‘We cannot afford to idealize samaaj’: Rohini Nilekani

All individuals, regardless of their position in the current power structure, need to belong to a society in which they can exercise agency and freedom, and thrive in the association of other citizens

Published: 03rd August 2022 01:20 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd August 2022 10:14 AM   |  A+A-

Rohini Nilekani. (File Photo)

Rohini Nilekani. (File Photo)

By Express News Service

BENGALURU: At the heart of my work is the belief that we are all citizens first, rather than simply subjects of the state or consumers of the markets. Even during the reign of monarchs, people interacted freely as civilians or nagariks and only identified as subjects when the gaze of the king turned to them. The Samaaj sector comes first, after all. The Sarkaar and Bazaar were created over millennia to serve an evolving human society and the larger public interest. Even when we act as representatives of the state or the market, we do not forgo our rights and duties as citizens. When we leave our places of work, we return home as citizens, as members of the public, and as humans in a collective.

All individuals, regardless of their position in the current power structure, need to belong to a society in which they can exercise agency and freedom, and thrive in the association of other citizens. We must recognize that representational power is limited and fluid. For example, a government official who might accept bribes because everyone else does will still want a bribe-free atmosphere when his children go to school. A manufacturer whose production process might pollute natural resources will still want clean air and water for his family.

Everyone needs a better society, a better Samaaj, to reach their potential and create the best opportunities for their families. If we forget that we are members of society first and foremost, and instead see ourselves as mere beneficiaries of the state or as mere consumers of the market in search of better material life, then we endanger the foundational supremacy of Samaaj. And that inevitably will endanger our own interests over time, both as individuals and as communities.

By no means am I suggesting that Samaaj is a monolith with uniform interests? Samaaj is a patchwork quilt, made up of so many threads and patterns, stitched together by time and events. We cannot afford to idealize Samaaj. In India, we continue to struggle against a structured hierarchy of caste that can dehumanize Dalits and other so-called backward castes. There are still millions of Adivasis whose wisdom we have been unable to recognize, whose forest-dwelling rights are ignored and whose desires and ambitions society has been unable to accommodate.

Women everywhere still must assert their right to equality in every sphere. Similarly, there are other minorities who feel threatened and pushed back. Perhaps Samaaj has not evolved too much beyond the metaphor of the warring tribes. Throughout history, there have been instances when some Samaaj actors have taken the law into their own hands, resulting in vigilantism and violence, or where the majority has stifled the minority into subjugation.

We are seeing some resurgence of these trends in many parts of the world. It is precisely the conflicts from competing interests within Samaaj that required the creation of the state for maintaining a rule of law, and the creation of the markets for defining value and coordinating exchange. In fact, much of the work ahead may be to resolve emerging conflicts of identity, power, and resource sharing within Samaaj entities themselves. Yet, I resolutely believe that these issues will have to be settled sustainably within the realms of the Samaaj space, no matter how long it may take.

We, as citizens, cannot delegate or offload these responsibilities to the state or to markets. Sarkaar cannot and should not be the sole arbiter of peace and justice, and the Bazaar cannot and should not be the sole provider of community goods and services. For true equity and justice to prevail, it should be elements within Samaaj that assert moral leadership and maintain harmony; unleash social innovation, and sustain an atmosphere of respectful social association. (Excerpted with permission from Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: A Citizen-First Approach by Rohini Nilekani, releasing on August 4)


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