The Rusted Steel Frame of India: Navigating the Structure, Branches and Hierarchies



First published: June 2016

This Revised and expanded version: November 2017


Kennedy School Review- 2011, the annual magazine/journal of Harvard Kennedy School published an essay by me on the issue of reforming the organized cadre-based higher civil services in India (what we in India popularly identify as IAS, IPS and others). Writing and finalizing the essay was an experience in itself, as what I initially wrote was well beyond the word limit, and I had to go through several iterations before it was finalized. My editor was truly merciless, not ready to listen to me, and scoring out whatever I had written with so much of passion! In the end, though the essay was much curtailed, I was happy with the result. It was a short and crisp piece, and in the process I learned too.

In my previous blogs, I have repeatedly pointed out that the institutional and governance reforms are one of the crucial steps which our country needs the most at this juncture to move to the next level of growth path. In that sense, civil services reforms are now the ‘binding constraint’ shackling the growth of our country (and in particular my state – Bihar).

In these blog-essays on reforming the higher civil services in India, I propose to follow what I have written in 2011 for Kennedy School Review, with suitable addition, much expansion, revision and elaboration. And I will be discussing freely various issues which have rusted the ‘Steel frame’ today.

I must point out that the original essay was written for US/non-Indian audience, and therefore, things were explained starting from the basics. In that sense, this essay may appear somewhat familiar to many of my Indian readers in general, and to my civil servant colleagues in particular, as it is concerned with explaining the structure and other characteristic features. Nevertheless, I would urge them to go through it patiently (this essay, now in the revised version, is 6700 words long), as I think, it contains useful insights and subtle points. statistics tells me that a significant proportion of my blog readers are from outside India, and therefore, I am maintaining the basic explanations.

It is difficult to structure the essays in advance, but tentatively, I would be covering the following issues in this and subsequent essays:

  1. The Structure and ‘Services’
  2. Induction and Recruitment
  3. Meritocracy or Mediocracy?
  4. ‘Services’ – Roles, Functions and Reorganization

(Let me note with the hindsight, in this revised version, that I could not maintain the structure as above)

So, Here we go….


1. Getting into World’s Best Universities is like a Cake-Walk in comparison…

Have we ever wondered as to what is the most difficult and most competitive selection process in the world for getting a job or a seat in a university? Most probably, it is India’s Civil Services Examination which recruits permanent higher civil servants for different branches of the federal as well as state governments’ bureaucracy. One of my professors at Harvard University has rightly observed that the Indian civil service is full of officers who have passed an entrance examination and selection process that makes getting into Harvard look like a walk in the park (Pritchett, 2009)!

However, I think that the comparison cannot strictly be made. There are various factors which make it like comparing apple to oranges. First, comparing a competitive examination for job with that of a process of selection for admission to a university degree is not in order. Next, socio-cultural and economic situation in USA and India are completely different. Clearly, there is a huge resources and opportunity deficit in India, which has a bearing on educational structure, job and career prospects and resulting choices and preferences of the youth. Further, we in India hardly make any ‘self-selection’ while taking competitive examination and it is quite common to find large number of non-serious candidates appearing in UPSC and other competitive job examinations, often without much preparation, and largely with the sole motive of getting into ‘any’/’some’ job for a living. Obviously, this is not the case in USA.

Furthermore, within India, different regions display different preferences of youth towards their career.  The very strong preference and attraction towards civil service career is more pronounced in cow-belt in general, where huge number of young spent their precious productive years appearing in competitive examination, sometime without much preparation or thought. I sometime think that it is a favourite pass-time of Bihari graduate! On a serious note, lack of industrial and commercial development and progressive decline of agriculture resulting into dearth of employment opportunities, coupled with socio-cultural preference for government job (which in our country is secure, low risk and mostly keeps paying without any consideration to performance) is a driving factor towards this mad-rush for taking competitive examination to find any type of government job.


2. The Gruelling Selection Process: Risks, Rewards and Outcomes

Consider this: The latest figures (available at the time of original essay in 2011) shows that every year around 380-400 thousand young Indians compete through a fair, open, meritocratic three stage intensely competitive examination process for around 600-800 vacancies in higher bureaucracy – making a selection ratio of around 1 in 600 candidate (UPSC, 2010)! The examination has rightly been called not a ‘selection’ but a ‘rejection’ process! In India, higher civil service is one the most popular career options for some of the brightest young Indians graduating from universities – with degrees in management, engineering, law, science, social science, liberal arts, medicine and what not, with widely varying social, economic and regional background (Barik, 2004). If looked purely in terms of monetary rewards, a career in civil service would not compete very favourably with other careers in business management, consulting, software, technology or medicine. Despite this, it attracts some of the best talents in India from all sections of the society mainly because of highly rich job content and diversity of responsibilities (at least for some), social recognition and prestige associated with being in civil services, and an opportunity to work in areas of development, provision of public goods and general administration of the country. In fact, a person joining the career bureaucracy can aspire to reach the highest level of government machinery just below Ministers (political executives, who are elected members of Parliament) as, contrary to USA, political discretionary appointment of higher executives by Ministers does not exist in India.

The recruitment for civil services are managed by an independent constitutional body called ‘Union Public Service Commission’ which conducts annual examination and personality tests for selecting suitable young candidates. Any Indian with an undergraduate degree in any academic discipline, between the ages of 21 to 30 years can appear for the first stage called the ‘preliminary’ examination, at the most 4 times. However, there is positive discrimination for socially disadvantaged sections of society in terms of higher number of attempts and higher cut-off age limit as well as certain quota of seats reserved for candidates belonging to these sections of society. If selected, she can then appear in the ‘mains’ examination and on further being successful; she is called for an interview and personality test. The final selection is made on the basis of performance in mains examination and personality test whereby an all India merit list is finalized and successful candidates are announced.

Since I wrote the above paragraph in 2011, the selection process has undergone some changes, the ‘preliminary’ examination is replaced by what is now called ‘CSAT – civil services aptitude test’, but essentially, the nature, content and difficulty of the examination remains the same. Further, the number of candidates appearing for the examination has continuously been increasing year after year despite claims from various quarters that the attraction of higher civil services is waning with the overall growth of the economy and increasing opportunities. There might be some truth in this claim too – and we need deeper analysis of this – especially with respect to the socio-economic strata of the candidates taking up the examination and also examining the variations in regional, rural-urban and educational background and their time series movements

Successful candidates are allocated to different ‘branches’ of the service on the basis of their rank in merit list and their choices. Every year, successful candidates receive wide public attention, with their interviews coming in national, regional and local print and electronic media, they being invited for talks and for providing guidance to the aspirants etc. The wide popularity of civil services has helped development of large number of coaching/guidance institutions all over India, and there are localities in metros like Delhi which are buzzing with students living in small rented hostel-like cramped private accommodations preparing for intense and exacting selection process. Alas! Only a small fraction of them ultimately get successful and for others, the failure (in many cases, after investing 3-4 precious years of their youth) often haunts them for quite long, though they ultimately have to settled for alternative careers.

I would like to further highlight the piquant ‘uncertainty’ and ‘risk’ characteristics of civil services examination, which makes it a very interesting situation to examine from risk analytics perspective. The uncertainly involved in selection are very high – as I have already pointed out – only 1 in 1000 or so candidate gets selected through the gruelling process and one iteration of the process takes one year. General candidates are allowed 4 chances, up to the age of 30 years. I have known large number of my friends and others who have invested 4 precious and most productive years of their youth preparing for civil services examination ultimately to be unsuccessful. Some of them got through other competitive examination and have been redeemed to that extent. Some, after failures opted for other types of private sector jobs, and some became entrepreneur and businessmen. However, some of them are still not well settled and in that sense have paid heavily by taking this risk.

But the main point I want to make here is something different. It is about the contrast in risk before and after selection. Take this – I have hardly heard of any civil servant who has been fired for non-performance! Once you are selected, your career is almost risk fee – whether you work or not, whatever be your performance, you will keep on getting promotions (mostly) on time, keep moving up in the hierarchy and your salary will keep getting higher and higher with each promotion. Ok… I may be exaggerating a bit. But more or less, the situation is not very different from what I have described. We often hear that donkeys and horses are treated the same in government in India and that’s the real point. The subsequent parts of the essay will talk about this issue, and therefore, we stop here with my concluding observation on risk in civil services examination:

I see a very interesting application of economic concept of risk-aversion and inter-temporal preference for risk in this situation and a deep insight into why so many take that risk:  take very high risk for 3-4 years in the beginning to get an almost-risk-free life for subsequent 30-35 years.


3. Governance and Permanent Bureaucracies

Governments have been one of the most important institutions of our society ever since the human civilizations organized themselves in recognizable and manageable groups. In today’s time, the role and responsibilities of government is immense for organizing and managing a society on mutually agreed principles of humanity and a civilized society bound by principle of freedom, justice and liberty and independence to individual. With such responsibilities, national and sub-national (regional) governments in different countries are often gigantic organizations, largest employer, and are usually organized into different ministries, line departments, and executive agencies carrying out the myriad functions of national administration and security, maintenance of law and order, raising of revenues and provisioning of public goods with varying level of involvement in economic and social development efforts and in facilitating and regulating the markets, industry, trade and commerce. Whether the scope for state activities are large or small, which depend on historical, social, cultural, economic and political factors, modern nation states need public institutions, administrative structure and resources to carry out even the minimal functions of governance.

Typically the government institutions are bureaucratic, which are often characterized as ill suited to cope with its task and purposes – as they are too big, powerful, hierarchical, rule-bound, indifferent to results, inefficient, lazy, incompetent, wasteful, inflexible, unaccountable (Oslen, 2008) and what not! However, this perception often fails to see the fundamental difference between a public and private organization – the most crucial of them perhaps being the accountability to the public at large and public service nature of administration. Further, bureaucracies have been reinventing themselves, and despite such strong criticism, they have not only survived but also have grown and evolved in many respects (Simon, 1997). And bureaucracies have been reinventing and restructuring themselves, almost continuously, in many countries of the world, and certainly they are in that sense, at the world level, a dynamic institution, not an ossified and archaic structure. Without further going into examining bureaucratic reforms and issues like de-bureaucratization, post-bureaucratic forms, New Public Management etc., it may in short be noted that in past two decade or so, there has been perceptible change in the way government departments and bureaucracy operates and there has been improvement in some crucial areas.


4. Indian Bureaucracy: Structure and Size

‘Steel Frame of India’ was the phrase late Jawaharlal Nehru used to describe the organized civil service of India in general, and to the IAS branch of senior civil service in particular. Though it was a British legacy and Nehru was skeptical of it in the beginning, he came to appreciate that a highly qualified, professional and meritocratic civil service institution would, perhaps, be an important factor in making a successful transition of India from a backward nation to a prosperous country. As it turned out, though the transition may not yet has been achieved after more than 65 years of independence, the senior civil services, as a professionally managed cadre of bureaucrats has evolved as one of the pivotal institution of the democratic India. It has even been identified as one of the important factors behind the deepening of democracy and consolidation of the idea of India (Guha, 2007). In the parliamentary democracy of India, where the political executive come and go through regular general elections, the executive civil service is permanent providing much needed continuity, knowledge pool, expertise and professionalism to better manage a vast and diverse country. Though responsible and answerable to political executive, the administrative and institutional structure of civil service is not dependent on the whims and fancies of the political class, thus providing a fine example of checks and balances in a modern governance structure, together with independent judiciary and free press.

Senior civil servants of these organized branches are not only administrators of India – they run district/local administration, collect revenue and taxes, maintain internal security & law and order, run school education and public healthcare facilities, execute developmental programs, manage foreign relations, regulate the markets and other economic institutions, even run railway and broadcasting corporation; but are also policy makers – economic, social and developmental – manning almost all the higher level posts in federal and state government ministries. In a sense, they are virtually present everywhere in national polity and administration. Their roles and responsibilities get augmented in the developing country setting of India.

It would be imperative here to identify and place the structure I am talking about in proper perspective and setting. I am and will be mainly discussing the top layer of organized civil service of India – which hardly forms 1% of the total number of permanent civilian employees of government – but these officers run the government and provide the leadership to the organizations/departments of the government.

Let us have some more data about the size of government in India. Governments in India – I am using the plural to indicate that there are two levels of governments in India – Union or Central of Federal government and then State or provincial governments – are the largest organized sector employer, employing as much as 10.5 million people directly as civilian employees  (that means it excludes the armed forces), most of whom are permanent. This is around 1% of total population of India. It may also be noted that this number does not include teachers employed in public education system including the higher education in universities. Going further deeper, out of these around 10.5 million people, central government employs around 3.7 million persons. Out of this, around 1.5 million are with railways and 0.4 million are with posts alone. All 29 states governments in India together employ remaining around 6.8 million persons, in various line departments, executing agencies and other organizations.

Out of 10.5 million government employees with Central and State government, the senior management level (which may be equated with what in India is called Group A employees) forms only around 1% (around 100,000) and out of this, around 40% constitutes what is called ‘senior civil services’, with which we are concerned here. The remaining 60% of so constitutes what generally is called managerial/professional cadre of ‘technical services’ like medical doctors, scientists, engineers in roads, buildings, public health, communications, scientific and research and infrastructural departments, etc.

To be more specific, the civil service institution in India is organized on hierarchical lines with well-defined structure, process, roles and responsibilities as well as salary and perquisites. In governmental structure, four broad hierarchies of employees are defined. They are called (quite unimaginatively) group A, B, C and D level employees, with D being the lowest. Within each group, there are again hierarchies and levels.  Generally group A and B category posts are managerial level positions, and Group C and D categories provide the crucial executive and clerical support. However, recently, government of India has decided to abolish the lowest group D (in fact this group has been merged with group C) and has also decided that it would henceforth be employing only people with at least high school education (Government of India, 2008). The decision to recruit people with only high school (10th grade) education (and outsource jobs which require lesser or no education) has been protested and criticized, on the grounds of it being iniquitous and elitist, as it leaves the less educated to the vagaries of unorganized sector and private sector employment, which is widely (and correctly) seen as exploitative. The argument has some merit as access to universal school education in India is still far away – and children have widely differing opportunity for access and quality of schooling which is closely correlated with their socio-economic status.

In terms of numbers, as we have seen above, group A forms around 1% of total employees, and are mostly the top management level functionaries. Further, around 10% forms group B, around 55-60% are in group C and remaining 30-34% are in group D (Ministry of Labour, 2003). Recruitment of group B (and some group C) federal government employees is done by another national agency called ‘Staff Selection Commission’ through open competitive examination process for different ministries/department. In case of state government civil services, all the states have their own ‘Public Service Commissions’ which recruits civil servants for group B and C, mostly through open competitive examinations. Recruitment of group D (as well as group C) employees is generally decentralized to respective departments/executive agencies.

