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Recontextualising Liberalism

Debating Difference: Group Rights and Liberal Democracy in India by Rochana Bajpai (Ne

autonomy, as Will Kymlicka who inaugu-

Recontextualising Liberalism

rated the debate on minority rights in the later 1980s, did.

Liberals and Communitarians

Neera Chandhoke

his book, writes Rochana Bajpai in the very first sentence of the preface, is about political arguments. She expands the domain of political argument considerably, as not only about the

book review

Debating Difference: Group Rights and Liberal Democracy in India by Rochana Bajpai (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp 324, Rs 745.

This approach compromised the argument somewhat, because community was seen in an instrumental fashion, as a precondition of individual well-being. It is not surprising that this stance fetched some degree of criticism from the communitari

give and take of reasonable points of view, but also about the rhetoric that is adopted by politicians. Pursuing a politico-theoretical reading of constitutional and legislative debates, the author suggests that public reason is found not just in the thoughts of extraordinary individuals, but also in the more routine practices of debate. Through an examination of political arguments on group differentiated rights in India, the work aims to shed light on some of the major moral dilemmas that confront contemporary India. Of special importance is the problem of reconciling minority rights with norms of liberal democracy, and the implications of recognising caste for public policy.

Beyond Culturalism

Considering that the project of multiculturalism has run into deep trouble in Europe and that several leaders have publicly denounced the problems that multiculturalism has brought in its wake, Bajpai’s work is more than timely. She has a nuanced understanding of the theme, and this is of value because the issue is complex, and the relationship of minority rights with universal rights fraught. Go the way of universalism, and minorities lose out on their specific rights to culture and access to opportunities. Go the way of minority rights and there is real danger that we land up in ghettoisation and loss of a sense of political community – the precise sentiment that underpins antiimmigrant positions in the west.

The onset of economic decline has not helped matters. Instead of recognising immigrants as of value because they contribute to the productive resources of a country, they are seen as illegitimately appro priating jobs and resources that should have gone to people who have been born in the country, and who are therefore presumably full citizens. But this is not an issue that first generation theorists of minority rights have foregrounded. We have paid heavily for excessive concentration on culture. Notably Bajpai turns the heat away from culture and culture alone, to other factors that influence and shape political claims. She prefers, in other words, to put culture in its place. This turn away from culturalism heralds a second generation approach to these issues; more nuanced, more historically informed, more conscious of the need to reconcile political community with minority rights, and more aware of the problems of balancing universal and specific rights.

I make a point of this because for too long minority rights have been identified with culture, identities, and cultural marginalisation. This approach of course brought onto the centre stage the question of culture, which, as Raymond Williams had famously remarked, is one of the two or three most difficult words in the English language. Few theorists who wrote on minority rights had a coherent idea of what culture meant, and each tended to interpret culture according to their own theoretical projects – instrumentally, contextually, or constitutively. In retrospect, this is not surprising given that minority rights were put onto the academic agenda by liberals, who traditionally have been hostile to the very idea of culture and community. In the 1980s, for a variety of historical reasons, liberals had little option but to take on and theorise culture and cultural identities. The problem was that liberals tended to see community as a precondition for the exercise of individual

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ans who viewed community as shaping or rather constituting individual identities, and not the other way around. The resultant standoff between the communitarians and the liberals was of profound importance and contributed to the development of political theory. Subordinate the individual to community, and we have on our hands an individual who bears no resemblance to the autonomous liberal individual at all. Subordinate the community to individual autonomy and self-determining individuality, and we might well wonder where this individual gets her meaning systems, and notions of what is of value, and what is not, from.

Over time, arguments about the importance of communities shifted onto a different terrain. As Bajpai suggests, Kymlicka moved from the idea that community is important because it constitutes the precondition for individual projects, to the idea that minority rights are a protection against unjust nation-building projects. Whereas Joseph Raz defended minority rights as necessary for individual autonomy, Chandran Kukathas thought these rights would serve to limit state powers. More critical standpoints, such as the one adopted by the late Iris Marion Young, saw minority rights as part of radical egalitarianism. Charles Taylor regarded minority rights as of value because they recognise difference. And Bhikhu Parekh suggested that minority rights should be respected because they lead to respect of minority cultures. However, argues Bajpai perceptively (p 5),

...the areas of tension between liberalism and group rights discernible in Kymlicka’s original move remain. Liberals rarely oppose minority rights comprehensively now, but continue to resist such rights, where

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these come into conflict with liberal commitments to individual freedom.

