Monday, April 17, 2006

Rang de Basanti and John Rawls

Please don’t frown at the title. Actually another semester has come to an end at my law school and it’s about time I dashed off a piece on a theme that has kept me captivated for quite sometime now. Before I introduce it, let me give you a general background. Jurisprudence or the philosophy of law is something every law student is expected to be well versed with. It is true that no client would ever seek to be lectured upon the concept of ‘justice’ or the philosophical underpinnings of the concept of rights and duties, yet as my teacher once said, “it will be assumed that a lawyer has knowledge of the theoretical underpinning of the professional expertise he claims.” Just as an aeroplane is a practical machine which works only if its design is based upon sound aerodynamic theory, a lawyer without knowledge of jurisprudence is no lawyer at all.

Having done Jurisprudence-I (an introductory paper on the nature and functions of law) in the 2nd year, I was anxiously looking forward to Jurisprudence-II this semester, which deals with concepts like ownership, possession, the nature of rights and duties and most importantly the theories of justice. I am glad that our course teacher was good enough to have effectively communicated these theories while leaving many a minds ignited.

What I propose to do here is examine the current state of affairs in our country in the light of certain theories of justice. Rang de Basanti, a recent Indian movie on the state of affairs in our country would serve as a model for proper elucidation.

With the march of civilization, there are bound to be people who will be dissatisfied with the system as it does not give them their due. Our forefathers fought against the British rule because they believed that it did not give them their due. The Bangladeshis rose up against Pakistan as they thought that they were not getting their due. So, it all boils to what is due to the people, i.e., what the people deserve to get. Now this is exactly what the theories of justice deal with. Over the years, philosophers have tried to identify certain principles of justice which help in determining what is due to the people. However, justice is a very vague concept. People’s understanding of justice differs from society to society. For instance, given a chance, a rich man who has earned a lot of money would not want the state to tax his income. A poor beggar on the other hand would want the state to abolish all the beggary prohibition laws. So when every one speaks from his own selfish point of view it becomes impossible to have such principles of justice which would be acceptable to one and all.

To answer this question, John Rawls in his book called the Theory of Justice which came out in 1971 refers us to a hypothetical situation called the ‘Original Position.’ For him, this refers back to the time before the beginning of civilization when man lived in the state of nature. There, every individual was completely detached and had no biases. So, in arriving at his principles of justice, he looks at them from the perspective of an unbiased individual living in the state of nature having nothing to do with the affairs of the modern world.

He says that when such unbiased people deliberate on the principles of justice which will help in determining as to what would be due each of them, the first thing they would agree upon would be maximum liberty for all compatible with the like liberty of others, i.e., every individual should have the freedom to do what he likes and this freedom should be the same for all.

Next comes the question of exercise of these freedoms (which leads to all the problems). Some people exercise their freedom more effectively than others. For example, all the degree holders in India have the freedom to appear for the Civil Services Examination. There is equality of opportunity for all. However, few chose to do so (an exercise of freedom), and even fewer get selected (some worked harder than others-another exercise of freedom). So by exercising freedoms, some people become successful while some others don’t. This goes to show that the exercise of freedoms leads to creation of positions of inequality. For instance, A, a graduate while exercising his freedoms passed the Civil Services Examination and became an IAS officer. Now this position of A is that of inequality in the sense that he is no longer on the same footing as the other graduates who had the chance to appear for the exam or who appeared and did not get through, i.e. he is no longer equal to them.

This leads Rawls to the second principle of justice. He says that an individual’s position of inequality can be justified only if it is for the benefit of the least advantaged member of the society. So in the above illustration, A’s position of inequality (IAS Officer) will be justified only when he honestly works in the interest of the nation for the benefit of the least advantaged person in the society, i.e., A’s each action must trickle down certain benefits to the least advantaged. So while the position of inequality of an honest Prime Minister may be justified, that of a Gangster can never be. While the latter might be a very benevolent person who hands out doles to the poor, his criminal actions against the state would ultimately harm the interest of the poorest of the poor.

