An Occupy L.A. protest in 2011. CREDIT: <a href="">greg lilly</a> <a href="">(CC)</a>
An Occupy L.A. protest in 2011. CREDIT: greg lilly (CC)

Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox on Political Responsibility in India and the United States

May 18, 2016

What do citizens living in a democracy owe their country in terms of upholding its values and laws? Both Gandhi and Obama emphasize the importance of individual responsibility, which has to go beyond just voting, says Gadkar-Wilcox. Don't miss this fascinating discussion on Indian and U.S. perspectives, both historically and in today's fraught politics.

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders podcast. My name is Alex Woodson. The Carnegie New Leaders program provides enrichment opportunities for the next generation of leaders who are interested in exploring the ethical dimension of issues relating to business, foreign policy, and economic development.

Today I am again joined by Carnegie New Leader Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox. Sujata is an assistant professor of legal studies at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. In January she came by to discuss her time in India on a Fulbright-Nehru scholarship researching the formation and drafting of the Indian Constitution. We had a great response to that discussion, so we wanted to do a follow-up.

Sujata, thanks for coming by today.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Thank you, Alex, for having me here again.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to start with something we touched on last time, which is political responsibility, or what citizens living in a democracy owe their country in terms of upholding their country's values and laws. Just to start, how is this topic viewed in India, as opposed to how it is viewed in the United States?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: I'll tell you how I got onto this topic. I was doing research at the archives, as was mentioned, on a Fulbright-Nehru scholarship, to try to understand how the members of the Constituent Assembly in 1950 constructed the Constitution, the kind of language they used to talk about things like rights and duties and responsibilities.What I have been finding over and over in the archives, in the historical papers, the personal papers for some of the key Constituent Assembly members, is this concept of social responsibility and a public ethic—so not only what do individuals owe to their government or to their fellow citizens, but what is it as a public official that you should be doing for your citizens; what is your responsibility as a government, as a government entity; as an institution itself, and as an individual?

What I have been finding is that there is a lot of discussion on responsibility to others. We see this in the framework of the Indian Constitution itself, where the document talks not only about these fundamental individual rights, which we think of largely as civil and political rights we see very often in the [U.S.] Constitution, largely in the Bill of Rights, focusing on access to public space and limited infringement of government interference, with access to that space and interactions with one another—so limited government interference.

But there is discussion also on social and economic rights, which take the form of directive principles, because there are material inequalities that just cannot be ignored in India. It is the government's responsibility. We hear from public officials constantly this discussion of vulnerability: How do we break down those social inequalities? Whose responsibility is that? And of course, they take it upon themselves to see that as the role of the government; particularly the central government is the one that takes responsibility.

But there is also a provision on fundamental duties. So it's not just the government that has responsibilities, but what do individuals owe to one another; what do you owe in terms of fraternity to the community and to the nation?

So you see sort of these three levels of both rights and responsibilities. I think that translates into a larger question of, again, this idea of social ethic on the part of both the government and then the individual.

Should I start with the government or the individual?

ALEX WOODSON: Let's start with the individual first.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: For someone like Mahatma Gandhi, the individual plays a very key role in society. They owe something to their fellow citizens. In this day and age, when we are talking about responsibility or active citizenry, it often revolves around voting and participation in the political process. But for Gandhi that wasn't enough. You cannot just transfer the responsibility to make sure the inequalities or the injustices you see are broken down to someone else. You can't transfer the problem to them and you can't transfer the solution to them.

So we can't have sort of third-party justice, in the sense that a court will be there to solve your human rights violation. Well, that's not going to create the kind of society where we all respect one another and have a shared commitment and sense of equality. So it is really up to the individuals then to make sure they are doing what they can to respect and to break down the inequalities that they see existing in society.

For Gandhi, you see that there is much more of a role for advocacy, action, localized engagement. I was just hearing, in fact, President Obama talk at Rutgers about what it means to be an active citizen. A lot of the discussion seemed to revolve—of course, which makes sense—around, how can you be an active political citizen? Largely the answer was: Well, you vote; you can't be complacent. Of course, I think political participation is important. Of course, someone like Gandhi would say that is important as well. But I think it can't end there.

