ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Affirmative Action in India:An Alternative Perspective

Explanations provided for the necessity of affirmative discrimination are basically fleshed out in two approaches, i e, forward-looking and backward-looking. A critique of both these approaches is made in this paper followed by the construction of an alternative perspective from ideas derived from recent ethical theories which emphasise cross-time values, narrative perspective, historical context and organic unity.

Special articles

Affirmative Action in India: An Alternative Perspective

Explanations provided for the necessity of affirmative discrimination are basically fleshed out in two approaches, i e, forward-looking and backward-looking. A critique of both these approaches is made in this paper followed by the construction of an alternative perspective from ideas derived from recent ethical theories which emphasise cross-time values, narrative perspective, historical context and organic unity.


nce again, affirmative action for the marginalised has acquired salience in India, and is caught in the throes of controversy. Very recently, the discourse of reservations that has attuned the political class to thinking about the welfare of disadvantaged communities has rejuvenated those same old oft-asked questions, though not entirely irrelevant, regarding the basis and rationale of reservations. However, the discourse of reservations in India from the beginning has been surrounded by certain misconceptions and severe controversies. Much of the controversies in India, and outside, regarding affirmative action programme loom up from the familiar arguments, for or against them, based on significantly different moral perspectives. The explanations provided for affirmative discrimination often do not succeed to answer convincingly the whys and wherefores, or fail to justify it adequately in its own terms. As with most human affairs, the quest to rectify historical wrongs has triggered new and unanticipated social tensions. Negative social reactions against affirmative action programmes mostly emanate, though not exclusively, from the inadequate justificatory perspective(s) and messages provided in support of it. Social convulsions in the present context provide us the most opportune moment to rethink it seriously.

Even if it is widely presumed that action speaks louder than words, there is also probability of different consequences of same act, depending on the way we decide to justify it. In other words, the same act done with different intentions or moral reasons will have different consequences. Contrary to common presumptions, social policies cannot be settled either by entirely debating on the rights involved or by assessing the consequences separately. They are not to be narrowly conceived as separate from the messages/rationale that we want to give and those that are likely to be received. The moral justification/message of an act alone is inadequate to rationalise the policy, and not the means adopted alone exonerate them from all shortcomings; nevertheless, it is definitely a relevant factor in the moral evaluation of the policy and its consequences. Moreover, the underlying rationale not merely influences the efficacy and consequences, but also determines the structure of policy, the reflective decisions, and the means of realising it. To be precise, the moral perspective and justificatory logic is a constitutive part of both the structure of the policy, means adopted for executing it, and its consequences. Specifically this is more relevant in case of affirmative action.

It is beyond dispute that Indian society has for ages been horizontally and vertically split and stratified on the basis of caste; and caste system has bred a structure of cumulative inequality, which keeps on producing and perpetuating itself with some adjustments. Like any other system of inequality, it has procured a structure of differential privileges on an ascribed system of social stratification. Realising the structural problem of hierarchic society the Indian leadership devised the mechanism of positive discrimination to retrieve the disadvantaged sections, specifically the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) (for different reasons) from the cul-de-sac. Affirmative action programme in Indian context is to be viewed as a compelling liberal response to the deprivations of adequate opportunities and the consequent failure to have decent human existence by large sections of underprivileged population due to their victimisation by a long history of repression, discrimination, and marginalisation. Special privileges were essential for retrieving them from deep sense of injustice, prejudice, and existential marginality, and enabling them for decent human existence. The Indian Constitution, notwithstanding its liberal framework, with the provisions of affirmative action programme in specific historical context represented a significant deviation from the then prevalent mainstream liberal philosophy.1 Affirmative concessions in association with democratic egalitarianism in one way undermined and delegitimated some of the open and overt forms of unequal privileges based on caste.

There was almost a consensus in the constituent assembly on discourse of reservation. All members after a series of deliberations consented to special provisions for safeguarding the interests of the weaker sections of society, and more specifically of the SCs and STs, for redressing the historic impairments inflicted on them through various disabilities in the past. The underlying rationale proffered in support of affirmative action in India is primarily based on “backward-looking” argument, (i e, reparations based) that focused predominantly on historic or past injustice. The thrust of the justificatory arguments and moral perspectives offered in favour of it in the constituent assembly clearly reveal this. The whole series of debates in the constituent assembly for affirmative action almost were centred on the reparations-based logic highlighting the historic injustice done against the underprivileged sections of India. Nehru, and other members like K M Munshi [CAD, Vol VII: 697], N G Ranga [CAD, Vol II: 280], K T Shah [CAD, Vol VII: 655-56], G B Pant [CAD, Vol I: 333] irrespective of their ideological differences, unequivocally endorsed affirmative action based on “backwardlooking” moral perspective.

