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Corporate class and its “veil of ignorance”

Corporate class and its “veil of ignorance”


Gopal Guru

(Published in Seminar magazine in May 2005)

gopal_guru_copy_copyTHE recent debate on the issue of reservation in the private sector in India is significant for more than one reason. This demand comes in the wake of a growing restiveness marking unemployed dalit youth in particular, and non-dalits in general. And it seems to provide a safe channel for containing this mood which could otherwise become more explosive. That is to say, this demand, though polemically attractive and seemingly radical, intends to provide a more pacifying impact on the constituency in question. As a subtext, it has offered a much needed opportunity to the ‘champions’ of dalits to remain politically relevant in the public sphere.

Nevertheless, the articulation of this demand is important for it has brought to the fore the much awaited response, however mixed that may be, from the corporate class. The corporate class had, in the past, remained relatively skeptical on the question of reservation. Its response now is vehement and vociferous if not also humiliating. The humiliating dimension was categorically evident in an anguish-cum-threat voiced by one leading industrialist when he said, ‘We would rather move out of Maharashtra, if the state government decides to implement the reservation policy in the private sector’.[1]

While the entire corporate class has overwhelmingly opposed the quota system in the private sector, a relatively more enlightened section of this class seems to have taken a more sympathetic view of this issue and shown an inclination towards affirmative action.[2] Incidentally, the champions of a dalit cause do not seem to provide any reason as to why the corporate class should endorse the policy of reservations in the private sector. There is no attempt at critically examining of the corporate commitment to the issue of social justice.

Those who have raised the issue of reservations in the private sector defend their case by referring to affirmative action programmes that are endorsed by the corporate class in other countries. Such defence seeks to counter the righteous indignation of the Indian corporate class at the idea of implementing reservations in the private sector. However, they collapse reservation into affirmative action without realizing that there is a significant difference between the two. It is interesting to note that some of them feel that the state sector still has the capacity to fulfil the promise of reservations. This suggestion involves the politics of capturing the state through elections, which then can be driven to implement the reservation agenda.[3]

On the other hand, members of the corporate class have sought to oppose the quota system on the ground that it could be disastrous for the future of the private sector.[4] While these polemical positions are understandable, they are not sufficiently illuminating. In fact the very logic of polemics seeks to foreclose the possibility of situating the issue in a larger framework where one can ask more significant questions. One needs to go beyond mere polemic and raise serious questions that would rescue the debate from sliding into polemics or self-serving rhetoric.

It would be interesting to ask the following questions: What is the notion of social justice that the corporate class has developed over time? Was it ever commited to social justice? If so, how strong was corporate commitment to social justice? To what extent has this class shown political maturity in achieving a critical balance between its own inward looking modernity focusing singularly on accumulation oriented expansion of its material base and outward looking egalitarianism tied up with a notion of social justice? To what extent has this class taken a moral lead in facilitating a dignified accommodation of dalits into more diversified opportunity structures within the private sector? In other words, have they created diversity based on modernity, or have they retained the four fold division represented in the varna system? One needs to address these questions to explicate the normative dimensions of social justice.

As previous experience makes clear, the corporate conception of social existence has shifted from seeking protection in the market (conditions where the corporate class is also a beneficiary of state protection and thus operating in the realm of demand) to supporting competitive structures (the sphere of command). This could further be explained in terms of the following dictum – each according to his/her relative disadvantage to each according to his/her ability. Generally speaking, the condition of protection expresses the need for intervention from an external agency, particularly the state. The function of the welfare state in a liberal sense is to provide protection to the relatively disadvantaged sections that otherwise may face a grave danger of being flushed out by the force of unequal competition. Although this class did not face such a grave danger at any time on its journey during the colonial period, it certainly felt that its capacity to develop and progress were constrained. Consequently, it felt the need for a new independent nation state that would enable it to embark on a much smoother journey.