The next question is: Voting itself is just sort of transferring that responsibility to an institution, like the government, to try to address inequality. But even in President Obama's speech, we see that a lot of historic changes had come from social movements, had come from people organizing to try to persuade the government in one direction or the other. So you are taking that responsibility on yourself.

For something like the Black Lives Matter movement, where you are seeing this advocacy, you are seeing individuals trying to change a public narrative, to re-control or reclaim a narrative that they feel is lost. That's the kind of activism, I think, he was talking about. It's not just an activism; it's a responsibility. I think that's the difference. It's not something that should be voluntary. He believes that it is something that is necessary. In order for you to even be able to claim a moral entitlement to a human right, you have to be able to stand up for someone else; you have to be able to speak out for those who are the most vulnerable.

To me that was so refreshing, to see that in the papers. Of course, this is in the context of the 1940s and 1950s in India, this idea that you have to be responsible to one another; it's not enough to hand that off to the government or it's not enough to write a check and say, "I'm giving a donation to an organization," but, "What is it that I am doing as an individual to prevent the injustices to the extent that I can?"

ALEX WOODSON: Just to relate that a little bit to the United States, we are in the middle of an election where we have two candidates, the presumptive Republican nominee and the leading Democrat nominee, both of whom have very high "unfavorability" ratings. Do you think that could be, in part, because many Americans feel that their political responsibility ends at voting; they don't really take an active role in their communities and in local politics? Do you think that could lead to a situation where it's kind of like choosing the lesser of two evils?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Yes, I definitely think that. And we see that, because we see the voter turnout in local politics. Even though that probably has a much larger impact on day-to-day experiences, it's much lower than when it links to some sort of national election. I think that is the problem.

Of course, there are many factors that go into that. That's why people feel that there isn't as much proportional representation, there's not as much diversity of interests. So localized and particularized interests often get massed in that. Of course, with the way particular provinces have been carved out, in terms of gerrymandering, there are some people who feel like "Well, I'm not even sure if my vote counts in some way."

I think that also just overemphasizes too much just the role and the significance of voting and the political process—not that I want to undermine it. Of course it's important and it's important to be active in that political process. That shouldn't end at the federal or the national level. It should, of course, continue to local politics. But it should also not end with politics.

So the question is: What kind of grassroots organizing are people doing? What are people doing in their local communities? Is there an ethic that goes beyond just showing up at a polling site to vote? And what happens the day after the election? What happens to that momentum?

I think it's always going to be a problem if you rely on institutions to account for these injustices because there's a lot of political compromise that goes into any of these political decisions. And then, the question is the particularized needs then get ignored. Historically, how has that been accounted for? Well, through social movements, sometimes through local movements and sometimes through national movements. But you have to pick up on that kind of collective action.

I think that's what we're losing, is we're losing this idea that there's something beyond politics. It's not that politics is not important, because of course we want to hold public institutions accountable. But what else should we be doing? What should we be doing as individual citizens to make sure that we are addressing the vulnerabilities that we see?

What we are in fact seeing—and you could even see this in President Obama's talk, and of course in a lot of scholarship that has come out—is the gaps and inequality are increasing. So our public institutions in that sense are not accountable because they are supposed to be reducing vulnerability, and in fact the gaps are increasing and the concentration of wealth is increasing. We can't just then sit back and say, "Well, what can we do about that?" because there is a lot that can be done.

The first thing is—and of course there have been scholars who have already argued this, like Thomas Pogge, most famously, making arguments for global justice—to say: "Look, individuals have to be responsible, have to make sure that they hold institutions accountable." You have to take note of your own role in perpetuating institutional norms that then exacerbate corporate control or centralized power or whatever you think is creating structural inequalities, and you have to hold them accountable for that. So there is some role that the individual has there.

Gandhi would say, too, that you have more of a role of responsibility to others. It's not enough that you transfer that.

What we're seeing now in the political discourse is it's always an external factor. So "All of our problems are coming from abroad"—that's one political narrative—or "All of our problems are coming from institutions." Of course, some of the problems are coming from institutions that are perpetuating some of the structural inequalities. But there's never sort of a link to "What is our role as individual citizens?" Even the candidates are speaking to their own constituents. No one is saying, "What can you do besides voting for me? Of course you can vote for me." That seems to be the only solution: "Vote for me and I will make all the changes." But not: "What should you be doing on top of voting for me in order to break down those structural barriers? Do you play a role in that?"

