State of Social Justice in India: Issues of Social Justice
Krishna Swamy Dara ·       

The book series titled "State of Social Justice in India" edited by Ranabir Samaddar is an ambitious enterprise. The series is a result of the collective research undertaken by the Calcutta Research Group (CRG). According to Samaddar, the volumes are a result of collective research, ‘which is dialogic, empiricist, yet imaginative’. He also calls it ‘a guerrilla work in philosophy’ since ‘it subverts many philosophical assumptions without it putting on a philosophical garb.’  The group’s main contention is that conventional democracy ‘had little room for considerations of justice, while it had more room for liberty, fraternity and equality.’ However, "post colonial experiences of democracy show that the widening and deepening of democracy take place through the dynamism that can be sourced to yearnings for social justice."  Democratic theory, they argue, has ‘no clue to the way this can be theorized adequately’. In order to theorize this predicament, an ‘archaeological mode of inquiry’ was taken up by the CRG. This involved observing ‘layers in the practices and discourses on social justice, and how time, place, history, perceptions, arrangements or apparatuses’ play their specific role in the regime of social justice. This mode of enquiry helps in bringing out the ‘form, fissures, levels, overlapping and conflicts within the discourses and actions in the process of seeking social justice. Summing up, as Samaddar says, ‘it is a report card on the practice of social justice’ in India.

Based on the above framework, the series includes four sub-edited volumes, each dealing with specific aspects of social justice. They are titled as follows:  Social Justice and Enlightenment (Vol. I), Justice and Law (II), Marginalities and Justice (Vol.III) and Key Texts in Social Justice (Vol.IV). The articles in the first and second volumes are the most important as they largely concentrate on criticizing law as coalescing with the perpetuation of social injustice.
The first volume concentrates on West Bengal, a state where the impact of the enlightenment project was felt the most. From Raja Ram Mohan Roy onwards, Bengal had been affected by modern western ideas concurrently with the introduction of the western legal system in India.  The introduction of this legal system has been largely detrimental to the traditional rights of the disadvantaged peasants of Bengal and later, to the rest of British India. It, the editors claim, ‘draws our attention’ to the various sites of marginalities and articulations in the state of West Bengal. More importantly, they argue that the popular notions of justice that common rural people have are not what is normally assumed as challenging the theoretical underpinnings of the notions of justice and democracy furthered by governments and its Oxbridge-returned elite intellectuals. On the contrary, a la Foucault, they are "marks of peoples’ everyday struggles against the forces and capillaries of governmental operations."

Most of their (CRG) work appears to be influenced by post-modern argumentation, particularly, their attack on the juridico-governmental setup. The volume begins with this insight with the article by Ratan Khasnabis titled Land Acquisition Act and Social Justice: A Study of Development and Displacement and sets the tone for the rest of the articles by pointing at the modern legal setup as ‘failing’ and, in fact, the main culprit in furthering injustices in India. The author traces the practice of land acquisition by the government for industrial purposes since the days of industrial revolution, to the present day Bengal. He argues that the liberal state simply cannot compensate for all that it takes away when land is acquired for industrial purposes. Justice defined as compensation becomes the ‘obvious casualty’ in the fight between ‘market principle of private property’ and the ‘liberal principle of equity’.

In the second volume, in the article titled Trivializing Justice: Reservation under Rule of Law by Ashok Aggarwal, the author studies all landmark judgments by the Supreme Court on reservation policy since independence. He criticizes the court’s quest for ‘balance’ in its judgments and identifies this as the cause for the creation and perpetuation of imbalance and inequality in the pursuit of the goal of social justice through the policy of reservations. He writes, "the scrutiny has revealed the warts beneath the makeup. Does that mean the court is bad or malicious? Is it deliberately intent on harming the cause of Dalits and other backward classes. Does it mean the rule of law is fraud?" Aggarwal replies to these queries with a qualified ‘yes’.  According to him, justice, law and power are interlinked. The quest for justice is also a quest for power in the positive sense of having the power to fight injustice. He further asserts that law ought to assist those who seek such power, but, in fact, works the other way around by assisting those who are already powerful.

Therefore, what the author (this also applies to the other authors of the series) misses out is the sociological aspect of the juridical setup. The Indian judiciary is largely composed of ‘upper castes’ and this is reflected in its judgments. Their hidden bias against the reservation policy, which stems from a deep contempt for the lower classes, surfaces as a self-deceptive, paternalistic attitude in their stance on the reservation policy. The court or state is not an abstract entity, but composed of various classes and groups. This way of perceiving the state and its parts is largely the problem with Marxist and post-modern theorizing in India. While they pay lip service to the idea of a concrete state, the same is not reflected in their writing. This betrays the main motto of the CRG in avoiding the high route to justice. Common people look at the state and its processes in concrete terms. They identify a determinate person or group of persons holding power, as responsible for delivering justice and seek to replace such a person with a more favorable determinate person. This is the common man’s way of sabotaging the system. Seeking justice for the common people is not providing radical theoretical arguments. This is what Badri Narayan Tiwari in his article titled Ethnography of Social Justice in Dalits Pattis (Hamlets) of Rural UP writes, "the meaning of justice cannot be the same for marginalized communities as for dominate layers of society."

Most of the 28 articles, particularly the last two volumes, can be read for their rich empirical content. In the entire book series, Samir Kumar Das’ article The Founding Moment: Social Justice in the Constitutional Mirror stands out. However, it also needs to be said that a four-volume work is not sufficient to produce a ‘report card’ on the practice of social justice in India. Social justice has both objective and subjective aspects to it and most of the articles in the series appear to concentrate on the objective aspects of social justice in India. However important it might be, the subjective costs of securing social justice cannot be ignored. For example, objectively, the reservation policy might be providing a level playing field for certain middle class Dalits to compete with the rest of the upper castes, but they need to pay a heavy subjective cost – the concomitant social stigma, for getting such justice. A report card on social justice cannot afford to ignore these aspects. Despite this lacuna, this book series makes for a promising read.