In examining the demands of social justice in India, it is important to distinguish between an arrangement-focused view of justice, on the one hand, and a realisation-focused understanding of justice, on the other. Sometimes justice is conceptualised in terms of certain organisational arrangements – some institutions, some regulations, some behavioural rules – the active presence of which indicates that justice is being done. The question to ask here is whether the demands of justice must be only about getting the institutions and rules right.

Proceeding beyond them, should we not also have to examine what does emerge in the society, including the kind of lives that people can actually lead, given the institutions and rules and also other influences?

The basic argument for a realisation-focused understanding, for which I would argue, is that justice cannot be divorced from the actual world that emerges. Of course, institutions and rules are very important in influencing what happens, and also they are part and parcel of the actual world as well, but the realised actuality goes well beyond the organizational picture.

This is a critically important distinction in the history of theories of justice, including those in Europe and the West. But I begin with a demarcation that has a clear role in Indian intellectual debates, going back to the Sanskrit literature on the subject. Two distinct words – niti and nyaya – both of which stand for justice in classical Sanskrit, actually help us to differentiate between these two separate concentrations. It is true, of course, that words such as niti and nyaya have been used in many different senses in different philosophical and legal discussions in ancient India, but there is still a basic distinction between the respective concentrations of niti and nyaya.

Among the principal uses of the term niti are organisational propriety and behavioural correctness. In contrast with niti, the term nyaya stands for a more comprehensive concept of realised justice. In that line of vision, the roles of institutions, rules, and organisation, important as they are, have to be assessed in the broader and more inclusive perspective of nyaya, which is inescapably linked with the world that actually emerges, not just the institutions or rules we happen to have…


A realisation-focused perspective makes it easy to see the importance of the prevention of manifest injustice in the world, rather than focusing on the search for perfection. As the example of matsyanyaya makes clear, the subject of justice is not merely about trying to achieve – or dreaming about achieving – some perfectly just society or social arrangements, but about preventing manifestly severe injustice (like avoiding the dreadful state of matsyanyaya).

For example, when people agitated for the abolition of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were not labouring under the illusion that the abolition of slavery would make the world perfectly just. It was their claim, rather, that a society with slavery was totally unjust. That much, they argued, was absolutely clear, even if it might be very hard to identify (not to mention, achieve) a perfectly just society.

Abolition of slavery was a matter of prevention of severe injustice and a significant advancement of justice; it was not meant to be an answer to the transcendental question of identifying a perfectly just society, or ideal social institutions.

It was on that basis that the anti-slavery agitation, with its diagnosis of intolerable injustice, saw the pursuit of that cause to be an overwhelming priority.

That historical case can also serve as something of an analogy that is very relevant to us today in India. There are, I would argue, similarly momentous manifestations of severe injustice in our own world today in India, such as appalling levels of continued child undernourishment (almost unparalleled in the rest of the world), continuing lack of entitlement to basic medical attention of the poorer members of society, and the comprehensive absence of opportunities for basic schooling for a significant proportion of the population.

Whatever else nyaya must demand (and we can have all sorts of different views of what a perfectly just India would look like), the reasoned humanity of the justice of nyaya can hardly fail to demand the urgent removal of these terrible deprivations in the world in which we actually live.

This is not only a matter for political philosophy, but also a central issue in political practice.

It is easy enough to agitate about new problems that arise and generate immediate discontent, whether it is rising petrol prices or the fear of losing national sovereignty in signing a deal with another country. These too are, of course, issues of importance, but what is to me amazing is the quiet acceptance, with relatively little political murmur, of the continuation of the astounding misery of the least advantaged people of our country.

The crowding out of political interest in the colossal and persistent deprivation of the underdogs of the Indian society through the dominance of more easily vocalisable current affairs (important as they may be) has a profound effect in weakening the pressure on the government to eradicate with the greatest of urgency the most gross and lasting injustice in India. There is something peculiarly puzzling about the priorities that are reflected in what seems to keep us awake at night.

Excerpted with the permission of Oxford University Press from the essay titled What Should Keep Us Awake At Night, from the book The Country of First Boys, Amartya Sen, published in collaboration with The Little Magazine.