To be or not to be … a humanist

This is the second and final part of the series “To be or not to be…” The first article discussed patriotism in the light of some recent world events, and showed why patriotism can prove to be a false god. It advocated for humanism in place of patriotism, but did not provide any functional definition of humanism. This article attempts to dispel that vagueness, but in the process raises more questions than it answers.

 

 

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion, too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…

My last article on why patriotism is a bad faith resonates with John Lennon’s sentiment in these lyrics. If we look closely at the core argument behind this wonderful poetic vision of a more humane world, we will find nothing but a de-stressing on singular group-identities. In other words, the basic contention is not to be sold on the idea of some pre-established organized identity like religion, nationality, ethnicity, linguistic group, etc. Notice that unless we “imagine” away centuries of human legacies, possessing such pre-determined identities (what the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre calls facticity) is only natural, but the voluntary journey from involuntarily assigned identities to one responsibly created by oneself (what Sartre calls authenticity) is the path to humanism – something that I advocated in my last article. But what exactly is humanism?

The motto of the American Humanist Association is “Good without a God” – basically affirming the agency of human beings, individual or collective, to lead a fulfilling personal life devoid of supernaturalism, consonant with the greater good of society. In the sense that human beings can completely determine the kind of life that they wish to lead and therefore must take full responsibility of the consequences of their actions, humanism in a way reverberates the existentialist premise that humans alone can attach meaning to an otherwise amoral meaningless life. In other words, there is no deterministic aspect to human life – all the choices we make are determined by the directive will of our ‘authentic’ selves. There is, therefore, in the humanist worldview, no role of the involuntary impulse in determining our actions. However, the freedom of choice that is earned by giving up determinism comes at a steep metaphysical cost. The cost is that we must then, as humanists, give up the idea of cause and effect! Because so long as we hold on to the idea that everything in this world happens because of something else, we must admit that our so-called authentic choices are also caused by something else. Therefore, one must understand that humanism and determinism, as defined here so far, cannot both be held as true.

In the physical world it is rather difficult to maintain a position that refutes any determinism. The football moves in a certain way because someone kicked it in a specific manner – the deterministic channel of cause and effect cannot be denied. However, this orderly scheme of things is only a façade because modern physics has proved beyond doubt that in the subatomic realm, chance has a role to play (for example remember Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). Thus the duality between determinism and the pre-destined character of certain events lie at the very heart of the entire physical world. In so far we believe that we as humans are making choices using our brains, which is no doubt a part of the physical world, we cannot deny that strict humanism (‘strict’ in the sense that it does not acknowledge the role of any facticity in human decision-making) is not possible.

Then exactly what kind of humanism are we talking about? Before answering this difficult question, let me take you to the suburbs of Berlin in 1930 where Albert Einstein is having a chat with his visitor about science and spirituality, truth and beauty, and music. The visitor is also a Nobel Laureate, but not in Physics or any of the sciences – Rabindranath Tagore won the Prize for literature in 1913, and was held by the world as a great humanist. During that conversation, many points were raised by both sides regarding the essential uncertainty of human existence that I think are very pertinent to our discussion about humanism here. I am quoting just two lines from that long conversation here.

Einstein: “Whatever we do or live for has its causality; it is good, however, that we cannot see through to it…uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience…Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.”

Tagore: “And yet there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste conforming to the universal standard.”

There are three major issues raised here that needs discussion in the context of providing a logically consistent functional definition of humanism.

First, notice that the quantum physicist is acknowledging the determinism of causality and also the essential uncertainty almost in the same breadth. Thus our definition of humanism also must be able to reconcile this duality.

Second, when Einstein says that it is good that we cannot see through to causality, what exactly does he mean? Here’s my interpretation: Remember the God that the American Humanist Association so dearly wanted to root out? I think God is nothing but someone or something who can see through to this causality. Therefore, for mere mortals being able to do the same would be dangerous because everyone with their authentic selves would then be empowered to cause everything in this world – a chaotic situation indeed. We as humans can only see a part of this complete causal cycle, and the rest we ascribe to chance or probability that we take to pre-determined or exogenous.[1] Therefore, a principle of humanism need not throw away the concept of God altogether, rather it would do better by acknowledging that God in the form of stochasticity exists and our job would be to learn more and more about that stochastic process. This is therefore one essential functioning as a humanist – pursuit of knowledge that explains more and more of every phenomenon in a deterministic way.

The third important aspect of humanism is the struggle between individual and universal truths as highlighted by Tagore. Let’s consider a simple example to illustrate this problem. Consider a world of three people – me and my two friends. Now, I am standing outside a closed room where both my friends are locked in with nothing but a table. Being outside I cannot know the existence of that table. Thus the existence of the table is a universal truth in this case, but my individual truth does not conform to that. Behind this apparently stupid example lies an important fact of human life, and that is that even if all of us behave authentically without any blind faith, our authenticity is shaped by our individual truths or worldviews. When these worldviews clash, violence (be it in the form of an argument or a war) is inevitable. So, Lennon’s method of achieving peace does not seem to be consistent with humanism because it is almost impossible to achieve a pan-optical viewpoint for everyone. Learning to accommodate opposing viewpoints without violence is a virtue that is independent of the essence of humanism. Thus, when as a humanist one tries to do good for others, there is a possibility that the ‘good’ for others is perceived to be different by that person and those ‘others’. Trying to reach a consensus regarding what good should be achieved for all runs the risk of drab monoculturalism.

Collating the wisdom gained from the preceding discussion, we see that there is only one feature of humanism that is essential – that is the pursuit of knowledge. Every other characteristic that is usually ascribed to humanism like achieving greater good, or denouncing supernaturalism, etc. is not internally consistent with the metaphysical justification for humanism. Now, finally if you want to be a humanist or not is completely up to you. My job here was only to shed some light on what is humanism and what it is not, so that you can make a more informed choice.

[1] For those who know anything about regression in statistics should see that what I am saying here is very similar to a regression set-up where a certain phenomenon is captured by a deterministic function of certain observed variables, y=f(x,z,…), and a residual stochastic term, e so that the final regression equation is something like y=f(x,z,…)+e . The point is that God knows e and we don’t, and that’s the reason we are still doing statistics.

To be or not to be… a patriot

This is the first part of a two-part series of “To be or not to be…”. In the backdrop of some recent political events in my own country, I have been trying to clear my mind of some deeper political issues, and these posts are rather unripe fruits of that self-questioning. Nevertheless, I have tried to avoid references to nitty-gritties of political events to the minimum, so as to avoid any partiality in my analysis.

The rise of Donald Trump and Brexit are by no means isolated events.

For the first time in almost seven decades, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria with their nationalist rhetoric targeting Muslims (shifting away from their primary hostility towards Jews to resonate well with voters of Serbian descent), immigrants and the European Union, has won the first round of presidential election. Hungary, after giving communism the boot in 1989, is increasingly leaning towards the right, with both the Prime Minister and the President coming from the country’s major conservative party – Fidesz. Jobbik, another Hungarian right-wing political party (blatantly anti-Semitic, anti-Romani[1], racist and homophobic) is also gaining popularity steadily (currently enjoying 21% of the national vote share). Even in other European countries, the percentage of votes won by nationalist political parties are quite high in their most recent national elections: the Swiss People’s Party got 29% of the votes, the Danish People’s Party got 21%, the Finns got 18%, the National Front in France got 14%, the Freedom Party got 10% in Netherlands – to name just a few. In Cyprus, the far-right party ELAM secured two parliamentary seats for the first time in the country’s history.

When these political trends in Europe are discussed in conjunction with Brexit, usually the common explanation put forward by reporters and analysts is that the so-called blue-collared white European is protesting against immigrants taking away their jobs in a situation already made vulnerable by the Great Recession, and the right-wing parties are just giving their pent-up bitterness a voice. While I do not refute this claim (because a demographic analysis of the vote shares of these nationalist parties does seem to corroborate such an explanation), I believe there is something more significant and more fundamental (than just a reaction to economic distress and migration policies) going on in the background of these political manifestations. This is evidenced by what is happening outside the developed Western world – countries like India with steadily growing standards of living for vast majority of the population, and completely immune to any immigration woes. While the rise of the right-wing in UK has manifested itself in the grand event of Brexit, Great Britain’s erstwhile colony India is seeing the resurgence of nationalist forces in a subtler way. In 2014 the world’s largest functioning democracy elected as its Prime Minister a man, with affiliation to a Hindu-nationalist organization, who not too long ago presided over a massive anti-Muslim pogrom; and ever since hysterical diatribes and grandiloquent debates on to how to become “a true Indian” has not left the daily newsfeed in the country.