Two Approaches

Since the rationale of affirmative action and the message it conveys determine considerably the outcomes, it is necessary to reflect on its underlying principle. Generally, there are two kinds of major conventional approaches for justifying affirmative action:

  • (i) forward-looking (i e, utility based), which appeals exclusively to the good result expected from such programme; and
  • (ii) backward-looking (i e, reparations based), that focuses on past injustice and demands reparation. In India, affirmative action for the marginalised sections is essentially rooted in approach based on past injustice and reparations. Positive discrimination expresses wrong messages when they are based exclusively or primarily on either of these two arguments. The analysis of these two arguments uncovers certain inadequacies entrenched in them. Due to the problems structural to these two conventional arguments, there is the need to look for an alternative perspective to rationalise affirmative action programme.
  • This article analyses two major approaches to affirmative action, and the justificatory arguments and logic given in favour of it. The major thrust is to flesh out an alternative perspective to affirmative action. It is divided into two sections. The first one deals with an analysis as well as critical appraisal of the two major conventional approaches to affirmative action, i e, forwardlooking and backward-looking. In the second part, an effort has been made to develop an alternative perspective in brief to look at the issues of positive discrimination. The arguments stressed here is founded on the ideas derived from recent ethical theories that emphasise cross-time values, narrative perspective, historical context, organic unity.


    Different kinds of rationale offered in favour of affirmative actions intended for the underprivileged sections can be broadly categorised into two major approaches – “forward-looking” and “backward-looking”. Each one has its own structural logic for justifying the actions and its own limitations.


    (i) The thrust of the forward-looking argument is that what has happened in the past is not itself relevant to what should we do and to what is reasonable from humanitarian perspective [Nagel 1973]. The aim of affirmative discrimination is not to compensate anyone for harm caused by past wrongdoing, but rather simply to promote certain highly desirable forms of social change to break endlessly continuing cycle of poverty and subservience. It tries to avoid extremely complicated causal connections between the past wrongs and current positions of certain individuals. At best, it presents clues as to what acts and policies are likely to generate the best future. The philosophical argument linked with this is primarily utilitarian [Dworkin 1977: 223-39], which argues that the morally right act is whatever that yields the best consequences. For instance, protagonists of this strategy contend that affirmative action will eliminate inequities in income distribution, remove caste/racial prejudice, reduce caste/racial tension, and enhance self-esteem of the marginalised. Of course, these considerations are significant and relevant for the larger responsibilities of states.

    However, the problem arises when affirmative action programme is based only on such forward-looking assertions. Critics raise reasonable apprehensions about whether the special privileges are necessary and adequate to accomplish these admirable outcomes. Consequentialism attempts to determine what ought to be done at present by fixing attention entirely on future results. When the advocates defend affirmative policies on utilitarian grounds, and argument is carried forward in utilitarian sense, it runs into greater difficulty. For example, the defenders of reservations justify caste- and race-based reservations obstinately to an unyielding length and argue that it would improve the collective welfare of the community in the end. This utilitarian perspective even validates segregation on the ground of improvement of average or collective welfare. However, the advantage gained here may be more apparent than real, and more problematic than it first appears to be. For Sher it is merely a logical accident that the principle of utility now dictates practices, which favour victimised group members instead of victimisers. Because utilitarian principle does not tell us why we should restrict our attention to the members of particular groups, it is reasonable to seek the justification for this restriction in some further premise, which has hitherto been suppressed [Sher 1979: 87]. When read with all their nuances and intricacies this argument does not appear to be entirely wrong in detail but “misplaced in principle”.2 This framework has its own structural limitations.3

    Consequentialism always tries to resolve what ought to be done at present by fixing attention exclusively on future results. Consequentialists take help of the past or consults history in a very limited sense, i e, only for predicting the future results, but the past never plays a fundamental role in final evaluation of the project. For them, what must be evaluated at each shifting moment is the “story from now on” or hereafter independently of what has already been written. This strategy is founded on the principle of motivated forgetfulness of wrong doings with the assumption that victims would soon forget past sufferings. Waldron rightly reminds us that “the forgetfulness being urged on us is seldom the blank slate of historical oblivion. Thinking quickly fills up the vacuum with plausible tales of self-satisfaction, on the one side, and self-deprecation on the other” [Waldron 1992: 6]. This approach delivers the message that the perpetrators of injustice gain due to superior status of their race or caste or culture or gender, and can inflict such injuries in future without any resistance; and the misfortune of the victims is primarily due to their inherent inferiority and lowliness. Stimulated forgetfulness buttresses loss of self-esteem and fossilises demoralisation in the victim, and promotes wrong acts. In these circumstances, to erase the slate clean or start anew definitely work in favour of practitioners of injustice. When a person is wronged, she/he receives a message of her/his marginality and irrelevance or worthlessness. This approach obviously fails to restore self-esteem among the past victims because the perpetrators of injustice demean the selfesteem of the victims through this message.