There is a complex, though structured way of organizing and managing these different categories of employees. Direct recruitment of young people through open competition examinations is made at entry level of each group A, B and C. In addition, at each entry level, some proportion of recruitment is made from amongst promotion of employees belonging to immediately lower level on the basis of seniority, which varies anywhere from 25% to 75%. The idea behind this is to have a mix of not only young people but also experienced people at all three/four levels in the hierarchy. This structure coupled with permanent employment and seniority based promotions also ensures proper career progression and promotional opportunities.


5. Branches of Senior Civil Services: Preferred and Leftovers

As I have pointed out, I would be discussing and analyzing only the highest level of civil services (called group A, and also identified as Steel Frame of India) in detail. There are many ‘branches’ of the higher civil services, which should not be confused with line or functional departments, as they often transcend them. Branches, called ‘services’ in India, are organized cadre of civil servants (officers, not agencies) grouped largely on the basis of broad functional areas. There branches are organized as closed group and form a cadre of permanent civil servants, who perform and work in some particular functional area, are organized in hierarchical fashion, get promotion largely on the basis of seniority, do compete among themselves, and where entry to outsiders in not allowed.

Thus, we have services named Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Police Service (IPS), Indian Revenue Service (IRS), etc, members of each of which generally spend most of their career in the respective functional areas in different line departments and executive agencies as well as in policy making ministries (except for IAS – who are considered generalist and span a wide functional domain). Although, the service branches are not to be equated with a particular department of the government, many of them do spent most of their career working in one department. Before taking up this issue and delve deeper into idea, logic and reform of branch structure of ‘service, it is important to understand the structure, organization and function of branches.

Table below gives a snapshot of the various services and their broad functions. The list is not exhaustive, as in fact, there are around 25-30 different ‘services’ branches totaling to around forty thousand officers. Some of them are very small in size, created for some specialized functional requirements. IAS is the most prominent branch, being in charge of virtually all the state government functions and widely present at federal government ministries. IAS, IPS and IFoS are assigned to various state governments and work in state level line departments in areas assigned to states, other services are being managed by federal government and are performing functions assigned to federal government in accordance with division of power enshrined in Constitution of India.

As can be seen from the table below, except for few well know service branches, there  are other services which have been created for specialized purpose and are confined largely to a ministry or function. These services are not well known, not much preferred by the candidates appearing in the examination (IAS being the most preferred choice, followed by IFS, IPS and now IRS too, generally in that order). In a sense, all those candidates being allocated to less preferred services face a vastly different career prospects, responsibilities and exposure, and future outlook, and it is an important issue which I will discuss in detail later.

In connection, I might point out the hegemonic position of IAS vis-a-vis other services, and the resulting widespread discontent in other services. IAS is organized as a generalist service, occupying top level posts in most domains and is inherently different from other services, which are specialised in nature. However, since all of them are recruited through the same examination process where a marginal difference of few marks has played in the allocation of different branches, and where all branches are in principal have the same rank and pay, this real difference in career profile of IAS and non-IAS is all the more resented. It is an important issue and it requires a detailed treatment, to be taken up by me in a separate essay.


Table 1: Main Branches of the Senior Civil Services in India

Branch/Services ** Apprx. Nos. Main functions/domain
Indian Administrative Service (IAS) 6000 The most important and most widely known service. They are responsible for district and local administration, State level general and developmental administration – please note that in India, most of the administrative and developmental functions are performed by states, and thus IAS officers work at leadership roles in vast array of functional domains from healthcare to engineering to transport etc. They also work at senior position in policies, regulations and management at Central government organizations.
Indian Revenue Service



8000 Revenue collection of central government – which is mainly income tax, customs duties and excise etc.  In fact, there are two revenue services, ie, two branch – Income Tax (IRS-IT), and Customs & Excise (IRS-CE), with no movement across these two branches. These are two different services.

It should be noted that IRS officers do not man state tax department (VAT or commercial taxes, and now GST). Further, the huge size of these two services compare to others is a distinctive feature.

Indian Police Service (IPS) 5000 IPS officers are responsible for policing, maintenance of law and order, internal security, public safety, public order and peace, crime, investigation and intelligence, supervision of para-military forces, disaster management and public safety. IPS is another high profile and very popular service, next only to IAS in terms of importance, prestige and visibility.
Indian Forest Service (IFoS)@ 2800 Environment protection, forest and management of flora and fauna, mainly at state and district governments. IFoS officers also work in good number at central government ministries, especially those concerned with environment, climate, forest, wildlife, energy etc.
Railways Services :




2800 There are three services branches for running the huge Indian railways. These three services of railways are responsible for management of civil functions (as opposed to technical/engineering ) of the railways operations;  three branch services – Indian Railway Traffic Service, Indian Railway Personnel Service, and Indian Railway Accounts Service, called IRTS, IRPS, and IRAS, in short respectively.
Accounts Services:




1200 Accounts, Treasury and financial management of Federal government; branches – Indian Civil Accounts Service,  Indian Defence Accounts Service, and  Indian Post and Telegraph Accounts and Finance Service.
Indian Audit and Accounts  Service (IAAS) 800 Constitutional independent auditor of the government – central as well as states, also management of accounts of state governments
Indian Foreign Service (IFS) 700 Diplomatic and foreign relations, in-charge of foreign ministry, embassies, consulates etc., and responsible for protecting and advancing India’s interest in the world
Indian Postal Service (IPoS) 600 In charge of India postal organization
Indian Information Service (IIS) 500 Looking after Information and Broadcasting ministry, in-charge of Doordarshan, Air India and similar other organization
Indian Trade Service (ITS) 400 National and International trade and commerce – regulation and promotion
Indian Economic Service (IES) @ 700 Economic management, economic analysis and policy, present in various federal ministries as economic adviser
Indian Statistical Service (ISS) @ 600 Data collection, analysis and dissemination. Mainly in central statistical organizations
Indian Defence Estate Services (IDES) <500 Managing defence estate and properties
Central Secretariat Service (CSS) Gr. B <1000 Group B service running all the ministries at central government, mostly below IAS
Delhi and Andaman Nicobar Civil Services (DANICS) Gr. B <400 Group B services akin to IAS for Union territories, including Delhi
Delhi and Andaman Nicobar Police Service (DANIPS)  Gr. B <400 Group B service akin to IPS for Union territories, including Delhi


Source Compiled from Information available at Department of Personnel and Training, Government of India website,
@ Strictly speaking, these services should not be included in this list as there are separate specialized examinations for selection into these services (though the examination is conducted by UPSC only). However, they are still included in the organized Group A civil service by Government.
** The above list is not exhaustive, and there are few more services with small cadre, which have been created by Government of India at different times. Further, the number of officers is only approximate, and the reality may be slightly different, especially in case of smaller services for which I have used < sign. The last three services in the table are Group B services, which generally are junior to IAS, though are recruited through the same examination.

I am also leaving out a large section of ‘technical services’ from my discussion, which is again in itself a large group of different ‘technical’ (mainly engineering) branches like Indian Railway Engineering Service, Indian Telecom Service etc. They manage most of the technical function of the government, but are supervised on top by mostly IAS officers, which is again a contentious issue. Traditionally and officially, they are not considered as a part of ‘Civil Services’.

Distinction may also be made of what is called three “All India Service” (comprising of IAS, IPS and IFoS) and “Central Services” comprising all other branches. The basic feature of this distinction being that All India services work mostly with state government (though also with Central government) whereas Central Services officers work exclusively (though there may be exception) with central government organizations/ministry. I am not entering into the merits or demerits of such a distinction, which will be take up later on.

As can be seen, except for few well know services, there  are other services which have been created for specialized purpose and have been confined to a ministry. These services are rarely known, not much preferred by the candidates appearing in the examination (IAS being the most preferred choice, followed by IFS, IPS and now IRS too, generally in that order). In a sense, all those candidates being allocated to less preferred services face a vastly different job prospects, responsibilities and future outlook, and it is an important issues which I will discuss in detail later.

Nevertheless, I might point out the hegemonic position of IAS vis-a-vis other services, and the resulting widespread discontent in other services due to this. IAS being generalist service, occupying top level posts in most domains are inherently different from other services, which are specialized in nature. However, since all of them are recruited through the same examination process where a marginal difference of few marks has played in the allocation of different branches, and where all branches are in principal have same rank and pay, this real difference in career profile of IAS and non-IAS is all the more resented. It is an important issue and I will be saying more on it later.


6. ‘Homo Hierarchicus’

I feel this essay would not be complete without discussing the love of, even obsession with, hierarchy, place and positon, which we Indians have, and which I find reflected in the way Indians have organized and structured their bureaucracy.

As pointed out earlier, separate branches of civil services act as separate ‘cadre’ for the purpose of service management like seniority, career progression, promotions, performance management, postings and rotation etc, though there is also an underlying structure to maintain parity among services in such matters. Promotions are mainly based on seniority, with the condition that an officer has been performing above a certain minimum benchmark – judged on the basis of her annual performance report prepared by her superior, and has not been found involved in corrupt practices or unfit due to other reasons.

To an outsider, what is remarkable is the immutable hierarchies in the structure. There are ‘grades’ in the hierarchy across different services with stipulation of minimum eligibility in terms of number of years of service rendered to be eligible for promotion to that level. However, the ‘designation’ varies depending upon the organization, ministry and the level of government (federal or state) a bureaucrat is working for. These hierarchies of career progression are functional with different levels of administrative responsibilities and it is possible to identify these with Henry Mintzberg’s famous Five Component Model having levels of Junior, Middle and Higher Management levels along with Strategic Apex (Mintzberg, 1979), though the number of levels in India system appears to be too many.

It is interesting to note here French philosopher Louis Dumont’s famous phrase popularized by his book titled ‘Home Hierarchicus’ – describing the ingrained basic nature of Indian society and its penchant for hierarchy (Dumont, 1981). The reference to notorious caste system was obvious. The same penchant seems to be playing a part in the demarcation and division of different levels as ‘grades’ in a strictly hierarchical terms, with stipulation of eligibility criteria in terms of number of years of service, movement upward (or even downward) restricted by rigid rules etc. Further, this promotion system operates like a long queue, wherein the queue is formed the day one entered in the service branch, which fixes her position in the hierarchy, and then all officers move forward strictly as per their position in the queue, with no jumping allowed. What is distressing is to note that how the hierarchy has been designed as s rigid and closed structure, with little leeway and flexibility for identifying merit, performance and talent and even exceptional circumstances. In some senses, there might be some benefits of an organized and structured system, but often in reality, these result into fomenting all kinds of bottlenecks and inefficiencies. An obsession with the structure itself, to the detriment of its intended goals, results and delivery, is a good example of being bogged down persistently in ensuring fair ‘means’ without ever reaching the intended ‘end’.

Let me present a simplified structure of hierarchies in the senior civil service. The table below gives a highly simplified and stylized division of grades and hierarchy in the higher civil services. It may also be noted that there are separate hierarchy for lower level (what is called Group B and C posts) civil servants too, which is not part of my discussion here, and therefore, is not shown in the table below.

Let me explain the information. The standard terminology of ‘grades’ is what the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) in Government of India prescribes and defines. It categorizes the hierarchies into different grades, and there are as many as eight grades in group A category itself, which is supposed to be the leadership level consisting of around 1% of total civil servants/employees in Government of India. Eight hierarchical grades in the leadership levels are certainly too many, and any organization with such structure would be bound to be inefficient, excessively bureaucratic and stifling. However, the situation is not as bad as it appears, because all these eight levels are not strictly hierarchical in terms of reporting. So, the reporting hierarchy is generally four – which is achieved by creating non-reporting grade levels, and the promotion to these levels is called ‘non-functional’. These non-functional levels generally appear alternately in hierarchy.  In that sense, the promotion is largely notional, with the officers promoted continuing to do the same (level) of work, reporting to the same higher level, and supervising the same team of people. For example, in the table below, movement or promotion from Junior Administrative Grade to Selection Grade are non-functional, whereby Deputy Secretary does not report to Director, but both of them report to Joint Secretary. Further, Joint Secretary and Additional Secretary are also mostly non-functional, but it is not universally so. These are ministries and departments (mostly large ones) where there is a reporting/functional hierarchy between Joint Secretary and Additional Secretary. In the table below, the IPS hierarchy shows this too, wherein two or more rows of grades are merged. Similarly, in the case of IAS, the officers can be District Magistrate while being in any of the grades of STS, JAG and SG.

The lowest grade, JTS, is the entry level grade for group A civil servants, where they do not spent much time. By the 4th year, they enter into STS grade from where leadership assignments and responsibilities for them start. It should be noted that out of the four years in JTS, almost two years are spent in training at LBSNAA and various specialized national training academies for different service branches.

Table 2: Stylized Grades and Hierarchies of Senior Civil Services

Grades Year Scale (^^) Govt. of India Standard Designation Pay matrix level State govt. designations (mostly for IAS) (##) IPS designation (#) IRS designation ($$)
Apex  Scale @@ Sel. Secretary/ Special Secretary 17 Chief Secretary/ Addl. Chief Secretary Director General Pr. Chief Comsnr.
Higher Administrative Grade + (HAG+) Sel. Special Secretary 16 Addl. Director General (ADG) Chief Comsnr.
Higher Administrative Grade (HAG)  


Additional Secretary 15 Principal Secretary Principal Comsnr.
Senior Administrative Grade (SAG)/ Super Time Scale  


Joint Secretary 14 Secretary/ Commissioner Inspector General (IG) Comsnr.
Selection Grade (SG)  


Director 13 District Magistrate/  Deputy Comsnr.


Special Secretary Deputy Inspector General (DIG)@ Addl. Comsnr.
Junior Administrative Grade (JAG)  


Deputy Secretary 12 Addl. Secretary Sr. Supdt. of Police (SSP)/ Supdt. of Police (SP) Joint Comsnr.
Senior Time Scale (STS)  


Under Secretary 11 Joint Secretary Deputy Comsnr.
Junior Time Scale (JTS) 0 Asst. Secretary 10 Deputy Secretary SDPO/Addl. SP Asst. Comsnr.


^^ This shows the time (in years) when officers are promoted to (enter into) that particular grade. However, not in all cases and at all grades, promotions are time bound. In that sense, the year scale can be taken as showing the number of years when officers becomes eligible for promotion in the corresponding grade. Loosely, it can be said that the non-functional promotions are mostly time bound whereas the functional are vacancy based.
## The designations are mostly what would be found in a state ministries, thought it should be noted that there might be some variations in different states.
% District Magistrate (DM)/Deputy Commissioner (DC) who is in charge of running a district, will be an IAS officer from any of the grades from STS, JAG and SG.
# Again, designations of IPS officers are not standard, and there may be slight variations across different states
@@ There is again subtle distinction within Apex scale. While pay of the officers in this scale would be the same (pay matrix level 17), but in terms of designation and hierarchy, there will be difference, and the lower one would be called a Special Secretary level, often even reporting to the Secretary level officer. For example, IPS officers in Apex Scale as DG of CRPF report to Home Secretary (an IAS officer) who is also in the same scale.
@ To be correct, DIG is not a SG level post, but an intermediary level above SG and below SAG (pay matrix level 13A) which is unique to IPS, and in all probability created mainly to take care of promotions of IPS officers.
$$ The designation of IRS officers looks quite neat and clean, with a distinct designation for every grade. But this may be a result of excessive obsession with hierarchy and order and may have reduced flexibility.
Sel. These levels are mostly, what is called, selection posts, where officers are not promoted just on the basis seniority. Again, this is a generalization, and there may be, and are few, exceptions.

