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The Open Classroom: A Journey Through Education by K.T. Margaret. Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1999.

AS Indian books on education go, K.T. Margaret’s The Open Classroom: A Journey Through Education is fairly rare. It is a professional-personal biography describing her growth as a teacher within a remarkably wide range of Indian educational contexts – from a government high school, a training college for teachers, elite pre-schools, innovative NGO models, all the way to slum ‘centres’ and rural NFE programmes. Each of these, substantially experienced over a career spanning thirty years, provided a ‘live’ situation actively engaged with. The result is an honest, straightforward account of evolving practices, shorn of the veneer of theoretical ‘expertism’.

Starting as a science teacher in high school classes, Margaret found that though she worked ‘sincerely’, there was somehow simply no ‘connection’ with children. A breakthrough came when she was asked to take language classes. Here, her own sense of incompetence made her confide her fear in children – and a partnership in learning was born. Only when the teacher moves away from her position as a giver can she really enable children to realise their potential. This allows her to create a space for their own powers of observing and reflection to have a role in their development. The system, however, will have none of this and Margaret’s complaints against this unrelenting inflexibility recur every now and then.

Her work with pre-school children – and a remarkable ‘mentor’ in the form of Nadya O. Panth, who had a deep understanding of children, having worked with them in an experimental school in the US – brings forth the realisation that adults have lost touch with the child in themselves. With it is also lost the ability to enter the child’s world and to use that as a basis to relate with children and explore the world along with them. She believes that it is only through such empathy and starting with children ‘where they are’ and ‘where you are’ that worthwhile learning can take place. She also comes to see that inner growth, akin to though not exactly like spiritual development, is at the core of real education.

Margaret’s inner impulses led her to start working with slum children in Tilaknagar, Bangalore. This section is a valuable record of the growth of a vibrant learning centre – starting from a total lack of interest and even active resistance in the community. A non-judgmental but detailed analysis of life in the slum and its impact on children and their education runs through the narrative. The nature of the emerging interaction between Margaret and the children is obviously on an equal footing (no ‘do-gooding’ pity-taking business over here), with the children having as much say as the teacher. The ‘students’ emerge as personalities the middle class, alas, does not get to see – they have sharp independent minds, courage and initiative, and can take decisions as well as responsibilities, despite the misery and violence that they endure or themselves contribute to.

When some of these children find the contradictions between what they learn at the centre and the life they lead at home too confusing to bear, they simply decide to stay with the teacher till such time as the contradictions are settled, one way or another! Thus is born a ‘residential home’ which houses a number of these children – and which goes through its own travails before it can function efficiently – painstakingly achieved through getting all children to take their responsibilities and work as a team. The home thus is as much a learning ground for the children (and their teacher) as is the actual centre.

What Margaret learns through two decades of such experience is the slow, intense and responsive nature of educational interaction, without which sustained inner growth cannot really take place among children. Her involvement with the development sector through NGO programmes, however, pitted her against contrary requirements – work hard but quick, and on a large enough scale over a short span of time – in order to justify the continued existence of the programme. Education emerges as being opposed to educational programmes of this kind!

Working in remote villages in the backward district of Raichur, Margaret is confronted with a debilitating (and destructive) set of hierarchies. Groups that dominate the poor because of their caste or economic clout resort to violence and intimidation to ensure that the educational effort is blunted. Even where the programme comes through such danger, it still collapses under the weight of its own vertical hierarchies, generated in order to run a larger scale of operations. Again, the interests of those powerful in the organisational hierarchy run to preserving or bettering their position – at the cost, naturally, of the goal that the educational programme itself is purporting to achieve.

Here Margaret is able to compare the differences between the kinds of teachers encountered in different contexts: cities, slums and villages. The first are confident but unwilling to accept their shortcomings, the second honest enough about their limitations but tending to be impetuous, while the third are only too happy to be told what to do! Similarly, programme personnel too can be seen as running to type, more often victims of the path they have chosen.

Such experience also helps her formulate her own concept of education. There is thus a second section in the book which sums up her insights, backed by practical examples. There is, however, a sense of incompleteness about this as it tends to fall between an exposition of Margaret’s own understanding and an effort to show others how they might do it. There is an uneasy feeling of randomness as one goes through the various lists of examples shared. In fact, a similar editorial streamlining to ‘straighten out the knots’ and better production values would have contributed significantly towards improving this book.

The book works best when Margaret recounts telling incidents that offer important insights. It is when she tries to weave these insights into a conceptual framework that the material seems somehow weak or occasionally debatable. This especially in view of the considerable amount of work in primary education that has taken place in the last decade across India – both in the NGO sector as well as through large scale programmes such as APPEP (Andhra Pradesh Primary Education Programme), Lok Jumbish in Rajasthan and DPEP (District Primary Education Programme) running in 15 states presently. Many of these programmes have tried to give the child a central place in their pedagogical model, with results that range from the ridiculous to the reasonably successful. What they do suggest, though, is that the teacher now has a greater range of options than ever before in terms of offering children meaningful learning experiences. And that the ‘radical’ rhetoric of the ’70s is not only common knowledge now but is actually witnessing, at least in some places, serious effort at implementation.