    Within an exclusive forward-looking framework one fails to take into account sufficiently possible negative consequences – temporary increase of racial, ethnic and communal tensions, caste or racial segregation, accusations against lowering of the academic and service standards, damage of the respect of really deserving and meritorious members of the reserved category,

    Economic and Political Weekly July 28, 2007

    doubts about the abuse or misuse of the selected categories for unjust purposes. Indian scholars have amply highlighted the problems of forward-looking (as well as backward-looking) approach to affirmative actions [Gupta 1997; Beteille 1991]. Of course, some of the apprehensions (though not all) are misconstrued, and well-designed affirmative action programmes can diminish these negative and depressing effects. The fundamental problem with the forward argument is that the case is not based minimally on a delicate balance of costs and benefits. When we stress certain values and we want them to be enduring we have to look for different probabilities for realising it with minimum social cost. It is a hard reality that in a democratic set up we cannot continue to realise our values without minimum social approval. Moreover, this argument, because of its insistence on certain good results in the future, is not strongly founded on principle of intrinsic rights, and do not generate enough confidence in the abilities of the beneficiaries. It becomes highly problematic when we consider a value as an exclusive instrumental to accomplish something else other than itself. It not only undermines the intrinsic worth of the value, also affects and devalues the achievement of other objectives. Specifically in the absence of structural transformation, uncertainties loom large about the desirable outcome in future.

    Thus, exclusive stress on this argument gives a wrong message and fails to base the reservation discourse on an adequate and a sounder foundation. The concern is not to entirely ignore its possible future benefits, but rather to acknowledge them as part of a larger project rooted in more reasoned and adequate base. Hence the raison d’être and the justifications (explicitly conveyed) must be specified unambiguously. The distinctions must be drawn between the validations: improvements of society in a “utilitarian sense”, and in an “ideal sense”.


    (ii) “Backward-looking” argument, a very different framework from the first one, focuses on injustice of the past, and stresses that because these past events occurred, we have certain duties and responsibilities now [Sher 1975]. The modern philosopher who has most persuasively validated such argument is W D Ross (1930). The Rossian principle that is often appealed to in positive discrimination debates is the principle of reparation, i e, those who have wronged others owe reparations. Even if one has negligently wronged another, Rossian principle considers this past event as generating a duty to pay reparations hardly matters whether doing so would result in nothing good. The argument involves an essential reference to the unjust actions of the past. This principle is to bring in certain duties to respond to certain past events in specified ways. The Rossian principle tries to evaluate specific cases in the light of “self-evident” general principles stressing that specific past events tend to generate present or future duties. Except for the acts, like – paying debts, keeping promises, and returning favours, paying reparations for injuries, niceties and subtle nuances of historical contexts are not adequately taken into consideration. The obvious objections are instantly raised: for instance, both victims and victimisers are long dead; not every upper caste member is guilty of caste oppression; and not every member of the target group was a victim of such oppression. Rather Bernard Boxill (1984) and Parekh (1998), present a more sophisticated version of this approach to meet these objections. By analogy, present-day higher caste members owe reparations to contemporary victims, not because they are themselves guilty of causing the disadvantages of victims, but because they are in possession of advantages that fell to them as a consequence of the gross injustices of their ancestors. Special privileges continue to fall even to innocent upper caste members because of the ongoing prejudice of their neighbours. This approach has certain advantages over the forwardlooking arguments, such as, its emphasis on the intrinsic relevance of the past injustice, and attention to the rights and current disadvantages of the victims (in contrast to its exclusive concern for future benefits). It does not lay blame on all upper caste members as the perpetrators of prejudice and injustice. It regards justice as a fundamental value.

    There are nonetheless serious difficulties with this approach. There is scepticism and apprehension in contemporary debates about the value of focusing on historical injustice as the most appropriate means of addressing the claims of the present victims.4 In strict sense of the term, it is too hard to measure the degree of past advantages and disadvantages or injustice in a simple and straightforward way. Waldron powerfully argues that two possible grounds for compensating the present victims for past injustices, i e, counterfactual and the second more straightforward approach, are superseded [Waldron 1992: 13-19]. “It is the impulse to do justice now that should lead the way”, stresses Waldron, “not the reparation of something whose wrongness is understood primarily in relation to conditions that no longer obtain” (ibid p 27). This strategy seems to suggest that racial, caste and sexual oppression consisted primarily in the loss of tangible goods, or the deprivation of specific rights and opportunities, that can be “paid back” in kind. Backward-looking argument concentrates too narrowly on the allocation of blame, and not adequately on contemporary disadvantages. Compensation and reparation may be due for certain specific wrongs but cannot by themselves carry the burden of rectifying the kind of systematic injustice victims suffer from. At best, it asks for symbolic act of public reconciliation or atonement rather than substantial justice. For Waldron, “genuine” or “full” reparations are eliminated; nevertheless, something is due, specifically, forms of symbolic recognition and public remembrance (ibid, p 7).5

    Being mainly symbolic, this strategy remains silent on the demeaning nature of impairments or deprivations. By remaining silent on the insulting nature of racism and castism or sexism this strategy, when defended entirely by analogy with reparation, tends to add insult to insult. The thrust primarily remains as a metaphorical act of reparation rather than bringing about any substantial and significant change. Furthermore, the reparation line of reasoning sometimes sends objectionable message that the benefits are awarded in response to self-centred demands. The underlying idea of the affirmative actions by the state appears to be an acknowledgement of the valid claim of the victims to these benefits without simultaneously expressing its confidence in the abilities of the victims. It presents a picture that beneficiaries have developed a sense of selfishness in grabbing the limited goodies, and a sense of dependency on external props and in asserting a right to them.

