Getting the sense of perfect justice

Published on OneWorld Asia, Interview by Rashme Sehgal (RS), Aug 27, 2009.

Nobel laureate Dr Amartya Sen (AS) maintains that the theory of justice must be more concerned with the elimination of removable injustices rather than engaging itself with a hypothetical ‘perfectly just society’. He finds it appalling that India has not done enough to eliminate hunger, deprivation and gender inequality …

… RS: How exactly do you define justice?

AS: Justice is a complex idea, which has everything to do with everyone being treated fairly. But the theory of justice must be concerned with the systematic assessment of how to reduce injustice in the world, rather than concern ourselves with what a hypothetical “perfectly just society” would look like. 

There may be no agreement on the shape of perfect justice but we can still have reasoned agreement on many removable cases of manifest injustice, for example, the presence of widespread hunger and deprivation, or the lack of schooling of children, or the absence of available and affordable healthcare. If we do not eliminate removable injustices, then we are living without justice in a more practical sense. In India, we need to concentrate on removing all manner of injustices.

It is extremely shocking that we have not done enough to eliminate gender inequality. The widespread maternal undernourishment that leads to foetal undernourishment – this deprivation goes back to the womb. I have always maintained that gender deprivation, gender inequality, and child deprivation all go back to the deprivation of women. These are the big injustices, which we need to pay attention to.

RS: Do the middle class and the educated elite need to engage to a greater extent with these injustices?

AS: All I would like to say on this is that there is a need for every Indian citizen to think of whether he or she is sufficiently concerned about the interests and needs of the most deprived sections. The extent and number of people who think and concern themselves about these deprived sections should indeed become much larger …

… RS: What kind of justice should be provided to a terrorist or terrorist group, especially in India, which is at the receiving end of terrorism?

AS: It is not so much a question about delivering justice to a particular person. That’s a legal matter. But how do you ensure that we enhance justice rather than reduce it in context of dealing with terrorism.

The position that I have argued for is that there is no case for torture in any circumstances, even in those of terrorism. That is partly because it is a very bad way of pursuing information. It is also ineffective because studies of torture across the world over the centuries have shown that people under torture would give any answer that they thought would be pleasing to the interrogator. So you do not get very much information.

RS: How should a terrorist like Ajmal Kasab, who is presently lodged in a Mumbai jail, be dealt with? Public opinion would have him hanged at the earliest. Do you agree with capital punishment?

AS: Well, the lynch mob situation exists. But the right lesson would be to fight it. Ultimately, that is what Martin Luther King won on, that’s what Mandela won on and Gandhiji won on. I’m opposed to the death penalty in general and wouldn’t want it given to Ajmal Kasab or anyone else. There is a need for prevailing practices, including capital punishment, to be scrutinised by public reasoning.

RS: Are you disappointed with the Left in India? You have publicly criticised them as having gone against their ideology?

AS: It is important for the left to read the lessons of the general election. They have to ask what has changed and why. Like all political parties, the CPI (M) has also made some mistakes and I think to some extent they have paid for it. I don’t want to be seen to be ostracising the Left. My hero is public reasoning and I would like everyone across all parties to engage more with it. (full interview text).

Comments are closed.