when those who perpetrate terror are extremely powerful, often woman-hating neanderthals (my words)? Why do victims of torture get elevated when they are themselves human rights abusers, to the status of human rights defenders and get honored? Yes, they are victims when they are tortured or detained without due process of law, and they should get legal access and not get tortured. But they need not be on a pedestal. Merely because you were in Gitmo does not make you qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I suppose it is that correlation/causality argument again, right? Joyce, his hand, kiss, writing, doing a lot of other things?

Defending Salwa Judum

Has anyone articulated how the citizen’s militia will be disbanded?

Prakash Singh, a distinguished police officer and a member of an expert group set up by the Planning Commission to study the Naxalite problem, dissents from the group’s conclusions and argues that the Salwa Judum was a “spontaneous movement expressing the resentment of the tribals against the Naxalites’ interference with their social customs, cultural practices and economic interests.”

Mr Singh, who is both the author of a book on the Naxalite movement and has tirelessly pushed police reforms since his retirement, is a credible commentator. His opinion must be taken seriously.

This blog, however, disagrees with his view. Individuals bearing arms for self-defence, or even isolated village defence committees in remote areas are one thing: organising these units into a larger corporate entity, or indeed a “movement”, is quite another. Organisations once formed develop a life and interests of their own, and are almost impossible to wind down and demobilise, especially if they are outside the formal control of the state. As Mr Singh himself admits (Salwa Judum’s) “camps should have been wound up within a year or two and the tribals encouraged to go back to their villages. That unfortunately did not happen.”

Mr Singh has a point when he argues that Salwa Judum is a useful instrument in the fight against the Naxalite insurgency. But in the medium- to long-term, it is likely to create additional problems, whether or not the Naxalites are defeated.

Should India’s foreign policy clean your kitchen sink?

Why proponents of a friendly relations with China undermine their case

M K Bhadrakumar is at it again. He asks if India’s “strategic alliance” (huh? which one?) with the United States

helped to discourage farmers in Vidharbha from taking their own lives in sheer despair, reduce the profound alienation of the people of Jammu & Kashmir or bring the neglected northeast into the national mainstream. Would “Malabar exercises” or the Indo-U.S. defence agreement or the envisaged “inter-operability” of the armed forces of the two countries make the South Asian security environment any less complicated? Would they help to ease India’s troubled relations with its neighbours? Do they tackle energy security or the looming food security crisis or the appalling illiteracy and malnutrition stalking the outer rings of our shining metros?[The Hindu]

Let’s indulge him and ignore for a moment that the India-US civilian nuclear power deal actually addresses energy security. Let’s assume that the answer is negative.

The question is: is foreign policy the relevant framework to address distressed farmers, disgruntled Kashmiris and neglected North-easterners? Or are these unhappy people victims of India’s inability to deliver effective governance? In his bid to attack India’s post-cold war foreign policy, Mr Bhadrakumar absurdly argues that foreign policy is somehow a cure for the rot in domestic governance.

His article, as before, is yet another attempt to argue why India should be pro-China and anti-America. But he fails by his own yardstick—will a pro-China and anti-America policy help people in Vidarbha, Kashmir and the North East?

Now pragmatic people will accept that India must maintain stable, hopefully friendly relations, with China. But pragmatic people will fail to understand Mr Bhadrakumar’s assertions that India’s foreign policy must necessarily antagonise the United States. Amusingly, he asserts that ” the nation got alienated from its foreign policy”. It is Mr Bhadrakumar who is alienated from the nation.

Here are some results of a nationally representative survey conducted in 2005-6 over 212,000 households:

First, there is a clear relationship between socio-economic status and the ability to respond to questions on foreign policy. The more elite (defined both by education and occupation), the more likely Indians will have an opinion on foreign policy issues. For the large number of rural landless, 69.7 percent “don’t know” while another 24.3 percent have “no response”. At the other extreme – educated urban professionals – the figures are 21 and 6 percent respectively, an almost four-fold difference. High non-response rates among the weaker socio-economic groups indicate that they may be “efficiently” ignorant i.e. they are not interested in putting in the effort on an issue that has low salience for them.
Continue reading Should India’s foreign policy clean your kitchen sink?

