Sony Pellissery is an associate professor at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, where he concentrates on introducing ideas of social justice into public policy debates. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with Sony at the conference ‘Bridging Silos: Trafficking, Slavery and SDG 8.7’ held in in August 2017 in Bangalore, India, to talk about his work and the fight for social justice in India.
Neil Howard (oD): Could we start with a question that is simple to ask, but difficult to answer. What is social justice?
Sony: My understanding of social justice has varied over the course of my personal journey. At early stages I had a socialist understanding of social justice – a classic understanding of the term, where you go to the streets, gather everybody, and get your rights. But the more I have worked with communities which face exploitation, the more my idea of social justice is being defined by the leaders of these communities.
For example, some of my current research projects are with bonded labour communities. Their understanding of social justice does not share many of the well-laid principles of classical social justice. They have a more communitarian understanding of what should be justice for them. For bonded labour communities, for dalit (lower caste) communities, it's more about correcting historical social injustice. That is social justice for them. I've begun to think through the lens in which they want to see things, rather than imposing my ideas of social justice as an academic upon them.
Neil (oD): It sounds like your understanding of social justice has become much more participatory. Am I hearing you correctly that for some of the bonded labour communities that you work with, it's about recognition as much as about rights and redistribution? Is that correct?
Sony: That's right. Even within bonded labour or dalit communities, they have experienced their own changes. For instance, immediately after the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act came into effect in the mid-1970s they focused on releasing the people who were in bondage. But more and more they have realised that release is only one part. Today business is thriving in Bangalore and other places, there is great opportunity, and if they don't participate in it they will have no future. It will be like be bonded all over again. So instead of fighting against that, they are thinking of ways to participate in the economy.
That's a change. Is it redistribution they are seeking, or recognition? They themselves are moving with the currents. Similar issues are found within Adivasi communities. There were times when Adivasis were told to preserve their culture, their identity. But today, Adivasi communities are asking to learn the English language, and to compete with everybody else. So, each of these deprived communities are finding that earlier paradigms were problematic. That the earlier paradigm of development constrained them in particular ways, and that they need new paradigms. That's the kind of change that's happening in all the marginalised segments of society.
Neil (oD): Two questions then, to provide an overview for people who are not expert in these topics. One, could you outline a way for us to understand the causal factors of extreme exploitation in the sub-continent, and, following that, what are your ideas for what we could do about it?
Sony: Indian society is a very hierarchical society, and the exploitation is hierarchical. It is not the one who is on the very top of the hierarchy who goes down and exploits the lowest. That is not the way it operates. The exploitation is layered. The one who is on top of the hierarchy will exploit the one who is next below. That exploitation takes place in different ways: oppressing him, paying him less wages, demanding extra things. And then similar kinds of exploitation take place at each level.
It's difficult to define a standard of exploitation. The type of exploitation a person experiences is based on where they are in the caste hierarchy. To see the most extreme form, the cruelest form of exploitation we have to go to the very bottom. There you see that the form of exploitation is on the bodies themselves. Dalits must do things like get into an open well and clean it, and sometimes they will die in the process. In formal factory settings they might be asked to do the hardest of the jobs. But in this system that's what they are seen as destined for – to clean a land owner's well they may have to die, and they are not entitled for any other rights.
Neil (oD): So identity interacts with market forces to make the type of exploitation experienced relative.
Sony: Yes. The other identity that is experiencing extreme exploitation is gender of course. Violence against women is very common in India, particularly female children. The homes in which they work are supposed to be safe places, yet they are often exploited and sexually harassed. These are cruel forms of violence.
The third form that you can see in India is the distinction between urban and rural areas. Some 60-70% of India's population still works in agriculture, yet the sector accounts for only around 15%-20% of the GDP. So these three markers – being dalit, being a woman, or coming from a rural area – are generally the axes along which exploitation in India operate.
Neil (oD): On the basis of such a matrix, which has structures intersecting to create exploitative relationships, what are some of the things you think progressive elements in society can do to fight against exploitation?
Sony: What counts as progressive in India today is very divisive. For example, the old kind of thinking – that is, a left-leaning ideology for organising exploited groups – still operates. There is still a lot of buy-in for that. However, large sections of Indian society today – especially the upcoming, young population of India under 40 years old – are less convinced by this rationalistic frame. They would imagine progressive means looking for a freer society, and that leftist organisation is a waste of time. These are the two different types of logics currently operating in India. Both claim they are progressive. But they cannot come together on a single platform.