So, the question is – why is nationalism on the rise everywhere?

I believe the answer is nations! Well, I am not trying to be pathetically funny or tautological here. Let me explain.

Nations, as we know them now, were built as a project to distinguish one nation from the other sufficiently enough so that the participatory democratic institutions of different nations do not overlap. In the post-War era, the formation of nation-states overthrowing the multinational dynasties that ruled largely against the wishes of people, legitimized the democratic rights of citizens to decide what was in the ‘national’ interest. The way we have designed our current democratic institutions is to serve the ‘nation-state’ as opposed to any international entity or cause. The current political institutions have brought up people as citizens of nations, but we ask them to behave as citizens of the global village. Isn’t that asking too much? Ambitious internationalism in the form of the EU or the NATO or the SAARC is faltering not only because of bureaucratic failure, but because of the very fact that they are solely bureaucratic and do not touch the democratic conscience of the general population. People at large do not have any stake in internationalism, and hence democratic populism within the narrow confines of a nation will no wonder throw up nationalistic forces, particularly at times like now when economic resources are scarce, and cupboard-love and fear are easy to stoke. Democracy (particularly representative parliamentary democracy) inherently has a populist streak in it that inevitably gives way to nationalist fervour, if such democracy is practised within the political institutions of a nation-state. I believe what we are witnessing across the globe should not be interpreted as a move towards the political right (leave alone fascist forces), but a move towards more and more democratic populism – populism at the cost of sound policy-making. Policy-making is inherently ‘elite’ in the sense that policy is made by professionals, and populism is nothing but anti-elitism. It is one thing to be romantically attached to the inherent anti-elitism of democracy, but quite another to leave policy-making to rhetoric.

The liberals will contradict me here saying that love for one’s country need not necessarily boil down to toxic ‘nationalism’, and that there is a middle ground called ‘patriotism’. Let us look into these so-called difference between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’. Without going to the lexicon, the most charitable interpretation of the difference can be that patriotism, unlike nationalism, does not involve forcing one’s group-identity (cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious or nationalistic) onto others – you can believe you are the best, but you cannot start forcing other people to follow your ‘best’ practices. Even if we grant ourselves the highly disputable credit that no nation at this point is trying to impose itself onto other nations, we cannot say all is well with patriotism. My contention against patriotism may seem etymological, but I believe it has some deeper worth. The word ‘patriot’ has its roots in the Latin word ‘pater’ which means ‘father’. It is important to note that love for one’s country is being captured by a so-called masculine word – why don’t we use the feminine word ‘matriotism’? It is interesting that ‘matriotism’ is indeed a valid meaningful word, but it means school-pride or parish-pride. Why? Why is it that we associate love for our countries with the masculine and petty parish-love with the feminine? I believe the answer lies in our conceptualization of what constitutes a country. If we identify a country as something defined by a political border guarded by the military, or a flag flying high over the President’s palace, then it only makes sense to think that the ‘lofty’ job of loving (read protecting from foreign threat) that country can be better performed by the masculine, while the ‘petty’ job of ensuring politico-socio-economic freedoms and human rights of the weak and marginalized sections of the society within a country can be taken care of by the feminine.  Thus, patriotism essentially translates to fear of the ‘other’ keeping the ‘countrymen’ united despite blatant social divisions persisting within the nation – classic male chauvinism! One may think that patriotism helps people transcend petty self-love by focussing their love for something larger than their immediate family, but such lofty ideal does not stand the test of people’s attitude towards their fellow citizens with a minority identity. Even if we assume away the problem of aggressive nationalism across international borders, what is happening inside national borders cannot be overlooked. Every nation has its own minority groups. If democracy within a nation is construed as majority rule, then populism leaves little room for minority voices within a country. Such stifling of minority voices can lead to strengthening of identity-divisions in the society that eventually translates into fear of ‘the other’ identity, and ultimately the majoritarian nationalist forces start painting these minorities within the nation as enemies of the same nation.

I am not advocating matriotism over patriotism, but abandoning the very premise that one needs to love one’s nation in order to be a good citizen. I believe being a good citizen essentially boils down to being a humanist instead of a nationalist, or a patriot or a matriot. But what form of humanism I am advocating here needs separate discussion, and it is going to be the subject matter of my next article. So stay tuned!

[1] The Romani or Roma are a nomadic ethnic group, presumably originating from the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, and living mostly in Europe and the Americas. They are not to be confused with the Romans.

Revisiting Old Thoughts: Part III

I have decided to share with you what I wrote more than 5 years back! This post is the final part of a 3-part series.

Back in 2011, while I was still in the second year of my undergraduate college, I had the audacity to write a monograph. I named it ‘Tryst With Destiny’. In the last chapter titled ‘Another World Is Possible’, I aimed to show that the present world of violence, unfreedom, injustice, unhealthy competition and mass xenophobia is not inevitable[1] and that another world is possible.  For that purpose, I used no new concept. Instead I revisited very briefly some well-known ideas like identity, freedom, justice, democracy, non-violence and Satyagraha, and tried to re-think our 21st century problems through the prism of those concepts. 

Most of what I wrote cannot be published here without sacrificing my intellectual repute (if any is still left after these stupid blog-posts). But my writings on Freedom, Identity and Non-violence seem to me not altogether useless. That’s why I am going to share those with you.

I will exactly reproduce what I wrote back in 2011 without any editing. So there might be some references to events (particularly Indian ones) which were burning issues in 2011. And last but not the least, forgive my naivety.

Non-violence and Satyagraha

Men over the ages have acquired the art of hating so well that it requires prophets and gurus to make them understand that the force of love will always hold its sway over that of hatred. In the words of “a half-naked Indian fakir” in the name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the iconic champion of non-violence, “the fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love…. all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.” Non-violence is not something that needs to be understood in rigorous terms, unlike Satyagraha, which is replete with fine nuances. Non-violence can be summarized as the least possible coercion (physical or mental) on anything around us – be it our fellow human beings or some creatures or in general, the natural environment. Some degree of violence is definitely required for sheer existence, like killing plants and animals for food, hurting other animals while protecting one’s life, etc. but violence, beyond the survival requirements, is prohibited under the strict Gandhian non-violence regime. We have already seen that violence emanates from extremely differential attention towards multiple identities of people (see Identity). The Gandhian concept of non-violence essentially cures this malady of exclusive concentration on a particular aspect of an individual’s identity, by harping on the universal coherence of humanity. Gandhi knew that the delicate logic of identity-based non-violence would not appeal to the masses and so he devised the excellent instrument of inculcating the sense of goodwill so that the identity-specific disparities among people are not underlined during social interactions. Nevertheless, some academicians have streamlined Gandhi’s non-violence to merely a way of fighting against the British. Certainly, Gandhi was non-violent in his protest techniques, but to say that non-violence was his weapon would be deeply mistaken. His actual weapon was Satyagraha, to which we now turn our attention. I shall also try to explore how non-violence and Satyagraha are interrelated.

Mani Bhaumik (the man credited for the discovery of the Excimer laser technology that is now used in LASIK refractive eye surgery) in his book “Code Name God” defined Satyagraha as “the vindication of truth not by the infliction of suffering on one’s opponent, but on one’s self. In other words, if one wills himself to endure even worse than what his enemy can dish out, there can be no victory over him. To post-modern Western sensibilities, this may seem a kind of collective masochism.” I have a problem with a particular phrase of this definition — “…what his enemy can dish out”. I would have rather preferred to replace that phrase by “…what is possible and available”. This is because, I believe, as per the original Gandhian interpretation, Satyagraha is essentially a matter of dealing with one’s own soul and not with others in the outside world. In other words, Satyagraha is never a binary affair, with oneself and the person or institution against whom that person is agitating or trying to wrest concessions from. Gandhi’s political expression for Satyagraha was two-fold: one using fasts-unto-death as a strategy and the other was that of organizing mass movements. However, he dissociates himself from seeking concessions from the British colonial government through the instrument of fasts with a remarkable consistency. Instead, he uses the mass movements repeatedly to see that his demands were met by the government. On the other hand, he fasted only to unite people, not against any particular adversary, but for some betterment of those very people, e.g., the 1932 Yerveda jail fast to protest against the proposition of a separate electorate for the ‘depressed classes’. Gandhi’s 17 fasts-unto-death were not of the sort of “concede-our-demands-or-else-there-will-be-violence”, that is, not of the coercive sort.