As yet, however, the experience of such implementation has not found much expression in written form. It is in this sense that The Open Classroom remains a rare documentation of a concerned teacher’s evolving engagement with children and other teachers.

Subir Shukla


PEHALA GIRMITIA by Giriraj Kishore. Bhartiya Jnanpith, New Delhi, 1999.

Pehala Girmitia, a sprawling narrative (in Hindi) of epic length, describes the life of Mohandas Gandhi during his stay in South Africa as a coolie/girmitia. The novel records the rise of a man from the narrow confines of self-centredness to a Mahatma of intrepid courage and profound humanistic compassion. A similar theme of Gandhi’s eventful life in South Africa also figures in Raja Rao’s The Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Like Kishore’s Pehala Girmitia, this too is a rewriting of a legend, but in context and style a hierophanous narrative. Rao ranks Gandhi among Rama and Krishna as the puranic narrative unfolds twenty-one years of South African experiences in Mohandas’ life. Kishore’s Pehala Girmitia, however, presents Gandhi as an ordinary man because Gandhi went to South Africa as an unemployed labourer like thousands of others on a one year agreement.

And from here starts a long series of struggles in defiance of white imperialism. The event of not taking off his headgear in the courtroom, or later the train journey to Pretoria when he was thrashed and thrown out from the first class coach by the whites, describe the humiliating moments in Mohan’s life. These also help us identify the reasons for his subsequent radical transformation. While the narrative shifts smoothly from the present into the previous life of Mohandas, the reminiscences of his shy, youthful days at Porbunder appear more vivid in the train to Pretoria when juxtaposed with the description of the sudden opening of the coach door that brings this good natured girmitia face-to-face with the sinister face of apartheid.

The event comes as a severe jolt to Mohandas. Kishore’s narrative reveals an astute skill in dramatizing the arrogance of white rulers. I translate: ‘I know you people very well, filthy and contemptible, you people are like worms. It is our goodness that we allow you to hang on’ (102). The subsequent narrative describes why and how the history and ideology of oppression pushed even the fellow Indians in South Africa into subscribing to the white man’s logic and justify Mohandas’ humiliation.

The novel presents Gandhi as a 20th century quest hero, a wanderer who must undergo the ‘rite of passage’ in order to become a leader of the masses fighting against the catastrophic gulf between whites and blacks under apartheid. Gandhi’s struggles are presented in a way that re-affirm our faith in the buried heroic potentials of ordinary man. We look with wonder and amazement at his growth – from an ordinary man to one attaining heroic dimensions – as we follow his painful but resolute journey to self-realization through the well-known phases of legal service to the Indians as a coolie barrister, loyalty to British as stretcher bearer in the Boer and Zulu wars, and finally to dispossessing himself (and his family) of all worldly possessions and taking the vow of brahmacharya. Through all this comes the discovery of non-violence and the practice of satyagraha.

His satyagraha against racist laws forced him into deep introspection about the cowardice of all those natives who suffered humiliation by South African whites and also of Indians in his homeland under colonial rule. He struggled on nevertheless, until the government headed by General Smuts agreed to compromise in 1913. General Smuts, the emblem of barbaric forces and colonialist power, had to accept defeat against the strength and fortitude of satyagraha and prem. The dialogue between General Smuts and Mohandas Gandhi forms one of the more moving components of the novel (p. 879). Armed with wit, intelligence and philosophy of unsurpassable wisdom, Mohandas indicts the politics of racism and shows what is wrong with it. The love-hate relationship of Gandhi and Smuts goes down in history; Smuts paid a tribute to Gandhi after his death, saying that ‘the prince of the world has left us.’

Mohandas’ quest affects not only his relation to the social-political world around him but drives him into an inward journey, preoccupying him with self-knowledge in the mystic sense as he evolved his own version of self-abnegation and purification through trial and error. Nonetheless this journey, as Kishore registers, also brings him into conflict with Kastur (Kasturba) and his children. Kishore’s foregrounding Kastur’s point of view adds poignant drama to the novel. Gandhi could not succeed in converting her into an ideologue. As her rebellion figures at several places in the novel, we cannot help suspect that Gandhi’s dedication to a set of principles alienated him from his role as a father to his children and a husband to Kastur.

The novelist’s comprehensive perception of Mohandas is the result of eight year long intensive research in documentary evidence and his personal visits to Durban, Petermeritzberg, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Capetown to apprehend and feel South Africa from Mohandas’ point of view. The novel, however, transcends the rigid confines of factual details in order to excavate and trace the shaping of Gandhi in these years. His actions and ideas subsequently inspired the best minds of the nation to evolve Gandhian social and political perspectives and themes into an ideology. The Gandhi saga will remain a living myth, a legend of unprecedented phenomenon.