The strength of the second group is that they have a very strong, communitarian logic, and the question of identity is at the centre of the discussion. They say that without your identity you cannot really talk about ending exploitation or achieving social justice. The first group, in contrast, believes there is a certain rationalistic thinking to which you are attached, that your ideas therefore operate at that level, and thus they underplay the identity question.
Unfortunately the political currency is now with the communitarian group. That group is winning because the Indian middle class, which is a large stakeholder within the whole game, has built up an understanding of India as a mega force in the region and the whole world. That conception has the backing of Indian civilisation, scripture, etc., which imagines India as a superpower of sorts. To push that discourse harder, you have to push your Indian identity very strongly. Communitarians have been very successful at that.
The symbolism of Hindu philosophy primarily operates through a denial of equality.
To end exploitation, they will immediately think about imagery from mythology, or religious scripture. They will say it's been done in the past, and therefore this is how it's going to end – new instruments of rationalised discourses coming from elsewhere are unnecessary. That use of symbolism is hugely problematic for ending exploitation.
The symbolism of Hindu philosophy primarily operates through a denial of equality. You cannot have equality if you subscribe to Hindu philosophy. If you believe yourself to be a Hindu, you have to believe in the caste system – it’s at the heart of Hindu philosophy, according to some writers. And that is where the problem lies, as the moment we subscribe to Hindu symbolism is the moment when we also subscribe to the problems of a hierarchical society.
Having said that, individuals like Ghandi thought that there was a way to reform Hinduism within Hinduism by bringing in rational discourses. He thought that the denial of equality was not at the core of Hinduism, it is only one of the operations of Hinduism. So there are multiple strands of thought on this, and some of them open up space for challenges.
My personal conviction – I'm not sure if it's cynicism or not – is that India has passed that stage to be a transformative society. For India to have done that, it would have had to be at the time of Indian constitution making: the 1950s. The Indian constitution could have been a challenge to traditional Indian philosophy. But that never happened. The Indian constitution is a very rationalist, idealistic constitution. It lives with a very rough ideological foundation of Hindu society, which is hierarchical.
Neil (oD): And you understand this to be one of the major obstacles to progressive alliance building?
Sony: We're not quite there yet in the discussion. So far I've talked about two types of orientation. The ideological divide is one major cleavage. But, to my understanding, much more difficult is the process of a modern polity that has become available to Indian society. This is exhibited through more acceptance of democracy in this country. In many ways, that democratic process gives all the progressive groups a lot of strength. It allows people to say that they can deal with the question through democratic forces, and people do mobilise around those forces. People thus are willing to work through these channels because they think they can make a larger difference.
But, there is an illusion about what you think you're achieving through a democratic process and what you finally end up getting. That is a larger picture which people are not able to see when they work very minutely on the details of getting the votes, and getting small successes. But the larger picture remains somewhere else.
Where is that larger picture? It goes back to what ideas you are able to forcefully put forth. Communitarians have put forth a strong ideology. Unlike traditional organising, where you go door to door to convince people to attend meetings about topics beneficial to them, communitarians do things like go in front of a school, put up a special symbol, and everybody knows what it means. You don't even have to ask them to come. They come on their own.
They have created a highway of ideology to which people immediately jump, while other types of progressive groups shrink to being just alleys or small roads in comparison, which people must negotiate in order to get to the main highway. Why would people not simply join the bandwagon of the main highway from the outset? That's where everybody has to go, as everything else has become small pathways. And for those already on the small pathways, they keep hoping that eventually – after following enough pathways – they will also end up on the highway.
That's the biggest challenge. You have a big elephant in the room, and everybody else is fighting it for fear of being taken over by it.
Neil (oD): I'm guessing that you would also be of the belief that the communitarian ideology is not an ideology that is likely to lead to emancipation for the kinds of bonded labourers that you have worked with. Am I right?
Sony: The communitarian ideology will push up certain sections of the people, and other large sections will be left out. That's what communitarian ideology will do, because the hierarchical logic leads you to a situation where there are small sections of people on top who have to have all the benefits. You cannot share that with everybody, because 'we' are a special group.
Neil (oD): What do you think the opportunities are for, as you called it, the rationalist challenge to the communitarian? What can be learned from what the communitarians are doing so successfully?
Sony: Yes! Indeed, the progressive alliances are learning from the communitarians. For example, in the past progressive alliances have always foo-fooed the question of identity. They said we all have to be rational. We all have to be alike, and agree on certain things. Now, seeing the communitarians, the progressive alliances are opening their eyes. They're saying that, yeah, there are among us vast differences and we failed to see them, and that's why somebody else has come in and gotten all the attention. Therefore, let us recognise the differences among us, let us recognise these identities. That will help us to have much more meaningful unity than a formal unity that was wished for. That change is now happening. What will come out of it, and how far it will go, I don't know. But change is happening.