Theory Turned Upside Down

Multiculturalism, she concludes, is of limited value when trying to understand minority rights, because its reference point is European and American society. And she has a point there because the United States and Canada are largely immigrant societies, and therefore, different from India which has historically been constituted as a plural society. It is not multiculturalism that defines us, but pluralism. And pluralism catapults a different academic agenda altogether. Moreover, argues Bajpai, the liberal stress on individual freedom and equality has managed to sideline other democratic values such as participation and deliberation, or civic integration. Above all multiculturalism privileged culture and ignored the fact that cultural marginalisation is but an indicator of other forms of marginalisation (p 6).

Bajpai thereon proceeds to turn the sequencing of this genre of theory upside down. She prefers to approach the issue of minority rights from the vantage point of the Indian historical experience. Remarkably, group rights in India preceded individual rights; minority rights have been justified from normative vantage points other than liberalism, and India has institutionalised two sorts of distinct rights, for religious minorities and for lower castes. She argues that it is the State that has shaped the nature and the form of claims for group rights. That is, she does not take either group identities or claims as given, but as historical constructs that interact with a number of other factors to acquire different forms in different periods.

Tracing the historical evolution of minority rights in India, Bajpai argues that in the nationalist discourse, which was the dominant discourse in the Constituent Assembly, these rights were not seen in abstraction, but as a constituent part of secularism, democracy, social justice, national unity, and development – the cluster of concepts that governed the project of constitution making. Initially members were not favourably inclined towards rights for minorities. The reasons for this antagonism however differed. Each

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group within the nationalist movement construed these rights in diverse ways – as antithetical to national unity, or as antithetical to secularism.

Through a detailed exploration of discussions in the Constituent Assembly, Bajpai comes to the conclusion that the nationalist vocabulary became the new legitimating framework of the polity, and the language in which political arguments were conducted. This is particularly evident in discussions on the three key institutional mechanisms for group rights – legislative quotas, employment quotas and educational rights, which were seen as transitional measures. This particular discourse underwent a perceptible shift during the Shah Bano case, which involved arguments for and against Muslim personal law. The justification for minority rights was now couched in different terms, but these terms did not represent a radical shift of the normative premises of the nationalist discourse.

An Enduring Language

Legislating reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) witnessed the same continuity with liberal concepts that provide the foundation of the constitutional order. During the furore that accompanied the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations, political arguments for reservations for the OBCs focused on social justice, and on the need to link equality to democracy. Bajpai suggests that contrary to much of


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the writing on the issue, arguments for an expansion of quotas to the OBCs relied on egalitarian norms, rather than on identities as the cause of backwardness. The focus was on reducing disadvantages rather than on maintaining differences of identity. This is an important point because it is not difference but injustice that lies at the core of protective discrimination. The debate, adds Bajpai, also seemed to have generated a politically correct vocabulary. “Unlike in quota arguments in Congress opinion in the Constituent Assembly, ‘backward sections’ were not cast in the role of passive objects of benevolent state action… but agents of their own betterment.” Towards this end the lower caste leadership made political power central to their own projects (p 251).

Tracing the shift in political arguments from the Constituent Assembly to the times of Mandal, Bajpai concludes that vocabularies of legitimation and justification changed in keeping with the historical moment. Whereas the Constituent Assembly was more concerned about national unity and secularism, the Janata Dal during the Mandal days invoked justice, equality, and democracy. The attainment of equality became the focus of political debate, even if this meant that equality had to be distanced from national unity. Disagreeing with scholars who seem to think that Mandal had disrupted the high ideological spectrum, and that an indigenous vocabulary of caste had taken the place of abstract conceptions, the author

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suggests that the ability of social justice to confer respectability on issues of caste equity, derived not so much from homespun ideologies as from a creative appropriation of the high ideological spectrum. Caste reservations were not justified by caste, but by notions of social justice.