These days, entire India seems to be on the move regarding the issue of corruption against which social activists like Anna Hazare have become the face of the crusade. This has led many to call Hazare the “modern Indian Gandhi”, only to over-simplify Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence and Satyagraha. These activists have gone on to fast many a time, but each time their attitude was such that if their demands were not met then violence will ensue. Thus, the apparently non-violent way of fasting has an implicit threat of violence. Such coercion was completely absent in Gandhi’s fasts. He mounted pressure on the government through mass movements to gain concessions from it and took resort to fasting only to ‘purify’ his own soul or make his countrymen ready and eligible for or worthy of the concession. Thus, Satyagraha (or the relentless quest for Truth) was related to non-violence in the original Gandhian conceptualization, but the two are now wrongly dissociated. To Gandhi, I suppose, Satyagraha was a realm of existence while non-violence was a way of life. To the so-called neo-Gandhians, Satyagraha is nothing more than wresting more and more concessions from the State and non-violence is just a disguised way of attaining that end. Gandhi spent 2089 days in Indian prisons, on top of the 249 days he had previously logged in South African jails. All these periods as well as his long periods of fasting were his periods of self-introspection through penance; he purified his soul through his experiments with Truth. No political personality, after Gandhi, possessed such a strong will to self-absolve of all the weaknesses of one’s own character. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to find any resemblance between Gandhi and the modern agitators like Anna Hazare.

The main problem with the so-called ‘neo-Gandhian’ mass movements is that even if the group in power (against whom the agitation is demonstrated) meets the demands of the agitators, it does not ensure that the desired social end will be served. This is because in most of the cases the trickle down effect of the change at the top does not reach the masses at the bottom rungs of the society, without accompanying mass purification of the self. For instance, in the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement led by Anna Hazare, the principal focus is to get the Lokpal Bill passed in terms of the civil society, which Hazare claims to represent. However, even if the Central Government had acceded to all their demands, the social malady of corruption may not be significantly reduced because of the Lokpal legislation. The Lokpal may end up being a further burden on the already cumbersome administration of the country. Without a significant change in the mindset of the millions of Indians, it is impossible to root out corruption. I believe if the Anna movement had focused on creating mass awareness against corruption, instead of targeting some particular corrupt people then it would have served India better. We need social activists like Anna Hazare to make the public more conscientious and not to hold the government in ransom for getting a legislation passed in the parliament for the masses, who continue to be morally unfit for the practice of the legislation.

Though I have discussed here the pitfalls of following the principle of Satyagraha and non-violence, the duo, carefully practiced, is the only way forward in making our voices heard in a world of widely disparate powers.

Revisiting Old Thoughts: Part II

I have decided to share with you what I wrote more than 5 years back! This post is the second part of a 3-part series.

Back in 2011, while I was still in the second year of my undergraduate college, I had the audacity to write a monograph. I named it ‘Tryst With Destiny’. In the last chapter titled ‘Another World Is Possible’, I aimed to show that the present world of violence, unfreedom, injustice, unhealthy competition and mass xenophobia is not inevitable[1] and that another world is possible.  For that purpose, I used no new concept. Instead I revisited very briefly some well-known ideas like identity, freedom, justice, democracy, non-violence and Satyagraha, and tried to re-think our 21st century problems through the prism of those concepts. 

Most of what I wrote cannot be published here without sacrificing my intellectual repute (if any is still left after these stupid blog-posts). But my writings on Freedom, Identity and Non-violence seem to me not altogether useless. That’s why I am going to share those with you.

I will exactly reproduce what I wrote back in 2011 without any editing. So there might be some references to events (particularly Indian ones) which were burning issues in 2011. And last but not the least, forgive my naivety.

Identity

identity_crisis-291x300

The answer to the self-query “Who am I?” is not as easy as you might be allured to think at first. Am I only my physical body or my mental states? Do I want to identify myself only with the sorrows in my life or only with the happy moments of my life, or all the experiences in general? Who am I to myself? Who am I to my relatives? All these questions are very intriguing but I shall opt to remain silent on this issue. At the risk of some over-simplification, we can say that the answer to the question “Who am I?” is my identity. Every person on this planet has his or her own identity and it needs no special mention how important our identities are to us and how significant is our freedom to choose or make our own identities. However, the question is “Do we have a single identity or multiple identities?” Moreover, one may even ask, “If we do have multiple identities then are these identities mutually exclusive or not, that is, do multiple identities collude to form a big monolithic block of multiculturalism or do they survive as mere plural monoculturalism?” Let me try to answer these questions one by one with suitable real life examples as and when required.

I begin with a very short description of an idea, which has gained ground in recent years all over the world; but here it can be a bit out of the context of identity, to begin with. The idea is that of ‘clash of civilizations’.

f

According to the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, the so-called father of the theory of ‘clash of civilizations’, people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. To put it in his own words, he gave a “descriptive hypothesis as to what the future may be like” and in doing so, he argued that, “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” To establish his point, Huntington divided the entire world into different regions in terms of the predominant religion, as shown in the figure above. Bolder lines in the figure represent relationship that is more conflictual. However, such civilization clash hypothesis is essentially flawed in the post globalization era of world politico-social structure because virtually there exist no distinct cultural boundaries in the present day. Ignoring the interactive dynamism inherent in cultural interdependency, Huntington’s theory fails to bring out the fact that civilizations or cultures are not “self-enclosed”.

Civilization is itself a necessary consequence of changes that take place in the volume and density of societies. If science, art and economic activity develop, it is as a result of a necessity imposed on men; it is because there is no other way for them to live in the new conditions in which they are placed. From the moment that the number of individuals among whom social relations are established reaches a certain point, they can only sustain themselves if they specialize more, work more, and stimulate their mental capacities; and from this general stimulation there inevitably results a higher level of culture. From this point of view, civilization thus appears, not as a goal, which moves people by the hold that it exerts over them, not as a good perceived and desired in advance, which they strive to create as fully as possible, rather, it is the effect of a cause, the necessary result of a determinate state of affairs.  Therefore, human civilizational evolution cannot be brought to a mere conglomeration of conflictual cultures.

In other words, Huntington bases his argument on an assumption, which I prefer to call “identity statism”, that is, an assumption that cultural identity of a group or an individual remains unvarying over time and cross-cultural interactions. Such identity-statism is precarious by its absence in the real world. The reality is that of a huge human civilization with varying religions, languages, socio-political structures and economic status across the globe and not a mere “imagined geography” of isolated belligerent cultures. What I am trying to say is that attempts to subject human civilizational history to narrow factionalism and parochialism along the line of different cultures are essentially flawed because of the deliberate and false oblivion of dynamism in civilizational identity.

Moreover, Professor Amartya Sen has denied Huntington’s theory on the logical ground that people cannot be classified according to the civilizations to which they belong. Whether or not different civilizations are mutually antagonistic is a matter of secondary concern, but the very concept of reducing or confining the identity of a man only to his civilizational or religious affiliation is flawed in the first place.

Probably due to the spread of Islamic terrorism in recent years, quite often people nurture a notion that members of the Islamic civilization have an intrinsically belligerent culture. Their judgement is not only wrong but also misplaced. The question to be asked is not whether Islamic people are violently belligerent but whether a Muslim person is engaged in warfare because of his religious identity. The same Muslim person may be someone’s father, some woman’s husband, a businessperson, and an Asian. All these co-existing identities of a single person are suppressed when we make statements like “Indians are tolerant”, “Muslims are violent”, “Asians are spiritual-minded”, etc. Thus, we understand that reduction of a person’s identity to singular affiliations is wrong and may even give rise to vicious fundamentalism owing to the attachment of too much importance to a particular identity of a person, subverting all others.

The rise of the politically active Hindutva movement in India under the aegis of the political parties like the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the Shiv Sena, along with their religious counterparts, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh) and the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), can serve as a very good empirical study for examining the idea of identity. According to the leaders of this movement, India is a land of the Hindus and the civilization of India is essentially a Hindu civilization. Thus, according to them ‘Indianness’ should be reduced to ‘Hindutva’. They even tried to bypass the fact India is presently home to nearly 145 million Muslims and other religious groups, who form an integral part of Indian society, culture and civilization. Like every country, India too has her religious minority, but that does not mean we shall have to expel them and form a ‘pure’ Hindu state. To establish their claim of Hindu supremacy and the exclusivity of Hindutva, the BJP-led government of India (1998-2004) even tried to rewrite the country’s history according to their terms — in the NCERT[2] issued schoolbooks, Indus Valley civilization became the “Indus Saraswati civilization” with the civilization being named as a brainchild of the ‘Sanskrit-speaking composers of the Vedas’, new instances of ‘Vedic mathematics’ and ‘Vedic sciences’ found place in the list of India’s civilizational achievements and to top it all, the pseudo-historians or the big bluffs even claimed to have found a Indus Valley terracotta seal with a picture of a horse on it, reinstating the belief of the Vedic or Aryan or Hindu connection with the Indus Valley civilization.[3] We have all seen how this exclusive concentration on the religious aspect of India paved the way for the 2002 Gujarat riots, led by the Bajrang Dal, a violently energetic youth wing of the VHP. Thus, we can understand that attachment of too much significance to any single identity can lead to violence. It is not a question of whether economic class structure[4] or civilizational difference or some other factors are creating violence, rather it is a matter of the illusion of exclusivity of human identity that is creating violence in the world. If we can propagate the message of multiculturalism instead of mere coexistence of disjoint monocultures or even worse than that — complete absence of the identification of multiples identities, then we can hope to move a step further towards our goal of achieving the ‘global village’.