The evocation of strife ridden South African ambience testifies to Kishore’s keen insight and grip on the lived experience. The loose and baggy mode of the novel blends smoothly with an implicit historical awareness and appropriates the logic of realism which discovers its forms, not only in individual cases but in a series and over time. The lexicon and syntax of Mohandas’ idiom in Hindustani (combination of Hindi-Urdu) in a sometimes halting style, find a skilled transcription in the flexible and composite medium of the novel and Mohandas/Mahatma appears as a credible presence in the annals of history and literature. Kishore’s novel may well inspire many others to re-rewrite Gandhi.

Vanashree Tripathy


Corporate Restructuring: Crompton Greaves and the Challenge of Globalisation by John Humphrey, et al. Response Books, New Delhi, 1998.

IN the early 1990s, Indians were told to look eastwards, ideologically, at Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. These were all ‘supposed’ success stories of export-oriented, free market strategies of development, never mind the realities of the depth of governmental involvement, at least in Korea and Japan. As a part of the exhortation was the fable of Toyota and Hindustan Motors. Both were established in 1944. But look where Toyota is now, and where Hindustan Motors? The moral of the fable was that while the Japanese government’s hands-off approach induced Toyota’s growth, Indian policies stifled Hindustan Motors.

The contrast is, however, made more interesting when we are given some more details, as in the book under review (p. 57). In the early 1950s, the Japanese market for cars was small. Only in 1959 did the total demand reach 250,000, the level then believed necessary to reach optimum size for one single plant. Faced with this situation, Taichi Ohno of Toyota began to examine ways by which productivity could be increased without necessitating economies of scale. This search led, eventually, to concepts of management identified with kanban, flexible production cells and quality-at-source. These concepts diffused across the Japanese motor vehicle industry and were copied by manufacturers across the world, not only those engaged in the automobile industry, but in a wide variety of manufacture.

The kanban system is based on the premise that production at any stage should be regulated by the pace of production at the subsequent stage. Thus, unlike in a Fordist production line, manufacture is pulled by the process ahead, rather than being pushed by the preceding process, and there is no room for work-in-progress to pile up at any stage. This leads to just-in-time functioning, ‘Éproducing the right quantity, with the right quality in the right place at the right time’ (p. 60). Quality at source is determined by two factors: the requirements of the customer and the prevention of defective products, which wastes resources by producing scrap, increasing machine and labour time by requiring reworking and subsequent reinspection. Cellular functioning reproduces a mini-factory with greater worker involvement. It regroups machines in cells to manufacture entire products rather than group similar machines in distinct departments specialising in discrete processes.

Crompton Greaves is, of course, an electrical engineering firm. However, its management came to know about Japanese organisational innovations through their contact with Japanese collaborators, and began the institutionalisation of change from the mid-1980s onwards. This book is based on a study of three of Crompton Greaves’ main plants: one manufacturing circuit breakers, the second making induction motors, and the third manufacturing ceiling and pedestal fans for the consumer market. It is striking, as the authors point out that for a decade all management change initiatives ‘Éwere focused on promoting new procedures and forms of organisation rather than in developing [manufacturing] technology or acquiring computerised management information systems’ (p. 45).

This is a significant observation. Empirical studies of the expenditure on industrial R&D by the corporate sector in India have shown that there was no significant increase in the post-1991 period. This seems strange. A priori it could be expected that the road towards ‘international competitiveness’ lies along improved manufacturing technology. However, Indian R&D figures show that corporate circles do not share this perception. It would be interesting to know whether, like the authors (and, presumably, the Crompton Greaves management) they share the view that ‘Éone of the key issues facing India is not the amount of resources available, but the effectiveness of resource use’ (p. 51, emphasis in original).

Why was (and probably still is) resource use at less than optimum levels? As long ago as 1984, Ashok Desai, no friend of then current economic policies, had suggested that both TELCO and Bajaj Auto, potentially serious exporters, would find it difficult to negotiate major technological collaboration agreements. In other words, they were both lean and mean, and evidently no squanderers of resources. Clearly, if the policy environment invited wasteful use of resources, all firms did not fall a prey to this temptation.

In fact, one of the major problems in restructuring in Indian conditions is reflected in the structure of this book itself. While the relationship with Crompton’s suppliers is given a separate section of 60 pages, the relationship with the working force is covered in the section on intra-firm change, within 24 pages. Literally, of course, the workers are internal to the firm, while suppliers are external. However, it is one thing for senior management to feel that employees should work for the company, and not merely in the company (p. 45); another for the workers to accept this, particularly when the Indian system of industrial relations still does not concede the right to true collective bargaining.

