Secularism and Social (In)Justice

This article is in response to the views expressed by Mr. Amartya Sen during the launch of his book- “A Quantum Leap in the Wrong Direction”, as per the news report titled, Hindutwa and exclusion connected: Amartya Sen, published in The Hindu, on 27th February, 2019.

The Supreme Court in the past has commented in one of its judgments that Hindu Dharma (also known as Sanatana Dharma) is a way of life and the word ‘Hindu’ would have originated from the word Sindhu otherwise known as Indus. In view of its diversity that accommodates several views and approaches that may appear to be contradictory yet coexist, the court said that Hindu Dharma is more of a way of life and that it does not fit into the narrow views of any dogmas.

Hindu Dharma or Sanatana Dharma, does not believe nor profess any ‘caste system’. Nevertheless, it has a varna system that is purely based on classifying or grouping the people based on their vocations or professions. This is more in line with the concept of division of labour and specialization that modern management science advocates.

brahmanosya  mukhamasit |
bahu raajyanyah krutah ||
uroo tadasya yadvaishyah |
padbhyam shudro ajaayata ||13||

(Purusha sukta)

The symbolic meaning of this verse is that Brahmins came from the face, the kshatriyas came from the arms, the vyshyas came from the thighs and the shudras came from the feet of God.

If one dwells deep into the essence of this shloka, one finds that like the various parts of the human body that perform their respective functions, the four varnas mentioned above (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vyshyas, Shudras) are intended to perform their role in the society.  Just like all organs of the body are equally important and interdependent, though they perform different roles as a part of the whole body, people defined by the varnas perform their respective roles or functions, yet they are all part of society, interdependent and none of them is superior or inferior to one another.

Over a period of time, the colonial rule found the varna system as an opportunity to divide and rule the people and this has culminated into a caste-based discrimination of the people, which is totally against the philosophy of Hindu Dharma.

While Amartya Sen refers to Hindutva in his interview, which is quite different from Hindu Dharma, it is important to understand what gave rise to Hindutva – an advocacy of Hindu nationalism or a political philosophy. The word ‘secularism’ is totally distorted by certain political parties for the appeasement of the minorities and to suit their vote bank politics. This in turn has compelled the nationalists to push the concept of Hindutva or a Hindu Rashtra – a constitutional democracy, yet grounded in Hindu ethos.

It is an irony that while our constitution professes religious neutrality, the political parties manage to use religion as a vote bank instrument.

By referring to the ‘tolerance of inequality’, Mr. Sen claims that acceptance of social inequality in our country is driving acceptance of the gap between rich and poor in economic terms as well. 

However, the origin of these social and economic gaps cannot be attributed to Hindu Dharma or Sanatana Dharma. Also, the concept of untouchability based on ‘caste’ is totally against Hindu Dharma. The encounter of Adi Shankara with Chandala and the eye opening lessons from that episode for Adi Shankara are a testimony to this.

The two main reasons behind this spread of untouchability are (i) the divide and rule principle followed by the British colonial rule and (ii) certain sections in the society in Bharat belonging to the feudal privileged lot or elite who had been influenced by the colonial way of thinking and got trapped into the caste system propounded by the British rulers.

This encouraged the practice of untouchability, now largely a thing of the past, and domination of few over the poorer sections of society.

One main reason why the reservation system introduced in 1950s even after seven decades has not resulted in bridging the gap between people, is the caste system that has infected the country during colonial rule. It is a more dangerous disease than economic inequality.

While economic inequality can be bridged by equitable distribution of the economic wealth of the country by providing equal opportunities to all the people to be part of the nation’s growth, the caste system cannot be eliminated so easily since it is a deeply rooted and deadly disease that has infected the minds of the people. This can be addressed only by actively involving all the important stakeholders in the society to bring a social transformation.

Parents, teachers, religious institutions and religious heads have to play a key role in this social transformation by nurturing proper value systems to the children at an early stage in life in order to make them understand and appreciate the importance of equality and social justice.

To make this a reality the government should confine itself to address the issue of economic inequality through appropriate policy measures, don the role of a facilitator and leave the floor open to the important stakeholders of society (as mentioned above) to achieve the goals of equality and social justice.

To conclude, while Mr. Sen may have ideological differences with the current government and what he says is partly true, he fails to analyze in depth the root cause of the problems mentioned by him, viz., economic and social inequality, nor does he offer any concrete solutions for the same in his speech at the book launch. 

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About the Author

B.N.V. Parthasarathi
Ex Senior Banker, Management and Financial Consultant, Visiting faculty at premier B Schools and Universities. E mail- [email protected]