    Moreover, affirmative discrimination within liberal framework is confronted with additional problems. Despite apparent concern for historic injustice, the liberals have verged on appealing less to the compensatory logic of historical entitlements and more to the value of equality in the present to do the real work. Liberalism tenders excessively limited and cramped mode of ethical responsiveness to difference; and possibly strikingly slender even for its own explicit ethical commitment, such as to the norms of equal respect for others [White 2000]. Liberal notion of affirmative action is a sophisticated variation on the difference-blind equality argument meant to address the persistence of inequality and social subordination despite the entrenchment of formal equality. Insistence on individualist framework, priority to formal and procedural conception of equality and liberty, ignoring the concern of differential needs, concept of neutrality and stretching too far the deontological approach have undermined the importance of substantive justice for the least advantaged. Even the concept of rights and obligation is highly problematic for effective execution of affirmative action programmes. The affirmative discrimination is viewed more as a charity than a right. Even Waldron’s analogy of “symbolic recognition” and “public remembrance” refers to the idea that addressing historic injustice falls outside of the register of liberal distributive justice proper.6 Liberal conception of justice tries in a disingenuous manner to bring an artificial balance between the conflicting claims and interests without structural transformation. Since the relations between powerful and powerless are often administered by coercion, a genuine commitment to the principles of justice necessitates a structural transformation to diminish powerlessness and vulnerability. Powerlessness and vulnerability are the reciprocals of other’s power: a commitment to enlarge capacities of the most vulnerable logically warrants reduction or containment of the “extractive” capacities of the most powerful agents. A commitment to minimise both economic and political inequalities thus trails from a serious action guiding commitment to justice among unequal. It is an irrefutable fact that the powerful and the rich set the basics of economic life for the poor and powerless by limiting activities and possibilities in various ways. The rationale of both forwardlooking and backward-looking justice is much more difficult to justify than is usually suggested, specifically when the aim is to address political, economic and cultural disadvantages.


    However, the idea of affirmative action per se has not been totally discarded, and different scholars have championed it from different perspectives. Given the difficulties associated with the scheme, there is the need for reasoned and appropriate rationalisation so that the message it conveys does not create or can at least minimise misconceptions, social hostility, and tensions among different groups or communities. In order to accommodate the diversity within community existence, and to instil sense of equality and social belongingness or thick ‘weness’, there is a need of an alternative ethical-political ontology: in which a particular ethical disposition to the world – receptiveness or openness to difference – orients political theorising about the public reason suitable for communitarian and crosscultural interactions. Dominant approaches to positive discrimination have not sufficiently taken into account historical perspective, narrative unity, and community values. The approach developed here puts stress on above values borrowed mainly from philosophical works of MacIntyre (1981) and Taylor (1989). It necessitates reflecting first on certain distinct and discernible but interrelated themes for the development of this perspective.

    First, what we really profoundly value is coherent view of history in which the past, present, and future cohere or fit together into a life and an episode of articulated history – a seamless web. We are not concerned with either past or present or future in isolation; and in our appraisal, present moment is not quarantined from the past and the future because a bit of present lies in the past, and will be passed into future. Thus holistic sense of life and history give meaning and worth to some of our enduring values, which are cross-time wholes, with past, present, and future components blended in specific ways. Secondly, deliberation on stretches of lives and histories necessitate evaluative concepts that are drawn from narrative literature. Narrative perspective of life and history is often more useful for drawing evaluative concepts we use in our lived experience. MacIntyre offers a strong version of narrative history. “Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterisation of human action”; and “man is …essentially a story-telling animal” [MacIntyre 1981: 194, 201]. The value of a specific moment often relies on what preceded and what we expect to follow. In community existence, our lives are so entwined with each other’s life that we share a common history. “We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationship with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and other perhaps inevitable” [MacIntyre 1981: 200]. One is a self only amongst other selves [Taylor 1989: 34].

    Third, evaluation requires contextualisation of acts. The judgment of specific act has to be positioned in particular historical context including cultural, national and ethnic traditions, and the actual actors involved in it. Narrative history of certain kind is the basic genre for the characterisation of human action. Since action has a basically historical character, our lives are enacted narratives in which we are both characters and authors; and a person is a character abstracted from a history. Evaluation of specific act has undeniably social (or relational) disposition/ dimension, and it is densely entwined with social practice. In other words, it is context-dependent.7 Ontologically social structures are praxis-reliant, and substantially geo-historical and spacetime specific. Contextualisation of particular act provides us added advantage to judge its appropriateness, and helps articulate universally valid premises supporting the judgment. Moreover, distributive (or social) justice is primarily product of historical and cultural particularism or specificity [Walzer 1983: 6]. Fourth, in the holistic perspective, lives, interpersonal relations over time and histories constitute, what G E Moore calls, “organic unities”, i e, the value of the whole is not necessarily the mere sum of the values of parts. Evaluation of certain unities cannot be done by appraising different parts in isolation from one another and then summing up all the values. The partial view of history seems to inform more about parts and less about the whole, but ultimately we risk grasping very little even about the parts because their context and conditions of existence in the whole are obscured. In a holistic framework, we can attempt to make reasonable choices concerning the conflicting demands of different practices.