[1] “W.B. Yeats wrote on the margin of his copy of Nietzsche’s “The Genealogy of Morals”, “But why does Nietzsche think the night has no stars, nothing but bats and owls and the insane moon?” Nietzsche’s skepticism about humanity and his chilling vision of the future were presented just before the beginning of the twentieth century. The events of the century that followed, including world wars, holocausts, genocides and other atrocities, gives us reason enough to worry whether Nietzsche’s skepticism about humankind might not have been just right.” — “The Idea of Justice” by Amartya Sen (2009)

[2] NCERT stands for National Council of Educational Research and Training

[3] One of the main achievements of the Indus Valley Civilization was its colossal expanse. It covered a much larger area than the contemporary Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. However, since much of its area fell in the present-day Muslim-dominated Pakistan, the champions of the Hindutva movement found it more prestigious to restrict the Indus Valley civilization to only the Saraswati river valley in India. Moreover, the Indus Valley civilization flourished much before the ‘Sanskrit-speaking’ Aryans arrived in India. Therefore, their chronological facts were also jumbled up while ‘rewriting’ Indian history. The testaments of Vedic mathematics and Vedic science were totally absent in reality and the horse on the terracotta seal was later found to be a simple fraud based on a computerized distortion of a broken seal of a unicorn bull. The list of false historical evidences and facts is much longer, but these highlighting points regarding the distorted history of India’s premiere ancient civilization should suffice for my purpose.

[4] Karl Marx himself subjected the unique identification of people as either ‘haves’ or ‘have-nots’ to severe criticism in his “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, in 1875. The German Workers Party’s proposed plan of action, known as the “Gotha Programme” said explicitly, “[U]nequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard in so far as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, e.g., in the present case are regarded only as workers, and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored.”

Revisiting Old Thoughts: Part I

I have decided to share with you what I wrote more than 5 years back! This post is the first part of a 3-part series.

Back in 2011, while I was still in the second year of my undergraduate college, I had the audacity to write a monograph. I named it ‘Tryst With Destiny’. In the last chapter titled ‘Another World Is Possible’, I aimed to show that the present world of violence, unfreedom, injustice, unhealthy competition and mass xenophobia is not inevitable[1] and that another world is possible.  For that purpose, I used no new concept. Instead I revisited very briefly some well-known ideas like identity, freedom, justice, democracy, non-violence and Satyagraha, and tried to re-think our 21st century problems through the prism of those concepts. 

Most of what I wrote cannot be published here without sacrificing my intellectual repute (if any is still left after these stupid blog-posts). But my writings on Freedom, Identity and Non-violence seem to me not altogether useless. That’s why I am going to share those with you.

I will exactly reproduce what I wrote back in 2011 without any editing. So there might be some references to events (particularly Indian ones) which were burning issues in 2011. And last but not the least, forgive my naivety.

Freedom

Consider the situation of a homemaker in a multi-millionaire family, who has to regularly face the brunt of physical and mental torture from her husband only because she is not a breadwinner. Next, suppose a family having a right-wing political belief is socially ostracized by other people in a village, which is predominantly leftist in its political affiliation. Again, imagine the plight of a six-year-old boy who is sent out to work in a factory because his parents do not earn enough to sustain the family.

The first two examples show that having sufficient income is not enough for living a dignified and free life. The last one shows that income greatly determines the degree of freedom that a person is entitled to. Combining these observations, we can conclude that income and wealth are not significantly desirable for their own sake as they are general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives people have reason to value. This resonates with the Aristotelian proposition that “The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.” (Nicomachean Ethics) This “something else” is freedom and we shall see how to conceptualize such an abstract concept of freedom.

In his book, “Development as Freedom”, Professor Amartya Sen discusses in details a framework of thought rather than a formula for reform for advancing human development across the globe. Dr. Sen beautifully revolutionizes the concept of development from a mere pursuit of economic growth to the enhancement of the freedoms that we enjoy. “Expanding the freedoms that we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with — and influencing — the world in which we live.”

Viewing development in terms of substantive individual freedom directs attention to the expansion of the ‘capabilities’ of persons to lead the kind of lives they value. Public policy enhances these capabilities, but also, on the other side, the effective use of participatory capabilities by the public influences the direction of public policy. Freedom is central to the conceptualization of the process of development for two distinct reasons:

  • Evaluative reason
  • Effectiveness reason

On the evaluative side, the capabilities approach concentrates on a factual base that differentiates it from more traditional, practical ethics and economic policy analysis, such as the economic concentration on the primacy of income and wealth, the utilitarian focus on mental satisfaction and so on. Sen argues that poverty cannot be properly measured by income or even by utility; what matters is not the things a person has — or the feelings these provide — but what a person is, or can be, and does, or can do. What matters for well-being is not just the characteristics of commodities consumed, as in the utility approach, but what use the consumer can and does make of commodities, e.g., a book is of little value to an illiterate person.

The effectiveness of instrumental freedom lies in the fact that different kinds of freedom, like political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees and protective security, interrelate with one another, and freedom of one type may greatly help in advancing freedom of other types. Because of the mutually reinforcing connections among freedoms of different kinds, free and sustainable agency emerges as a major constitutive engine of development, which contributes to the strengthening of free agencies of other kinds. Thus, the capabilities approach looks upon development as a momentous engagement with freedom’s possibilities.

According to Professor Sen, a person’s ‘capability’ refers to the alternative combinations of functionings that are feasible for him to achieve, given his personal features and his command over commodities. Capability is thus, the substantive freedom to achieve alternative functioning combinations. While the combination of a person’s functionings reflects his actual achievements, the capability set represents the freedom to achieve the alternative functioning combinations from which the person can choose. Thus, in this approach, human life can be seen as a set of ‘doings and beings’ called ‘functionings’ and the quality of life can be evaluated by assessing the capability to function. The valued functionings may vary from elementary ones, such as being adequately nourished, escaping morbidity etc., to very complex activities or personal states, such as achieving self-respect, taking part in the life of the community and appearing in public with dignity. Therefore, development requires removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty, lack of functional education, neglect of public facilities like health as well as systematic social deprivation. Income and wealth are not required for their own sake but their crucial role in determining living conditions must be recognized.

What people can positively achieve is influenced by socio-economic opportunities, gainful employment, political liberties and the enabling conditions of good health, basic functional education, and the encouragement and cultivation of initiatives. The institutional arrangements for such opportunities are also influenced by the exercise of people’s freedoms, through the liberty to participate in social choice and in the making of public decisions.

Conflicts between the partially disparate and partially congruent interests within diverse social living are typically resolved through implicitly agreed patterns of behaviour that may or may not be particularly egalitarian. The deals people get as an outcome of such “cooperative conflict” depend heavily on the degree of different freedoms they enjoy.

The above discussion on freedom is instrumental in understanding that the establishment of a more just, equal and democratic world order is contingent upon the advancement of freedom in different spheres of life.


[1] “W.B. Yeats wrote on the margin of his copy of Nietzsche’s “The Genealogy of Morals”, “But why does Nietzsche think the night has no stars, nothing but bats and owls and the insane moon?” Nietzsche’s skepticism about humanity and his chilling vision of the future were presented just before the beginning of the twentieth century. The events of the century that followed, including world wars, holocausts, genocides and other atrocities, gives us reason enough to worry whether Nietzsche’s skepticism about humankind might not have been just right.” — “The Idea of Justice” by Amartya Sen (2009)

Politics of Wars

In “A Plea for Less Malice Toward None” Ogden Nash writes –

“Any kiddie in school can love like a fool,

But hating, my boy is an art.”

Unfortunately, men have acquired the art of hating so well that it requires “a half-naked Indian fakir” to make them understand “the fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love”.