The possibility of accomplishing this task was dependent upon the consolidation of different social groups, including dalits, into one nationalist whole. It is this pragmatic consideration of avoiding fragmentation and building nationalist solidarity that motivated the corporate class to adopt a more hospitable approach towards the question of social justice. In fact some of the more enlightened members of this class, like the senior Birla and Bajaj, supported Gandhi’s anti-untouchability campaign during the freedom struggle.[5] A few others chose to provide financial support to Gandhi’s struggles in South Africa.[6]

Even after independence, particularly in the initial decades, this class adopted a more skeptical rather than a hostile attitude towards the provisions for reservation. One could understand this soft approach in terms of the twin processes of constitutionalization and governmentalization of the reservation issue, which helped this class to insulate itself from the larger question of social justice. So long as reservation could be pushed into the basket of the public sector, there were few anxieties. Having been spared the pressures of promoting and pushing social justice, members of this class built more temples than schools for dalits and children.

Second, this class also found it morally difficult to raise any serious objection to the quota system as it was itself the beneficiary of state protection in a variety of ways. In the initial years of independence, this class sought state protection for keeping the flow of foreign capital under control. The realm of protection under which this class operated, in effect, led to an extended notion of social justice. According to this notion a big capitalist required protection from foreign capital, smaller enterprises in turn required protection from the national capital (the MRTP was a result of this demand). The rich peasantry required protection from the urban capitalist and the smaller sugar mills required protected sugar zones in view of the danger from the bigger mills, and so on.

However, reliance on protection necessarily produces a much more pragmatist orientation to social justice and its concern for equality. But the corporate class began to deviate from this larger social vision the moment it acquired both capacity and modernist confidence to compete without the support of the state. Arguablly this confidence seems to have gone up manifold particularly in the age of globalization. ‘Karlo Duniya Muthi Me’ represents this confidence. This has in effect led to a shift in the corporate notion of social justice which now draws its sustenance from competition rather than protection.

The new notion of justice involves an innocent looking principle, namely, that the market is fair to both the employee and employer as each can enjoy freedom to choose. For example, an educated dalit can choose from more than one employer and vice versa. It is assumed here that this kind of freedom will expand manifold particularly in the era of globalization.

As a corollary to this principle, the corporate class can argue that it does not entertain the pre-dated notion of justice that would suggest ‘each according to his/her birth or social origin.’ What also follows from this logic is that conditions in which the corporate notion of justice operates are ultimately produced by the market and not by caste or community. That is to say, market does discriminate but only on the basis of the acquired qualities of people and not on ascribed markers like caste or ethnicity. The motivational premise of this class, therefore, imagines a modernity which suggests that a rationalily is the only guiding force behind market transactions.

In the recent debate the corporate class and its supporters have continuously argued that the corporate sector has been rational enough not to practice, for example, casteism while recruiting its own personnel. In other words, this class has been indirectly asserting that it operates in the condition of ‘veil of ignorance’. That is to say, in market transactions the contending players are mutually disinterested in the social background of the participants.[7] What is being suggested here is that the terms of transactions are much more transparent. The question that needs to be addressed is, since when and to what extent has this class followed the veil of ignorance in practice of justice? Or is this assertion porous with a lot of loopholes?

Let me begin with the argument that these pronouncements about the ‘veil of ignorance’ as the main organizing principle of transaction is fairly recent and has come up in the context of the issue of reservations in the private sector. To state it differently, in the absence of such demand, we would perhaps not have known whether this class is wearing a ‘veil of ignorance’. In fact the checkered history of industrial capital shows that this class has followed this ‘veil of ignorance’ principle rather selectively. For example, the textile mills owners in Bombay in the 1930s did not bother to follow the modern criterion of recruiting mill workers and even managers.[8] Relatively more unskilled upper caste mill workers barred more skilled workers from the dalit castes from working in the weaving sections of Bombay based textile mills. The upper caste workers opposed the entry of dalits, not on grounds of merit but on the line of purity-pollution.[9]

Unfortunately, we do not have any evidence to show that the Bombay mill owners deployed a ‘veil of ignorance’ to ensure more transparent and modernist element in the organization of mills. Some of the observers seek to understand this porous veil of ignorance particularly in terms of the need to divide the workers on the basis of caste.[10] Thus, the corporate politics of stalling working class solidarity overwhelmed, in a limited sense, the principle of ‘veil of ignorance’ that would have benefited much more qualified Mahars (dalits from Maharashtra) in getting into the weaving sections of the textile industry. Thus, it was the question of stability rather than efficiency that by implication replaced the need for veil of ignorance. This also brings forth the fragmentary nature of the corporate concept justice that seems to have been adopted by this class in India. On the one hand, it did not object to political reservations for dalits, both during the freedom struggle and after independence, but on the other, its studied disregard for the ‘veil’, by implication, reproduced the varna system in several factories.[11]

