Debating India

The Following is a review, written by Prabhu Guptara, of Debating India, by Bhikhu Parekh, (Oxford University Press, 2015, ISBN:  0-19-806045-9).

Relational themes are touched by most of the twelve essays in this outstanding book by a distinguished scholar who is now Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Westminster as well as Emeritus Professor at the University of Hull, a Member of the House of Lords, and one of the Relational Thinking Network’s own Patrons.

However, three of the essays focus exclusively on relational themes.

First, Parekh’s imaginary debate between Osama bin Laden and Gandhi, conducted through correspondence:  The initial letter by bin Laden is couched in terms of an appeal to Gandhi to support bin Laden’s cause, putting forward the case for bin Laden’s approach to Islamic Jihad.  Interestingly, bin Laden comes across as someone who is neither mad nor murderous – nor an irrational person “devoid of decency and good sense, with whom no dialogue is possible”.  Gandhi responds fully and frankly.  Osama bin Laden’s retort is again responded to by Gandhi.

Though there are only two letters here from each of them, the upshot is to persuade readers that genuine dialogue is possible even between such diametrically opposed parties and traditions of thought, if each party practices, in the dialogue, what we in the Relational Thinking movement call “parity” – that is, if each appreciates what they accept as valid in the other point of view, and responds honestly.

Gandhi, for instance, accepts bin Laden’s critique of the contemporary West, but unhesitatingly puts forward the view that bin Laden attacks European imperialism “not because you are against imperialism but because (European imperialism) ended Muslim imperialism, and you attack Americans because they are preventing you from reviving (Muslim imperialism).   An imperialist yourself, your attacks on the imperialist designs of others sound hollow and hypocritical and convince no one”.  Moreover, Gandhi’s offers to bin Laden the seminal thought that he has “no patience, no plan of social and religious regeneration, no desire to deal with the deeper causes of (Muslim) social decay”.

Parekh concludes the imagined correspondence between the two by observing that it “is easy to imagine…how their dialogue would proceed.  Deep and irresoluble differences between them would remain in several areas.  (However, dialogue) with the likes of bin Laden is both possible and necessary…. (Such dialogue) can do much to improve mutual understanding, resolve some differences, build trust, and detoxicate the intellectual and political climate so necessary for the ordinary political processes to operate”.

Parekh’s point is relevant not just to the tensions and violence between Islamic militants and the West, but also to the internecine struggles between fanatical Islamists and ordinary Muslims, as well as between fanatical Hindutvans and normal Hindus in India.

Whether, at the end of the day, dialogue with people such as bin Laden will result in any reduction of violence on their part is not clear. I wonder whether Gandhi’s two attempts at dialogue with Hitler failed because Hitler lacked Indian traditions of debate?  Or would such attempts at dialogue have succeeded if they had been undertaken much earlier in Hitler’s career?  Perhaps “dialogue” alone is too thin for such purposes, as it succeeds in providing, at best, what we Relationists call “directness”; and that needs to be enriched by increased “commonality” and “multiplexity” – a process that was enabled by systematic and wide-ranging research, in the Newick Park Initiative ( which is what succeeded in defusing at least some of the potential violence surrounding the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Second, Parekh’s essay “Friendship in classical Indian thought”:  he points out that the conditions in which friendships can arise and flourish “do not obtain in all societies, and hence friendship is not a universal phenomenon”.  So the essay asks whether “Indian thinkers identified a form of relationship broadly analogous to that of friendship as we generally understand it” and, if so, “how they analysed its nature and structure, and what value they placed on it”.

He picks, for particular examination, the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Taking his orientation from the contrast between anthropocentric/ theocentric views of the world dominant in the West, and the cosmocentric view of most Indian thinkers, he writes: “For (Indians), the natural world was an internally articulated and ordered whole whose constituents were all its ‘co-tenants’ enjoying the right to exist and avail themselves of its resources.  Human beings therefore had a duty of friendliness and goodwill towards each other as well as other orders of being” – meaning flora and fauna.

The question that arises is how this philosophy of universal goodwill produced something as oppressive and inhuman as the caste system and, even today, does not see the contradiction between universal goodwill and casteism.  Not only that, this philosophy of universal goodwill seems to have taken little interest in even attempting to seek any explanation for the rise of the contradiction, or for the existence of that contradiction for centuries.

Is it possible that ‘universal goodwill’ functions, then, as a comforter, which distracts from recognition of the reality of the ‘universal ill-will’ that is maintained by the caste system?