It is important to emphasise this because the authors seem to believe that the absence of an ‘exit policy’ itself implies that industrial relations legislation is less than favourable to management (p. 133). In actual fact, such safeguards as the workers have against victimisation are due to the possibilities of mass protest inherent in the (spotted) functioning of our constitutional democracy rather than a pro-working class system of industrial relations. So the Nasik based circuit breaker plant, located in an industrial region is more troublesome for management in its pursuit of restructuring than the Ahmednagar based unit in Marathwada.

Crompton Greaves is obviously not in the business of refashioning industrial relations, even when modifications may be to industry’s collective advantage. In the event, it has gone it alone, navigating between the problem shoals that restructuring of the very basis of the labour process inevitably bring to light. It is this that probably explains why the three plants were left free to take up the three components of just-in-time, total quality control and total employee involvement in the sequence they preferred. It is surely significant that in the two plants where JIT, the main factor behind measurable productivity increase, was introduced, the union was either ‘defeated’ (p. 139), or ‘marginalised’ (p. 140). In the switchgear unit, on the other hand, ‘Éthe workers remained supportive of the union, backing the [Datta Samant led] protest over the bonus’ (p. 140). Here the management obviously felt under constraint, and it has (somewhat unfairly) been associated with the practice of making ‘Éhigh profile interventions which bolster morale’ (p. 109).

The second issue is that of suppliers. Since the early 1970s RBI sponsored report on delayed payment by large scale units to small scale suppliers, the issue of this questionable method of generating working capital by forced credit from suppliers has been a major bone of contention in small industries policy. It is not surprising then, to find the fans division of Crompton Greaves subordinating all the precepts of Japanese styles of supplier-management in its bid to raise the resources necessary to increase its market share. The more general point of policy initiative is again raised, whether this takes the form of prompt-payment legislation or bridge-financing schemes, if Indian industry as a whole is to move forward.

Why did it require the deregulation measures initiated in the 1976 budget, and reinforced in the 1980 budget, to bring home the weaknesses in Crompton Greaves, and for the new management, installed in 1985 (also the year of a key budget) to take steps to deal with the downslide? As is well known, the deregulation was, first, a part of the strategy of replacing public investment-led growth by giving the private sector its head; second, it was a strategy of betting on the (import intensive) consumer durables sector as the engine of growth, a strategy which was to have such disastrous consequences for the balance of payments by the early 1990s. It seems that K.K. Nohria, managing director of Crompton Greaves since 1985, understood that the consumer durables led strategic environment necessitated distinct forms of organisation even for a company engaged in the manufacture of intermediates and capital goods. (As an aside, the recent recruitment of a key Hindustan Lever marketing executive into the stratosphere of the Tata decision-making process is an intriguing input to this proposition).

This change in the macroeconomic environment is an important element to be factored into any evaluation of Nohria’s contribution to the Crompton Greaves turnaround. As the book stands there is a decidedly great helmsman aspect to the account of Nohria single-handedly suggesting and promoting organisational change. In fact, there is the danger that such an individualistic interpretation can lead to the conclusion that the reasons why organisational changes in Crompton Greaves did not lead to sustained productivity increases was due to the fact that all impetus for change come from an individual. Obviously, the thrust has to be initiated and sustained from the top, but there is little or no evidence in the book that these thrusts carried conviction at lower managerial levels, let alone on the shopfloor. More important, the context would make for a more nuanced evaluation of the role that familiarity with Japanese inspired ideas were to play. To repeat: why did TELCO and Bajaj Auto not have to look eastwards?

This is an important book for at least three reasons: first, it sets out comprehensively what Japanese management is all about, without making it seem self-evident, or easy to implement. Second, it presents a case study of a large firm manufacturing complex products, and deals, with admirable frankness on the whole, with the problems the firm faces in restructuring its manufacturing operations. Third, it opens discussion on the critical issues of policy on industrial relations reform, and on supplier-customer relationships. These issues have bedevilled Indian industry for 40 years, and will thwart a general restructuring of industry unless squarely faced. It can only be hoped that the various Chambers representing industry will take the trouble to do precisely this.

Nasir Tyabji


INDIA IN THE ERA OF ECONOMIC REFORMS edited by Jeffrey Sachs, Ashutosh Varshney and Nirupam Bajpai. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999.

IT is nearly a decade since India embarked on the ‘liberalisation’ path. Liberalisation, as used in this book has three elements: macroeconomic stability, privatisation and opening up to foreign trade. Successive governments have followed this path and many a commanding height of the economy has been ceded to the private sector. The experiment has yielded higher growth rates than those experienced in the decades since Independence prior to the start of the reforms. The state, however, continues to produce a large number of goods and services (mostly inefficiently) and foreign trade continues to be fairly protective.

Most political parties have factions supporting and opposing any further liberalisation. Those opposing the reforms tend to be more vocal. The steady (albeit slow) retreat of the state has been done surreptitiously, under the cover of darkness. This is true of a large number of developing countries, prompting an observer (the well known economist Dani Rodrik) to ask (of trade liberalisation in particular): ‘If there are so many cherries on the table, why is everyone around it looking so glum?’