And complacency, more than just not voting, but not actually being a part of that structural transformation, I think does play a big role in perpetuating that kind of inequality. I don't think people are thinking about that if they're transferring all the responsibility to the institution, because then it takes away the responsibility for an individual to say, "What should I be doing, more than just writing a check?"


SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Because just writing a check is just going to an organization. But: "What can I be doing on the local level, in my own community, for the inequalities that I see, for the injustices that I see around me?" That should be part of the public narrative.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to bring that back to India, what does this greater individual responsibility look like in India? Is it a more active civil society, more protest movements? What do you see beyond voting that Indians do? I know "Indians" is a very broad term; there are over a billion, a very diverse country, of course. But what are some of the issues that Indian people are working towards today on a local individual level, rather than transferring the power to the government?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: I would say I'm also looking at a historical moment in time.

ALEX WOODSON: Sure. So what in the past has that looked like, even beyond how you see—the Independence Movement was a big example of that—but beyond that, what are some other historical examples?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: I would say India today is not very different than the United States. The structures are similar. And of course, this change has happened over time in India in a way that maybe is why I am more attracted to what was happening in the 1950s, because there is a narrative there that speaks much more to even an ethical and social responsibility than you see today. There are a lot of factors—a liberalized economy, globalization. So a lot of things have changed in the structure of politics and economics that make India today a little bit different than what we see in the 1950s.

But again, symbolically, what Gandhi was saying, or what Gandhi was doing himself, first of all, is reclaiming the narrative. How do you do that? You disseminate papers, local papers, yourself. You see a lot of the Constituent Assembly members had done that. This is before independence. But: "We need to reclaim the story of what's going on. We're getting one public narrative of why colonization is good or ignoring the structural inequalities that are resulting from this kind of domination. How do we reclaim that?"

That is, of course, I think the most difficult thing today. That's the kind of local engagement. It's how do you reclaim the narrative. It's by organizing, by creating movement, by having local papers, which is what they had done there.

There were other things at the time too—the homespun cloth, for example—to try to take control. Of course, this was in the context of colonization, so to try to take control of markets that have been co-opted, to challenge exploitation on the local level, where you have individuals who are actively participating.

But I think most important symbolically for Gandhi, it was this idea of the symbolic effect of reductionism. So the idea of living in a community with people who are the most vulnerable, and then yourself appearing in public, speaking on behalf of the vulnerable, and reducing yourself—in other words, to not constantly point to the exceptional, to not say, "Look, success is the person who has the most wealth and who has the most privileges, the most opportunities," but in fact to do the opposite. So Leela Gandhi calls it the politics of moral imperfectionism: to actually reduce yourself, to be at the same level as the person who is the most vulnerable, because that, in itself, then symbolically creates a narrative that we should be thinking about inequalities rather than who's wearing the best suit, who's had the most success, who's made the most money.

It brings attention, again, to those who have not had those opportunities. And then it starts to raise questions of: "Why? What kind of barriers have been in place that have prevented people from getting the opportunities that other people have had access to for many years?"

I think that is what's missing today. We see, at least with the Black Lives Matter movement, there is an attempt to reclaim this narrative, there is an attempt to bring more attention to these structural inequalities, to say, "This disparate treatment of individuals has been happening for a long time." The problem with that is the resistance. Because the narrative is so controlled and it's so centralized, it becomes a challenge to even say, "Here are the statistics." But that's what you have to do. In order to build a movement, you have to just keep putting the information out there to change the discourse.

This is why a lot of the work that I'm doing with the Fulbright-Nehru grant is focusing on discourse, because I think "Who controls the narrative?" is the most important question, and how you get control of the narrative is very difficult today, particularly when all of that communication is so centralized. But that's the most important thing, is "How do we do that?"

You can do that on a local level. You can try to engage people in those structural inequalities, to say, "There's something you can do to make the community better."

ALEX WOODSON: Right. And I think one of the things that that comes up against in the United States is the whole question of federalism and the limits of the central government. I think we see that today, May 2016, most clearly with the transgender bathroom issues and what's happening in North Carolina. And then, you have the Obama administration saying, "This isn't right" basically, and North Carolina is pushing back against that as well.