In essence, Bajpai argues that political discourse in India has been historically constituted by a cluster of liberal ideas. The relationship between the component concepts of the cluster might shift at historical moments, but political languages in every context draw upon one or more of these components, and justify themselves by recourse to them. Thereby the relationship of concepts within the cluster is renegotiated. She therefore challenges the argument that the language of liberal (or what are often disparagingly called elite) rights in the aftermath of Independence, has been replaced by languages that belong solely to the subalterns, and that are authentic in some way because they are home-grown. On the contrary, she suggests that the struggle of the subaltern classes for a place in the sun is justified by one or the other of the same concepts that shaped the political discourse of the 1950s. In the process certain concepts are allotted a privileged position in the political discourse and others sidelined. In short, “lower caste” politicians may speak in what appears to be a vernacular idiom, but their arguments are justified by liberal and democratic norms. Liberal democracy, she concludes, is the enduring constituent of political debate.

Shared Ideals

I think this work is valuable for at least three reasons. For one, Bajpai does not only look at political discourses that are articulated in different forums by different agents, she also investigates how these discourses justify their arguments. To understand the importance of justification we need to revisit John Rawls. Justification, he writes (Rawls 2001: 27),

is addressed to others who disagree with us…To justify our political judgments to others is to convince them by public reason, that is, by ways of reasoning and inference appropriate to fundamental political questions, and by appealing to beliefs, grounds, and political values it is reasonable for others also to acknowledge. Public justification proceeds from some consensus: from premises all parties in disagreement, assumed to be free and equal and fully capable of reason, may reasonably be expected to share and endorse.

To phrase the point differently, justification involves going beyond the particular argument on offer, in order to appeal to shared political understandings. One can hardly make out a case for affirmative action policies for groups that have been historically disadvantaged, unless a society is already agreed upon the value of equality. Once our society is convinced that equality is morally superior to arbitrary discrimination, or institutionalised hierarchy and discrimination, both of which lead to inequality, defenders of affirmative action can proceed to validate their argument in the following way. They can

(a) call attention to background inequalities that compromise the basic assumption of equality, (b) suggest that when social and economic inequality overlap we have a case of double disadvantage on our hands, (c) emphasise that these inequalities prevent equal access to structures of opportunity, and (d) propose that the best way in which the doubly disadvantaged can be assured of equal access is through the redistribution of resources that benefit the disadvantaged in general, and those disadvantaged by class as well as caste/ race/gender/ethnic identity, in particular.

This sort of justification might prove effective, simply because the defenders of affirmative action have appealed to shared political understandings that have historically coalesced around particular values and norms. The underlying text in Bajpai’s work is that the values of the Constitution (shared understandings) have had considerable impact on political imaginations, and on the way discourses are conducted. The implication is of some interest – political agents feel the need to justify their claims to a broader audience, even if recent developments seem to have fostered partisan politics. But, for Bajpai, ideas and ideals matter (p 287). And in this, perhaps, we see the consolidation of a political community.

Breaking Binaries

Two, the author challenges two dominant ideas; that (a) there is an “India versus the West” divide, and that India can only be

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understood on its own terms and not in categories that belong to western theory, and (b) there is an elite versus subaltern divide and that Indian politics can be comprehended in terms professed only by the subalterns. Stated ideals, according to her, can also shape practice, and these practices cut across stated divides to constitute a body politic that is legitimised by liberal democratic norms. And that liberal democratic norms have a significant presence in the polity cannot be denied.

[I]t is possible and profitable to construct an account of post-Independence India in terms of the career of liberal and democratic political norms. Their hybrid forms might offend purists of tradition…but liberal and democratic values have been more sophisticated and influential in India than is commonly believed.

This is more than evident in the case of group rights, and they have been invoked by politicians across the political and the ideological spectrum from Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, to Lohia (289).