Whether or not the above Gandhian disposition about human nature can be extended to global politics is a matter of contention, but human history has been dotted with so many wars that it is very difficult to deny the presence (if not the predominance) of a certain trait in human nature, which keeps the world in a perpetual state of belligerence and hatred. This trait draws its vitality from the ‘scientific shibboleth’ of ‘survival of the fittest’ that has been drilled into the very consciousness of human existence. This narrowly held view of the world, namely an omnipresent struggle in the face of unrestrained competition, limits the idea of rationality of agents to mere ‘selfish rationality’. In other words, the pursuit of unilateral self-interest has shaped politics over centuries of human civilization in a way that it now has a tendency to fan a sense of intolerance. To make matters worse, the economics of the post-industrialization world has promoted such an unbridled consumerism that it leaves in its wake an entire generation of lonely men and women who are disinterested even about their immediate environs. Thus, an unscrupulous competitiveness gripping modern life lies at the roots of violent geopolitics and mass xenophobia.

Why are Wars Waged?

From the ongoing platitude, one might think I am propounding that wars are the result of a flawed philosophy and a disturbing modern lifestyle. This is untrue because wars have been present since time immemorial (whence there may not be any cogently formed xenophobic belief-system). It is only to iterate that over the years, with the rise of hysterical diatribes in an air of distrust and hatred, wars have tended to be more violent in terms of the damage inflicted on ordinary civilians. Despite the rising violence in modern warfare, one can find a striking commonality in all wars, irrespective of their era and place of origin – the cause of wars. Without fail, wars among rational players are waged only when at least one party believes the cost of waging the war is less than the prospective gains from it in terms of resources, power, glory, territory, etc.

Moreover, almost all wars are preceded by a failure of bargaining – an inability to reach a mutually advantageous and enforceable agreement. One important feature of wars is that they tend to recur between the same belligerent parties. This is because bipolar negotiations between parties disparately endowed with bargaining resources are characterized by a chain reaction of further such negotiations, with the sole aim of either retaliation by the previous vanquished or reinforcement of superiority by the earlier victor. Thus, patent skewness in the global political power scenario serves as the cradle of wars.

Military Industrial Complex[1] and World Peace

If wars were always fought, and the cause of wars was always failed negotiations, then the natural question arises: what, if any, is new about wars?

While the causes behind the recent instances of wars across the globe can be seen through the lens of the erstwhile understanding of failed negotiations, a careful scrutiny will reveal that the story is much more convoluted. With the advent of the Cold War, competitive armament has become norm of the day. Corporate giants seized this opportunity to make ‘nasty profits’[2] by producing and selling arms; they colluded with the political class and invested huge sums of money in the name of ‘research and development’. These corporations certainly kept their word in advancing modern technology – but only to develop weapons of mass genocide.[3]

Clearly, these corporations and the so-called ‘Military Industrial Complexes’ need profits and the only way to bag profits is to sell their arms. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for these corporations to foster a sense of military insecurity across the nations – a task well undertaken by the developed country diplomats. These diplomats found newer avenues to make the developing countries believe that procuring arms in the face of potential military threats is an absolute necessity. Where they failed to propagate their agenda, they took yet another route – that of waging a war against terrorism. Thus, in the name of establishing world peace, developed countries, particularly the US, undertook a massive project of armament of nations. From fanning the Middle East crisis to sending troops to Afghanistan, USA left no stone unturned to make use of their arsenal.[4] Thus, in a world with skewed political powers, the US presented war as an instrument of furthering its political arm-twisting.

One perennial source of military struggle has been the resource-rich regions of the planet. However, in the recent years, the straightforward motive of grabbing the resources has been carefully hidden under the guise of establishing political stability in the region by economic superpowers like the US. Often the neighbouring countries with similar resource endowments engage themselves in mutual wars in order to grab hold of the resources and become a strong monopoly of the resource. Even when countries do collude and form a cartel, such mutual agreements between nations are usually violated because of the intrinsic incentive to cheat and break away from the cartel. Once cheating is detected, the errant country is punished either by waging a war against it or through politico-economic non-cooperation. Consider a hypothetical situation where Iraq and Iran have the choices of either restricting production to 2 million barrels of crude oil per day, or produce a larger amount of 4 million barrels per day. The following matrix[5] shows the payoffs of Iraq and Iran for the four combinations of possibilities.

IRAQ  2 millions of barrels per day (Cooperate) 4 millions of barrels per day (Cheat)
IRAN
 2 millions of barrels per day (Cooperate) (46,42) (26,44)
4 millions of barrels per day (Cheat) (52,22) (32,24)

The first number in each of the ordered pair of payoffs represents Iran’s profits per day in millions of dollars and the second number represents those of Iraq. Now suppose Iran cheats for a day successfully, while Iraq stays honest. Iran gains US$ 6 million (=52-46). When Iraq finds out Iran has cheated, the mutual trust breaks down. The two settle down to a regime of high outputs. Relative to cooperation, Iran now loses US$ 14 million (46-32=14) a day. Even if it takes Iraq a while to detect the cheating, Iran loses in the end. For example, if it takes Iraq a month to detect the cheating, it takes only 13 days to wipe out Iran’s gain (=180 million) from cheating. Thus, punishment means strategic non-cooperation. The Iraq-Kuwait war is a prime example of a violent punishment. Whatever be the punishment strategy, the basic issue is that once the atmosphere of mutual trust is lost, influential third-party countries like the US can easily incite violence, undermine the native governments in the region and further its politico-economic hegemony. Once the bluff of the baseless allegations of Iraq preparing nuclear weapons was exposed, the world understood that the infamous duel between the US president and the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was fuelled by the underlying resource-curse.

Costlier: War or Peace?

Once we have understood the unholy nexus between the political clan and corporate giants, we turn our attention to the crucial trade-off of channelizing scarce fiscal funds between defense and developmental fronts. During periods of economic austerity, developing countries tend to maintain their defense expenditures at a more stable level than other functional expenditures such as health and education.[6] This proves countries are too afraid of taking the risk of not keeping themselves prepared for a military threat. Ironically, what the governments forget is that the pent-up bitterness amongst their own citizens due to prolonged deprivation of developmental rights can eventually find its vent in the form of mass agitation against the establishment. This would entail a collapse of the economic activities, at least temporarily, with an effective breakdown of the law and order system in the country, such as in recent Egypt. Apparently, this seems to be quite easy for the governments to tackle, particularly with their arsenal of sophisticated weapons for public threat. What misses the eye is the prolonged adverse impact of such popular unrest in the society on the international trade relations and investor-confidence. Thus, the long-term loss to the economy can be much more than what it takes to smother the rebellion by armed force. Thus, strengthening the military-base of a nation at the cost of the developmental aspirations of citizens can prove to be a fatal mistake.

Wars Making the World ‘Flat’[7]?

In the course of the above deliberation, one can understand that maintaining peace in the world requires developmental aspirations of the people to be met, and not a threat of military aggression. Despite the war-mongers’ efforts to cloud the understanding of global peace, the public has time and again eloquently pointed out that they are not in favour of wars to establish global ‘justice’ (e.g., the disenchantment of the American populace with George W. Bush after the Iraq war). The only possible way to break the vicious cycle of the corporate giants funding the political parties win elections and the political class favoring the ‘nasty’ motives of these corporations – is to form a unified struggle against these “traders of hatred” in demand of ‘flat’ development.


[1] The term was first used by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address. The term is used to mean the entire network of contracts and flows of money and resources among individuals as well as corporations and institutions of the defense contractors.

[2] Joseph Stiglitz (2006)

[3] At the risk of slight exaggeration of expression, these corporations through the active patronage of the supercilious political class converted the American “dream” to the American “drone”!

[4] The fact that the US has maintained till today its military expenses in real terms unchanged at the World War II levels (approximately 270 billion $), points to its vested interests in maintaining a state of belligerence in the world.

[5] Dixit, Nalebuff (1991)

[6] Robert E. Looney of the National Security Affairs, USA, notes this statistical fact for a number of developing countries.

[7] In his 2005 book, ‘The World Is Flat’, Thomas Friedman argues that globalization and diffusion of modern technology have flattened the world, creating a level playing field in which people from any part of the globe can compete on equal terms.

