A Day in May


On the 23rd of May, I was sitting at the Press Club of India in New Delhi, watching the votes being tallied even as a wide array of panellists and discussants came in and out and opined about what were then trends. As my favourite candidates, one by one began trailing by huge margins, I felt that justice was being subverted somewhere. These were good people , who had worked hard , were sincere, some had given up lucrative jobs to come and help in the huge task of nation building that is required. And nation building is beyond the building of roads, ports, airports. It is also about preserving paradigms that are robust, respectful and healthy, are part of our heritage and passing them on like runners in a relay race to the next man or woman. It is intangible but important. And I felt that people who wanted to do that gave up the battle and accepted defeat gracefully, even before the results were officially announced, I felt that a grave injustice had been done.

But of course , not everyone felt this way. When I left the Press Club at about 1pm, the drumbeats of victory had already begun sounding outside the many elegant houses in New Delhi where our netas and parliamentarians live. Marigold garlands and ladoos were everywhere. Crowds of people which could very quickly turn into a mob, but fortunately didn’t, would stop passing cars and not allow passage till they had a bite of the ladoo. For this group, sweets were in order because their ideology and world view had won and that was justice done and sealed and a dance and drum beat on the streets was called for.

Amartya Sen in his book “ The Idea of Justice” talks about the subjectivity of justice in his simple parable of the flute where he argues that the notion of justice that one has is determined by the philosophy of justice that one lives by. Take three kids and a flute. Anne says the flute should be given to her because she is the only one who knows how to play it. Bob says the flute should be handed to him as he is so poor he has no toys to play with. Carla says the flute is hers because she made it.

Sen argues that who gets the flute depends on your philosophy of justice. Bob, the poorest, will have the support of the economic egalitarian. The libertarian would opt for Carla. The utilitarian will argue for Anne because she will get the maximum pleasure, as she can actually play the instrument. Sen states there are no institutional arrangements that can help us resolve this dispute in a universally accepted just manner.

I had never fully understood the notion that Sen presents in the book as starkly as on May 23, when I walked out of the Press Club. I didn’t know if I was Bob or Anne or Carla that day. But one thing that I did know was this. Justice is not the uniformly benign monolith that sometimes we think it is. There will always be Annes and Carlas and Bobs in the world arguing for their particular understanding of justice based on their world view. And by the way, that afternoon , I also understood the meaning of the “ Clash of Civilizations”. You see, in the course of a few hours and a 500 metre walk, I had seen it all.

By Shantanu Dutta 

Shantanu Dutta is a former Air Force Officer who now serves in the non-profit sector. 


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