Bajpai wends her theoretical way through the cul-de-sac that has been constructed by the confrontation between liberal universalistic theory and postcolonial theory, with some care and considerable dexterity. She argues (p 9),

While the positing of cultural difference can be seen as an understandable attempt to resist western domination, its effect has been to undermine the actual empirical investigation of meanings, the extent to which political practice across the East-West divide might address analogous problems and end up with similar solutions, even if these are arrived at through different routes. It has resulted in the reification of cultural difference not just along West and the rest lines, but also within postcolonial contexts, notably between the elite and the subaltern. Paradoxically, like liberal political theory, postcolonial theory too has ended up with the elevation and entrenchment of culture.

In this she opens up a methodological issue which we would do well to dwell upon, can a polity be understood in terms of binary opposites: Bharat versus India, indigenous political languages versus elite languages, and India versus the west? On the face of it there is nothing wrong with employing this strategy as a heuristic device. There is absolutely nothing wrong in conceptualising the

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different ways in which people make their own histories, even if they may not make these histories very well. What is problematic is the assumption that appears to underlie theorising in this mode, namely, that domains or languages of collective existence do not influence each other, or that they do not affect each other, or indeed that they do not shape each other. If we ignore this, there is real danger that we will land up with additive social science, and a patchy account of how things are. Copernicus who wrote about the astronomers of his day thus brought home this point rather sharply (Kuhn 1962: 83):

With them it is as though an artist were to gather the hands, feet, head, and other members for his images from diverse models, each part excellently drawn, but not related to a single body, and since they in no way match each other, the result would be a monster rather than man.

But when we look at the way different domains of collective action constitute each other, and when we move out of binary opposites simply because they prevent understanding, we realise that there is no authenticity about anything, neither about elite understanding nor about the subaltern. No language is enclosed in a foolproof casing. We are caught up in a political system which is based on certain norms as Bajpai reminds us and strangely or not so strangely, these norms shape both sides of the divide, albeit in different ways. It might be more profitable to think about what different interpretations of the same political concepts are, instead of positing them as belonging to two different systems of language, values, and systems of justifications, which are incommensurate.

A Case for Liberalism

A third point that forms the presupposition of the book under review can also be highlighted. Critics of hegemonic western forms of social science would like to knock liberal theories off the shelf trough a “postcolonial” critique of “western-centric” theories, and of their basic assumptions. But what is it, we may ask, that has been achieved through this process? Can we put problems, issues, approaches, and ideas, into different conceptual boxes: one

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for the developed and another for the developing world? I am uneasy with such a stance for one major reason. It might well generate what Steven Lukes (2003: 27), taking his cue from Martin Hollis, terms “liberalism for the liberals, cannibalism for the cannibals”. These are strong words, but another term for these words can be cultural relativism.

At the end of the day, the great moral questions that liberal political philosophy asks are as applicable to India as they are to Canada despite the historical dissimilarities of the two cases. Justice and rights, freedom and equality, and democratic institutions and practices, constitute the political framework within which people live out their lives, and make choices, whether these lives are lived in Montreal or Mumbai. Our historical contexts, and consequently our answers might be different, but the questions must be the same, because at the heart of these questions lies justice. Traditionally liberals have situated these questions in the historical experiences of the west. These normative questions have to be asked in other contexts as well, contexts often perceived as beyond the pale of the liberal cognitive horizon. During the process, additional factors that mediate the context and our texts need to be registered, the moral implications of these factors noted, and theories adjusted. It is far too easy to conclude that liberal theories do not apply to our part of the world and that we should reject them, it is far more difficult to work our way through the convolutions and permutations that such mediations involves. Such an exercise may also succeed in challenging the basic presuppositions of liberalism, its narrow mandate, and its limited geographical experience. It is precisely this that Bajpai attempts. She is to be congratulated.

Neera Chandhoke ( teaches political science at the University of Delhi.


Kuhn, Thomas (1962): The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Lukes, Steven (2003): Liberals and Cannibals: The Implications of Diversity (London: Verso).

Rawls, John (2001): Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, edited by Erin Kelly (Delhi: Universal Law Publishing Company).

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