    These ideas together provide a more reasonable alternative to both the forward-looking method of evaluation and the standard backward-looking alternative. This perspective, contrary to both the consequentialist and Rossian approaches, regards history as an integral part of the valued unities rather than as a mere source of duties (Rossian) or as only an instrumental for calculating future outcome (consequentialist). This approach evaluates (partially in narrative terms) lives, relationship, actions, “reciprocal desires” [Nagel 1969] considering the past, present and future as intrinsic parts of temporal and spatial whole (organic unities) of a commonly shared history.

    Indian Context

    Coming back to Indian context the values that give affirmative discrimination its meaning, purpose and rationale are to be viewed as cross-time values, which is not confined to but goes

    Economic and Political Weekly July 28, 2007

    beyond the purview of forward-and backward-looking approaches. The remedy for injustice arising out of caste and racial relations are to be looked at through the ideals of mutual respect, trust, toleration, fraternity, and fair opportunity for all. Part of developing a conception of good life for human beings lies in working out a conception of how one might evaluate and criticise one’s attempts to enact and extend that conception; and just as the former is open to revision and redefinition, so the standards by which such revisions are justified and rendered intelligible are themselves open to reshaping. We can no longer rationalise the worst form of injustice based on caste system as a part of “tradition” by taking recourse to historicist argument. What matters most for our present concerns for eliminating the worst form of caste-based injustice is that the particular tradition as a whole should be subjected to reasonable assessment.8 Present Indian scenario, i e, specifically after independence, provides a relevant context of ever-increasing recognition and progressive understanding of democratic values and the ideal of equal dignity of all human beings, which had been flagrantly abused in the past. It is incontrovertibly accepted that the untouchables were systematically treated in an inhuman and demeaning way by the people, public institutions, and society in general.9 Even now, few could confidently claim that the prejudices against the untouchables have been completely wiped out.

    It is true that the present victims’ claim to justice lies upon the recognition of the historical injustices carried out against them by various social forces. Discrediting the relevance of historic injustice for consideration of their claims risks misidentifying the nature of moral wrongs at stake, and thus conceivably the legitimacy and effectiveness of those institutions and distributions meant to address them. If the institutions within which the benefits and burdens of society are to be distributed are themselves said to be unjust then it remains obscure how the imposition or perception of that injustice has been superseded in the way argued by Waldron. If the past remains unaddressed, the moral rupture that occurred in the past persists in the present. The consideration of past injustices not merely decides about possible compensation, but also apprises the normative structure of relation in the present. If we are really interested in making our present more meaningful and egalitarian we have to reflect upon the past wrongs and try to rectify it for creating more propitious conditions for equal and effective development of all. The present context has provided us the best opportunity to reconstruct the relative worth or cogency of our tradition, and to overcome the epistemological crisis by developing new sets of concepts or new synthesis. Moreover, no tradition as such can be immune from the possibility of crises that require it for their valid and rational resolution.

    In this suggested relational model, collective responsibility inheres in our being as a member of a community and having certain obligation towards it by virtue of that relationship. I have an obligation to try and to address the past given its effect in the present pertaining to matters of basic justice in the community. The aim is to generate norms of cooperation that are acceptable to all, and to instil social ideal of mutual respect and trust among citizens. When the history of our caste and racial relations is definitely not a pleasant story of mutual trust and respect, our prime concern is to how we can appropriately express the social value of mutual respect and trust that we want, and how to characterise our history. It is true that we share the same territory and a history of interaction upon it – however unequal and unjust it has been. The perpetrators of injustice and the victims share a common history though not a shared view about the normative consequences of that history. Even we cannot afford to forget the institutional and affective dimensions of the proximity between different sections of people. It is part of our obligation as citizens and as members of same society to accept the responsibility for the way the norms, practices, and institutions we inherit have been marked and shaped by a specific history. The argument that we have not preferred them, or would not have chosen them in a given hypothetical choosing situation does not acquit us from such responsibility. In any way, motivated forgetfulness or dehistoricisation is definitely not the possible remedy to the problem.