Prostitute of Democracy

The Nation of the Mahatma and the Scams

The idea of democracy is not as easy as most people think. If I ask any person at random in the streets of the world’s largest democracy – India, about what is democracy and how has it helped them, I am certain to get passionate answers like “Democracy is by the people, of the people and for the people”, “We enjoy independent voting rights”, etc. These answers are not quite wrong per se, but they cannot satisfy a rational mind. Although there can be debates about the exact characteristics of democracy and how much freedom it can or should effectively ensure for its citizens, most people will agree with me when I claim that the strength of democracy is certainly not limited to universal adult franchise. There is much more to it – freedom to ventilate one’s thoughts and viewpoints on a socially significant matter (without the fear of facing the wrath of the State if by chance the views turn out to be anti-establishment), being well informed and well briefed (through free media), engaging with dignity in public deliberations, seeing one’s suggestions being reflected in the policy-making procedure and above all participating actively in the development process of one’s own community (through elections, referendums and the general use of civil rights).

Nevertheless, though we talk about democracy being the ‘rule of the people’, it still entails the eternal struggle between the State (comprising of the democratically elected Legislative, the Judiciary and the Executive) and the common man, who has himself cast his important vote to make his State ‘friendlier’ to himself. We must therefore not say that democracy is the political form of a society governing itself, in which the government is spread throughout the milieu of the nation. Such a definition is a contradiction in terms. It would be almost as if we said that democracy is a political society without a State. In fact, the State is nothing if it is not an organ distinct from the rest of society. If the State is everywhere, it is nowhere. The State comes into existence by a process of concentration of power that detaches a certain group of individuals from the collective mass. Thus, in Gandhi’s words, “the individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.”[1] However, the State should not detach itself from the society so much, that its epicenter of power would be in search of that very society.[2]

Thus, we understand that democracy, if it is adequately participatory, should not be after-all a very bad form of political structure to have in a country, particularly if it is seen in comparison to other forms of governance like autocracy or oligarchy. However, the moment the custodians of such a democratic government are elected as representatives of the people to be ruled, there appears, quite naturally, dissociation between the ruler and the ruled. This intrinsic quality of Parliamentary Democracy to dissociate the agents from the institution, probably led the Mahatma to call the Parliamentary system of representative democratic governance as a “prostitute”. What Gandhi proposed in place of parliamentary representative democracy was “enlightened anarchism”, which effectively asks every individual in a society to be self-dependent, self-motivated and self-interested in a manner that does not let individual pursuits come in collision with the actions of others. (Notice how close this idea is to a capitalist philosophy in the sphere of economics, to which Gandhi opposed vehemently.) Evidently, this was too much being asked from the millions of illiterate Indians, or for that matter, populace of any random country. What Gandhi failed to understand is that before his idea could be put into practice, many centuries must pass by to ensure that people actually have the required resources to participate meaningfully in their lives and thereafter.[3]

India’s Tryst with Parliamentary Democracy

The debate as to whether we should have representative democracy is, however, far more practical than philosophical. In a vast country such as India, it is logically imperative that representatives of people be sent to the institutions of democracy (equivalently, offices of governance), who in turn, will help promote and try to ensure the well-being of those who elected them. The sheer size of the Indian populace renders the idea of having a perfectly inclusive decision-making process implausible, even when all the citizens have the required functional capability of meaningfully participating in the deliberations of governance. Thus, the only alternative left for India to ensure simultaneously well-oiled civil machinery and a fair degree of individual freedom, is to have Parliamentary representative democracy (with obvious time-bound revisions) as the governing order.

Once one has understood that one will have to be content with representative democracy then the question arises as to how this existing system of governance can be made more effective. Before I provide the solutions, we must take a quick look at what exactly are the drawbacks of the current democratic system in India.

The prerequisite to the task of finding the drawbacks of any system is to understand and arrive at a consensus regarding the exact objectives that the system is supposed to deliver. Quite amazingly, this prerequisite is conspicuous by its absence in the Indian context. By this, I mean that there is hardly any coherent and consistent effort to understand the goals that the Indian democracy can attempt to achieve, let alone the failed attempts to align interests of diverse groups of Indians. Nevertheless, people, at large, do seem to have a roughly fair idea about the bare minimum that democracy should ensure in their lives.[4] In general, they demand the physical necessities of life (the illusive trio of food, clothing and shelter), security of life and private property; and probably an iota more intellectual of the lot will demand a treatment of equality from the government, at least on grounds of religion, caste, gender, place of birth, etc. That is, in short, for all practical purposes, the set of fundamental rights of the Indian citizens seems to be an upper bound of what an average Indian would probably ask from the coveted Indian democracy. However, unfortunately, the Indian democracy, in spite of its lofty ideals, has until date failed to ensure even these fundamental rights for its citizens. Though Indian democracy has done a reasonably good job as far as issues like secularism are concerned, a lot remains to be done on the developmental front. The reasons for this abysmal performance of the Indian democratic system are multifarious. Many would argue that the prime ingredient in India’s failure to meet the basic developmental milestones has been rampant corruption throughout the social milieu. Multi-layered pilferages, bureaucratic hassles, bribery, public fund embezzlement, nepotism, informal markets and expropriation of public resources for private gains – corruption in almost all its possible garbs presented itself in the Indian democratic system. Even after we accept corruption as one of the most significant malice that plagues developmental initiatives of the Indian democracy, we must clarify to ourselves the causes and effects of such widespread corruption. Only then can we hope to reign in corruption effectively.

Interestingly enough, the existing literature on the nexus between democracy and corruption appears to suffer from indeterminacy regarding the answer to the question that whether corruption essentially draws its vitality from democracy itself. In other words, theoretical research fails to conclusively state whether or not corruption thrives well in the cradle of democracy. While some researchers show that corruption is characteristically predominant in autocratic or oligarchic set-ups where governing power tends to be concentrated in the hands of a few, others, however, are not willing to accept this explanation at mere face-value. According to them, democratic systems of governance inevitably entail an elaborate system of multi-layered bureaucracy, which in turn serve as the breeding ground of corruption. Whether or not corruption thrives better in a democracy, we must acknowledge the astonishingly wide range of incidence of corruption across the democratic countries themselves. Consider the example of Indonesia as pitched against that of Singapore, both being democratic nations but widely varying in the incidence of corruption. While Singapore ranks 5th in the list of 182 nations across the world in terms of the Corruption Perceptions Index, Indonesia ranks 100th in the same list. This glaring contrast is an eloquent pointer to the fact that political regimes may not be the significant factor that determines the degree of corruption in a country. Moreover, this example also serves the purpose to show that the incidence of corruption also cannot be quite well explained along the lines of shared cultural and historical mindsets. Singapore and Indonesia, South East Asian neighbours, share a lot of socio-cultural commonality between them, but surprisingly people in Singapore appear to be largely less corrupt than their Indonesian counterparts.

What is clear from the above argument is that one cannot study the nature and causes of corruption in India formally without understanding why India is so corrupt in the first place. Then one can analyze why corruption persists in India, once Indians are exposed to the ill effects of corruption. The successful analysis of these two crucial questions will finally lead us to understand the possible methods of curbing corruption.

Why is a majority of Indians corrupt?

Interestingly enough, academicians have elaborately discussed different methods of battling corruption out from India, but seldom have they talked about the a priori question that why, on the very first place, is a majority of Indians corrupt. Among the social scientists, probably only the economists have put forward a general theory as to why widespread corruption exists in any society. The essence of their argument lies in the incentive compatibility. In other words, economists are largely of the view that Indians (or for that matter, people in general) are corrupt because they have private incentives to be corrupt, that is, the private gains from indulging in corruption is high enough to outweigh the moral and/or legal discomfort from such a “wrongdoing”. For example, if a government official accepts bribe to move a pending file faster or a politician in power accepts bribes from a corporate giant to strike a tacit deal in favour of the latter’s firm, then they both are trying to maximize their personal gains. Unfortunately, the channel through which they are pursuing their self-interest[5] is not legally sanctioned[6] and we call it “corruption”. Though the explanation seems convincing, yet a careful scrutiny will reveal that incentives cannot be the only reason behind existence of corrupt practices. This is because, according to the incentive-based approach, when people decide to indulge in corruption they have implicitly done a cost-benefit analysis to conclude that if they can somehow grab the opportunity of making money then they can be better off, even after discounting for the cost of immorality. The lacuna in the argument is that incentives tend to be similar across the globe but still we find one particular country being more corrupt than the others are. This obviously means that something other than the incentives is important in determining the level of corruption in a society. Here we present that other cause, especially for Indians to be corrupt – a reason so obvious that it often escapes the eye.