There could be further detailing and elaboration of these features and subtle distinctions, but I think the essentially important ones which will have bearing on my discussion in this series of essays, have been covered here.

With the discussion of Homo Hierarchicus in India’s senior civil services, let me stop.



  • Barik R R (2004): Social Background of Civil Service, Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, India; Vol 39, No. 7, February 14, 2004
  • Dumont Louis (1981): Homo Hierarchicus – The Caste System and Its Implication; Revise Ed., University of Chicago Press, USA
  • Government of India (2008): Report of the VIth Central Pay Commission, Government of India, New Delhi.
  • Guha Ramchandra (2007): Indian After Gandhi – A History of World’s Largest Democracy, Harper Perennial, New York,  p755
  • Henery Mintzberg (1979): The Structuring of Organizations, Prentice Hall, Engelwood Cliffs, N.J. pp 215-297 and “Organization Design: Fashion of Fit?”, Harvard Business Review 59, Jan-Feb 1981,
  • Ministry of Labour (2003): Based on Census of Central Government Employees (2003), Ministry of Labor, Government of India and other documents; available on
  • Oslen Johan (2008): The Ups and Downs of Bureaucratic Organization; The Annual Review of Political Science, 2008.11:13-37,
  • Pritchett Lant (2009): Is India a Flailing State? Detours on the Four Lane Highway to Modernization; Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series, RWP09-013, May 2009, pg 3
  • Simon Herbert (1997): Administrative Behaviour – A Study of Decision Making Process in Administrative Organizations, 4th Ed,  The Free Press, New York, Ch. 1,2 and Comments on Ch.1, 2
  • Union Public Service Commission (2010): 60th (2009-10) Annual Report; UPSC, Government of India, available at


(Word Count: Approx 6700)



India’s Senior Bureaucracy: Generalist, Specialist and Specialized Generalist



This is the second essay of my series on reforming and restructuring the senior civil services of India to enable them to face the onerous governance challenges of our times. Though I have had many thoughts and ideas and have mulled them over from time to time, organizing them and putting them in writing has become much more difficult than I originally thought. Perhaps the complexity of the issue at hand, and the ever changing and evolving nature of ideas, challenges and approaches in this field have also played a part in consolidating various strands of thoughts and research into something presentable, though perhaps not yet concrete in terms of solid proposals and course of action.

So, this second essay is coming after more than a year, as the first one was published in June 2016. As was outlined in the first essay, this is not actually what would or should have appeared in the second essay. The tentative division of the proposed series indicated that I would first be analysing issues of induction and recruitment and of meritocracy and mediocrity in senior civil services. On the contrary, I am going to discuss issues relating to roles, functions and reorganizations of different ‘branches’ of services first.

I have also realized that a tight compartmentalization of issues facing the organized senior bureaucracy, as was done in my short essay published in Harvard Kennedy School Review in 2011, may not be a very effective way of closely and critically analysing them, and therefore, I will be freely crossing these imaginary boundaries henceforth. Thus, issues related to method and mode of recruitment and selection, promotion and performance evaluation, tenure and stability, job security and time bound promotion, lateral entry and equal opportunity etc, are not primarily being addressed now, though they are perhaps equally, if not more, important than what I am covering first. These and other related issues will, hopefully, be covered in the subsequent essays.

This discussion on reorganization of service branches, also presumes that the broader structure of the higher civil services would largely retain its career based permanent civil service character, consisting of officers recruited through open, fair competitive examination, who then work for almost all of their working life in the service. However, the issues related to performance management, lateral entry and opportunity for outside talents can still be tackled within this framework subsequently.

Perhaps the most important institutional reform in senior civil services relates to restructuring and realignment of different branches. There are various interrelated issues here and I will be discussing them one by one and then also examine possible course of organizational reform and restructuring. Thereafter, I will take up specific branches of service in the next essay, and will talk about their reform in light of discussion and findings of the present essay. This essay itself is now around 7500 words long, though I hope readers will find it raising and discussing relevant and important issues.


I. Restructuring and Realignment of Branches

The larger issue of the overall structural reorganization of different branches is perhaps the most important issues which has not been getting the attention it requires. There is an institutional mandate and prescribed procedures for standalone restructuring of different service/branches periodically, to be carried out under the overall guidance and supervision of DoPT (Department of Personnel and Training of Government of India). Though it is not what I mean by a comprehensive overall re-look at the organization and structure of various branches of civil services, it still gives an opportunity for individual branches to reform and reorganize them in light of changing needs and circumstances. However, this has rarely been done. These periodic restructuring of individual branches have hardly done anything objective and with a long term reform focus. Essentially, these exercises have been reduced to the rigmarole of inter-service comparison and then trying to ensure career/promotion prospects vis-a-vis other branches, often resulting in increasing the size of the service/branch and creating redundant structure and superfluous posts, especially at the senior management level. The result has hardly been anything meaningful and rational, what to talk of visionary change.

Further, as all these services have a theoretical parity with IAS, the very different reality which actually prevails has a further dampening effect. A recent government of India study itself has rightly identified that at the national level, the issue of IAS officers occupying most of the senior management level posts is a cause of deep concern and resentment among other branches (Govt. of India, Personnel, 2010).  This only highlight the seriousness of the issue where a large number of officers from various central group A services (mostly non-IAS) forming as much as 80% of total group A civil servants are dissatisfied, frustrated and demotivated. This indeed is a very serious organizational problem, often ignored and deliberately overlooked. Many of the officers from smaller and lesser known service branches are demotivated and frustrated, as they have lesser opportunity, limited exposure and poorer career prospects, which is often accentuated by exercises of standalone cadre restructuring.

Another important issue is that of neglect of ‘technical service branches’ (mostly in states, but at central level too) which manages many of the public service delivery and infrastructure provisions. Most of these departments are again staffed by IAS officers at the top, especially in states – like education, public engineering, roads transports and public infrastructure, public health and medical services and also at central government like – energy, minerals and metals, shipping and transports, education, public healthcare etc, with very little opportunity for bright technical specialist at the top, breeding huge amount of resentment and dissatisfaction. This is not a desirable situation at all and requires urgent steps. A structure where competent, professional, and suitable officers are given due recognition and responsibilities, irrespective of her service affiliation is the need of the hour. Though I will be discussing these issues in reference to civil services alone, the ideas and suggestions will equally be applicable to technical services too.

All such question become more and more important in this era of highly dynamic social and economic challenges of our country and also in light of the fact that these challenges are no less humongous and complex then they were at the time of independence. It becomes important more so as the structure of higher bureaucracy has hardly changed and reformed since independence, and it is a fair claim that perhaps the present structure of civil services and its branches does not represent the realities of India, and is poorly equipped to handle and face the complex challenges of modern India.

The present organization of civil service makes it instantly clear that it is a hotchpotch of one generalist branch and various kinds of specialist branches. Though all of these branches are, as per rules and in theory, treated at par in terms of career prospects, salary and perquisites and opportunity for growth etc, the reality is quite different, leading to further inter-service rivalries, competition, power politics and exploitation, resulting into all kinds of bureaucratization and inefficiencies. In light of above, the crucial question is how to, and in what fashion we need to reorganize and reform the existing senior civil services branches. Thus, the question is how such a division or demarcation of branches should be done? What are the problems and issues with the present division/distribution? And how this realignment restructuring can be done in a more effective, efficient and productive way? Or, thinking from the first principles, should we also consider not dividing the higher bureaucracy into branches at all, and keep all of them as one perfect generalist group.


II. Do We Need Various Branches?

Why do we need to have different branches for senior management levels? Especially when we have a generalist branch (IAS) which occupies most important leadership positions in diverse functional domains. Why not then abolish these specialized branches, and have only IAS manning all such posts. Or to put it differently, why not everyone be an IAS?

This idea of keeping every group A civil servant as a generalist may seem radical, naïve and even impractical. However, it will have one important benefit – it will end the inter-service rivalry and resulting discontent and frustration. In effect, everyone recruited will be IAS, and then they can be assigned to different posts, departments and functional domain over the course of their service career. If we look at the present structure of IAS, it is more or less what I am proposing here, with the distinction that some important functional domain like policing, revenue (to some extent), accounting etc, have specialized service branches. Otherwise, IAS officers do hold leadership positions in all other functional domain across the country, both at central and state government levels. So why leave these few remaining domains outside, wherein by creating equivalent specialized service branches the government has given rise to such intractable issues which have a detrimental effect on bureaucratic performance. Therefore, let us have only one service, identified with whatever name we want to give them (IAS would be good option – the old one ICS also comes to my mind), and let them manage all the senior position across all functional areas, from police to health, from tax to rural development, and at all levels in federal India, from central government to state, and to local and municipal government. For proposing thus, I may be charged as unprogressive and conservative, looking at halcyon days of ICS in this modern world of highly complex society and institution where the problems facing government need very different – and specialized – treatment from experts.

Nevertheless, to me this appears to be an attractive idea and perhaps a feasible option. However, the issues need to be considered in more depth and with a nuanced understanding of various facets involved. Therefore, without taking a call on this option, let me move forward, and examine its underlying logic and related debate of generalist vs. specialist.


III.        Generalist and Specialist (or Foxes and Hedgehogs?)


One of the great philosophers of twentieth century, Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his famous essay titled ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ says:

“There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.” (Berlin, 1953).

Berlin analyzed and interpreted this idea in broader and philosophical terms wherein the Hedgehogs were seen as approaching the world through a single defining idea and having a central vision and focus, while the Foxes were perceived as those who draw upon wide experience and are flexible and open to ideas. Although it might be quite tempting to see the resemblance of foxes and hedgehogs with the more prosaic organizational ideas of generalist and specialist, at the deeper level there are nuanced distinctions. In any case, I will not explore foxes and hedgehogs further, and limit myself to generalists and specialists debate in relation to senior bureaucracy of India.

As of now, different services are structured and organized accordingly to functions. However, in a modern society and complex federal democracy of India – it is difficult to have a neat functional division and this produces concomitant issues. Whereas all other services can more or less be identified with functional domains, and often with departments; IAS is not. In fact, due to its generalist nature, colonial history and traditional influence, it has been the most visible, most powerful, influential and most sought after branch.

2ndAdministrative Reform Commission (ARC) has recommended that IAS too need to be a specialized service (Govt. of India, 2nd ARC, 2009). Various Commissions have come up with recommendations for domain specialization of IAS officers, some of the common domains identified as being Public Finance and Taxation, Financial Management, Industry and Trade, Domestic Affairs and Defence, Housing and Urban Affairs, Agriculture and Rural Development, Social Sectors, Energy, Natural Resource Management and Environment etc.(Gov. of India, 2nd ARC); and emphasized assignment of officers on the basis of knowledge and experience in these domain areas. However, as we all know, these recommendations have not yet been implemented, as many other similar reform measures. Further, it must be noted that these domain specialization is recommended for IAS.  The report does not talk about other service branches. When there are already specialized services for, for example – police and revenue, why IAS officers need to have a specialization in that domain, and to take the argument further, why IAS officers need to be at the top in revenue departments or for that matter in police departments? This leads us to the question of the desirability or otherwise of a generalist sitting at the top of a specialist? There is also a tendency to reduce this debate of generalist and specialist in bureaucracy/civil service to the question or desirability that IAS officers need to specialize in certain domains, conveniently ignoring and forgetting that there are already specialized branches and that the whole question need a comprehensive treatment.

The debate of generalist vs. specialist is an old one, and an issue which have been contested at various levels, in different wakes of public sphere including in business, profession and of course in civil services and governance. Identifying a Generalist as someone who knows ‘nothing about everything’ and a Specialist as someone who knows ‘everything about nothing’ are striking though interesting way of highlighting the key issue of the debate.  I am not entering into that debate here. Suffice would be to say that there may not be a need for looking only for a binary solution. Even in the context of foxes and hedgehogs, Isaiah Berlin says that like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd. Like all distinctions which embody any degree of truth, it offers a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting point for genuine investigation (Berlin, 1953).

Let me also say that in a sense, the debate is superfluous, and skips the most important point, as most often, instead of really analysing the deeper organizational and institutional ideas ingrained in this issue, the emphasis has been reduced to the question of who, a generalist or a specialist, should have the final control/ ultimate decision making authority at the highest level of an organization or institution.

Of course, in any organization, with specific aims and responsibilities, and especially in a government bureaucracy, both generalist and specialist are required.  The important question is where and how they should be placed, how and in what manner their roles, responsibilities and functions should be decided and distributed so that the objective and goals of various organizations can be achieved with utmost effectiveness and efficiency.


IV. Specialized Generalist

In the Indian context, Ministers, at state level or central government level, being the highest level of executive authority, are ultimate generalist as they are public representatives and their qualifications, professional and other experiences often have no bearing on the ministry/portfolio they are assigned to. They are expected to make decision on the basis of their innate broad generalist outlook and understanding, of course aided and supported by a set of domain experts with vast experience.

Therefore, in practical terms, comes the crucial question: do we also need next one or two level below the Minister to be a generalist? This is the most important question and on its answer underpins the role being played by IAS vs other service branches at various levels and in various departments.

I would tend to largely agree that one or two level below the Minister (which may be called senior management level), which in practical terms, is often the position of head of department (variously called Secretary, Principal Secretary, Director, District Magistrate etc, in state government departments, and Secretary, Additional Secretary, Joint Secretary etc in central government ministries) should be manned by civil servants who are more generalist than specialist. These levels are fairly senior ones, where the responsibilities are more and more in the nature of providing broad leadership, formulating and supervising longer terms vision, mission and related goals of the organization, conceiving, formulating and supervising public policy issues, coordinating with diverse agencies and institutions across various levels and types of organizations and governments, and often thinking and communicating across boundaries of domain knowledge and expertise. Concomitantly, these very senior positions need not have very deep and in depth knowledge of the relevant specialized field of function/domain. Such inputs can be and are generally provided by the specialized personnel at middle and junior management levels of the organizations.