    The concern with the worth or meaningfulness of our lives is best thought of as a concern with how we are situated or placed in relation to others and goods. The concepts of orientations towards the good, and concepts of the narrative unity or “quest” structure of a life are mutually implicating and internally related [Taylor 1989: 51-52]. It is true that we cannot change our past, and cannot also convey the message of full respect for those present individuals living in its aftermath if we disregard it. What is really needed is not only reparation of tangible debts incurred by past injuries and injustice, but also a rationale and message to counter the deep insult inbuilt in casteism, racism, and sexism. These problems do not have easy solution deduced from selfevident moral generalisations. Not all the members of the higher castes, probably, were indulged in the debasing injustice inflicted to the untouchables, but their scorn for the untouchables was such that most would have considered these crimes insignificant. Nevertheless, the most awful offenders have died and so have the victims of the most contemptible crimes. Majority attitudes have somewhat changed, thanks to the modern Indian state, though often from open hatred to passive disregard. Despite the success and overall development of certain members of the untouchable, the majority of them are still apprehensive and submissive, and the younger generation is openly resentful and suspicious of official proclamation of democratic ideals.

    An ahistorical and timelessly applicable mode of practical reasoning to which all individuals can or must commit themselves is no more intelligible and acknowledgeable than the idea that there is a timeless essence of the selves. Our participation in such a shared project, acceptance of communitarian and historically determined standards can initiate us into forms of life in which human judgments of worth are immune to the threat of past fallacies. If we are to make sense of our past and present action, we have to relate them to the setting of our actions. We can face present challenges by embracing narrative unity of life. Neither the mere suggestion that “forget about the past, and time would heal the injuries” is appropriate to resolve the problem; nor even a more legalistic approach to pay off the debts is feasible due to the serious complexity involved in finding the guilty. These strategies are inadequate to address the many subtle losses of opportunity caused by past institutional injustice. Given the sensitivity and complexities of the problem, the governing ideal should be based on the values of mutual respect, trust, and equality, and the message should be to acknowledge and condemn the regrettable past, to affirm an obligation and committedness to promote mutual respect and trust in future, to invite and greet wholehearted participation and reciprocation with the victims, and to insist them to initiate the risk of surmounting their understandable apprehensions by contributing to a common endeavour of fulfilling the ideal. This would plausibly address the damage of the victims and also the insult embedded in our history. Moreover, “to help disadvantaged groups has to do not with their suffering but with the moral interest of all including the privileged one”.10 The source of the duty to help the underprivileged is more specific in nature and historical in its origin.

    The predicament of the disadvantaged is primarily an upshot of the past actions and practices of the privileged group. In these cases, the dominant and the privileged groups systematically exploited the dominated groups and caused them much moral, material, and psychological harm. “They therefore bear a special responsibility for the plight of their victims, and have a duty not only to end the harm but also to heal their wounds and help them become whole human beings” [Parekh 1998: 384].

    Battling with an imperfect past not entirely of our own making, and not of our choice, in view of ideals we hold ourselves by is a form of ethical reflection that can be occasioned by feelings of, according to Bernard Williams, shame or regret. It is a kind of moral emotion that activates a specific form of self-reflection connected to certain shared ethical attitude or ideals and forms of life.11 Since our lives are entangled in a common shared history, we have to care about how our lives cohere with other’s life stories. If not a shared view about the normative consequences of that history, it is our obligation to accept the responsibility for the way the norms, standards, practices, institutions we succeed to have been constructed by a specific history which we all share. It is a form of moral responsibility tied with who I am as much as it is with what I have done. What I am is partly constituted by the historically and culturally formed “frameworks of articulation” that I find myself amongst and draw upon for articulating what I think of as good or valuable [Taylor 1989: 26-30]. Certain “embodied arguments” [MacIntyre 1981: 207] about values and practices are shared, including registers of justice and injustice. The very possibility of sustaining rationality in the arena of moral and political evaluation relies on situating individual and their arguments with other individuals within an overarching and nested set of inherently social matrices. In other words, one is a self only amongst other selves [Taylor 1989: 34].

    We as a political community are responsible for the past and its effect on the moral character and shape of our society both good and bad. Historical injustice does not simply warrant regretting but it needs a response. History has to be constitutive of political community in such a way that citizens owe obligation to each other with whom they share special relations. The basic thrust is to value certain states of affair qua our membership in a community. Obligations we have through our membership of a political community and “embodied arguments” inhere within itself not only our affective relations with others but also the practices of arguments and contestations which reflect upon and criticise these relations. Thus, in a relational model, a public version of moral responsibility or collective responsibility is intrinsic to our membership of a political community, and we owe certain special obligation towards it in virtue of that membership. I have an obligation to address the past not merely because I am a beneficiary/victim of injustices done in the distant past, but also because the past has its effects in the present in relation to matters of justice in my community. Ideas of who we are (both individually and collectively), and who we want to be, are linked to our ethical attitudes about what we owe to each other. We require an idea of public reason that has the ability of recognising the facts of historical injustice. The needs and claims of victims of injustice are related essentially to consideration of the specific social, cultural, and historical contexts of their relation with the rest of the society. In other words, commitment to equality will necessarily entail acknowledgement of facts of historic injustice.

    Appreciating/valuing particular relations with others provide an important source of reasons for fulfilling certain special responsibilities in relation to them [Scheffler 1998: 191-92, 202].