In any case, Parekh concludes that, for classical Indian thought, friendship “is one of the noblest of human relationships offering joy, love, security, and all else that makes human life rich and full”; that while Indian traditions are “rich in … detailed exploration of the different forms and dilemmas of friendship…it is poorly theorized” by Indian traditions; that Indian traditions do not “give as much importance to the bonding of heads as to that of hearts; that, in Indian thought, “friendship does not seem to play the kind of epistemological role that it does in some other traditions”; and that it is surprising that “there has so far been no systematic study” of Indian traditions regarding friendship.

That is indeed surprising, since my own childhood experiences of friendships in India contrast so much with friendships that I see among my children in the West.  For example, Indian friendships are in the nature of an emotional contract which cannot gradually slacken and starve, but can only be broken with a rather sharp gesture accompanied by verbal statement to that effect.  At least in Punjabi, there is even a word (“kutti”) for the breaking of a friendship.

Third, the essay on “Ambedkar and the Pursuit of Fraternity”:  Ambedkar is best known as the Father of the Indian Constitution, through which he tried to institutionalise the pursuit of equality and fraternity in India. The Huguenot ideals of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” (later kidnapped by the French Revolution) are well known throughout the world, and it is worthwhile reflecting briefly on the similarities and differences between these notions and some of those that are essential to Relational Thinking.

“Liberty” does not loom large in the Relational Thinking vocabulary, primarily because in the Relationist view, liberty needs to be balanced by responsibility, and contemporary culture overemphasises liberty; by contrast, we Relationists probably under-emphasise liberty in our effort to bring responsibility back into some semblance of balance.

Incidentally, the notion of liberty by itself did not mean much to Ambedkar either. In his view, “liberty” needed to be grasped as two different entities: “political independence” (e.g. from the British, which is what Gandhi and the rest of the Indian elite were obsessed with); and “social liberation” (from caste-based oppression, from which the vast majority of India’s population still suffer) which was Ambedkar’s focus.

From those brief remarks on “liberty”, let me move on to “equality” – which is a legal notion, to do with one’s relative status in the eyes of the law.  That contrasts with the Relational concept of “parity”, which is an inter-personal dynamic, to do with each party’s use of power to enable the best win-win environment for both parties.

Further, if we move on to the notion of “fraternity”, could it not be argued that that is rather like “good relationship”?  Well, “fraternity” is an inspiring vision or goal which remains rather abstract, unless fleshed out by detailed thinking covering many areas of life, society, economics and politics – of the kind that is provided by Relational Thinking.

Now, to the gist of Ambedkar’s work towards these goals or values, which Parekh puts well:

Unlike classical Indian thinkers, Ambedkar did ask why Hindus never protested against or even felt embarrassed by the practice of untouchability.  In his view, it was primarily because of their commitment to the doctrine of karma with its concomitant belief that one’s situation in this life is due to one’s sins or virtues in previous lives.

Such beliefs are also why India lacks what Ambedkar called a “public conscience” or “public spirit”.

So much is this the case that “Hindu society” cannot exist, because there can be no “society” in the absence of shared sympathies: “In India people are treated with contempt, yet it does not sicken an Indian with disgust, rouse his sense of justice and fair play, … his humanity does not rise in protest at what is going on around him” as Ambedkar himself put it or, as Parekh puts it: “Being entrenched within a way of thinking that reduce(s) human beings to their membership of particular castes, Hindus could not see untouchables as human beings like them, let alone as fellow members of a shared community.  Not surprisingly, they rarely took interest in, let alone campaigned against their degrading and inhuman status”.

For Ambedkar, eradication of untouchability “involved nothing less than a social revolution, a radical restructuring of the very foundations of Hindu society….(through) relentless struggle, an uncompromising, determined, organized … movement by untouchables with a view to acquiring political power, the key to all social progress”.

Since Ambedkar failed to achieve this, and failed even to create a political party of any longevity, he focused on “using the institutions of the state to create an egalitarian and casteless society”.  Ambedkar knew that this was not going to be easy, “because of a deep tension at the very heart of the Indian polity”.  The Constitution, framed principally by Ambedkar, committed India to the great ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, but these are largely absent in its daily life.  As a result, state and society pull in opposite directions.