What I am saying is that higher the level of responsibility and position of a civil servant in an organization, the more generalized she should be in her leadership style and approach. Let me also quickly add that I am not at all in favour of doing away with the specialization. Specialization of domain is very important, even crucial.  But as we move higher up in an organization, the broader outlook, leadership qualities, strategic thinking etc. becomes relatively more important than pure domain expertise. These qualities are more of a generalized nature, though certainly enriched and sharpened by specialized experience and knowledge.

Therefore, ideally, I would like the senior civil servants to be what I would call ‘Specialized Generalists’. It may look what the 2nd ARC recommended, but my conception is very different.  2nd ARC talked only about IAS, and need for their specialization in different domain areas, and conveniently forgot other large number of specialized services, and issues related to them. I am emphasizing that a generalist conception superimposed on the specialized knowledge and experience is what would likely to be the best for leadership roles in various organizations, and the specialist service branches in India need to be restructured and redesigned on these lines.

I would like to add that, accordingly, we need to organize/structure different services branches itself in consonance with ‘specialized generalist’ domains, and the need is to restructure and redesign the present services branches in this fashion. Let me examine some other related strands of thoughts and issue having a bearing on this discussion.


V. Central Government, State Governments – Only One or Both?

 Looking at the organization and different branches of group A services, as they have developed over the years and exist today, I notice that most of the services other than IAS and IPS have been created to man one particular department (or even a sub-department) of the central government. Further, there are only few service branches except IAS and IPS which function beyond narrow confines of a department. So IRS-IT is responsible for manning top level posts in the Income Tax Department (it is actually not a department, but a sub-department, called Central Board of Direct Taxes, under Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance). Similarly, IRS-CE officers are responsible for running Customs and Central Excise function (again not a department, but a sub-department, Central Board of Excise and Customs – CBEC, under Department of Revenue). The recent case of introduction of GST and related fiscal reform is an excellent example of how inter-service rivalries, turf-war and power politics between IRS-CE and IAS can largely result in derailing and damaging the implementation of an important and historical tax reform in the nation. Though it may not be fair to single out this rivalry for the present troubles, I will not discuss the GST problem in more detail here, and may be, take it up at some other time.

Similarly, branches like Indian Information Service, Indian Postal Service, Indian Post and Telegraph Account and Finance Service, Indian Trade Service, Indian Defence Estate Service, Indian Defence Account Service, three ‘civil’ services of the Railways – IRTS, IRPS, IRAS fall in this category of department specific branches. Some accounting services, straddle the functional domain and department specificity. Thus, Indian Audit and Account Service officers are part of Indian Audit and Account Department (popularly known as CAG), but are responsible for the broad function of auditing of all central and state government organizations, and are responsible for some accounting function too, at state level. India Civil Accounts Service is again a functional service which is responsible for accounting function of central government organizations/departments, and therefore spans many departments. However, it operates in a world where there are other accounting services like IDAS, IPTAFS, IRAS which are limited to a department. This is clearly not a very efficient and rational way of organizing and doing things.

Thus, what we have is a hodgepodge of organized group A services, sometimes created for some administrative functional domain, like accounting of government, whereas in most other cases, created to be part of a department only, to perform its own specialized function. And this creation of service has often been done without much thought and planning. A recent example of a decision to create another group A service (in January 2017)without much thought for its use, function, logic, structure and future is in Ministry of Skill Development, titled Indian Skill Development Service (ISDS). Though it may not strictly be called a ‘civil service’, as its recruitment is to be carried out through Engineering Services Examination, it is an example of how these services are created, without much thought about the cadre planning, career prospects, roles and functionality in the long run. There are abundant examples where may ‘services’ so created in the past have lost both their relevance and functionality and have created textbook cases of inefficiencies, redundancy, frustration and demotivation, bureaucratic apathy and red tape.

From this perspective, IAS, IPS (and to some extent IFoS too) vs. almost all the other services make an interesting contrast. IAS and IPS are mostly responsible for running the state government and state level bureaucracies. IAS are generalist, they are responsible for running all the department and domains, from agriculture to healthcare, from education to urban development, and even revenue (and in many cases supervising law and order too – as Secretaries of Home Department).  In the same vein, IPS the specialized generalist, are responsible for policing, internal security and law and order functions.

On the other hand, most of the central service branches are created and confined to one department and functional area, and that too with central government. They hardly work with state governments. This is a crucial difference with very profound and deep effects.


VI. Life Cycle of a Service Branch and Reorganization

Societies are dynamic entities, and so are governments. Apropos, the organs of the state and government structures also need to change, reform, transform and reinvent themselves. In case of service branches, its importance cannot be overemphasized. Nevertheless, there are situation where even the most vigorous of reformation and reinvention may not be able to salvage the relevancy and utility of a service. And there is nothing wrong about it. In such cases, the service should naturally die, having completed its life cycle.

But is it possible, especially in Indian system of permanent civil service, where employment is mostly for life, and especially where there is a cadre based employment, recruitment is made every year and officers get promoted, mostly without much regard to their performance but on the basis of years they have spent working (or not working!) with the government. Also, these kind of organized service branches develops entrenched lobbies, forms vested interest groups, exert pressure and influence from legitimate as well as illegitimate means, and often do everything possible to perpetuate their existence. Therefore, any talk of abolishing a service branch may just be a wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, the perpetuation of such a situation should not be allowed, and a genuine periodic exercise must be carried out to evaluate and assess the relevance, roles and responsibilities, required reform etc of a service branch. Perhaps, the idea of a periodic cadre review, as I mentioned earlier, was the same, though in practice it has largely been reduced to the exercise of increasing the size of the service. Let me add here that it may not always be necessary to abolish a service/branch – and compulsorily retire the officers. It could be possible to retrain, re-utilize and absorbs such officers in some other organization, service branch or functional domain – while abolishing the branch which has outlived its purpose and function.

So, are there service branches which have outlived themselves? Yes, there are! Two service branches readily come to my mind – Indian Information Service (IIS) and Indian Trade Service (ITS) – as these have hardly much to do in this age of independent media and liberalized and globalized economies. There could be few others too.  I will discuss individual cases in detail in the next essay. Let me mention here that I have also heard opinions that it is the IAS which should be abolished forthwith! However, such opinions are motivated more by jealousy then by actual appreciation of issues.


VII.       Organizational Design and Mintzberg Hierarchies

 The double whammy of being department specific, and for the central government  is also responsible for giving rise to another widespread problem in all central group A service branches – their top heavy structure. The widespread understanding of a standard organization structure propounded by Mintzberg identifies higher management/strategic apex in most organizations which set strategies, policies and goals and provides directions to the entire organization (Mintzberg, 1979) (Mintzberg, 1981). World over, across public and private organization, this strategic core has to be a small number compared to the total number of people working in the organization. It is estimated that on an average, it should not be, and mostly is not, more than 1% of the total number of employees and often lies in the range of 0.5% to 1%. This golden ratio is now routinely being flouted in case of most group A services.

To ensure promotion and career progression, the group A services have, over a period of time, increased the senior level posts, mostly Directors (technically called Junior Administrative – Selection Grade) and above levels. However, since these service officers are confined to one department only, and that too with central government, there is very limited option of having large number of senior management level posts in any pyramidal hierarchical department, leading thereby to a structure with very heavy top – and not much meaningful work for those top level officers. Most of the central services suffer from this problem. Even if we take only the very senior posts of Joint Secretary level (technically called Senior Administrative Grade (SAG)), large number of service branches are flouting the golden ratio mentioned above. Cases needing special mention here are IRS-IT and IRS-CE.

The intensity and severity of the problems differs from service to service, and those few services who have been able to depute their officers to other central government organizations in large numbers have been able to somewhat resist this problem, and IAAS needs to be mentioned here.

It would also be instructive to point out that this top heavy organizational structure is found in states too – especially with IFoS, and to a lesser extent with IPS too. The reasons remain the same. Whenever domain of a service is restricted to a department, this problem has to arise, sooner or later, due to creation of senior management level posts to ensure career progression. In case of IFoS, who are confined to Forest and Environment department in states, similar top heavy structure results, though the situation is ameliorated by the fact that at senior level IFoS also move to work at central government departments and ministries. Similarly, but to a much lesser extent, IPS officers have similar problem, though policing is a much broader and larger functional domain, and the opportunities for policing function at the central government are also very large.

IAS officers are largely immune to such issues, though there are few senior posts in each state, like in Revenue Boards or in State Planning Boards, which are often used for sidelining officers not in favor of the political dispensation. The generalist nature of IAS officers whereby they function mostly as head of a department/organization/units in states, and the opportunity to move to central government ministries and departments in large numbers at senior level take care of such problems.


VIII.      Group A or Group B

We also need to examine the specialized, department based creation of service branches from another perspective. From this perspective, there are close parallels between what Central government does by creation/institutions of civil service branches and what state governments also do in their respective states. All the states/provinces in India also constitute and recruit department specific civil servants under different branches who are generally and collectively called state/provincial civil service officers, most numerously for administration, police and finance/revenue functions. These are designated group B services, though officers from these state civil services also hold managerial positions, and subsequently, through promotion get inducted into IAS and IPS. It should also be noted that there are few states where some of these state civil services posts are even designated group A from the start, though they remain part of state services, and not inducted in to IAS or IPS. These state service branches are again mostly organized in the form of department specific services with specialized functional domains.

Then, isn’t central government is doing the same thing by creating different central services for its own departmental functions, though inducting them at group A level, and through common civil service examination of UPSC. Then, why not make these central services also group B services?  In fact, even now, certain group B service officers are recruited through this common civil services examination notably administrative and police service officers for union territories (DANICS and DANIPS) and for central secretariat (CSS). The whole idea may find strength from the fact that the middle management level needs to be more specialized in nature whereas the top management level need to be what I call specialized generalist. Why then civil servants working with central government department and as a specialized cadre should be assigned group A status when their state counterpart have not been? Shouldn’t then all the specialized cadre officers be categorized as group B officers, whether they are with central government or state governments.

It seems the group A status (and attached promises of significant roles and responsibilities, as well as career progression prospects) and the common recruitment process for these central branches and IAS is largely responsible for generating all the resentments, heartburn and frustration among large number of officers vis-à-vis IAS. It will make lot of sense, if from the beginning, other officers will know their status and subordinate position compared to IAS or IPS. It is really unjust and correctly conveys a massage of hypocrisy, sham and exploitation when equal status and opportunities are promised but are then not provided.

In any organized and permanent bureaucracy, well defined, fair and logical structures, hierarchies and career progression plans are important for smooth functioning and efficient performance. The present situation makes this precisely absent in respect of different branches of senior civil service.


IX. Brahmins of Civil Services: Hegemony of IAS

Thus, all service officers are selected through the same process, and are theoretically treated as equivalent, with similar pay and emoluments. Please note that I did not use the term ‘same’, but instead used ‘similar’ because it is not ‘same’ – there are some hidden benefits which IAS officers arrogate to themselves – one being getting two extra salary increments at the time of promotion. Further, nature and structure of career prospects and promotions are also similar theoretically. However, the realities in terms of career prospects, domain and span of control and of responsibilities, type of works performed and broader career potential are vastly different. This is the result of various reasons that I have already discussed. This difference results not only in resentment and dissatisfaction, but is also reflected in various other forms, some of which are very detrimental for the overall health of the bureaucracy and governance structure.

It would be pertinent to note the contrasting situation at senior level in central government secretariat/ministries where this difference is starkly visible. As per norms and rules of DoPT, all services are (largely) treated equally while selecting them for manning middle management level (Deputy Secretary, Director and equivalent posts) and higher management level (Joint Secretary, Additional Secretary, Secretary and equivalents) positions in central government departments, ministries and organizations. This process is called Central Staffing Scheme (CSS), in which all the organized group A services (including technical services) do participate. However, it is a well-known fact that through various subtle and not so subtle machinations, IAS officers are able to garner most of the higher management level posts. It has been a matter of record that as many as 90% or even higher proportion of Joint Secretary posts in central government ministry are occupied by IAS officers, and all the other services are limited to meagre 10% or less posts. This is in contrast to the respective strength of officers where the IAS cadre forms around 12% of the total number of group A civil service officers. The situation is even worse in the case of Secretary positions, where IAS officers arrogate more than 95%, or even close to 99% of these posts for themselves. This is despite the fact that all other services had and have been trying through various means to highlight this anomaly to political bosses, and also been trying to correct the situation. Their largely failed attempts are ample testimony that it is the IAS officers, as a lobby, group and organization, who command real say and influence in government decision making.

As regards middle management level posts, we see a much higher proportion of officers from central group A branches manning these posts. It is explained by the fact that at that level, most of the IAS officers themselves are often not interested in joining the central government since they are serving mostly as District Magistrate in their respective state. Further, some of the IAS officers who are with central government at these levels are mostly from those ‘not so good’ states like North East, Jammu and Kashmir (and even Kerala), or those few who have been allocated state cadre distant from their home state (for example, someone from Bihar allotted to Tamilnadu cadre) not of their choice.

Let me highlight one more thing, which points towards generalist vs specialist issues, and may be taken as further evidence in support of Specialized Generalist. All the specialized services do take part in CSS process and are then allocated to different ministries and departments, and in many cases, to such domains which are not their specialization. In a way, it is only the recognition that at higher (and middle) management level, which is the leadership, policy, strategy level, generalist approach becomes more important. This whole design of Central Staffing Scheme is what can be termed as generalizing some of the specialists and specializing some of the generalists.


X. The Emancipation: Broader Domain Based Civil Service Branches

I have, in previous paragraphs, examined the issue of structure, organization, branching and grouping of senior organized civil service in India on various axes. Let me list them here for a quick recall:

  • Need or otherwise of dividing the pool of senior civil servants into branches, and the basis on which it has been done,
  • Roles and responsibilities for generalist vs. specialist, and the never ending debate on this issue
  • Creation of service branches which are confined to a specialized role within a department,
  • Many service branches limited to central government whereas IAS, IPS are for both state and central government,
  • Dynamics of society and government and life cycle of service branches
  • Organizational design and limitations of branches leading to top heavy structures
  • Existence of group B service branches in states for specialized functions within a department, and their canny resemblance to central service branches.

These all facets are not only interrelated and interdependent but also entangled and interacting, thereby giving rise to the present paradigm for understanding and resulting discourse for organizational design and redesign of civil service branches.

But how to do that?