    Specifically in the present context, the aim must be to generate norms of cooperation based on equality, liberty, and rights in the public sphere acceptable to all the parties with an historical awareness of how public values have been invoked in the past to discriminate against the victims. The substance of “reasonable” should be considered as a function of the organisation of public reason itself. We are to create social, cultural and political conditions based on social trust and individual dignity, which is crucial for mutual coexistence in deeply diverse social structure, under which all members of our political community could even begin to feel “at home” amongst its practices and institutions.

    The most pressing problem is how to convey such rationale and message meaningfully and with marked honesty in an atmosphere already vitiated by the past. Mere words unless translated into effective action or accompanied by concrete action-plan (strategy of transition) are just like the pious wishes, and are inefficacious on changing the situation. The immediate resolution lies in more constructive actions and substantial measures to attest commitments, to combat relapsing, and to triumph over reluctance on both sides. Thus, positive discrimination in favour of the marginalised sections of India acquires relevance and significance. When persons have been disadvantaged by social injustice, having had their initial chances diminished by the network of public institutions themselves, formal equality of opportunity does not serve the purpose of removing past injustice. Positive steps or affirmative actions are needed in favour of the disadvantaged to equalise their opportunities over time. The possible answers to questions regarding distributive justice entail an “interpretative grid”, which depends on the understanding and explanation of the principle of affirmative action itself.12

    Parekh argues that the myriad forms of suffering are only accessible to a sympathetic imagination. It is our “inescapable moral commitment to help disadvantaged groups”, and morality remains “an impotent rhetoric unless translated into a collective political commitment”.13 Since personal/individual actions are too disjointed and episodic to handle the problem of such an enormous magnitude whole state, “the sole available instrument of collective action” and “most effective vehicle for realising our moral aspirations”, can reach areas inaccessible to individuals and accomplish activities impossible on the part of individual effort. The target of such programmes is not any “assignable” individual but any members of an “assignable” group (the class of X-persons) who are qualified for the special benefits offered to the group as a whole. The perpetrator of the original injustice was the whole society (other than the class of X-persons) and the class of X-persons as a group was the collective target of an institutionalised/organised social practice of unjust treatment. To deny the existence of the group is to deny a social reality. Any attempt to rebuff the application of affirmative action policies to organised social practices and whole class of persons with respect to whom the goals and methods of the practices are identified and pursued, according to Taylor, “completely disregards what, morally speaking, is the hideous aspect of the injustices of human history: those carried out systematically and directed toward whole groups of men and women as groups” [Taylor 1973: 182].

    The narrative perspective, contrary to the forward- and backward-looking approaches, considers the past as an integral part of the valued unities that we aim to bring about, not merely as a source of duties, and is based on mutual respect and fair opportunity. The message of narrative perspective is not just a means to future good relations or dutiful payment of a debt incurred by our past. It is called for by the ideal of being related

    Economic and Political Weekly July 28, 2007

    to other human beings over time, so that our histories and biographies reflect the responses of those who deeply care about fair opportunity, mutual trust, and respect for all. It is an opportunity and a responsibility offered not as a charity, but rather as part of effort to welcome and encourage victims to participate more fully in the life-world. In this united sense of historical perspective the project one has undertaken, the commitments one has made, the hope one has knitted, what one has shared with the loved ones, and the injuries one has afflicted significantly determine one’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the present as well as the plan for the future. In this perspective of shared history, the individualistic assumptions do not have much space; hence, the past is comprehended more than mere calculation of accumulated debts and assets, and future is visualised more than an opportunity for reinvesting and cashing in assets. A moral outlook that focuses on cross-temporal narrative values (such as mutually respectful egalitarian social relations) suggests a more appropriate account of what affirmative action should try to express.14

    Nevertheless, the rationale or perspective for the conception of affirmative action has to have additional note of caution. When affirmative discrimination proceeds without commensurate structural transformation, it fails to bring about substantial justice to the victims. Identification of the beneficiaries, i e, the target groups, the basis or rationale of selecting the target groups, and the scope of positive discrimination, i e, what is to be done and how much, are the major problems of affirmative action policies. Hence, affirmative action policy in order to make it work requires practical reasoning and imagination, reflection on “circumstances of politics” and historical pressure, deliberation on limited generosity and civic virtues in the context of “bounded rationality” [Simon 1983: 17-23].




    1 Much later it was realised within the mainstream liberal philosophy thatthe “language of inequality and injustice is too feeble to capture their feeling of superfluity and marginality, and no amount of legal and political equality is able to overcome or even significantly reduce that feeling” [Parekh 1998: 381].

    2 This has been elaborately dealt by Dworkin (1977: 223-39). 3 Rawls 1972; Dworkin 1977; Sher 1979. 4 A sizeable part of the philosophical literature concentrates on the problem

    with entitlement theories in general. Only to name a few for elaborate discussion, see Sher 1981; O’Neill 1989; Waldron 1992.

    5 However, Waldron is mistaken to propose only two extremes, i e, “full” and “symbolic” payments, without looking for the valid options in between. Furthermore, while he thinks that the historical injustice is“superseded” what is the need of an apology.