In recent times, however, a growing confidence sustained by the speculative nature of investment has encouraged this class to argue in favour of a veil of ignorance. Ironically, capital intensive investment, particularly in the IT sector, prompted some of them to claim commitment to the issue of merit and transparency in the private sector. This indirectly assigned a higher moral status to the corporate notion of justice. This was clear in an observation in which it was said that the reservationists are hunters therefore without any responsibility and regard for conservation of the common good (emphasis mine) while the capitalist are conservers with a deep sense of conservation for common good.[12]

Though for some this argument might look ‘ecologically’ sound, but for others it is sociologically blind as it fails to historicize the role of other social groups like dalits, tribals and women in conservation. After all conservation is not single-handedly achieved by the capitalist alone. Besides, the merit argument is deeply problematic for its utilitarian logic is morally deficient. It is limited by an inability to factor in the historical experience of exclusion and discrimination that has bearing on the present notions of merit and efficiency. It can be argued that the demerit, if any, is the result of a historical disadvantage and exclusion of dalits from the opportunity structures. Conversely, corporate claims of merit are more the result of historically accumulated advantage of the top of the twice born. Of course, the corporate class treats merit as a natural and not socially produced capability. This historical advantage and the logic of capitalist accumulation has eventually helped some of the corporate houses to transfer profits from one generation to another, while a majority of dalits have transferred only their misery and deprivation through generations.

The merit argument based on utilitarian logic promises to achieve the twin purpose of rewarding the meritorious candidate and saving the firm from possible collapse seen as imminent in a recruitment policy based on a criterion other than merit. The essential function of utilitarian logic is to forewarn the corporate class about the possible dangers involved in recruiting ‘dumb’ candidates since the anti-reservationists believe that reservation provisions tend to produce only dumb candidates.

The hidden script of this utilitarian logic, however, is that it links merit ultimately to the maximization of capacity and efficiency, which in turn leads to the maximization of production and profit. The very drive for maximization of production and profit assumes a certain notion of justice. In fact, the idea of justice inherent in this framework suggests that only those who can invest their efficiency and skill in production and are ultimately responsible for the maximization of profit should be suitably rewarded. One often sees supporters of this class on TV suggesting that their singular commitment to merit makes them naturally disinterested in caste while recruiting in the private sector. Let us examine who is disinterested in the pre-modern social base of the private sector.

Let me argue that as far as dalits are concerned they have no choice but to brandish their caste flag for gaining access to the private sector. They are painfully aware of the fact that their caste is considered a liability rather than an asset; hence, it would be detrimental for them to use it for gaining access to opportunities available in the private sector. This involves a very subtle assumption that the private sector and even the public sector suffer from an inherent bias that mostly favours the upper castes. That leaves only two options open to dalits: either to seek dignified isolation from the private sector or to accept humiliating placement in scavenging or sanitary occupations. Most dalits opt for the first option. Of course they, like the upper castes, do not have the luxury to acquire a generic entity, which can move across this sector without a sense of shame.

However, the Indian corporate class claims both mutual disinterest in the caste background and that it does not influence the recruitment process at any level. Members of this class aver that they make sincere efforts to advertise opportunities through an extensive network and not the more secretive mechanisms which operate silently through caste, community and kinship networks. They seek a list of prospective candidates from the government’s employment exchange office. They can claim that the veil of ignorance is accompanied by an interrelated justice principle in as much as it takes the interest of the meritorious into consideration, and takes precaution only to ensure quality and efficiency for the sake of the ‘common good’.

As several studies have shown, the motivational claim that the corporate class is not interested in using caste remains highly suspect as is that this sector is devoid of caste problems.[13] It would be interesting to look at a leading industrial firm from Maharashtra where top officials are from a particular sub-caste of Brahmins. It is somewhat ironic that the same industrial house was generous enough to send a dalit to London to acquire advanced training in the leather industry.[14]

It is notable that the private sector which follows the diversity principle does so top down and not bottom up. The distribution of opportunities operates parallel along the vertical and horizontal axis. On this axis, an upper caste person has a bright chance to rotate his job more frequently thus hopping from one good job to a better one. This thus violates an important principle of justice [15] which, as Walzer suggests, requires vertical and horizontal rotation of opportunity structure. This structural condition that is quite unfavorable to dalits, tribals and others, renders the prescription of affirmative action redundant if not absurd. That is to say affirmative action might just enable a few dalits to acquire some qualifications and finally reach a level playing field, but this would only offer psychological satisfaction of reaching and not making it in terms of the outcome principle of justice in the corporate sector.