The book under review seeks to analyse the reform process from an economist’s and political scientist’s perspective. Of the eight chapters, six have previously appeared in the special issue of a journal.

In the introductory chapter, the editors review the background to the Indian reforms, compare India and China and argue what India should do in the light of the Asian crisis. This is familiar (at least to economists) territory. China has been extremely successful in fostering an export-led growth whereas India’s export (and growth) performance has been extremely poor.

The next chapter by Montek Singh Ahluwalia constitutes the core of the book (in length about a fifth of the book). Ahluwalia, one of the leading exponents of reform, is now a member of the Planning Commission (Did you say a liberaliser in the Planning Commission!). One would have expected him to reveal juicy bits about where reforms got derailed, how his advice was overruled by various governments. Not so. All we have is a standard exposition of how the country was pulled back from the brink and how we can grow faster if we have lower tariffs, taxes and so on. A piece not wanting to tread on toes but repeating that much has been done and much remains to be done. A big disappointment.

The chapter on Indian public finance by Bajpai and Sachs is standard stuff. There is the urgency to reduce the budget deficit, which, however, is proving elusive. Privatisation, user charges, tax simplifications etc. are suggested as solutions. Comparisons are made with Asean countries but not China. That there may be strategies other than export-led growth is not discussed at all.

The three ‘sectoral’ studies are quite interesting. The chapter on agriculture by Eswaran and Ramaswami represents good use of economic theory to speculate on what might happen if Indian agriculture was freed of some of the straitjackets. They do not make rash generalisations and are careful about what might fly politically and what might not. Similarly, Zagha’s chapter on labour laws is interesting because it suggests that India’s laws have hindered investment and new employment (harmed ‘the outsiders’ in the labour force) without necessarily helping the employed (the insiders). Ghemawat and Patibandla look at constraints on the future growth of three of India’s major exports. The prognosis is not very optimistic (even for the much-hyped IT).

The two chapters by political scientists are a let down. Weiner writes especially (exclusively?) for a western audience whereas Varshney puts forward some explanations as to why reforms were initiated when they were and why they have not moved forward. Financial reform is of concern to the elite and hence has moved rapidly, privatisation hurts the masses and hence is floundering. This reviewer is not convinced that this distinction is illuminating. Take, for instance, the ever-present proposal to tax agricultural incomes. It has never taken off because the rural elite, who would be hit, has successfully converted this into a town versus countryside issue. So we are left without a real explanation as to why the reforms are so unmarketable or how sectional interests get portrayed (successfully) as national interests.

There are some typos and the book could have done with better copy-editing – Asean becomes Asian in Weiner’s chapter; the material on p. 285 is a repeat from a few pages before.

Liberalisation requires a ‘downsizing of the state’. The state is expected to confine itself to the provision of primary education, health, infrastructure and regulatory activity. How a (corrupt and inefficient) state in retreat would suddenly provide these is never made clear. Simpler laws could make implementation relatively easy but compliance is never assured. Look at the experience of the cut in income tax rates and tax revenue.

Let me mention another area where the role of the state is crucial but has not even been discussed perfunctorily in this book. That concerns the protection of the environment. Fast growth has usually been achieved at the expense of plundering the natural resources of a hinterland. A large continental economy like India (also China) comes, so to speak, with an internal hinterland. A ten per cent sustained growth rate (as in China) would spell disaster for the environment. The challenge is to evolve a strategy that will leave the natural capital relatively unmolested. The book under review does not even think this merits discussion. Sachs and Bajpai laud China’s growth experience uncritically. Ahluwalia mentions environmental protection in the same breath as bribing the ubiquitous ‘inspector’. Only Kotwal and Ramaswami want proper environment policies in place before implementing liberalisation of the agricultural sector.

A book that the converted would love but provides little to convert the non-believers. A pity since these are important issues which need to be debated.

Partha Sen


Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach by Martha C. Nussbaum. Kali for Women, New Delhi, 2000.

Martha Nussbaum is a feminist philosopher who has, at various points in her career, attracted flak from both feminists and philosophers. She first hit the headlines in 1996, when she testified in a trial over an anti-gay rights amendment in Colorado, demolishing the testimony of an expert witness who claimed that the ancient Greeks condemned homosexuality. A distinguished line-up of philosophers (mostly male) contested her stand, attacking everything from her looks to her ability to read Greek. Next, she took on Judith Butler, a doyenne of the post-modern feminist school, for her ‘hip quietism’ and pessimism about the feminist quest for justice. She has been trashed by Camille Paglia as a ‘creature of PC coteries’, and gushed over by the New York Times. In other words, not your usual run-of-the-mill senior academic!