    6 “It is the impulse to do justice now that should lead the way”, argues Waldron, “not the reparation of something whose wrongness is understood primarily in relation to conditions that no longer obtain” [Waldron 1992: 27].

    7 MacIntyre argues that for “intelligibility of the action consists precisely in it falling under a description which assigns (almost always implicitly)some purpose to the action. And descriptions are always public property, just as and because language is public property” (1969: 58). Similarly Taylor asserts that since meaning exist in a field and “common language is rooted in its institutions and practices”, there is the necessity of contextual interpretation (1985: 22, 37).

    8 In this context of reasonable assessment of tradition, MacIntyre hassuggested: “It is in respect of their adequacy or inadequacy in their responses to epistemological crises that traditions are vindicated or fail to be vindicated” [MacIntyre 1988: 366]. A tradition can only overcome the “epistemological crisis” by developing a new set of concepts or a new synthesis.

    9 The problems of the SCs and STs are significantly different. However,here the case of both SCs and STs has been discussed by general relevant moral reasoning.

    10 “In short, humanity is indivisible. Either we all grow together or none will. It is not possible for one group to develop its moral, intellectual, emotional and other distinctively human capacities at the expense of another…Deeply inequalitarian and exploitative societies exact a heavy psychological andmoral toll from all involved. These permit no winners; all alike are losers, albeit in different ways and degrees” [Parekh 1998: 383-84].

    11 Shame is more closely connected to a sense of one’s own destiny – “of who we are and what realistically we want ourselves to be”. For Williams, “the internalisation of shame does not simply internalise an other who is representative of the neighbours. The internalised ‘other’ is conceivedof as one whose reactions I would respect, and one would respect the same reactions if directed at him” [Williams 1993: 83, and 92-93]. Thus, in this case regret is preferred to shame.

    12 One should also take into account the fundamental distinction between the right to equal treatment and right to treatment as an equal, i e, which principle is to be considered as fundamental and which is derivative,and which is to be given priority in case of restoring the balance of justice [Dworkin 1977]. Moreover, the consideration of the distinction between equality as a policy and equality as a right, which has hitherto been virtually ignored by political theory (ibid), is equally relevant for social justice.

    13 Morality and politics are so intertwined that morality lacks “power andefficacy unless it finds adequate political articulation”, and politics lacks “depth and significance unless it becomes a medium for realising socially relevant moral values” [Parekh 1998: 383].

    14 The argument developed here is of course very brief and skeletal.


    Beteille, A (1991): ‘Distributive Justice and Institutional Well-Being’,Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XXVI, Nos 11 and 12.

    Boxill, B (1984): Black and Social Justice, Rowman and Allanheld, Totowa.

    Chaudhury, P (2004): ‘The Creamy Layer: Political Economy of Reservations’,

    Economic and Political Weekly, May 15.Constituent Assembly Debates (CAD): Official Report, Vols I, II, VII,

    Manger of Publication, 1946-50, Delhi.

    Dworkin, R (1977): Taking Rights Seriously, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

    Gupta, D (1997): ‘Positive Discrimination and the Question of Fraternity: Contrasting Ambedkar and Mandal on Reservations’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 32, No 31.

    Ivison, D (2002): Postcolonial Liberalism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

    MacIntyre, A (1969): ‘A Mistake about Causality in Social Science’ in P Laslett and Runciman (eds), Philosophy, Politics and Society (2nd Series), Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

  • (1981): After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame.
  • (1988): Whose Justice? Which Rationality, University of Notre Dame
  • Press, Notre Dame. Nagel, T (1969): ‘Sexual Perversions’, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 66.
  • (1973): ‘Equal Treatment and Compensatory Discrimination’, Philosophyand Public Affairs, 2. O’Neill, O (1989): ‘Historical Rights and Fair Shares’, Social Philosophyand Policy, 5. Parekh, B (1998): ‘Cultural Diversity and Liberal Democracy’ in G Mahajan (ed),
  • Democracy, Difference and Social Justice, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

    Rawls, J (1972): A Theory of Justice, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

    Scheffler, S (1998): ‘Relationship and Responsibilities’, Philosophy and

    Public Affair, 26. Sher, G (1975): ‘Justifying Reverse Discrimination in Employment’,Philosophy and Public Affairs, 4.

    –(1979): ‘Reverse Discrimination, the Future and the Past’,Ethics,Vol 90, No 1.

    – (1981): ‘Ancient Wrongs, Modern Rights’, Philosophy and Public Affairs,19. Sheth, D L (1987): ‘Reservations Policy Revisited’, Economic and Political

    Weekly, November 14.

    Simon, H (1983): Reason in Human Affairs, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

    Taylor, C (1985): Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical

    Papers 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

    – (1989): Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. Taylor, P W (1973): ‘Reverse Discrimination and Compensatory Justice’,

    Analysis 33, June.

    Waldron, J (1992): ‘Superseding Historical Injustice’, Ethics, 103.

    Walzer, M (1983): Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality,

    Basic Books, New York. Williams, B (1993): Shame and Necessity, University of California Press, Berkeley.

    Dear Reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here

    Back to Top