So this is a very theoretical question. But India has states as well, and I know different states in India have pretty different forms of government. How do Indian people reconcile that? Do they accept that one region of the country is going to have very different laws, very different views, than others? Or is there still some kind of an attempt to bring everything back together and focus on what it means to be an Indian nation?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: There's a combination of both I would say. There has been a shift over time to a more decentralized form of government where there is more local representation, which is probably something that Gandhi himself would have wanted.

But if you look back—and this why I think it's important to understand the nature of the Constitution when it was written at the time of independence—you have figures like B. R. Ambedkar, who is the "father of the Indian Constitution," who himself was an untouchable, who faced so much discrimination at the local level. Regardless of what he had done in his life, regardless of how many doctoral degrees he had, of what he was doing, at every turn he faced discrimination. His perspective really was a different understanding of the role of the central government. For him, you cannot get social transformation from a local government because there's too much embedded discrimination there. Those structures are really hard to overcome unless you have the kind of power that comes with a central government.

When you look at the Indian Constitution, what's interesting about that is it's a federal structure with a very unitary core. It has a very different purpose than the federalism that was designed in the United States, where our philosophy of government is based on a skepticism of governmental overreach. So there is a skepticism of the federal government, of what happens in terms of corruption when you have too much centralized power ignoring local needs.

Whereas for Ambedkar in India, the flip side of that is: But on the local level you cannot overcome discrimination. It's got to come from the central government. There has to be some kind of uniform policy that addresses the needs of people who are otherwise going to become marginalized in their own communities.

What's interesting is you do see that in the United States as well. It just doesn't get wrapped up in that narrative. So when we talk about federalism, we don't talk about "What is the role of the federal government in terms of social transformation?" It's usually just in the context of "We're really worried about federal overreach." But what we do see with things like the 1964 Civil Rights Act is there are times when the federal government has actually put together legislation that accounts for local discrimination. Of course, a lot of that in the United States depends on whether or not the federal government has the jurisdiction to do that.

The Supreme Court has found that, with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the federal government has power under Article One of the Constitution under the Interstate Commerce Clause, because even local acts of discrimination have some impact on interstate distribution, manufacture, the interstate economy, and so collectively there is an impact on the national economy which gives the federal government some jurisdiction to regulate. But what we see as a result of that is that sometimes the 1964 Civil Rights Act actually steps in in a way that prevents localized discrimination. This is, in fact, the role—we don't often talk about it that way, though—that is, in fact, what happens with an act like the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But that was exactly the conversation that was happening in India. This was Ambedkar's feeling, that "As an untouchable, I am not going to be able to overcome this discrimination without centralized policies."

It's interesting now that we see that with the transgender issue, that it is local in the sense that you have a state law or state policy that is becoming problematic, and a response to that is, "Well, it might be in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act." That then again brings up this question of social responsibility. Of course, in some ways centralized power becomes problematic because it leads to forms of corruption that we see in India, which have led over time to the Congress Party becoming problematic and corrupted, because when you have centralized power you have too much power in some ways.

On the other hand, though, we don't often talk about in the United States how things like the 1964 Civil Rights Act really make a difference in terms of eradicating some kinds of local discrimination that may not otherwise be impacted by local provisions.

ALEX WOODSON: Let's switch topics a little bit. Another idea that we previously discussed was something that Amartya Sen recently argued in his revision of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, which is that we should not think of justice as some perfect form of procedure but rather we should think of it as addressing, and to the extent possible reducing, the actual experience of injustice.

I think this kind of connects back to what we were talking about with the transgender issue. A lot of people in the United States want to think that the government is going to find the right answer, they're going to find the perfect solution, and everyone is going to be happy. Obviously that's pretty hard to do, almost impossible to do.

In India it doesn't seem like that's even an expectation, that the government is working towards finding the perfect answer or the right answer—I won't say not the right answer, but they're not trying to make everyone happy; they understand that's a pretty hard thing to do.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Yes. This is more of a philosophical debate, I would think.


SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Of course, politics involves both the practical and the philosophical. So it brings together this question of how do we compromise. Constantly making compromises does then create this problem that not everybody is happy at all times.

But I think Amartya Sen's theory is a broader sort of meta-narrative of how we should think about the idea of justice itself, that in the United States we are often focusing so much on procedure. When we think about our Constitutional principles—and I see this all the time in my comparative Constitutional law class—it's "the U.S. Constitution must be the best because the principles have lasted for so long."