The best part about Rawls’ theory is that it applies to one and all. It does not differentiate between the State and an individual. So his theory rings true for professions based on intellectual attainment like engineers, doctors and lawyers as much as it does for a Government Officer or a Minister. For Rawls, this and only this is the solution to all the social problems and tensions.

Rawls’ criticizers point out that why should a person who has effectively exercised his freedoms be responsible to those who haven’t. Prof. Upendra Baxi comes to his rescue here. Rawls’ assumption of original position seems to be true to the extent of allotment of freedoms to all. However, when it comes to exercise of these freedoms in the modern world, not everybody starts from a similar position. For instance, what does freedom to become an engineer mean for a twelve year old child who washes plates at a dingy eat-out. Upendra Baxi thus says that the capacity to exercise these rights or freedoms is as important as the freedoms themselves. It is here that the role of those who enjoy a position of inequality comes in. So the Education Minister’s position of inequality would be justified only when he builds enough capacity in the child so as to enable him to become an engineer. Unfortunately, the politicians of this country have made ‘capacity building’ and ‘reservation in higher education’ synonymous. What use is reservation in an engineering college for a person who has never visited a school? For such children the freedom or right to be educated is nothing but a tantalizing illusion.


Although, it is a fundamental right guaranteed to every child in this country to be educated at state cost till he attains the age of fourteen, it hardly solves the problem of capacity building. Unless this child completes his higher secondary education, his chances of succeeding in this competitive world are negligible. There is a hell lot of difference between being a literate and being educated. Another irony is that while most of the higher education professional institutions impart education in English, the state run schools impart education in regional languages making it even more difficult for the disadvantaged to succeed. I do not say that people coming from non-English speaking backgrounds can’t succeed at the professional institutions, but still it does have an affect today.

Mahatma Gandhi, a private individual enjoyed a position of inequality too. However, he used it to improve the life of his fellow human beings. I don’t want to sound too idealistic here but what least one can do ensure his contribution to the least advantaged is do his own job honestly and responsibly. The benefits would trickle down to the least advantaged. On paper, our system isn’t all that bad. It only fails when it comes to implementation. Today, accumulation of wealth has become the highest moral value for people. Man’s every action revolves around making money. It is not wrong to earn money for one’s hard work, but it should not be at the cost of the society one is part of.

What was true for the minister who was shot at in Rang de Basanti is true for each of us. Is our position of inequality for the benefit of the least advantaged? If it is not, this country would go no where. For, until a significant population of the country continues going to sleep without any food in their stomach, the booming economy is a mere facade and Indian names in the Forbes list of the richest, a travesty.

We don’t need a revolution to solve our problems. We need no people of the "third kind." We just need such people to take up positions of inequality who would do there jobs with honesty and responsibility and not just for the sake of power that comes with it. So, it is not our system that fails the people. It is the people who fail it. We need to have rule of law, i.e., governance according to the system and not according to men. Politics can't be allowed to prevail over law. It's is high time we stop blaming the system.


P.S.- I got busy searching for sponsors after having qualified for the World Finals of the Moot. The end-sems got over on the 14th. Our tickets and visas are ready. We’ll start practicing in a day or two…flying in the early hours of 25th. Godwilling, we’ll win something and come.

11 comments:

SpaceMonkey said...

Good luck for your Moot finals, bro.

Landing in Mumbai on the 6th of June. Hope to see you then.

Anonymous said...

now thats what is called quality blogging....one of the best works of yours that i have come across

Debanshu Mukherjee said...

Thanks...but, may i know who you are?

ravishing nymph said...

lol at anonymous.. all so mysterious and all.. i realise that singing an anthem doesnt make one a patriot.. that was surely not wat i was implying..! -offended ishu!

Anonymous said...

justa curious blogwatcher who has been keepin track of some good graffti...waiting for the next peice...shock and awe~!

Anonymous said...