Apart from the incentive-based argument, the reason that has contributed in making Indians corrupt, according to me, is colonial subjugation. Almost two and a half centuries of colonial subordination has taken its due toll on the Indian social structure and psyche of the people. Prolonged exposure to moral decadence and a sense of bondage has shaped the Indian mind to naturally depend on bribery and nepotism to meet private benefits. In spite of the lofty ideals of British administration and governance, the relationship between the Indian subjects and their British administrators remained that of a master-servant. That obviously meant that the Indians became accustomed to pleasing their rulers with gifts and favours, and getting personal rewards in reciprocation. Many will try to argue that even before the British rule Indians were exposed to such royal favoritism through their pre-colonial rulers. However, such argument is refuted because many provincial governments under the single umbrella of dynastic rule did ensure some primitive forms of political democracy for their people, and in general, a majority of people’s lives were precariously detached from the autocratic proceedings of the handful of the ruler-class. Therefore, what is important to note is that democracy can have some intrinsic values that can deter at least certain forms of corruption like nepotism and bribery. On the other hand, feudal systems of colonial governments can instill these same negative virtues in people. This is true not only for India but also for other countries across the globe, cutting through socio-cultural barriers. Instances where prolonged colonial subjugation has led to eruption of corruption in a society are the host of African countries, other Asian countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Vietnam, etc. This is enough evidence to show that countries sharing the common history of colonial subjugation tend to have a more corrupt populace for reasons just discussed.

Thus, we see that majority of Indians are prone to indulging in corrupt acts because a history of colonial rule has weakened the value system of their entire social structure. Therefore, even when the colonial rule is long over, Indians fail to move out of their legacy of being a ‘corrupt race’. This brings us to the logical corollary of the vital question that why the present-day Indians, despite their common feeling that corruption is doing them no good, are still corrupt.

Why Does Corruption Persist in India?

The answer to the paradox, why Indians continue to be corrupt even when they believe that corruption is a major bottleneck in the path of the country’s developmental aspirations, lies probably in the shortsightedness of the general populace. What exactly I mean by ‘shortsightedness’ will become clear through the following example. Consider a typical middle-class urban Indian working as a bank-staff in a private-sector bank. Suppose that at some point of his life, he had to pay a bribe to his local municipality official to get a tube-well or a street-lamp installed in his locality (which otherwise falls under his civic rights to legitimately demand for such amenities) or maybe, for getting a bed in a government hospital[7] during a medical crisis at his home. Evidently, at the time of giving this bribe, the person did not feel good. He must have felt, even if he did not express publicly, that because of these malpractices India is lagging behind on the development front. Nevertheless, when this same person enters his workplace, he often accepts bribes from his clients to illegally sanction bank-loans to potentially defaulting candidates. However, while receiving this bribe, he probably consoles his pricking conscience by making himself believe that had he not grabbed the opportunity of making this extra bit of money then probably his peers would have achieved more in life, at least materially speaking.

The above example of a typical Indian shows how the network of corruption continues unhindered even when every Indian feels, at least while in the shoes of the bribe-payer, that corruption is bad per se for this country. Another form of ‘shortsightedness’ arises from the fact that people mostly dissociate their private interests from the larger social interest, thereby often giving rise to the unwanted situation where the private gains are exactly in conflict with the social benefit.

All said and done, if one needs to formalize the concept of persistence of corruption in India as discussed above, nothing can be more suitable than the famous multiple equilibria model developed by the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman in his famous paper “History versus Expectations” (1970). Krugman developed his model to explain a completely different economic fact, which is of no interest to us in the present context. However, the main structure of the model is helpful in understanding the persistence of any “bad” or “inferior” situation in a society when a “good” or “superior” equilibrium state is always available. The crux of the argument is that people are initially stuck in a “bad” equilibrium (here a society stuck with high corruption level). As more and more people shun the path of corruption, the incentive from corruption goes down (that is, people find it more and more profitable to become honest). After a critical number of citizens has moved out towards the “good” equilibrium, virtually everyone in the society finds it profitable to move out and hence in this dynamic process the “good” equilibrium is ultimately achieved by the entire society. Thus, what we understand is that a society may be initially stuck at an inferior situation due to “historical” factors, but it is certainly possible to move to the superior state by forming self-fulfilling “expectations”. However, for such a desirable change of equilibrium to happen one must recognize the crucial role of the “mavericks”, that is, the people who will initiate the move of becoming “honest” and be followed by others in the society. Therefore, we understand that creating the mavericks for India is very important if we hope to move India out from this low-level equilibrium trap of high corruption. The next sections will shed light on the modus operandi of creating such mavericks in the society.

Law: A Necessary Evil?

Once we have understood how the mesh of corruption can be ended in the Indian context, we must look forward to a cost-effective methodology for the execution of that solution of finding or creating the mavericks. As one can understand, this is one zone of discussion, which has ignited spirited public debates in India. The debates revolving around the Lokpal Bill, or the Whistle-Blowers’ Act or other laws that aim to reign in corrupt practices in India have at least one characteristic in common – that is, they all try to find not only a feasible but also an affordable solution to keeping corruption in check. In fact, the importance of many obvious solutions like widespread usage of electronic financial transactions in public and private offices (thereby reducing the dependence on human discretion for such matters), or popularizing the use of close-circuit-television-cameras in offices of importance, etc. can never be undermined even if some iconic law like the Lokpal Act gets passed in the Parliament. Thus, one has to understand that the plane of debate is not the validity of a solution but the affordability of it. In other words, we must devise a solution (legal or otherwise) that can ensure a critical amount of honesty in the system. Before the final solution can be stated, one must be aware of the limitations of other feasible solutions; otherwise, the argument for a particular solution becomes ad-hoc and weak. Therefore, we begin by analyzing the reaches of the legal system in changing corruption levels in a country.[8]

To understand the role of law in curbing corruption, consider the following hypothetical example. Suppose the government of a country feels that, there are too many irregularities in the distribution of ration-cards in a particular region or state. That is, it is often found that ration-cards are created in the names of the well-off people in the village, rather than those below the poverty line (whom the government actually wanted to help by providing free rations). As a result, the government, obviously with good intent, introduced a law, which prohibited the issue of any further ration-cards in the region by the local Panchayats. Meanwhile, the government set-up an expert committee to probe into the situation and granted this committee special power to issue ration cards to the Below Poverty Line people in the region according to the committee’s discretion. Many would believe that this solution is perfect to end the corrupt practices rampant in the villages. No doubt, this solution would have been the best if the committee comprised of robots (not humans with the intrinsic urge to satisfy their own private interests). Thus, we find that the legal solution by the government, in spite of its best intentions, effectively replaces one group of corrupt Panchayat officials with another, probably more sophisticated but nonetheless equally corruptible group of committee-members.[9] Thus, we understand that laws are crucial in curbing corruption as far as creation of incentives to be law-abiding is concerned. Apart from this incentive-creating role of laws, there is hardly any ground to believe that laws can help abolish corrupt practices. This is certainly not to say that law itself is not useful. For instance, one may be tempted to think that without any law there would be no law-breakers. However, evidently, one cannot leave the entire society (particularly a society with potential incentives for law breaking) to anarchy. Therefore, we no doubt require law, but the question remains how that law should be designed so that we can avoid the risk of creating an additional layer of bureaucracy without any effective impact on correcting the incentive schemata of the society.

Thus, we understand that law should serve as a signpost in a world of commotion. To elaborate what I mean by “signpost”, let us consider the following simultaneous one-time game.[10] Here, each of the two players 1 and 2 can choose between the two actions A and B. They have no prior communication with each other before they play the game. Evidently, one can understand from the payoff matrix below that there are two equilibria possible in the game: one is where both players choose action A (the “bad” equilibrium, as discussed earlier) and another is where both players choose action B (the “good” equilibrium where both players are better off). Obviously, every player would want to choose the action that the other player chooses to maximize his own benefits. Since the players are ignorant of the other player’s choices before the actual play of the game, therefore both actions are probable for both players. In other words, without any further information to the players, it is highly probable that the best situation of (B,B) equilibrium is not reached.

Figure No.: 1: The Assurance (Coordination) Game[11]

PLAYER 2

 ACTION A

ACTION B

PLAYER 1

ACTION A

(2,2)

(9,1)

ACTION B

(1,9)

(10,10)

Now consider efficacy of the proposed Lokpal Bill in the light of the game described above. Grossly speaking, the Lokpal law aims to build a separate constitutional body, which will probe into the allegations of corruption labeled against any public servant.[12] This evidently entails the creation of another undesirable layer of bureaucracy (who can become corrupt themselves) but does not deliver on the front of creating incentives for the honest. Instead, consider the Whistleblowers’ Act. This rewards those agents who complain against the wrongdoers without creating a separate layer of bureaucracy. The working process of this kind of law can be understood through the following game-theoretic formalization.