Thus, the option of affirmative action that is so often advanced by the corporate class somehow fails to convert opportunity into an asset. In the present context, assets have to be understood in terms of the extent to which the corporate class treats the dalits as the part of a universal pool of common resources, and not simply the assets to be realized in the sanitary sector.

One is not arguing that the corporates deliberately promote candidates belonging to a particular background. In fact they don’t have to do it because the selection process, which looks genuinely modernist and based on merit, envelops a strong undercurrent of caste that runs parallel to the modernist current. The infection of caste in the private sector is structural and does not require formal deployment. It is already incipient in the system, not a deliberate design to seek dalit exclusion.

Lopsided educational development has produced structural exclusion of dalits from courses in places like the IIM & the IIT that are absolutely essential for getting into the corporate sector. This exclusion of dalits gets further accentuated due to the expensive nature of these professional courses. This ultimately results in producing handicapped ambitions among the dalits who then find themselves landing up in the arts and social sciences that hold limited promise for job opportunity. When the social conditions predetermine opportunities in favour of the twice born, the corporate class ends up recruiting from the top of the twice born. In such conditions the claims of transparency and openness look a little redundant if not completely deceitful. Has any corporate firm undertaken a survey of its own organization that could prove their disinterest regarding caste as a basis of recruitment?

In view of the structural denial of opportunities in the private sector and the lack of actual placement in a sphere other than the sanitary divisions, the demand for procedural and not simply protective justice, appears legitimate. Procedural justice in turn demands a constitutionalization of reservation provisions in the private sector. However, this would be unacceptable to the corporate class for the following reasons. It poses a serious challenge to the autonomy of the corporate class, which finds constitutionalization and governmentalization as impinging on their generic rights to decide merit without any directive and dictation from the state.

In one of his interventions Gurcharan Das argued that if we follow the quota system in the private sector, it would not leave any scope for the employer to remove a dalit on account of inefficiency.[16] Thus, the corporate class suggests that merit is the defining marker of the private sector and that purity of merit can be maintained only if it is not messed up by quotas in the private sector.

The real challenge before the corporate class is to adopt conscious measures to treat dalits as part of the long cherished merit as also to realize this merit through actual rotation of opportunity structures. They can do so by taking a moral lead in providing, not simply enabling conditions but for converting opportunities into real assets. They need to assign some worth to dalits who need to be treated as part of a common pool of assets and not as refuse to be pushed to the margins of the garbage and sanitary sections.

1. Rahul Bajaj’s intervention in ‘The Big Fight’, NDTV, 19-06- 2004.

2. Narayan Murti’s speech at a seminar at Infosys, 11 July 2003 in Bangalore.

3. The Hindu (Delhi edition), 31 January 2005.

4. Business Line (Delhi edition), 27 December 2004.

5. Writing and speeches of B.R. Ambedkar, vol. I, Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai, 1979, p. 46.

6. Gandhi in South Africa,

7. Gurcharan Das, Unbounded India, Viking, Delhi,

8. Gopal Guru, ‘Political Economy of Segregation and Desegregation of dalits in 19th Century Bombay, Social Science Probings, Delhi, 1989, p. 56.

9. Op. cit., Ambedkar.

10. Op. cit., Gopal Guru.

11. Barbara Harris-White, India Working, Essays on Society and Economy, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 176-199.

12. P.V. Indresan, ‘Hunters and Conservators, Indian Express (Delhi edition), 19 November 2004.

13. M.N. Panini, ‘Political Economy of Caste, in M.N. Srinivas (ed.) Caste and its Twentieth Century Avatar, Viking, Delhi, 1996, pp. 42-43.

14. I thank Dr. Shrsrtu Jadhav, a leading London based psychiatric, for sharing this information with me.

15. Michael Walzer, Sphere of Justice.

16. Gurcharan Das in ‘The Big Fight’, on NDTV, 19 June 2004.

[Courtesy: Seminar, May 2005]