"All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina begins with his famous lament about the vagaries of family life. In a country where the dictates of family shape so much of private as well as public life, it is intriguing to ask what effect this has on notions of justice or public morality. Can we say something about this in a general way, or are Indian families simply too diverse for useful generalisations? Tolstoy cautioned us that explanations of society are easy to come by when the underlying social machinery is running smoothly, but a good theory works when the social machine starts falling apart.

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 •  Rajesh Kasturirangan
 •  Culture
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 •  Printer friendly version In my earlier article, I made the theoretical claim that Indians learn their notions of justice from their experience of growing up in a family and from the extended community that surrounds the family. This environment, being partly subjective, leads to notions of justice that are not the same as the abstract notions of justice prevalent in the west. If my claims are true then care, rather than 'equality before the law', is the notion that is at the foundation of Indian notions of justice. Let me be precise; it is not that we shouldn't aim for equality before the law, but achieving durable equality requires treating it as an outcome rather than as the starting point.

Are there any patterns?

The discerning reader might strenuously object to such a happy family of claims. I can think of three main lines of argument against my thesis. The first and perhaps most important objection is that justice is fundamentally impersonal, and therefore, we cannot achieve equality until we jettison personalised notions of care for abstract notions of justice. The second objection is that the family has nothing to do with justice; after all, human beings grow up in families in Europe as well, so there is nothing special about the family and justice in India. Isn't it true that the real problems of inequality are because of entrenched caste, class, gender and religious hierarchies? I have already mentioned the third objection - even if the family is the cradle of our ideas of justice, aren't Indian families too diverse to be theorised about?

In all these three cases, it is the sheer diversity of India that confounds the theorist as well as the activist. How can one social unit, such as the family, be the origin of complex ideas such as justice and inequality? For the same reason it seems unrealistic to impose a uniform code of ethics all over India. Our nation tacitly recognises this dilemma in several ways, from having separate personal codes for various faiths to granting special status to Kashmir to reservations for Dalits and lower castes. We admit with our minds that there is an exception to every rule even if our hearts wish otherwise. Is it then possible to theorise effectively about such a diverse populace? How can one reduce matters of justice to a typical family life, and even if one could do so, is there a 'typical' Indian family? These are questions that require serious reflection, but I do believe that all families are like each other in their own way, i.e., there are structural patterns that can be catalogued and studied.

The academic study of Indian culture is at a juncture similar to linguistics in the late fifties, just before the cognitive revolution.

 •  The ideas of the Indians

What encourages me is that diversity is not new to India. Megasthenes the Greek, writing after Alexander's invasion, describes an Indian population divided into seven castes, all of whom were left to regulate their own ways. One can doubt the accuracy of his data (why seven, why not seventeen? Were they really castes?) but the basic pattern of social organisation cannot be doubted. A culture that has had to live with differentiation for at least 2500 years must have developed some cognitive reflexes that make diversity palatable, if not comforting. I want to talk about these cognitive reflexes and their sources (the family being one of them) and what these cognitive reflexes have to say about matters of justice.

A cognitive reflex is a thought process that occurs without any conscious effort on our parts; for example, when Hindus step on a book inadvertently, they move their hands to their faces, reflexively seeking pardon for a small transgression of belief. Social and environmental conditions that occur repeatedly spawn cognitive reflexes. Indians constantly meet diverse people and practices in their daily lives. Not surprisingly, we have developed several cognitive reflexes to respond to such situations. These mental routines have become so automatic that their cognitive and cultural significance is obscured.

As the philosopher Daya Krishna has pointed out, both classical and modern social texts are of dubious value when it comes to accurate descriptions of empirical reality. The Varna theory of society is one such example. From Manu to Dumont, social theorists have claimed that Indian society is divided into four stable castes. But empirical reality has never matched these theorists dreams - instead of a static Homo Hierarchicus, we see a network of jatis that move up and down the social ladder dynamically. The two major empires of ancient and classical India, the Mauryas and the Guptas, were of non-Kshatriya origin. One example doesn't prove a theory, but we need to separate the reality of power differentials from traditional explanations of their causes such as caste and class.