Suppose a layman approaches a government official to get his routine job done. However, the corrupt official, as usual, asks for a bribe, saying that if he does not pay the bribe his job will be delayed. At this decision-node, the common man can decide not to pay the bribe and remain content with a delayed completion of his job. Alternatively, he could have agreed to pay the bribe. Nevertheless, once his job is done, he always has the option to report this corrupt action of the official to the police.

The payoffs of the government official and the common person are shown in the sequential game-tree (Figure No.: 2), in the form of ordered pairs. Note that since the payoff of the layman is less if he reports to the police than if he does not, therefore the corrupt official gets away and corruption persists in the economy.

Figure No.: 2

Untitled

This gloomy scenario can be changed quite easily, if there is some legal reward provision for the common person (whistleblower) who reports about an act of corruption. In this way, his payoff can be increased in case of reporting and then the official’s payoff falls to -10, thereby rendering bribe-seeking non-profitable. In this way, protection and reward of the whistle-blower in the society can help reduce corruption. This case is shown in Figure No.: 3 below.

Figure No.: 3

3

One must note that the success of the Whistleblowers’ Act also depends on lowering the cost of legal hassles that the plaintiff has to bear after lodging a complaint and increasing the rewards for lodging a true complaint. While the Whistleblowers’ Act is definitely a step in correcting the incentives scheme, the Lokpal Bill, in spite of its lofty ideal of giving greater democratic power in the hands of the common person of India, fails to achieve that, let alone the extra administrative cost of setting up and running the Lokpal and the Lokayuktas.

Now, I turn to yet another logical flaw that we often make while depending too much on laws to curb corruption – the question of whether the government itself will be willing to enforce a law that does not serve the personal interests of its own members. It is rife to find members of the government being linked to corrupt activities, and hence may be unwilling to enforce a law that comes in the way of their pursuit of self-interest. After all, if the majority of the population of a country is corrupt then how can the elected representatives be anything different? Thus, creation of thoughtless laws is not only a burden on the already resource-constrained country but they may even turn out to be corruption promoting in the long run by creating additional layers of more complex bureaucracy.

Democracy and Corruption: Role of Media

From the ongoing platitude discussed so far, what we can safely conclude is that the hype created about the Lokpal Bill, particularly by the civil society and the popular media, should not be accepted without a pinch of reality. Much of the debate that revolves around how to make India corruption-free sadly lacks the rigor of rational thinking, rather these debates on media platforms have increasingly become emotionally and politically motivated. Nevertheless, what we do require from the media is a commitment in spreading mass awareness against corruption. It is exactly for this reason that present-day India requires many more people in the likes of Anna Hazare to educate the mass to demand a corruption-free society, but not to debate with the government regarding the nuances of a single Bill or Act: matters that are exclusive prerogative of the parliament. Another significant role that the media can play is in bringing forth the acts of corruption to greater public knowledge (thereby effectively playing the role of an organized whistleblower). Nevertheless, the media, mostly controlled by the corporate giants may in turn, have their own vested politico-economic interests, in playing the role of a society’s whistleblower; though entry of more media firms in the industry will help in reducing the monopoly of a handful of media houses that potentially controls public view. Thus, a sufficiently competitive media of a country can contribute significantly in the crusade against corruption by furthering the democratic ideals, thereby in turn creating a greater demand of transparency from the grassroots level.

Another World Is Possible[13]

I conclude by a disclaimer that whatever methods I discussed so far in the essay may be neither necessary nor sufficient but they can surely clear the mist of misunderstanding surrounding the problem of tackling corruption in a country as diverse as India, and that too with severe resource constraints. We all do sincerely hope that one day India would be as much corruption-free as any of her developed counterparts. India’s clamour for a ‘new world order’ at different international platforms will not be fully justified unless we mend our own house properly.


Reference

  • Abdulraheem, A. (2009): “Corruption in India: An Overview”
  • Acemoglu, D.; Verdier, T. (2000): “The Choice between Market Failures and Corruption”, The American Economic Review, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Mar., 2000), pp. 194-211
  • Bardhan, P. (2006): “The Economist’s Approach to the Problem of Corruption”, World Development, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 341-348
  • Bardhan, P. (1997): “Corruption and Development: A Review of Issues”, Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Sept., 1997), pp. 1320-1346
  • Basu, K. (2010): “Beyond the Invisible Hand: Groundwork for a New Economics”, Penguin Books India, 2011
  • Chang, ECC; Chu, YH (2006): “Corruption and Trust: Exceptionalism in Asian Democracies?”, Journal of Politics 68.2: 259-271
  • Emerson, P. (2006): “Corruption, competition and democracy”, Journal of Development Economics 81 (2006) 193-212
  • Guha, R. (2011): “Delhi Delusions”, The Telegraph, Kolkata, India, June 18, 2011
  • Johnston, M. (1999): “Corruption and Democratic Consolidation”, Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, Princeton University
  • Krueger, AO (1974): “The Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society”, The American Review, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Jun., 1974), pp. 291-303
  • Krugman, P. (1991): “History versus Expectations”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 106, No. 2. (May, 1991), pp. 651-667
  • Macrae, J. (1982): “Underdevelopment and the Economics of Corruption: A Game Theory Approach”, World Development, Vol. 10, No. 8, pp. 677-687
  • Mogiliansky, A; Majumdar, M; Radner, R. (2008): “Petty Corruption: A game-theoretic approach”, International Journal of Economic Theory 4 (2008) 273-297
  • Pani, M. (2009): “Hold Your Nose and Vote: Why Do Some Democracies Tolerate Corruption?”, International Monetary Fund
  • Saha, S.; Campbell, N. (2007): “Studies of the Effect of Democracy on Corruption”, 36th Australian Conference of Economists, Tasmania, Australia
  • Stiglitz, JE. (2006): “Making Globalization Work”, Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd
  • wikipedia.com (accessed on 29th October, 2012): Corruption Perceptions Index, Jan Lokpal Bill

 


 

[1] Therefore, the scenes that flash on the news channels – police firing on a group of unarmed farmers to acquire their land, lathi-charge on agitating students, etc, should not startle us. However, what is certainly distressing to note is the rampant abuse of State power in the guise of law enforcement. The rise in the number of incidents of politically motivated and State-sponsored terrorism throughout the country is a matter of great shame.

[2] According to the Tamil economist S. Guhan, Delhi is a capital, which is continually in search of its own country.

[3] Resources mostly do not mean wealth, and particularly not in the present context. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has extensively argued how the lack of capabilities leading to reduced functionings of individuals can severely restrict meaningful participation in personal and social life. At the very beginning of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle has noted that “… wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.” This “something else” is freedom to pursue the life people value or have reasons to value. Amartya Sen has thus quite aptly reverberated the Aristotelian view that “expanding the freedoms that we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with – and influencing – the world in which we live.”

[4] Unfortunately, the Indian people at large do not seem to be learned enough about their individual role in making the democratic system work better. In other words, democracy to most of the Indians mean nothing more than a government, which they have elected to power, taking the responsibility of meeting all their demands.

[5] Note that this perspective of understanding “self-interest” is surely not the Gandhian perspective, as discussed earlier.

[6] We will return to the issue of how to enumerate the effects of the legal structure on corruption.

[7] In fact, beds in government hospitals are effectively often in the sole control of the government officials or more frequently under the aegis of the local supporters of the political party in power.

[8] Obviously, this analysis of legal frameworks to deal with corruption will include the effectiveness and costs of implementing the much-awaited proposed Lokpal Bill in India.

[9] While discussing the reaches of law in changing societal patterns, Kaushik Basu, in his recent book, “Beyond the Invisible Hand: Groundwork for a New Economics” (2010) discusses about how the introduction of speed-limit laws may turn out to be futile because the traffic-police on the roads may not be having the requisite incentive to lodge complaints against the rash drivers. Moreover, the senior police and administrative officials may also be lacking the incentive to catch hold of the non-performing traffic-police on the roads; and so on.

[10] The remaining part of the essay will use elementary concepts of game theory, which I have introduced without the conventional mathematical rigor (e.g., concepts like Nash equilibrium, Subgame Perfect Equilibrium, etc.) to keep the flow of the main theme unabated.

[11] Developed by Amartya Sen (1967)

[12] The final draft of Lokpal Bill will clarify on details regarding whether all or selected public servants will be under the purview of the Lokpal, whether private players like the corporate and the NGOs will also be taken into consideration.

[13] This subtitle is taken from Joseph Stiglitz’s famous book, “Making Globalization Work” (2006).