There could be many, largely though not fully, independent reform and re-organizational approaches which can be taken in an attempt to tackle this complex situation. While discussing the issues along various axes, the previous discussion has latent framework for three possible approaches:

  • First option, let there be no branches. All senior civil servants should be considered part of one homogenous group, and be assigned to different responsibilities and functional domain from time to time, as well as can move seamlessly between different levels of government. It is quite similar to what would be the case if we have only IAS, and no other service.
  • Second option, let the informal, but actually visible, distinction among IAS (and perhaps IPS too) vs other service branches become formal, wherein IAS (and IPS) have a separate and distinct identity and clear demarcation assigning them superiority as a service. If this is to be done, it should perhaps also be required to be formalized through a separate examination/selection process for IAS (and IPS). Further, it may also be perhaps desirable to designate the present central service branches as group B service, responsible mainly for middle management functions, confined to their functional department, and supervised at the top by IAS officers.
  • Third option, the obverse of the second, is to strictly ensure the promised equality of service branches in terms of status and identity, career prospects, equal opportunity to perform and excel, and also ensuring equal and fair chance in all appointment/assignment and responsibilities. Perhaps, it will also require making IAS a strictly specialized service. A hotchpotch, a hypocritical and unfair situation where the reality is very different from what is being stated and promised has already created serious organizational issues in the whole bureaucracy and in the efficient management of cadre based higher civil services.

However, any of the above is easier said than done!

Nevertheless, let me sketch out an alternative vision and scheme for reorganizing and restructuring the different branches of services. A civil service cadre, organized into feasible and worthwhile branches in accordance with large domain areas could have significant advantages over the three alternative structures proposed, and certainly would be much better than the existing organization. The following could be its salient features and related benefits:

  • Service branches would be organized as per broad domain/functional areas. They should not be organized or crated for any specific department or for similar narrow purposes. The underlying principle is to have a cadre of ‘specialized generalist’ officers who are capable, competent and exposed enough to shoulder responsibilities of Mintzberg strategic apex, providing leadership and strategic direction in public management.
  • This will help in not only creating feasible service branches, with robust, well planned career prospects, but will also take care of problems of very small, overspecialized services branches. Obviously, there will not be many branches as is the case now (between 25 to 30), but may be, not more than ten branches.
  • It will also have the appropriate mix of specialization and generalized exposure, with good scope for reorganization and cross agency experience, leading to greater flexibility. This exposure to specialized as well as generalized domain within a broad function, where transferable skill sets learnt would be used over a larger, diverse domain will lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Service cadre, organized on the basis of large domain areas should also be designed in a way to make the movement of officers across the level of government e.g., between central and state government, natural and effortless. It should be something like the case is now for IAS and IPS.
  • Of course, all these services should be treated equally, as group A service, in practice. Once we have robust service branches based on larger domains, doing more meaningful and diverse work, with ample opportunity for growth, exposure and experience in broader areas, the satisfaction and motivation will naturally enhance, and the present situation of rivalries, frustration and demotivation will certainly be significantly reduced.
  • Such a scheme will be compatible with reforms in other areas of civil services, like lateral entry, open and fair opportunity for important assignment, internal competition and recognition of excellence and efforts, revamped performance management system etc. (I hope to cover these issues in a subsequent essay).


XI. Where and How to Find Broad Domain Areas

 How to identify and define these broad domain areas and then create service branches for them?  One approach could be to identify the areas where modern government operates and then group them in to broader categories, thereby coming out with feasible and operational domains for constituting service branches. In this exercise, evaluation of the existing branches, their role, functions and relevance would also be useful, and possibilities of merger, splitting and merger, abolition etc. should be taken recourse to, while also matching and aligning them with the functional identification of government operations. Further, the distribution of power/functions between central and state government through the Constitution of India into union, state and concurrent list will also be useful in guiding us in these matters.

Three broad categories of function have generally been identified, which a modern state needs to perform, and is also expected to be performing in the coming decades. In the specific context of India these can be categories as:

  • Sovereign functions: Law and Order, Internal Security, Foreign Relations, Fiscal and Revenue Management, Defence, Ensuring justice and fairness
  • Provision of Public Goods: Development administration, Education, Public Healthcare, Human development, Promoting general welfare, Carrying out distributive transfers, Protecting property rights and enforcement of contracts for operation of markets
  • Economic and Social Management: Infrastructure development and management, Economic and financial regulation and control, Habitat-urban and rural and Environment, Natural resource management, Power and energy, Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial management, Communication and Transport

Another way of classifying government responsibilities could be into four categories wherein the last two categories as above are divided in to three, namely, Welfare function, Regulatory function and Economic function. However, it does not make much of a difference for my purpose here.

In a loose sense, the importance of these function decreases as we move down from Sovereign function to Provision of Public Goods to Economic and Social Management. The sovereign function should (and hopefully, would) always be performed by state. Most of the public goods, due to the externalities inherent in them, and also due to their non-rival and non-excludable character, have to be provided by public authorities (government organizations), financed through taxation (to have a better idea of economic concepts of externalities, public goods, non-rival, non-excludable, reference may be made of any good book on Microeconomics, e.g., (Munoz-Garcia, 2017)). In case of provision of economic and social goods, service delivery, regulation and control, market mechanism may be applied, but it also depends upon the nature and level of development of market as well as public institutions. Some form of government management and intervention will, nevertheless, be required in our country in the foreseeable future.

As societies and nations develop, some of the functions from the public goods provision can be performed through private involvement and initiative, with government playing the role only of a regulator, or facilitator. In any case, many functions falling within economic and social management can be, and are being performed and services being delivered with the active involvement of market mechanisms.

The whole idea of this threefold classification is to come out with a more rational, meaningful and functionally effective division of civil service branches. However, despite this exercise, it is not easy to get a very neat and clean solution. There are many grey areas and overlaps, as well as contrasting and even confusing possibilities.

What I propose to do now is to examine and analyse all the individual branches of civil service like IAS, IPS, IRS, IAAS etc, within the framework of broad domain based service branches discussed above,  what are the issues with individual branches and how they can be handled and also try to figure out how to move towards a broad domain based branching structure. I will also delineate how these present branches can be redesigned and reorganized. In that process I will also try to fashion out some more concrete ideas and proposals for a better and more effective civil service organization.

This will form my next essay!



  • Berlin Isaiah (1953): The Hedgehog and the Fox, appearing in The Proper Study of Mankind – An Anthology of Essays; Vintage Books – Random House, London. p 436, 437
  • Government of India, 2nd ARC (2009): Report No. 10 of 2nd Administrative Reform Commission; Refurbishing of Personnel Administration – Scaling New Heights; New Delhi, Ch. 8 and 9; Department of Administrative Reforms, Pensions and Public Grievances; Government of India, New Delhi
  • Government of India, Personnel (2010): Civil Services Survey – A Report; Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Government of India, New Delhi
  • Mintzberg Henery (1979): The Structuring of Organizations, Prentice Hall, Engelwood Cliffs, N.J. p 215-297 and “Organization Design: Fashion of Fit?”, Harvard Business Review 59, Jan-Feb 1981, p 103-116
  • Mintzberg Henery (1981): Organization Design: Fashion of Fit?”, Harvard Business Review 59, Jan-Feb 1981
  • Munoz-Garcia Felix (2017): Advanced Microeconomic Theory; MIT Press, Cambridge


(Word Count: Approx. 7,600)

Understanding History, Community and Society in South Asia


I. Identities in south Asia: National, Regional, Religious and Others

Continuing from my previous analysis of religious versus other identities, the key to understanding many facets of south Asia is to appreciate that religious identity is mostly subservient to other identities peculiar to the subcontinent. It is mostly the result of more than five thousand years of shared historical, cultural, social and religious traditions and practices. For example – it would be difficult to distinguish Hindu, Muslims, Buddhist or Christian of a region/state in India by just looking at them – but it may be easier to distinguish a north Indian from a south Indian. Further, on the whole, there is something called ‘Indian’ being result of complex intermingling of faiths, tradition, cultures, beliefs, social norms, ethnicity, languages, food, music, and dresses etc. over thousands of years. This fact becomes eminently evident to most south Asians when they are abroad, as Europeans or Americans easily make out that someone is from south Asia, what they then need to further confirm is whether the person is from India, or Pakistan, Bangaladesh, Sri Lanka or some other country. Furthermore, this is a dynamic process – constantly changing and evolving, though still retaining that uniqueness of south Asian identity, which is kind of self-evident to an outsider/foreigner. It has variously been given different names by thinkers and philosophers – a quite popular being ‘Unity in Diversity’ (Khilnani, 1999).

Another example of one such unique characteristic of south Asian identity is that even religions like Christianity and Islam in this region have incorporated social and cultural characteristics peculiar to the sub-continent. One very relevant example which comes to my mind is incorporation/adoption of the characteristics of the caste system even among Muslims and Christians. This has resulted in the sorry state of affairs where the persons converting to these faiths from Hinduism in the hope of getting rid of their caste identity and its related oppression and exploitation, have largely failed to do so. Certainly, identity in pre-colonial India was dependent on various features such as caste, occupation, language, sect, region and location and has been highlighted and analyzed by various researchers and historians, and many such age old social practices continued into the nineteenth century (Sharma, 2009), and do continue even today. As late as eighteenth century; caste was often given primacy over religion, although caste and religious sect could overlap (Thapar, 2002a). Even now, caste and regional identity could be the most important identity in many parts of Indian sub-continent, including in urban areas, as well as in Islamic Pakistan.

Let me give a personal example from my village in East Champaran district of north Bihar. I still recollect our sharecropper (he doubled up as an agricultural labourer too) – no one could have identified him as Muslim, his predominant identity was his class status and poverty. For all throughout my childhood, and even during my youth, I never knew that he was a Muslim. He was always called by his nickname ( it was ‘Jaie’ – which incidentally is the Hindi/Bhojpuri word for Oat) and that was suffixed with the word ‘Kaka’, a Hindi word showing respect, also meaning uncle/elder. Perhaps no one cared about his real ‘Muslim’ name. It was perhaps in my thirties that I came to know of his religious identity. He died few years ago at a very ripe old age. His wife who used to be (and still is) regular at our home, and used to do odd work, was a cheerful talkative lady. The case of identity was same with her. So, this family and few other Muslims families have lived peacefully in my village and I have not seen or heard of any serious friction due to religious believes or identities. Their priorities, concerns, struggles and world views were, and are, different and in the journey of their life, religious identity was always subservient to other identities, goals and concerns. And I am sure that there are innumerable villages like mine across length and breadth of India, and South Asia.

This does not mean that there have not been religious riots in India, or for that matter, some friction in my village. There have been many, in different parts of India at different times, but again, they were mostly localized and contained quickly, and there have been riots/disturbance due to many other divisive tendencies as well. Though it may sound trite, I should also mention visiting my Muslim job-supervisor on Eid and sharing the food and laughter together and his visit to us to enjoy colors of Holi with us. And I can continue citing! These examples, which may sound, as I said, cliche, are being given to highlight one point – there are many sub-national, regional and social identities in India, and religion is mostly not the predominant one across the sub-continent. And during the pre-British time, this was even more so. Indian democratic uniqueness lies in its rather successfully reconciling these identities and social diversities. Some of these, including religious, have acquired serious overtones occasionally, but were always localized in space and time, and ultimately have been tackled successfully.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s society can still be usefully analyzed in terms of regional identity and power play beneath the apparent religious homogeneity of Islam. The linguistic schism leading to birth of Bangladesh has already been discussed by me. Even in today’s Pakistan, it is regional/linguistic/ethnic identity of Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, Pashtun/Pathan etc. which guides the social-interaction and play a dominant role not only in polity but also in day to day existence. Punjabis dominate Pakistan – culturally, linguistically and of course in numbers. Though Urdu is officially the national language, Panjabi is mother tongue of as many as 47% of people whereas Urdu is the mother tongue only for 8% of people (Census). Further, close proximity can be found between Urdu and Punjabi – Urdu being a derived language of recent origin (Mughal period) from Punjabi, Hindi and Persian. In a diverse country (yes, Pakistan is diverse too, though not as much as India), democracy can play a very crucial role in giving a platform for different people to share the governance and a medium through which differences of all sorts can be reconciled through dialogic and consultative process peacefully and productively.

Absence of democracy in Pakistan has largely devoid it of such opportunities and has perpetuated the dominance of one region/community/ethnic group at the cost of other minorities. The hegemony of Pakistan’s resurrected and refurbished ‘Punjabi tradition’ has been nationalized in an unequivocally authoritarian Pakistan (Stern 2001). Today, Pakistan is ravaged by serious fragmentation along ethnic-national lines which is being exacerbated by the great power conflict that is unfolding across the region (Sajjad, 2010). It has been argued that identification of the state in Pakistan with the Punjabis, to the exclusion of all others, has contributed to the intensification and even militarization of ethnic conflicts in the country (Mohammad, 2002). Again, the contrast with India is quite telling! And the potential which a democratic polity and politics holds for reconciliation of such socio-ethnic conflicts through peaceful means is immense.

Of late, Pakistan appears to be making some promising move towards some form of sustainable democratic polity, though I should be very careful in drawing such early conclusions. However, I would like to mention one thing; the recent removal of Pakistani Prime Minister by Supreme Court on corruption charges (name of his family members appearing in Panama Papers) is a decision which may point towards evolving institutional independence. However, delving deeper may also point out that higher judicial institutions and armed forces in Pakistan are still dominated by powerful elites, and function in largely non-transparent and arbitrary manner, and the removal of the Prime Minister may not be as straight as it seems. Nevertheless, I am pointing out the contrast because in India, we have yet to see any action against big and powerful elites on the basis of revelation of Panama papers.

II. Dividing and Periodizing History: Hindu and Muslim

Here, some further comment on history of Indian sub-continent is necessary to put the issue in proper context. For advocates of Pakistan (as well as for Hindu-nationalists), it was imperative to view the Indian history in terms of Hindu Period vs. Muslim Period – based on the notion of who was ruling the sub-continent. The naïve, though catchy and popular, colonial/religious-nationalistic periodization of Indian history in to Ancient (from antiquity until about 9-10th century), Medieval (until about 17th century) and Modern – which can also be identified as Hindu, Muslim and British periods – on the basis of the religion/persuasion of most important kings and ruler has been a handy tool for many. This is the result of early historiography dominated by British and German Indologist like William Jones, James Prinsep, Max Muller and many others, whose first point of contact and first acquaintances with Indian history and its past was through study of ancient texts like Vedas, Upanishads and epics, mainly through Brahmins who knew Sanskrit (Keay, 1981). The simplistic interpretation also suited well with colonial interests and their framework of understanding of Judaeo-Christianic world, where religion always was crucial in politics and statecraft.

Historical causes were explained as arising almost entirely from matters of religion, which were frequently assumed to be confrontational. Ultimately, thus, for some if the ‘Hindu’ period was unblemished Golden Age, the ‘Muslim’ period was Dark Age, and this imagery has been reversed by those of the alternative persuasion (Thapar, 2002b). In fact, for much of the history, the whole Indian sub-continent was rarely under one empire/ruler; there were different kingdoms in different areas. Even during the so called Muslim period, there was large number of Hindu kings interspersed spatially and temporally. Further, during Mughal rule, large number of regional Hindu princes/kings populated provincial kingdoms like Rajputana, Punjab, Malwa, Rajasthan, Deccan, Tamil, as well as in Mughal Emperor’s court as Ministers, Advisors, Chief of Army etc.