Nussbaum’s latest book reflects this background – it is sprinkled with barbs directed in equal measure at philosophers who do not share her feminist views and feminists who lack an appropriate respect for philosophy. She disapproves of ‘feminists who disparage abstraction in a global way’, just as much as she condemns post-modernist philosophers for ‘a type of abstraction that turns the mind away from reality.’ She states bluntly that much of what philosophers have written about women, sex and the family shows little understanding of women’s experiences of subordination and exclusion. Nussbaum is surely aware that, in taking such uncompromising positions, she is laying her own arguments open to pitiless scrutiny from her peers. That she is able to provide an engaging, coherent and convincing explanation of why philosophy and feminism need each other, is a tribute not only to her scholarship but to her commitment to both disciplines.

Nussbaum’s basic contention is simple – that the normative approaches of utilitarian economics are inadequate guides to public policy because they ignore the situation of women. In her words, women’s oppression and subordination are not ‘rare cases of unusual crimes’, but common realities everywhere in the world. Women are nowhere treated as ends in themselves, but are seen as means for the ends of others – as reproducers, caregivers, providers of sexual services, instruments for the economic prosperity of their families. In such a situation, economic and political approaches to development are bound to fail if they do not address the special problems women face, and pass the test of being of use to women.

In itself, this is no longer a revolutionary statement (although most people in the development business still balk at identifying such an approach as feminist – ‘gendered’ is the preferred label). Nussbaum, an avowed feminist, has no such problems. This book presents her version of the human capabilities approach (originally developed by Amartya Sen) as the feminist answer to the problem of defining a minimum level of basic human functioning that is consistent with respect for human dignity, and which can also be translated into political goals and developmental targets.

Nussbaum’s use of the capabilities approach is a significant advance over Amartya Sen’s original concept. For Sen, the idea of human capabilities is primarily a tool that development economists can use to make comparisons of the ‘quality of life’. Nussbaum’s project is more overtly political – to use the notion of a basic threshold of capabilities to arrive at a set of central constitutional principles that citizens have a right to demand from their governments. She offers her approach as a valid alternative to the principle of subjective welfarism – the idea that the perceived wellbeing of individuals should be the basis of social choice – which has been implicit in much of feminist theorising.

Nussbaum tests the practical utility of her approach – and makes visible the weaknesses in alternative approaches – by applying it to two complex and contentious institutional contexts: religion and the family. In the first case, the endeavour is to develop a political and legal strategy to resolve the conflict between religion and sex equality. In the case of the family, she addresses the challenge of respecting and valuing the ‘womanly’ functions of loving and caring, while promoting the political goals of full equality and family justice.

Nussbaum uses three famous examples – the debate around the Hindu Code Bill in 1951, Shah Bano’s claim for maintenance, and Mary Roy’s challenge to the Travancore Christian Act – to demonstrate how claims of religious freedom and women’s claims to their rights can conflict with each other. Nussbaum contrasts and critiques the major feminist positions on this dilemma. Most Indian feminists would agree with her opposition to cultural relativism, as her stand that women’s interests are undermined by allowing communities to define women’s rights in terms of their own traditional understanding of what is ‘good’. But Nussbaum also sees pragmatic difficulties in the secular humanist position espoused by a large segment of the Indian women’s movement.

The liberal feminist analysis of religion as a primary instrument of patriarchy, and the complete rejection of its validity as a source of core political principles, has contributed to the ideological stalemate that the Indian women’s movement is confronted with on the issue of a common civil code. In Nussbaum’s opinion, a related pragmatic error is that of failing to pursue alliances with feminist forces within each religious tradition in pursuit of common goals – again, a position that many Indian feminists have taken in recent years. Nussbaum further points out that the secular humanist approach negates the principles of respect for personhood and the right of individuals to define the meaning of life in their own way.

Nussbaum’s ascription of an intrinsic value to religion as an important element in the human search for meaning is somewhat problematic in the Indian context. Although she justifies this stand on the grounds that religion is historically linked with the development of capabilities of artistic, ethical and intellectual expression and is a central vehicle of cultural continuity, this is a highly contentious proposition. To be fair to Nussbaum, she limits her political use of the capabilities argument to religious opportunity rather than religious functioning. Nevertheless, the distinction is a fine one to maintain in a situation where acceptance of a fundamental value in religion per se does not lead to an agreement on some universal religious truths. Instead, it is inextricably bound up with offensive comparisons of cultural, artistic and intellectual forms of expression within different religions.

Like the feminist demand for a common civil code, Nussbaum’s argument for recognising and building on the internal diversity and plurality within each religious tradition can be very attractive to those on the other side of the secular divide. Indian fundamentalists of every persuasion are strenuously arguing that theirs is the religion that permits the greatest space for heterogeneity and diversity, confounding feminists who, like Nussbaum, have based their political strategies on an imagined synergy between the subaltern traditions within the major religions.