We would be much better off probing our psychological habits (that instinctively recognise the diversity of Indian social life) than the pronouncements of philosophers and sociologists. The academic study of Indian culture is at a juncture similar to linguistics in the late fifties, just before the cognitive revolution. Until then, it was common in the West to accuse Blacks and other minorities of speaking 'bad English'. Then, sophisticated theoretical and experimental tools invented by Chomsky and other linguists made it clear that Black English (often known as Ebonics) has a grammar and logic as sophisticated as standard English. As they say, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. For our purposes we might add that a culture is a community with a priest and a philosopher.

The 'hard-soft' Indian family

One cognitive reflex that has evolved in India in response to the pressures of engaging widely varying people and social norms is the hard-soft response. On the one hand we bend rules and allow them to have exceptions, and on the other hand we impose implicit constraints on what might otherwise be unregulated behaviour.

A typical example of a hard-soft response is bargaining. Every bargainer knows that the price is flexible, but there are limits beyond which the seller or buyer will walk away. In the social arena, we see the hard-soft response at all levels; from the national to the individual. The Indian state has been willing to negotiate with insurgent groups in Assam, Punjab and Kashmir, but when certain unspoken (at least to the public) conditions were left unmet, extreme violence was unleashed against them. Coalition politics is an exercise in bargaining for the spoils of power. At the other end of the spectrum, marriage in India is also an exercise in bargaining – for dowry, for social position and other social goods. For better or worse, we have accepted bargaining as an accepted social and political principle.

Cognitive reflexes, like language and other cognitive abilities are learned locally, mostly from our families and immediate community and they are ingrained by the time we grow up into adulthood. Just as it is hard to learn a new language at the age of forty, it is tough to learn new cognitive reflexes as well. We are deeply influenced (scarred?) by the experience of our family's interactions with other people and communities.

Why is this important? Because the sources of our cognitive reflexes inevitably shape our notions of justice, public conduct, etc. And the Indian family is clearly a hard-soft affair. It is a 'hard' entity because our families often regulate parts of our lives such as marriage and career choices in ways that would be unacceptable to a typical family in North America or Europe. On the other hand, the Indian family is 'soft' in that it dominates the market for political prominence, jobs, business ownership and other positions that are typically professionalised in the West. It is hard to escape the conclusion that childhood exposure to a hard-soft environment inculcates cognitive reflexes that affect our notions of public morality and justice. Whether one agrees with the moral consequences of the hard-soft character of the Indian family is another matter altogether.

Diversity - the answer and the challenge

At the beginning of this article I recognised three objections to claiming an important role for the family in our understanding of justice. I now have a response to all three objections: the cognitive capacity to engage with diversity, which dumbfounds the theorist of India, is the very ability that we learn in our families and local environment. Our families teach us that we are enveloped within concentric circles of similarities and differences - from caste to community to region and nation. 'We' are different from 'them' in some ways and the same as 'them' in others. Naturally, as a result, we do not always link the behaviour or treatment of other individuals and communities with our own, and it shouldn't be surprising if matters of justice are subject to the same cognitive reflexes.

The continuing agitation by the Gujjars for 'scheduled tribe' status is a good example - we are willing to let communities use the political arena to bargain for public goods, because that is what 'they' do, and 'we' may ourselves do other things of that sort at another time. According to this analysis, the differential treatment of people and communities is not just a matter of corruption or unfairness, but rather a deep seated psychological response in a historically diverse polity. We definitely do not want powerful people to be treated differently than poor people, but neither should we jettison a cognitive reflex that has a rational origin.

I end this article with a question and a prescription: how can we delink our collective tolerance for difference (an important social virtue) from our infinite appetite for hierarchy (which we need to end if justice is to be served)? I believe the solution to this problem will also have to start at home - the key to achieving a non-hierarchical society is to make our families more equal, while holding on to the joint family's capacity for sustaining a range of aspirations and talents.