In fact, India was effectively under one king/regime during its long history only when the state policy was more of tolerance and acceptance of the diversity and heterodoxy (Eraly, 2000). The two great emperors of India – Asoka and Akbar – one Buddhist another Muslim (yes, none of them were Hindus!) -who ruled almost whole of Indian subcontinent in 3rd century BC and 16th Century AD respectively – have the declared state policy of religious tolerance, respect for cultural and social diversity and they vigorously propagated peaceful coexistence (Thapar, 1998; Lahri, 2015; Truschke, 2016). When Aurangzeb effectively reversed his great-grandfather Akbar’s policy in 17th century, the mighty Mughal Empire effectively disintegrated within few decades (Sen, 2005). Furthermore, India being effectively a decentralized sub-continent with many layers and complex social pattern and practices, the religious persuasion of the king was often not an issue for masses – unless it affected their day to day life. It has rightly been said that the assimilative Indian society and culture has always been able to ‘conquer the conqueror’ over its long sweep of history – whether it was immigration of Indo-Aryan speakers during second millennium BC; of Huns, Parthians (Pahlwns), Shakas, Kushans (Yueh-Chi), Jews and others during close of first millennium BC or of Muslims (of Afghan, Turkish, Persian and Mongol origins) during close of first and second millennium AD.

The British could be cited as an exception. But they came in a very different historical time, with very specific purpose of trade and commerce. This only gradually transformed into their being the colonial powers. However, British were perhaps never interested in permanently settling and mixing in India. Although no empire was larger or more diverse than the British, yet no empire -except the Russian – disappeared more swiftly, within a generation (Brendon, 2007). Let me not explore this issue further, as it is in itself a vast area of scholarship, research and discussion.

III. The Idea of Aryan

Instead of British, let me examine the concept/idea of ‘Aryan’ in some more detail. The word ‘Aryan’ is very sensitive, even dangerous, and in any case, much misused. It would be wrong to attach a ‘racial’ identity with the word ‘Aryan’. It was a linguistic identity, referring to groups of people speaking Indo-European and then Indo-Aryan (or perhaps Proto-Sanskrit) languages (yes, its plural) who migrated to Indian sub-continent, perhaps over a long duration sometime during second millennium BC. Indo-Aryan (or Indo-European) also migrated to areas now called middle east, east Europe and further west and east of their original homeland. In the south Asian context, please note that I am using words ‘migration perhaps during long duration’, not ‘invasion by Aryans leading to destruction of Indus valley/Harappan people’. The recent historical scholarship of past quarter of century have now led to some modification and revision of the earlier idea of invasion, though there are still scholars who think it was more of a violent invasion then a peaceful, gradual migration. This violent invasion theory seems to carry some weight in light of still unexplained reasons for a rather quick decline and disintegration of Harrapan civilization during the same time-period of history when this ‘migration’ happened. The still un-deciphered Harappan script/writing perhaps will throw valuable light on these issues, and will greatly help in unlocking and unraveling these secrets. In fact, Harrapan is the only major ancient script which has not yet been deciphered.

Even this line of theory of gradual migration of Aryans, which is largely (though not universally) accepted by the most erudite and learned of world historians, linguists, archaeologist and experts, has been attacked by those who want Indian past to be presented and understood in a particular manner. However, any such criticism which is not founded on evidence and lacking in logic and reasons is bound to be taken as what it actually is, an attempt by vested groups to distort and misrepresent Indian history, its past and ideas of identity for propagating their parochial narrow interests. Though there is some recent research which has brought more interesting facts to light about the Harappan civilization and Indo-Aryan people, there is nothing corroborating these parochial points of views.

I will not further delve into this topic, and would instead suggest two good books for more information, one edited by Thomas Trautmann, titled The Aryan Debate (Trautmann, 2007) and the other edited by Edwin Bryant & Laurie Patton titled, The Indo-Aryan Controversy (Byrant, 2004). It should also be kept in mind that the idea of Aryan and of Indo-European languages, their origin, their migration and movements have wider repercussions about how history of not only India, but of whole Europe, Asia and even Africa is further explored, understood, interpreted, reinterpreted and revised.

IV. The Idea of Hindu

Looking back to the earliest times, India has been home to many faiths and beliefs. It has been birth place of at least four world religions – Hinduism and Buddhism (which have large following today) as well as Sikhism and Jainism – three of them predating the Christianity. It would be wrong to interpret that before the advent of Islam, religious identity of Indian sub-continent was a standardized canonical ‘Hinduism’ as is now often is being claimed, and also being attempted by Hindu fundamentalists. Further, it may be incorrect to call ‘Hinduism’ as a ‘religion’ in the western sense – it did not has a single prophet or founder, did not has ‘a’ holy book, did not and does not has a single authority/institution and no fixed set of rules and ritual structure – it always meant different things to different people with regional variation in rituals, practices, beliefs, myths, pantheons and philosophy. If fact the ‘Vedic Brahmanism’ of before Christ (based on ritual and sacrifice) was very different from the ‘classical Hinduism’ of first millennium AD (philosophical, espousing dharma and karma (duties) and bhakti (devotion) to personal gods), or from the popular ‘Hinduism’ of modern times. Vedic Brahmanism had already given way to Buddhism (espousing middle-path) as the most prominent faith by around 3rd Century BC which remained dominant for around a millennium in the sub-continent and during which it spread to far corners of Asia (Eraly, 2000).

The religious dispositions in India always accepted heterodoxy of faiths and believes and they were part of parcel of everyday life. Even during Vedic times and thereafter, what we now know through literacy records is perhaps not what was actually practiced by most of the people. It only shows what a particular social class (the highest – Brahmins and Kshatriya) believed and practiced and desired that all others would practice. In fact, Buddhism and Jainism originated as orthodox sects in reaction to excessive ritualism and other tenets of Vedic Brahmanism. The ‘classical Hinduism’ which emerged from 4th century AD onwards, can be understood as product of intermingling of Vedic-Brahmanism and Buddhism (Eraly, 2011). In short, what is important to appreciate is that the social and cultural intermixing has been a common feature in Indian subcontinent since time immemorial, and the experience with Islam (or for that matter with Christianity) was not much different. Islam came to India in 8th century and by 11th century; it was the religion of the kings/sultans in north and north-west of India.

V. Experience of Islam in India

The spread of Islam in Indian sub-continents and its interaction with Indian culture and religion need to be distinguished with what happened to Islam in other parts of the world – the spread was not all pervasive as happened in Middle East and even in some areas of South East Asia. In India – it was much more complex, mixed and the influence was in both directions, as always. Perhaps, a long tradition of religious thinking and the fact of India itself being birthplace of important religions and philosophy were the crucial factors. It also needs to be distinguished with the interaction of Islam and Christianity – which was often much more violent and animistic. On the Indian sub-continent, the intermingling of Islam with pre-existing traditions produced Sufism and new religion like Sikhism and many other minor traditions and practices, often called ‘sects’ – not Crusades! Islamic interaction further spread the ancient India knowledge to Europe via Islamic Middle East – like the concept of ‘zero’, place value numeral and decimal systems (Ifrah, 2000)- which played crucial role in European renaissance.

If one looks at the world map showing Islam’s spread eastward upto South East Asian islands, the break in Indian sub-continent is immediately visible. However, I must say that a deeper and nuanced understanding is quite important here – because such kind of arguments can easily lead one to the erroneous view of dominance of ‘Hindu’ religion on Indian sub-continent to the exclusion or subservience of other faiths. And such approach has been taken by Hindu rightist groups, more often in recent past, with some substantial political and social gains (Nassbaum, 2007). One of their ideal is to harp on to attain a state where all Indians follow ‘Indian’ culture, value and tradition – of course for them ‘Indian’ means ‘Hindu’, for them the golden period of India was before the ‘invasion’ of Muslims, for them the ancient India was the purest India, classical Hinduism is the Indian belief systems, and of course Indian culture has been able to withstand all invasions and attacks to retain its essential feature – and it needs to be preserved and propagated!

Further, viewing medieval India as ‘Muslim India’ came in handy for ‘Muslim right’ also and to advocates of Pakistan who propagated the view that Muslims, who were rulers of India for hundreds of years, have lost power and they needed it back – somehow – even by dividing the country. Of course, it was (and still is) mainly the view of a section of elite, powerful, feudal and rich Muslims, mostly in Pakistan – and should never be considered as the view representing the Muslim masses not only of Pakistan but all over Indian subcontinent. Sadly, the idea of Pakistan has remained hostage to this divisive and fundamentalist ideal. No doubt, even on Indian side – there were (and are) fundamentalist ideologues – Hindu as well as Muslims – but they have failed to get the support of masses, except at certain times and in certain regions. They have largely remained on the periphery of Indian psyche, though of late political emergence of Hindu rightist groups, their growing appeal to rich, urban and elite classes of Indians may be a worrying sign. This has also found reverberation in what has variously been called a rising conservatism across the world, though there are strong counterarguments also against any such understanding of recent world historical and political paradigm.

VI. Syncretizing Diversity

A very recent trend getting more and more attention of prospering middle classes is to often downplay, even denigrate, the roles played by founding fathers (Nehru is a favorite here) of India in laying a strong bedrock for a robust democratic, plural and progressive country. The contribution of these innovative, synthetic and cosmopolitan thinkers, like Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and Ambedkar (others too) – each of whom turned to diverse sources, including Buddhist literature, Bhagvadgita, Sanskrit poetry, edicts of Ashoka, architecture and administration of Mughals etc, to fashion an original sense of Indian selfhood, with a keen sense of subcontinent’s diverse, syncretic historical heritage – cannot be overemphasized. This analytic and synthetic process leading to foundation of Indian polity and democracy has been beautifully and vividly explored by Ananya Vajpeyi in her book (Vajpeyi, 2012).

On diversity and assimilative nature of Indian culture, society and polity, I cannot resist citing Ramchandra Guha here (Guha, 2007a). America has often been called the ‘melting pot’ of different cultures. It may be tempting to call India a better example of melting post. But a more apt description of India would be to call it a ‘salad bowl’ – where each conceivable diversity has retained its flavor, taste and distinct identity, despite being constituent of a larger unified whole (Guha, 2007b). Perhaps, Pakistan also need to realize that despite being an Islamic state, it also needs to be a ‘salad bowl’, or at least a ‘melting pot’, though of a smaller size than that of India, which can take it quite far on a successful democratic journey.

VII. Teaching History in Pakistan (and in India too)

I wonder how history is taught in Pakistan! I wanted to know more about it, and tried discussing it while at Harvard, but it was not easy to elicit comments or reactions. There is no denying the fact that India and Pakistan (and for that matter Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc, and to some extent Afghanistan also) share a common historical legacy. I was told that in Pakistan, history teaching starts from 712 AD when first Muslim hoards attacked/reached Sindh. Although I could not access any school/college textbook of history from Pakistan, I accessed few books on general history of Pakistan in the Harvard library. One was titled The History of Pakistan by Iftikhar Malik (Malik, 2008) which first discussed Indus Valley Civilization very briefly, in only 20 pages, and then from there it directly jumped to advent of Islam in Indian subcontinent, thus omitting around 3000 years of history in between, yet discussing and describing medieval India and Mughal period. The other book titled Pakistan – A Modern History (2nd ed.) by Ian Talbot (Talbot, 2010), as the title itself suggested, was not at all concerned with early periods, it talked of modern Pakistan only since its birth in 1947. Even a scholar like Stephen Cohen has not been able to appreciate this issue in his popular book, where he narrates a short history of Pakistan (Cohen, 2004) – perhaps he can take the unconvincing excuse of being constrained by space limitations to start his history of Pakistan from 1100 AD!

I am sad that history in Pakistan has been colored in terms of Hindu vs. Muslim, I am sad that children in Pakistan are not taught that Ashoka was as great a king as was Akbar, that Taxila (near Islamabad in Pakistan) was a great center of Sanskrit learning where Panini compiled his great grammar of Sanskrit in 5th century BC (Keay, 2010) and it was also a grate center of Buddhist learning, art and culture; that Buddhism spread to central Asia and China through these places in Pakistan, that Mughal dynasty was more Indian than Muslim, that almost all the great Mughal monuments and architectural heritage are in India, that great Harappa civilization was centered in Sindhu catchment area of today’s Pakistan and that South Asia’s (including Pakistan) known historical tradition has a continuous history starting as back as in 3300 BC, not in 712 AD.

Am I unfairly pointing out Pakistan? Am I being too complacent about my own country while being rhetorically sarcastic about Pakistan? Should I start bothering about India too? To imagine that I may be needed to say something similar for India sometime in near future, for Indian history books, for the way many Indians may like to start identifying India only as Hindu, is a terrible thought for me. Despite some recent disturbing episodes and incidents, where attempts have been made to modify and color the school textbooks in the same way our Pakistani brothers do, I am quite positive that we, as a nation and society, will be ultimately able to resist any such attempts.

This feeling of mine is buttressed by the fact of our past 70 years of experience, wherein we have largely been successful in dealing with such divisive tendencies. Nevertheless, I do not want us to be complacent, because such issues of identity, culture and history are much more, much much more important than we often think them to be. They affect subconscious in more ways than we can even imagine and recognize.

VIII. Where Do Indians Stand Today

My positive feeling is despite the fact that of late, I have seen people much more concerned with preserving the ‘holiness’ of cow than to know for example, what actually was achieved by renowned mathematician-astronomer Aryabhatta or Brahmagupta.

Kusumpur, a place near Patna in Bihar, where Aryabhatta lived and worked during 5th-6th century is an unknown village today. This place, around 30 km from Patna, presently is a typical agricultural village, know as Taregna (adjacent to a small kasba Masaurhi), and hardly any of the villagers know about Aryabhatta. For that matter, hardly any Bihari (or if I may say, even Indian) knows that Aryabhatta was from Kusumpur, Patna. Perhaps the precise location of his laboratory is presently being used for milking cows, tending to goats and for growing vegetables! As one report goes, few years ago, in July 2009, the Chief Minister of Bihar visited this place to observe a solar eclipse (supposedly, some foreign scientists, including few from NASA, were also there), as it offers a vantage position and location, some say in terms of latitude and longitude for astronomical calculation and observations, and perhaps that was one of the reasons which motivated Aryabhatta to live there. However, nothing much happened after Taregna’s brief encounter with fame, and the village quickly went back to its usual status of being a nondescript anonymous place.

I hardly find any commentary or modern book analyzing the contribution of Aryabhatta, Brahmagupta or other ancient Indian scientists, whereas I increasingly hear claims that Indians had already invented airplane as early as during the age of Lord Rama (haven’t you heard of Pushpak Viman), and similar other gibberish! I must further point out, as another example from our recent past, that even in case of modern Indian geniuses like mathematician Ramanujan, his biography has to be written by Robert Kanigel, an American science writer (Kanigel, 1991). What Indians are doing then, in addition to neglecting Ramanujan, Aryabhatta and similar others?