There are among us vast differences and we failed to see them, and that's why somebody else has come in and gotten all the attention.
There is hope. Something we haven't talked about yet is how knowledge is created and used in different types of alliances. Within the communitarian paradigm, knowledge is sometimes subjugated for the purpose for which you're fighting. In other words, more of a religious kind of knowledge creation – you don't challenge the basic text. You still have knowledge, but you operate within that. Opened inquiry is not required.
Certain progressive groups have also struggled because they've been looking to the west for their source of knowledge. They have not been able to create an indigenous base of knowledge for their context, and thus appropriate knowledge for dealing with social justice questions is not getting created.
Wall stencil in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. Adam Jones/flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Neil (oD): You see a real need for participatory, contextually specific knowledge.
Sony: It's not there, and that creates uninformed members of society regarding the sorts of social justice they are looking for. The moment you talk about a very rationalist social justice it's coming from somewhere else. It’s not contextualised, and the class question is not mixing with the caste question.
Neil (oD): They're missing the locally meaningful symbols, through which they can translate the rational concept.
Sony: That is a huge problem for addressing meaningful exploitation, and I think these are the types of tools you need to address them. Within them you will be at a loss.
Neil (oD): Before we finish, what sort of policies do you think would be necessary, assuming that the rationalists get their act together and that there is a change in the political order, to address the extreme exploitation that takes place in India?
Sony: There's a larger pre-issue to that. In the Indian context, the moment we use policy we take on a huge amount of baggage. The state is not visible here, or it's seen as a repressive force. The state is the one who is sending police to arrest me rather than to protect me. The state is seen as a problem here. The moment we talk policy to solve an issue, within the Indian context it takes on a very different kind of colour. So – I think the answer to this for many of the progressive groups is to organise people. What that basically means is that they see the solutions as coming from society rather than the state. The state will always be a problem creator and a predator. But society is good, and you can trust society. You can trust people.
Given Indian society's post-colonial situation of the state, the whole feeling is that we should get rid of the state. So, policy-as-a-solution has a very limited reach in a country like ours. Solutions might not come from policy, they might have to come from elsewhere.
Policy-as-a-solution has a very limited reach in a country like India.
Neil (oD): Given that context, are there other ways you can see for reducing the kinds of exploitation we are talking about?
Sony: One of the ideas we have experimented with in both the university and elsewhere is the idea of reimaging the government as an instrument which gives an opening for starting deliberations or discussions. For example, several policy changes have been suggested in recent times. One of them has been a big debate on labour courts. We see this as an opportunity for starting a discussion. The moment government issues a labour court, which everybody thinks is going to be very problematic and create further inequalities, we see that as a further opportunity for discussion among labour groups. It's also an opportunity to lead the government by discussion, or reconstitute the government by discussion.
I don't think any policy that is prescribed here will have acceptance by society as is. But you can push it further, work on it, and make it better, rather than leaving it as is.
Neil (oD): A final question about basic income. For a moment, let's assume in the abstract that the state is not a predator and can be trusted to transfer money to every citizen. Would that contribute to the reduction of exploitation?
Sony: I think it would not. The reason is that different states in India have different levels of human development, income, etc. You can easily identify at least four of five 'types' of state in India. So when you say a basic income for all of India, for many of us that can be seen as a threat to the purpose for which India became a union. India became a union on the premise that each state can keep its identity. Each state can keep their basic autonomy. That is the principle, and you can't experiment here like you did in Europe, where you created a single economic system and said everyone fell within that. That is a very big proposition. If we have a single basic income created at the national level, it would be too low for some states, and very good for some people.
There are researchers who have done some kind of calibration regarding what a basic income in India would be. It works out to be 10,000 rupees per month. 10,000 rupees per month for a domestic worker is good money. It's almost her salary per month. But for large sections of the middle class and upper middle class, it's not what they are looking for.
And, if the middle class doesn't give its assent to a basic income proposal, it has got very little viability to be accepted. And that is something which is to be contrasted with the European experience. There, the welfare state is about middle class. It's about getting pension, getting unemployment benefits – it's about the middle class, about nearly everybody except for perhaps the top 5% or so. But here, the welfare state or basic income proposals become attractive only for the poorest class. Not for the middle class and upper class. Thus, it's not going to end inequality. It's going to become yet another welfare measure which might help the poor section that finds it attractive.