Today’s dharma is the Constitution

Where The Acorn interprets the Mahabharata

Continuing the discussion on Naxalism, Gautam Sen points to an op-ed by Nandini Sundar, a sociologist from the Delhi School of Economics, and a member of the Independent Citizen’s Initiative (ICI) that investigated the situation in Chattisgarh in July 2006. Similar to the position the ICI takes in its report, Dr Sundar’s op-ed equates violence conducted by state authorities and violence conducted by non-state authorities (Maoists and the anti-Maoist Salwa Judum militia). This is perhaps a pacifist middle-ground position, but is untenable as an organising principle for a democratic nation. It has been rejected by the Maoists themselves: Mupalla Lakshmana Rao (Comrade ‘Ganapathy’), the Maoist chief, retorted that “those who imagine themselves to be impartial referees in class war and try to set the rules equally for both sides will ultimately end up as apologists for the oppressors, in spite of their good intentions and sincere attitude.”

Dr Sundar attempts to find a basis for the “middle-ground” position by taking recourse to the Mahabharata and codes of conduct according to dharma.

If both must fight, ignoring saner counsel, let me draw their attention to another aspect of the Mahabharata. As Matilal points out, it was indeed a dharmyuddh, but only because both parties were expected to observe certain laws of dharma, or codes of conduct in war. [New Indian Express]

Now, quite clearly, it is untenable to suggest that the Indian state allow the literal Hindu dharma to guide its behaviour. Beyond a literal interpretation though, the idea that the actions of the king and his subjects are circumscribed by a code of conduct, or dharma, in its contemporary form simply indicates that the government and citizens are subject to the Constitution. And the Constitution empowers the government to use force—under laws, checks and balances. It forbids others, for instance the Maoists, from doing so.

The correct interpretation of the Mahabharata is that the government must behave according to the Constitution (and disband the Salwa Judum), but also, defeat the Maoists who, by rejecting the Constitution, are on the side of adharma.

Chennai rejects

Some opinions just can’t make it to the People’s Daily of Chennai

The Beijing correspondent of The Hindu can hardly be classified as a critic of the People’s Republic. But when Pallavi Aiyar wrote a piece that compared India and China that showed the latter in rather unfavourable light, she had to publish it in Asia Times Online, a Hong Kong (Special Administrative Region of China) based publication. It is understood that The Hindu, ‘India’s national newspaper’ declined to publish it. Oh! the irony.

In direct contradistinction to China, India’s polity has flourished precisely because of its ability to acknowledge difference. The very survival of India as a country, given the scope of its bewildering diversity, has been dependent on the possibility of dissent…

In China, regular lip service is also paid to the country’s own, considerable diversity. During the National People’s Congress’ annual session, for example, delegates representing China’s multiplicity of minorities swish around the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in their “ethnic” dresses. Beijing regularly talks of the religious freedoms enjoyed by the country’s Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.

But in fact, the fundamental tenet of China’s political philosophy is not diversity but uniformity. This homogeneity does not only extend itself to the tangible, such as architecture or the system of writing alone, but also to thought.

Even in the modern China of the 21st century where there are more Internet users than even in the United States, those who disagree with mainstream, officially sanctioned views outside of the parameters set by mainstream officially sanctioned debate, more often than not find themselves branded as dissidents – suspect, hunted, under threat.

The insistence on “harmony” as the only reality and inability to admit genuine differences in interest and opinions between the peoples of a country of the size and complexity of China is ultimately the country’s greatest weakness.

Talk of political reform in China continues to be bound by the “harmonious” parameters set by Hu Jintao, the president. The idea is that everyone’s interests and opinions are to be balanced and resolved without conflict…

For China’s authorities to simply deny the reality of the problem, blame all tension on an exiled leader and insist that the majority of Tibetans couldn’t be happier with the Communist Party’s harmonious policies, is self-defeating. [Asia Times]