Many Indians today like to believe that they are already on the path of regaining their country’s (lost) glory and power, and therefore instead of wasting their time on Aryabhatta or Ramanujan, many of them (an increasing proportion of recently prosperous urban middle class) are giving more importance to discovering the ‘real’ glorious past of India and preserving and protecting its most essential features! Just to take only one example, this is often being done by (if not directly, then by supporting – through various types of convoluted arguments, or ignoring and underplaying – acts of) lynching people who are alleged of eating or carrying or storing or even of thinking of eating beef. Of course such people thereby commit a heinous crime against ‘holy’ cow, and thus against Indian culture and identity, as cow is India’s most important, essential and sacred cultural symbol! Therefore, perpetrators of such acts fully deserve these barbaric and cowardly mob-judgement by supremely civilized Indians! What importance Aryabhatta or anyone else has before our holy cow!

This precisely is the power of identity played through history and their uses and misuses for shaping the course and discourse of our society and nation.

Let me end the essay by mentioning Dipankar Gupta who exhorts us as to whether and where we stand with Gandhi. Would we rather line up behind a ‘cultural Gandhi’ who can easily be cast as a Hindutva partisan? Or are we going to stand firm and unfazed by the principles of ahimsa (Gupta, 2013), and let me specifically add, of secularism, liberalism and progressivism.


(As I mentioned in the first essay on South Asia, many books can be (and have been) written on each of the issues discussed in every paragraphs of this essay. The long list of 30 references which have appeared in this second part of the essay, as below, is a potent testimony of this. Further, it should not at all be taken as comprehensives, at the most it is only indicative)

  • Akhtar Aasim Sajjad (2010): “What Is Really Happening in Pakistan”, Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, (Vol XLV, No. 10, March 6, 2010)
  • Brendon Piers (2007): The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997; Vintage Books, London; xvi-xx
  • Bryant Edwin & Patton Laurie, Ed. (2005): The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and Inference in Indian History; Routledge, New York
  • Census: Taken from
  • Cohen Stephen (2004): The Idea of Pakistan; Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC; 5
  • Eraly Abraham (2000): The Gem in the Lotus-The Seeding of Indian Civilization; Penguin Books, New Delhi; 3-6, 22-25
  • Eraly Abraham (2000): The Mughal Throne – the Saga of India’s Great Emperors; Phoenix Orion Books, London; Ch.6,
  • Eraly Abraham (2011): The First Spring-Life in the Golden Age of India; Penguin Books, New Delhi; 3-12
  • Guha Ramchandra (2007a):, India After Gandhi- The History of World’s Largest Democracy, (Harper Perennial, New York; 773
  • Guha Ramchandra (2007b): India After Gandhi- The History of World’s Largest Democracy; Harper Perennial, New York; 755
  • Gupta Dipankar (2013): Revolution from Above – India’s Future and the Citizen Elite; Rainlight Rupa Publication, New Delhi; 67
  • Ifrah Georges (2000): The Universal History of Numbers- From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer; John Wiley & Sons, New York; Ch. 24, 25, 26
  • Kanigel Robert (1991): The Man Who Knew Infinity- A Life of the Genius Ramanujan; Little Brown Black Group, New York.
  • Keay John (1981): India Discovered-The Recovery of A Lost Civilization; Harper Collins India, New Delhi; 35-40, 50-53
  • Keay John (2010): India – A History From the Earliest Civilizations to the Boom of the Twenty-First Century; Harper Press, London; 60
  • Khilnani Sunil (1999): The Idea of India; Penguin Books India, New Delhi; Ch. 1
  • Lahri Nayanjot (2015): Ashoka in Ancient India; Permanent Black-Ashoka University, New Delhi; ch1
  • Malik Iftikhar (2008): The History of Pakistan; Greenwood Press, Westport.
  • Nussbaum Martha (2007): The Clash Within – Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future; The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, USA; Ch. 5
  • Sen Amartya (2005): Argumentative Indian – Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity; Picador, USA, p 25, 32, 287-93
  • Sharma R. S. (2009): Rethinking India’s Past; Oxford University Press, New Delhi; ch 6, 7
  • Stern Robert (2001): Democracy and Dictatorship in South Asia – Dominant Classes and Political Outcomes in India, Pakistan and Bangaladesh; Praeger, Westport; 15
  • Talbot Ian (2010): Pakistan – A Modern History, 2nd ed.; Palgrave Macmillan, USA
  • Thapar Romila (1998): Ashoka and the Decline of the Maurya, 2nd ed; Oxford University Press, New Delhi; Ch.1,
  • Thapar Romila (2002a): The Penguin History of Early India – From the Origins to AD 1300; Penguin Books, London; 20
  • Thapar Romila (2002b): The Penguin History of Early India – From the Origins to AD 1300; Penguin Books, London; 21
  • Trautmann Thomas, Ed. (2007): The Aryan Debate; Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
  • Truschke Audrey (2016): Culture of Encounters – Sanskrit at the Mughal Court; Penguin Random House, New Delhi; 5-10
  • Vajpeyi Ananya (2012): Righteous Republic – The Political Foundations of Modern India; Harvard University Press, USA,
  • Waseem Mohammad, “Causes of Democratic Downslide”, Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai (Vol 37, No. 44, November 2, 2002)

Photo Credit: BBC

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Nation, Identity and Democracy in South Asia

Power of Words

I. Introduction

Identity and History: these two words carry very deep meanings and are also intertwined in various complex ways in more senses than one. In modern times, when, as Peter Watson says “the present world has become an end in itself instead of a preparation for a world to come”(Watson, 2006), instead of mulling over various social-economic and development challenges and trying to find their answers, when I find a tendency to side step them for debating and even fighting over what I call non-issues, it is just one pointer of the importance of identity defined, redefined and then ill-defined in relation to history, which is then often used for parochial and divisive purposes.

This essay is an attempts to point out certain features and ideas from shared history of this sub-continent, now called South Asia, and specifically juxtapose two successor ‘nations’ of British imperial empire – India and Pakistan. I will not enter into the issues relating to  understanding of terms like ‘nation’, ‘nation-state’, and ‘state’, as understood in political science and theory;  presumably India may not be strictly understood as a ‘nation’, but it is a ‘state’ nevertheless, and therefore, not actually a ‘nation-state’. Through this juxtaposition, I will highlight various salient features of the issue of identity and nationalism which we often tend to forget, sometimes even tend to ignore. My attempt is to put forward a deep and subtle understanding of ‘India’ – as a society, as a civilization, as a culture, and in our times, as a democratic, liberal, diverse country. This has been attempted by contrasting the experience of India with that of Pakistan since their independence in 1947 from colonial rule, and how nation and society were theorized, imagined, justified and how the whole discourse and dialectic of social-political and cultural identity and resulting processes and consequences have taken place in these two countries since then.

Let me recollect that some of these ideas and issues were examined, discussed and debated in student’s forum and informal groups at Harvard University, where there was a very lively and active body of south Asian students. I also recollect how Indians and Pakistanis often were good friends in an alien land, obviously due to natural reasons of shared and similar history, culture, food habits, languages and what not. And let me also point out how many Indians used to squirm when Pakistanis were given equal (sometimes more) ear/hearing during various discussions/debates, and also how increasingly Indians were trying to project themselves much better than their Pakistani counterparts, and not at all happy with the ‘hyphenation’. For me, it was (and still is, for those who are in USA, or other western countries) an interesting love-hate relationship to observe, experience and enjoy.

In light of Daniel Hausman reminding us that “being dogmatic is not believing that one is right, it is believing that one could not be wrong” (Hausman, 2017), I hope this analysis will help us being less dogmatic and be ready to listen, be open to various perspective, many of which may not be in conformity with ours, and being tolerant of other’s world view, in sum being more accommodating to diversity and heterogeneity.  And I feel for we Indians, these issues have become much more important now than in any recent period of history. What is more, full length books can be written (and indeed, have been written) on each of issues/ideas raised and discussed in the following paragraphs. Nevertheless, what follows in the rest of this essay is my take, my observation, analysis and interpretation on this important issue, and I think it is very important to express it.

Since the whole analysis will be too long for a single essay, I will be covering them in two separate essays. This, being the first one, will focus more on issues of nation, political process, state formation and democratic institutionalization. Ideas of identity and history, historical interpretation and understating will mainly be discussed in second essay. 


II. Democratic ‘Divergence’ in south Asia

The idea of ‘divergence’ as a historical fact and something which could be very helpful in identifying and analyzing long term historical processes  was popularized by Kenneth Pomeranz through his most famous book: The Great Divergence, published in 2000, wherein he propagated the argument of how China started to lag behind newly industrializing Europe during 17th-18th century, leading to the greatest divergence in human civilization resulting into today’s unequal economic worlds of east and west (Pomeranz, 2000). Taking Pomeranz idea, I intend to apply it, though on a much shorter scale of space and also time, to India and Pakistan.

Indian and Pakistan are like twin brothers.  They are so similar, yet so different – the most striking difference being in the form of government – India has remained democratic since its birth, whereas Pakistan has been a dictatorship almost throughout.  There were around two years of ’emergency’ rule in India during 1975-77 – though it was not a military dictatorship, and Pakistan has also seen small interludes of democratic experiment, though all of them eventually failed. However, the experience of recent past has some hope for the future, though it may be too early to conclude anything. The first general election in independent India was held in 1952 and was termed by many as ‘biggest gamble in history (Guha, 2007a). Even before that election, it was said that a poor, uneducated, diverse and divided country cannot aspire to become a democracy. For that matter, the very fact that India was a single country was inconsistent and incongruent to the received wisdom of western political scientists. It was, sooner or later, destined to disintegrate into many different nations – like Europe. Pakistan, on the other hand, appeared to be confirming to the received wisdom – a poor, undeveloped, diverse, uneducated country in Asia cannot be a successful democracy!

Yet, India has remained a single country – and the democracy has taken deeper and deeper roots. Understanding Indian subcontinent deeply has always been difficult for a western mind as nothing is obviously true for India as a whole. Every generalization that follows could be disproved with evidence to the contrary from India itself (Wolpert, 2009). And the democratic divergence of India and Pakistan has only added to this difficulty and puzzle.  I would, in the following paragraphs, be trying to analyze the causes of failure of democracy in Pakistan and in the process would go beyond the popular and often naive explanations offered from various sides. History and its understanding, certainly, would come to play a crucial role here along with how it shapes and reshapes individual and collective identity in the society at large, and often transforms a motley group of people to an “imagined community” (to borrow the word of Benedict Anderson from his 1983 book of the same name, which beautifully analyzes the causes of rise of modern nationalism in various parts of Europe). It will also be helpful, I hope, in demonstrating to all of us Indians, why we need to be very perceptive, careful and vigilant in preserving our liberal, tolerant and argumentative historical-cultural heritage, which often is easier to destroy then generally perceived. 


III. Two Rival Ideas of Nation: Composite Culture vs. Religious Homeland

Why democracy has been successful in India and not in Pakistan despite both countries having almost same social, cultural, political, historical and geographic background? It’s a hotly debated topic – a large number of explanations have been proposed and analyzed like the basic flaw in the idea of a separate nation for Indian Muslims, the nature of pre-independence political formations and its effect, the way freedom movement was spearheaded during 1930s and 1940s, maturity and vision or lack thereof of political leadership, role and reactions of Congress and Muslim League – the two main political parties, the role, power and position of feudal elements in the society and the approach of British government during the last couple of years etc. Most of these do contain some valid explanations. Further, since independence, the way political leadership and society as a whole has handled the democratic experience in newly independent nations of India and Pakistan has also influenced the deepening or otherwise of the democratic experience. Nevertheless, it needs to be emphasized that the seed of democratic divergence were sown with the different ‘idea’ on which India and Pakistan were formed. In this seeding, how history was (and is) understood, interpreted and propagated to influence millions played a very important role.

The ‘two nation theory’, which refer to the claim that Muslims of India need a separate nation of their own, and the induced developments are perhaps the pivotal cause for failure of democracy in Pakistan. The idea of Pakistan was propounded, quite late during Indian freedom struggle, as a homeland for Indian Muslims – where they would be living in peace and prosperity, on the presumption that a peaceful coexistence was not possible in undivided India with Hindu majority. Though at first, the idea appears to be having merit and may have parallels in world, on deeper examination, it becomes clear that demand for a separate nation on the basis of religion in Indian subcontinent was (and is) absurd. For centuries, people of Indian subcontinents have shared a culture and history where religious tolerance and assimilation was the dominant force in social, political and economic sphere. The society and culture of Indian subcontinent has evolved through an intermingling of people of different faiths, ethnicity, beliefs, language, practices and what not. The leaders of Congress party were able to realize this early on and were advocating a pluralistic society with a democratic polity in a free India. They envisaged India as a multi-cultural, multi ethnic and multi lingual democratic country where people of all faith and beliefs would be living in peace and harmony – the ‘secular’ state would have equal ‘respect’ for all faiths and beliefs (Jayal, 2010). Though it may appear strange and even unbelievable to many, India has always been so – for much of its history (Tharoor, 1998). Just to give one example – as early as 300 BC, we have ample evidence in Asoka’s rock and pillar inscriptions which inform us that state as well as society was respectful and tolerant of people of all beliefs and faiths (Sen, 2005).

The advocates of Pakistan also realized this (most of the Muslim League leaders, including M A Jinnah, started their political career in Congress, and were part of this umbrella organization as late as 1930s), but subsequently, on being alienated from Congress and facing some sort of existential issue, pressed for an independent nation for Indian Muslims.  It is also claimed that Jinnah was peeved with Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent approach and his subsequent emergence as the undisputed national mass-leader, as well as growing importance of younger Jawaharlal Nehru – most of which appears to be true.  They were able to influence many (but not majority) Muslims, especially in northern and eastern parts of India, with their political-religious-communal slogan intensely propagated during those turbulent two decades (1930-40s) due to various complex factors and ultimately were able to snatch the independent nation of Pakistan (though much smaller than it was initially dreamed of). The divisive and hasty approach of British is also to be blamed (Wolpert, 2006).  However, without further going into much commented history of India’s partition, it is important to note that the movement for Pakistan was not a positive one at the core. It was based only on anti-India (or anti-Hindu, as Muslim league would have liked to call it) agenda vigorously pursued by a new political formation started solely for this purpose which did not have much organizational and institutional capacity. There was perhaps scarcely any vision for nation building, democratic institutions, social reorganization and reform, power and resource sharing, development, conflict resolution and similar other program in the Muslim league or Pakistani leadership – as it was centered only on getting a separate nation for Muslims of Indian sub-continent. As the foundation of a nation was laid on the basis of divisive religious argument, it became quite difficult to come out of this limited vision – in a sense Pakistan’s vision was frozen in time. Even today, Pakistan, more often than not, identifies itself in relation to India.