I attended the bash at the IIM-OBC Alumni Association to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the reservation of seats for OBCs (Other Backward Castes) in IIMs. Since I'm not an OBC, I was not supposed to attend, but at present, we MBFCs (Moderately Backward Forward Castes) together with the Non-Scheduled Tribes have a political alliance with the OBCs. We sipped champagne and talked about how so many of us had progressed from reserved seats in the IIMs to reserved jobs to reserved promotions. Unfortunately, the party broke up when a Non-scheduled Tribes faculty member objected to the OBCs dancing with all the pretty girls — he wanted equal opportunities for every caste at each dance. I pointed out that the Non-scheduled Tribes had exceeded the quota of champagne reserved for them. The party ended in a pitched caste battle.

1 May 2056: Today, I became president of the IIM Board of Directors. Under the present rotating presidency system, a member of each caste is made the president by turn. When it was the turn of the MBFCs for president, they had to choose me because I'm the only MBFC on the campus. True, I'm only the campus dhobi, but then every caste must be given an equal opportunity. All those centuries of oppression by the OSBFCs (Only Slightly Backward Forward Castes) and the OFCs (Other Forward Castes) must be rectified. I hope to restore the high standards at IIM — I overheard some foreigners calling it the Indian Institute of Morons, the other day.

2 May 2056: They've announced the cricket team for the series against Australia. I was overjoyed when they chose an MBFC man as captain. But my hopes were dashed when I realised he was a Most Backward Forward Caste and not a Moderately Backward Forward Caste. The selection committee lamented that it was gross discrimination that no member from the Jarowa tribe (the Stone Age tribe in the Andamans) had ever found a place in the Indian cricket team. A squad has since been dispatched to the Andamans to capture a Jarowa tribal to play in the national team. I hope he will improve their performance — they had an innings defeat against the Maldives recently. I would have played myself except for the fact that I lost a leg some years ago when I was in hospital with a toothache and a doctor recruited through the Unscheduled Caste quota extracted my leg instead of my tooth.

3 May 2056: There are too many NFCs (Neo-Forward castes) in the IT business. Under the terms of the Business Reservation Act, their firms will now be taken over by the other castes. I hope they will be able to restore the Indian IT industry back to its former glory. For some unfathomable reason, it has gone down the drain after job reservations were implemented. I went for a movie featuring star actor Mungeri Ram. He may lack teeth, be four-feet-three and have hair growing out of his nose, but this year it's the turn of the EBC-RYs (Extremely Backward Caste-Rural Yokels) to be stars and Mungeri Ram is the best of the lot. I wonder why foreign movies have become so popular.

4 May 2056: A truly great day. We now have an OFBMBC (Other Forward But Moderately Backward Caste) general as the Head of the Armed Forces. I hope he'll be able to win back the territory we lost ever since reservations were implemented in the Army. Since then, the north has been taken by Pakistan, the North-east by China, the east by Bangladesh and the south by Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Only last winter, we lost the war against Bhutan and free India is now limited to the western coastal states. But I'm sure the OFBMBC general will turn the tide.
5 May 2056: My wife and I have been blessed with a bonny daughter. Since my wife's an SBBNSBC (Slightly Backward But Not So Backward Caste), my daughter will be an MBFC-SBBNSBC. I must lobby for reservation for her caste. She's the only member and I'm sure she has a great future.


(sorry for using up your space..but i am leavin this at some other blogs too to invite some constructive criticism )

Debanshu Mukherjee said...

hey, that must have consumed some time!...i am very intrested in this debate myself...am leaving for the world finals of a moot competition on Sunday...got a lot of work do...hopefully, they will reserve a seat for the not so backward-yet very backward developing country like ours to help us reach the semis atleast...will post a proper reply on coming back.

Anonymous said...

luck and all that jazz to u...may u do well and may this moot(whateva thingy) be yours

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading your blog.

One question - How do you get people to change?

Neil Padayatty said...

Debu,
All the best! HNLU's hopes for it's first win are pinned on your team. We expect only the best from you guys! Go for it!

SERENDIPITY said...

man just loved ur post...even i'm a law student n' usually find my studies boring, i'm the types who study just to pass the exams.but ur post has really enthused me to read n' understand more of jurisprudence n' specially john rawls. very true...its not the system which fails but the ppl who fails it! liked ur other posts too! quality blogging...must say!keep it up!
God Bless!