To end the book, Nussbaum demonstrates how her notion of central capabilities can be the basis for a set of general principles for public action, aimed at creating citizens who are active planners of their lives and dignified equals. She then uses these principles (the creation of options for women, increasing their perceived contribution to wellbeing, and increasing women’s selfworth) to ‘adjudicate’ on some contemporary debates within the Indian women’s movement. These are the debates on the goals of feminism (changing of socially constructed gender roles versus improving women’s economic status), and the controversy between those who do and do not support women’s literacy.

However, this reviewer was left feeling a little disappointed. True, in each case, the capabilities approach demonstrates the validity and interlocking nature of opposing positions, but this is not as impressive a demonstration of its powers as Nussbaum seems to think. After all, the common sense approach too leads one to the same conclusion! One wishes that Nussbaum had developed her analysis of the positions of Indian feminists on the far more contentious issue of sexuality and sexual rights. Instead, she concludes a brief reference to the ‘Fire’ controversy with the statement that ‘open conversation on the topic seems to promise a closing of the gap between the two groups of feminists.’ Most people would agree that exactly the opposite is happening.

Nussbaum has been attacked by some social scientists for her presumption in writing a book about Indian women based on two visits to India and brief interactions with Indian feminists and development activists. Such criticisms are palpably unfair. In fact, Nussbaum’s preface includes a powerful defence of the validity of the ‘outsider’ as researcher and suggests that ‘in a situation of entrenched inequality, being a neighbour can be an epistemological problem.’ Nussbaum does not claim to be an empirical social scientist; nor does she pretend that her book is the outcome of sustained empirical research. Her book is a philosophical project, whose aim is to develop a particular type of normative philosophical theory, testing her assumptions by applying them to the experiences of Indian women as narrated by her informants, who, between them, constitute a comprehensive ‘who’s who’ of the Indian women’s movement.

Nussbaum’s book, as she intended, reflects ‘the systematisation and standardisation of thoughts that women are pursuing all over the world when they ask how their lives might be improved, and what governments should be doing about that.’ She makes a strong plea for bringing the philosophical method into development theory ‘as a counterweight to the philosophical assumptions of development economists.’ Nussbaum feels that philosophers themselves are responsible for creating a situation where most people do not see the relevance of philosophy. Many feminists would agree that the same statement could easily be adapted to feminism! Nussbaum herself believes that it is possible to use feminist theory and the philosophical method to forge weapons for activism and struggle. Her book is a distinctive contribution to this process.

Kalyani Menon


MULTICULTURALISM, LIBERALISM AND DEMOCRACY edited by Rajeev Bhargava, Amiya Kumar Bagchi and R. Sudarshan. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999.

Baby Bear asked, ‘Mama, Papa, what have you done? I thought we were vegetarians.’

Papa Bear burped. ‘We are,’ he said, ‘but we’re always ready to try new things. Flexibility is just one more benefit of being multicultural.’

– James Finn Garner,

Politically Correct Bedtime Stories

EDITED by three Indians, with the majority of contributions from Indian scholars, and microwaved to perfection in the cool of Kasauli, such a multicultural a la carte collection cannot be allowed the pretensions of having contributed to political theory; instead, it can only be judged by whether the new menu of ‘multiculturalism’ can help the Indian state and its political order cope with the cultural demands made in the name of dogma and orthodoxy by the ethnic identities of various hues. Since the collection is titled‘Multiculturalism, Liberalism and Democracy’, the assumption must be that ‘multiculturalism’ as a concept or strategy should somehow help us address our collective goals better than mere ‘liberalism’ or ‘democracy’.

Indeed, this seems to be the burden of a very competent introduction by Rajeev Bhargava. He characterizes multiculturalism (ML) as an approach that ‘stresses the importance of cultural belonging and legitimizes the desire to maintain difference.’ Later, he argues that, ‘ML embodies the politics of collective goals as well as a politics of difference,’ something which liberal formulations and democratic formats do not particularly care to embody. Simply put, no one should be made to suffer on account of his/her cultural identity (however distinctly defined or idiosyncratically practised); nor should one be made to give up or compromise one’s cultural identity as a price for receiving the benefits of citizenship.

The claim is that ‘both sameness and difference can be a source of inequality and injustice. We must neither be discriminated on account of particular features of religion and culture nor, as a condition of citizenship, be compelled to set aside our cultural particularity. Somehow a space has to be found to accommodate cultural particularity within the political sphere shaped already by liberal individualism and republicanism.’ In particular, there is need to be watchful against ‘exclusion hidden within democracy’. In other words, watch out against the dreaded ‘ethnic state’.

Does it then mean that every ‘difference’ is entitled to importance and attention on equal footing? Would not an exaggerated stress on ‘difference’ produce conflict in collective goals and in allocation of resources? Rajeev Bhargava makes further distinctions between ‘liberal multiculturalism’, ‘authoritarian multiculturalism’, and ‘democratic multiculturalism’; he settles for the last one because ‘it is fully prepared to tackle the tension between identity and belonging on the one hand and requirements of individual autonomy on the other, and to bring into the political domain both sets of issues.’