That contradiction could only be resolved, in Ambedkar’s view, by “the state dominating and systematically shaping society in the desired direction.  Since the objectives of the state are alien to Indian society, they could only be realized if the state was led by a determined Westernized elite.  If the state became a hostage to society as was the case for centuries in premodern India, or was led by men and women with no commitment to these objectives as in colonial India, Ambedkar saw no hope for the country”.

Parekh expresses no clear view regarding whether Narendra Modi’s election as Prime Minister portends the capture of the state by a party with no commitment to the values of the Indian Constitution – and therefore whether the Indian State is at present hostage to traditional Indian society.  Perhaps the manuscript of the book was sent to the press well before the shape of the actions of the current government became clear.

To return to Ambedkar’s strategy: the question raised by it is whether fraternity can ever be an institutional objective, let alone an institutional achievement.  He saw, of course, that fraternity was impossible without equality, and so he lowered his sights to using the Constitution and related legislative mechanisms to achieve at least political equality, without which social equality and fraternity have no hope of emerging.

The question Parekh does not ask is:  why did Ambedkar fail to rouse the majority of the country to exert themselves to achieve the self-evidently beneficial goals of fraternity and equality?  Could it be that emotional appeals successfully inspire those who are emotionally-inclined so that they are prepared to make enormous sacrifices?  However, for those who are inclined to be less emotional, such appeals to overarching goals need to be supplemented with a comprehensive programme consisting nevertheless of actions of varying shapes and sizes to suit people in different circumstances (a programme such as is developed by the Relational Thinking movement)?

In any case, as Parekh points out “the idea of fraternity is neglected in much of modern, especially liberal, political theory”.  He lays out and assesses Ambedkar’s signal contributions to that, as well as his enormous contributions to the making of modern India.

I wish I had the time and space to explore here the rest of essays in this collection, which are on other fascinating themes such as the choice of the National Symbols of India, the debates between Gandhi and Tagore, Einstein on Gandhi’s non-violence, Gandhi and inter-religious dialogue, the unfortunate narrowing of the perception of Gandhi’s philosophy to non-violence, the question of India’s National Philosophy, and reflections on the successes and failures of democratic politics in India.  Each of these has relational resonances.  I’m sure the Relational Thinking Network would welcome wider discussion and debate not only about the matters I have raised in this review, but also about other matters in Lord Parekh’s richly multifaceted book.

Prabhu Guptara is an executive member of the board of Relational Analytics.

Why cheap food may be damaging the environment

“Any environmental issue involves looking at who the stakeholders are and what are the relationships among them. If you don’t deal with the relationship problem at the root, then you will fail in the end”

– Dr Michael Schluter at the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security 2015

This pithy quote caught the theme of the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security well. The event brought together a group of practitioners, researchers and senior policy makers in a reflective environment for a conversation in which the dynamics of land and security were explored in depth. The dialogue contrasted the positive and negative feedback loops between political and environmental factors in land degradation, poverty and conflict.

One of the exciting good news stories shared at the event came from northern Ethiopia, where there have been major results on land restoration and on building social cohesion that together put the region in a much better place to withstand the current trials of a failed wet season.

However, the dialogue recognised that work in those geographical areas experiencing social and environmental fragility is not sufficient alone. The world is interconnected, not just through the migrant flows when things don’t work out – a striking reminder though that is – but also through the vitally important but less visible ties of global trade.

Trade in food arguably represents the most important set of relationships determining how society at large is connected with the farming community – who are, after all, the world’s front line environmental managers. As Stockholm Water Prize Laureate, Prof Tony Allan, explained:

“We are living a contradiction. We are addicted to cheap food. But we do not realise that asking farmers to produce under-priced food means they cannot provide the ecosystem services which we also need them to provide. Low food prices make it impossible for farmers to attend to the environment”

Food prices link everyone on the planet with farmers. So if there are problems with regulation of land and conflict affecting farmers in Africa, or problems closer to home as a result of farmers lacking incentives and resources to control polluted or excessive run-off into rivers, then reorganising society’s relationships with farmers is key.

The scope of the dialogue was broad – but it’s hard to think of a topic of which it is truer to say that it affects us all… The report, keynote speeches and some of the great presentations at the event are available here.

Brendan Bromwich is a water and environment consultant and was one of the speakers at the 2015 Relational Thinking International Conference.

Photo: Caux Palace – Switzerland (By Airflore on Flickr)

The Relational Student: developing social capital capacity

CAMBRIDGE – By Robert Loe, Director of the Relational Schools Project.

