BOOK EXCERPT

‘Niti’ or ‘Nyaya’: The real injustice that should keep us awake at night

The realisation of justice in the real world is even more important than the existence of institutions and rules meant to ensure justice.

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…

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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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.