As Rajeev Bhargava sees it, ‘authoritarian multiculturalism’ is unacceptable because it ‘negates individual liberty and autonomy’ and instead, is ‘obsessed solely with identity and belonging.’ (The SGPC establishment would decide how a Sikh should wear his beard?) Liberal multicultural is, though, mindful of this oppression but chooses to make ‘large areas of public life immune from political intervention; it simply allows inbuilt oppression and subordination to persist and by insulating the political domain from different identities, it ends up freezing difference.’ (The Muslim ulemma would be the sole judge of changes needed in Muslim personal law?) (49)

What is more, ‘democratic multiculturalism’ insists on an engaging state, an interventionist state, a state which would not be ‘indifferent’ to ‘oppressive cultural practices’; when a state fails to use its ‘non-punitive’ measures, subordination and oppression would fester.

This is slippery ground, and this is where an otherwise ‘excellent’ collection comes a cropper. Should, for example, the Indian state practice a bit of ‘democratic multiculturalism’ and make an attempt to excise the Muslim personal law of some of its ‘oppressive’ elements? But, then, who should judge what is ‘oppressive’? Is sati oppressive? What is oppressive about child-marriage in parts of Rajasthan, if Rajput society sees nothing oppressive about it? Are there widely agreed upon, if not universally acceptable, standards of non-oppressive behaviour that a state can invoke without inviting the charge of subordination/domination/hegemonization?

Unfortunately, none of the excellent contributions help to clarify these thematic matters. And as R. Sudarshan (Governance of Multicultural Polities: limits to the rule of law) points out, there are consequences of celebration of difference for a democratic state order, based on rule of law: how to fix the para-meters of the framework of basic values and shared interests. When conflicts inevitably arise on account of ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic, caste or even gender differences, how is the state to deal with them? More than the inevitability of conflict, there are problems of regulation of conflict.

Javeed Alam (Public Sphere and Democratic Governance in Contemporary India) laments that the democratic state is most reluctant to intervene. The idiom of democratic mobilization produces its own syntax of oppression. ‘The route to power in the present configuration of forces is in a condition of disalignment with those which require respect for the individual and his rights.’ These communities acting as collective personalities deny to individuals within their fold what they claim for themselves as collectivities. Can there be an enlightened establishment in a ‘democratic state’ that would be able in a clinically disinterested manner to undertake desirable intervention?

Not easy at all. M.S.S. Pandian (‘Nation’ from its Margins: notes on E.V. Ramaswamy’s ‘impossible’ nation) points out the inherently unresolvable contests over ‘certitude about boundaries, identities and political agency’ and whether there was any finality about the ‘rigid territoriality of the nation-space.’ How to prevent a majority from imposing majoritarianism on reluctant minorities or how to make an ethnic group submit to the give and take of a fair political arrangement?

Admittedly it is wickedly wrong – as a multiculturalist would argue – for the Turkish state (an otherwise enlightened military-dominated government that seeks to keep the Islamic fundamentalist out) to deprive the Kurds of the rights of empowerment. But in a ‘democratic state’ the ‘rules of the game’ cannot be sorted out by reference to democratic multiculturalism. Should we object to a chief minister (Sheila Dixit) touching the feet of a Shakaracharya? Should an Akali Dal chief minister submit himself to the hukumnama of the Akal Takht? Why is it wrong for an Imam Bukhari to be seen as meddling in politics?

If anything, democratic multiculturalism will bring additional exasperation to an already exasperated democratic polity. In fact, P.K. Dutta’s (The Contest Over Space and the Formation of Communal Collectivities: Burial of a Fakir, Calcutta, 1924) absorbing account shows how ‘consensus’ of rules of co-existence breaks down, as also the total unpre-dictability of response to ‘secular’ stimuli.

Disappointingly, Rajeev Bhargava ends up making a case for the old-fashioned liberal polity, nurtured and sustained by vigorous democratic impulses. He concedes that ‘no strategy can work in the absence of an effective state. Conditions of peaceful co-existence are not reproduced automatically but require a fairly strong state. Second, a solution is hardly likely to work unless a modicum of democratic politics exists. A minimally democratic state may not be good enough but what it may manage to prevent is much worse.’

It may well be that just because western political scientists and polemicists have declared themselves to be enamoured of the curative potency of multiculturalism, we too are expected to flirt with the concept. Perhaps the semantic of multiculturalism is already creeping up on us. Believe it or not, a recent press release from the AICC declared India to be a multicultural society.

All said and done, the case for multiculturalism, as made out by Bhargava et al. becomes increasingly less impressive; none of the contributors are able to convincingly show the overwhelming desirability of upholding multiculturalism, especially at the expense of established practices and rituals of democratic order. Even a case for practicable flexibility has not been made out.

Harish Khare