This week saw the final day of filming for “The Relational Teacher”. The film explores a pedagogy for relationships and has followed six outstanding teachers and their classes. Whilst we have sought to highlight teacher practice/behaviours that lead to strong relationships in the classroom, the film has explored the view of students as well; their objective perspective has been crucial in understanding the subtle nuance of relationship building.

In turning the spotlight on the students, it becomes clear that being a Relational Teacher is not a solitary pursuit. The best Relational Teachers describe the environment of the Relational School (highly suited to their way of working); the Relational Staffroom (teachers who build relationships in community) and the Relational Student. A fundamental question has arisen from our work; to what extent do we need to develop the relational capacities of young people so that relationship building in the classroom becomes a shared responsibility?

In an attempt to analyse, observe and describe the ways teachers build social capital with those around them – I was struck by the need to develop the same social capital capacities in the very young people in their care.

Do relationships with teachers even matter?

The theory of social capital was distilled into two words by Field: “relationships matter” (Social Capital, London, Routledge 2003). The significance of a relational dimension is depicted in most models of social capital. The building blocks of social capital include: trust; engagement and connection; collaborative action; shared identity as well as shared values and aspirations.

When students have a positive teacher-student relationship, they adjust to school more easily, view school as a positive experience, exhibit fewer behaviour difficulties, display better social skills, and demonstrate higher academic achievement (Buyse et al., 2009). They are also more active participants in class, express a greater interest in [schooling], and maintain higher grade point averages (Hallinan, 2008)

Although both parental and teacher support are important in predicting students’ achievement, several studies indicate that student-perceived teacher connection was the most closely associated factor with progress through Key Stages 3 and 4 (Gregory & Weinstein, 2004). Positive student-teacher relationships serve as a resource for students at risk of school failure, whereas conflict or detachment between students and adults are the foundations of disconnection and, specifically, outcomes such as truancy. Research by the Centre for Social Justice (2000) suggests that over two-thirds of all those who truant do so in order to avoid a particular lesson, with ‘relationship with the teacher’ cited as one of the principal grounds for relational breakdown. Where relationships are strong in the classroom, they can surmount social inequality; where they are poor or dysfunctional, evidence suggests they reinforce educational disadvantage. Simply put, students who have difficulty forming supportive relationships with teachers are at a greater risk of school failure (Ladd & Burgess, 2001).

Developing Relational Resilience 

So, how do we actively create social capital within school communities?

Research indicates that not all students have equal access to the opportunity to develop close relationships with their teachers. According to Jerome, Hamre, and Pianta (2009), some subgroups (including certain ethnic minority groups, males, those of lower ability or those who exhibit externalising behaviours such as aggression or hyperactivity) experience teacher relationships with more conflict than their peers. Likewise, students with emotional disturbances, mild learning disabilities or students who display more problem behaviours at home have more conflictual relationships with teachers than with students without these problems.

Whilst education has witnessed a shift in focus in relation to the students’ role, the learning and assessment processes, teacher-to-student relationships remain asymmetrical. As such there is, perhaps, an expectation, that it is the responsibility of the teacher to develop the  professional working relationship between them and the student. But that some groups of students struggle to build close relationships with teachers, more than others, suggests relational capacities of young people are exceptionally important to building strong relationships and need to be developed. We need to help to develop relational resilience in students so that when they meet others who aren’t as good at developing relationships, they can overcome perceived obstacles. Students need to know where to begin and not passively to expect the teacher to initiate the process.

picThe Culture of Open Dialogue

One area that can be focused on to build relational resilience is the area of communication. Effective communication is fundamental to building relationships and consequently students with poor communication skills will struggle to build relationships. One way to develop this is through the practice of dialogue (West-Burnham & Otero, 2004). This dialogue needs to be rich – not just focused on ‘instructional conversation’, but including community conversation, where people can share views and develop social capital. When students practice dialogue with their teachers and classmates, they will develop their communication skills, and likely feel greater mutual respect, thus building relational resilience.

The National College poses eight interrogatives to assess the Relational culture of your classroom/your school. How open is your school’s culture of dialogue?

In our view, there is no surer route to community building and to fulfi lling the promise of democracy and lifelong learning than through the deepening of good, ongoing dialogue. Such dialogue can increase student achievement, transform teaching and learning and renew relationships that connect communities to schools (Preskill et al, 2000)

The Relational Teacher is released this September.