That almost defies logic in a sense, because it's as if those principles don't need to change over time. Of course they do, and it's more complicated than that. They are broad rules that then get reinterpreted in some ways or applied in different contexts. But this idea that "If you've written something down and it has worked for a long time, that must be great, because we are striving for this perfect procedure, and since it has worked for so long, it must be a perfected procedure"—when, in fact, actually what you need perhaps are rules that aren't perfect, that do address the inequalities of the time; and maybe need to be revised, so you have to come back to the Constitution and revise that.

The one nice thing about the Constitution in India at the time of independence is that there was this understanding that you might not be able to solve everything in the Constitution for the next 50 years. But what do we do about, for example, caste discrimination in the next 10 years? Well, we are going to put in reservations in the Constitution, which is basically an affirmative action plan in the Constitution that we are going to tell you right from the beginning is temporary. This is very unusual, when we think of a temporary Constitutional provision, because we are thinking generally when we are thinking about this idea of perfected procedures as something that's long-lasting. But that may not work in terms of addressing the actual material needs.

Amartya Sen's points sort of speak to that issue, that if we are waiting to figure out who has the right jurisdiction, what the perfected procedural rules are, then we're missing out on how to address inequalities now, how to reduce vulnerability now. So maybe what we do isn't perfect, but at least we do something.

So there has to be this sort of momentum for action now and addressing some vulnerability, even if in the long run it has to be changed. That tends not to be the focus, and it tends not to be even our understanding of justice—and this is the revision of Rawls's theory of justice—that it is focused very heavily on that if you create perfect institutions, those institutions are seen as manifestations of justice in and of themselves. For Amartya Sen you cannot rely on the institution to be the manifestation of justice; you have to actually incorporate the experience of injustice into whatever your institutional policy is in order for it to be effective. I think that's a very important contribution, of course, to these sorts of ideals of what it means to have imperfect justice.

What's nice in the framing of the Indian Constitution—and this is again in a moment, I think, in the 1950s, which is a very "presentous" moment—you know, so much is coming together at that time—that they recognize this, that "We cannot ignore the material inequalities, we cannot ignore the kinds of injustices and vulnerabilities that really are affecting particularly the poor. So what can we do about it?"

Of course, with politics, there are all sorts of compromise. But we see that in the document itself, because beyond just these fundamental rights—which, again, basically mirror the Bill of Rights—you have again a commitment to—and these are not justiciable, meaning there is no legal remedy—but there is a policy commitment to social and economic rights, to fundamental duties.

So there is an understanding that we have to go beyond these sorts of individual liberty interests to address the larger social needs. That's the nice thing about the structure of the Constitution, is you see that in the document itself.

ALEX WOODSON: Yes. When you were talking about how these institutions become the manifestations of justice themselves—when I think of justice, growing up in the United States and learning about the Constitution, the government, I just picture the Supreme Court in my head. And now we have a case where the Supreme Court basically isn't working because you only have eight justices—and, just today, there was a case that was thrown back to the lower courts, I think because they were deadlocked. It's just kind of interesting. Americans kind of take all this for granted. But we are in a situation now where we're seeing—going back to the whole political responsibility of the individual—that we shouldn't be taking these for granted and they really do need to be kept up. Even if they have been around for 230, 240 years, we still need to keep working on our system of government.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: That's absolutely right. I think that's where Gandhi picks up with this idea, even of our sort of correlating duties with human rights, of we cannot leave justice up to a third party. So we can't just say, "Look, you as the Supreme Court, you come in and interpret what human rights mean."

For Gandhi, this is what he meant by localized engagement. That is, it's not enough to have this third-party justice. You have to step in yourself and say, "What am I doing to reduce the vulnerabilities that I see in my own community?" If you're not asking yourself that question, I think then we're already missing out on a part of public responsibility that becomes quite crucial when we think of long-term relationships and equality and community.

ALEX WOODSON: I think that's all I have. Is there anything else that you wanted to add or anything more you want to discuss?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: No. I think that was terrific.

ALEX WOODSON: Great. Thanks again, Sujata.

This has been the Carnegie New Leaders podcast. My name is Alex Woodson. You can find us on iTunes or at

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