Further, the pre-independent support base of Muslim League was largely in north India (present day province of Uttar Pradesh of India) and this area remained with India (and most of the Muslims of these areas chose to stay in India) (Stern, 2001). In pre-partition days, Muslim League has virtually no presence in Punjab till 1940s and, post-independence Muslim League in (West) Pakistan came to be dominated by a microscopic minority of feudal and rich Muslims and Military, mostly dominated by Punjabis of north-west Indian province, who were more concerned with preserving their power and control over resources. Such tendency was helped by early demise of Jinnah who nevertheless had democratic and modernist instinct. The leadership eventually came to be dominated by a mix of top military officers, rich landlords, rich businessmen, upper classes and like. This coalition of dominant classes has always been (and still is) in opposition to democracy and religion has been a handy and potent weapon in their hands to perpetuate and promote traditional forces. Over time, they appear to have been quite successful in spreading India focused existential idea of Pakistan even among middle classes, to keep the attention away from other much more pressing social, political and economic issues. (Do I sound familiar here, with what is happening in our country now!!) Non-democratic military government got further entrenched with continued support from western powers, first during the cold war and then in the name of fighting terrorism since late 1990s.


IV. Nation and State Formation: Religion and Other Identities

 How can ‘two nation theory’ explain the presence of large number of Muslims in India – who chose not to migrate to Pakistan at the time of partition? India today has world third largest Muslim population (around 160 million)- almost equal to population of Pakistan, being the largest Muslim minority in any country of the World (13% of India’s population). As many as three Presidents of India has been Muslims, some of the most popular movie and sports stars have been and are Muslims, and World’s richest Muslim entrepreneur is from India – just to give some examples. And such examples abound. On the other hand, Pakistan’s leadership failed to make a transition to democratic ideas mainly because of its ideological moorings which also explain why Kashmir is still the central issue for Pakistan’s government. By implication, let me be clear here: I am also saying that Kashmir should not be a central or the most important issues for us Indians, despite being one of the thorny issues from the times of discussion on independence and treatment of princely states (Tunzelmann, 2007) till date. There are many more and much more important challenges for us to tackle, in our own country.

Looking at the Indian side at the time of independence, political leadership in India (Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Azad and many others) was fully aware of the challenges and responsibilities of a nation building program. They were much more careful and determined after the bitter experience of partition – to make India a truly secular and democratic nation. India would not become a ‘Hindu Pakistan’. Rabindranath Tagore, as early as in 1917, has realized and emphasized that the issue facing India is not political but social, as since the earliest beginning of history, India has her own problem of ‘race’- the term which he further explained as diversity and differences among people of India (Tagore, 1917) . Thus, while India framed and implemented its democratic federal constitution within 3 years of independence, Pakistan could not do this even after ten years and by the eleventh year, it was under military rule. What India achieved in first fifteen years looks incredible – integration of more than five hundred principalities into India, reorganization of states on linguistic lines, social reforms, an industrialization program,  land reforms (though not that successful, especially in north India)  and of course, regular elections with universal adult suffrage – these were vital for strengthening of democracy (Guha, 2007b).

Nothing is more telling proof of the absurdity of ‘the idea of a separate nation for Indian Muslims’ than the separation of East Pakistan as new nation of Bangladesh in 1971 (for those who are not aware – Pakistan was born as a nation with two halves, separated geographically by a distance of 2000 km – and these were called East and West Pakistan – as it was carved out by taking Muslim majority districts of India – in the process dividing two lingo-cultural provinces of Punjab and Bengal). Pakistan lost more than half of its people with the birth of Bangladesh. Despite being Muslim, why did East Pakistan secede? Weren’t Muslims of India supposed to be forming a unified nation? Since the beginning, people of West Pakistan dominated Pakistan polity, society and military and controlled resources. East Pakistan was treated as almost a colony – was denied political power and equitable share in state’s resources. Urdu/Punjabi was thrust upon them who spoke Bengali. East Pakistan (inhabited by Bengalis) was linguistically and ethnically different from West Pakistan and these differences were much more substantial than commonality of religion. This led to growing discontent, protests and eventually state repression and civil war situation in 1970 when (east) Pakistan’s Mujibur Rehman led Awami League won majority seats in national elections and he appeared set to become Pakistan’s President – much to the discomfiture of (West) Pakistant’s elites. He was arrested, army started repressing the popular uprising in East Pakistan which fueled huge migration of refugees to India and then India intervened militarily, leading to an Indo-Pakistan war in 1971. This all ultimately led to the birth of East Pakistan as independent nation of Bangladesh with the defeat of Pakistani forces. I do not want to enter here in to the geopolitical power play of India and its political leadership at that time. That, though being a fact (Bass, 2013), is besides the point.

Pakistan was created on the basis of religion but was divided on the basis of language! Here again, the contrast with India is telling – India – with as many as 18 major regions with their own languages (and scripts), social and cultural identities, and tremendous diversity of every conceivable form – is in a sense ‘nation of nations’ – and also has strong divisive tendencies. The key answer here lies again in the way these issues have been tackled in India – for example the sub-national identities of language were effectively resolved by formation of linguistic provinces in 1950s.  The role of democratic ideals based on consultation, reconciliation and respect for other’s point of view again come in focus here – Nehru, who dominated the Indian polity till his death in 1964, was averse to the idea of linguistic states – but ultimately agreed to it in a truly democratic and non-dogmatic fashion.

Let me close this essay here. In the next one, continuing the discussion, I will be examining the idea of identity in relation to history, religious and other ethnic-cultural paradigms, and how these impinge upon the current political and social discourse.



  • Bass Gary (2013): The Blood Telegram- India’s Secret War in East Pakistan; Vintage Penguin Random House, New York, is an interesting and insightful history of the geopolitics in south Asia, and also of the role played by Nixon and Kissinger.
  • Guha Ramchandra (2007a): India After Gandhi- The History of the World’s Largest Democracy; Harper Perennial, New York, p770-775
  • Guha Ramchandra (2007b): India After Gandhi- The History of World’s Largest Democracy; Harper Perennial, New York, Ch 6,7,8,9
  • Hausman Daniel, Michael McPherson, Debra Satz (2017): Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy; Cambridge University Press, New York, p11
  • Jayal Niraja Gopal, Pratap Bhanu Mehta ed (2010): The Oxford Companion to Politics in India; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, p335-336
  • Pomeranz Kenneth (2000): The Great Divergence; Princeton University Press, USA, 2000
  • Sen Amartya (2005): Argumentative Indian – Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity; Picador, USA, 2005, p18, 46, 285-86
  • Stern Robert (2001): Democracy and Dictatorship in South Asia – Dominant Classes and Political Outcomes in India, Pakistan and Bangaladesh; Praeger, Westport, 2001, p14
  • Tagore Rabindranath (1917): Nationalism; Penguin Random House, New Delhi, (1917, 2009) p64-65
  • Tharoor Shashi (1998): India – From Midnight to The Millennium; Harper Perennial, USA,1998, Ch. 5
  • Tunzelmann Alex Von (2007): Indian Summer-The Secret History of the End of Empire; Simon and Schuster UK Ltd, London, ch 247-248, 283-284
  • Watson Peter (2006): Ideas: From Fire to Freud; Harper Perennial, New York, p398
  • Wolpart Stanley (2006): Shameful Flight – The Last Years of British Empire in India; Oxford University Press, USA, Ch. 1
  • Wolpert Stanley (2009): India, 4th edition; University of California Press, Berkley, USA, p1






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Where Are Post-Independence Books on Indian Philosophy And Thought?

Recently I have read two excellent books by Anthony Gottlieb on western philosophy titled ‘The Dream of Reason’ and ‘The Dream of Enlightenment’. And I must say that I enjoyed both of them thoroughly, and am waiting for the third one which will cover the development of philosophy in modern times, especially after enlightenment. Both the books read like a hugely entertaining and engaging novel, and Gottlieb is a terrific writer. Even the most difficult of the concepts from western philosophy have been so easily explained that I have no hesitation in accepting that some concepts of Plato and Aristotle which have not been clear to me for long, were for the first time illuminated by Gottlieb.  Gottlieb was executive editor of The Economist, and was educated at Cambridge and has also held academic positions. An interesting feature of his book is that he has consciously refrained from referring to other secondary sources (books on western philosophy by other authors) and has only referred to the primary sources. This is especially true about the first volume, dealing with ancient and medieval periods.

While going through the second volume, I started thinking and wishing for a similar volume on Indian philosophy. As far as I knew, there was no such volume written for curious educated reader interested in getting introduced to Indian thought – ancient, medieval and modern. Then I thought of making a fresh search again and did so. The result largely remains the same. In the process, I also decided that it is something on which I should comment. So this piece in my blog!

Searching Modern Popular Books on Indian Philosophy and Thought

There are good numbers of books available on Indian Philosophy, and I had made attempts earlier also to make myself aware of this field, and had tried going through a couple of those books. I found most of them very dry, written not in an engaging style, often difficult to understand and haphazardly organized. Most easily available ones like many books by Y. Masih (this writer appears to be an assembly line producer of text books on all types of philosophies: eastern, western, Greek; you name it, perhaps he has written a book on it), book by Chandradhar Sharma and few others are typical Indian textbooks, which one would read only when one is forced to! So, for an educated, curious mind, looking for an interesting and engaging book, options are very limited.

The most popular and one of the classic book on Indian Philosophy available is the two volume set written by the thinker, statesman and president of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. These books were written well before independence (in fact, by 2022, they will be completing the centenary), and thus are very old, yet they serve as excellent introduction and an advanced look into the Indian philosophical tradition and thought. However, there are three main issues with these volumes. First, obviously, they are very old, and reflect the though and understanding of early twentieth century, and therefore, not updated with subsequent research, understanding and debates. Second, they are largely concerned with religious philosophy or with the problem and analysis of world in relation to God, largely ignoring other philosophical issues like questions relating to logic, science, mathematics, epistemology, language and ethics etc. Further, the first volume, which mostly discussed Vedic gods, rituals and worship practices, Vedas and Upanishads, including Buddhist and Jain thoughts is more pronounced in this regard. The second volume covers the six system of Indian philosophy, namely Nyaya, Vaisesika, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimansaa and Vedanta, but again, though analytical (and not critical) the coverage is limited mostly to metaphysical issues. Third, though it is an excellent source and reference, it is not as engaging and interesting as Gottlieb’s or some other books on western philosophy, and may not be of interest to a general reader.

There are few other books by Radhakrishnan on Indian thought and philosophy. Though I have not read them, but from what I know about them, they are very good. Two books worth noting are ‘An Idealist View of Life’ (published first time in 1931-32), and ‘The Hindu View of Life’ (published in 1926). Clearly, they were again written almost a century ago, and largely concerns themselves with question of God, religion etc, and in that sense are limited in their scope and coverage.

I remember reading another old book by Chatterjee and Dutta long back. It was than published by University of Calcutta. Originally published in 1939, it is a reasonably good book for having a meaningful introduction of Indian philosophy, the six systems, as well as Buddhist and Jain thoughts. However, it also suffers from the same shortcomings; being almost a century old, written in textbook style, and in a very traditional fashion. I found that it is still available, now in a paperback edition (2007) from Rupa Publications. While availability of Radhakrishnan’s books, considered classics, is understandable, the availability of this book even after almost a century,  attests to the fact that there is acute dearth of reasonably good modern books (and textbooks) on Indian philosophy written in post-independence India.

There is another classic encyclopedic book of five volumes on Indian philosophy by Surendranath Dasgupta. However, as like other good books, it was written during the early period of 20th century (1922, to be precise), and due to its huge size (more than 2500 pages) does not serve the purpose of being a popular intelligent introduction to Indian philosophy and thought.

I should not be closing this section without mentioning a book by Late Heinrich Zimmer, professor of philosophy at Columbia University. The book titled ‘Philosophies of India’ was published posthumously in 1951, edited by Joseph Campbell based on Zimmer’s manuscripts and notes. Although it is also an old book, in the first glance, it appears to be more broad based discussing issues like philosophy of power, and of success, political geometry, universal king etc. However, the neglect of science and related explorations of Indian philosophy at the cost of focus on god, metaphysics and politics is present here too.

And none of the books I have found deals with medieval and late medieval philosophical developments, which was a syncretic process synthesizing ancient Indian and middle east/Arabic/Persian thoughts.

One qualification is required here. My survey and search is confined to the books available in English. However, in respect of Hindi, and other regional languages of India, I am reasonably certain that situation is not much better, perhaps worse than that found in English. The decline of Hindi language and literature in past century is well known and we are also well aware of the plight of Hindi language authors and academicians. Further, other regional languages have done better, and therefore, the situation there might be better.

Philosophy, Religion, ‘This Worldly’ Issues and Their Critical Analysis

I can be questioned on my wish of seeing philosophy divorced from religion and question of God. In all civilizations, philosophy originally developed within the confines of religious thought. The quest of human mind to understand and explain this world, the world beyond, the universe, and various phenomenon within all this led to development of philosophical enquiry (understood in broadest sense), and if I may say so, also led to the development of idea of God.

In this light, it is a fair claim that it may not be possible to meaningfully separate Indian thought and philosophy from ancient Indian religious thought.

Though I would agree to this claim at one level, I still think that it is possible to have understanding of philosophical issues by expanding our analysis beyond question of existence, purpose of this life and God.  And it not the case that there is dearth of such ‘worldly’ ideas in our ancient thought. Ancient thinkers like Aryabhatt, Varahmihir, Chanakya, Shankarachaya, Nagarjuna, Bhaskaracharya, Charak and numerous others have made important contribution in the areas of science, mathematics, astronomy and astrology, system of thoughts, politics, money matters, and epistemology, and various other ‘this worldly’ practical questions.

In fact, if we look closely, the western tradition of philosophy was developed even more strongly within the confines and limitations of Greco-Roman religious tradition and subsequently within Christian religious worldview. Ideas of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophists, Stoics, Sceptics and others were developed within the boundaries of pagan world view of Greco-Roman religious thoughts. Similarly, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other medieval philosophers were Christian priests and thinkers. And I would also like to point out that thinkers like Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, Erasmus, Hypatia and many others have to suffer a lot (including death) for their inquisitive mind and unorthodox views, and often have to propound their theories as just imaginary tales to evade the ire and Inquisition of church. Such was the attitude of church towards non-conformist views during medieval and renaissance period, even during enlightenment and beyond. In comparison, Indian thought and philosophical tradition have always accommodated (and if I may also say, encouraged) all types of heterodox, non-conformist thinking, ideas and approaches. Indian pluralism has a very long and rich history. And therefore, I would say that it is very much possible to examine and analyse Indian philosophical ideas fruitfully too, largely divorcing it from the question of God.

And for the still sceptical, I would add that s/he only needs to read Gottlieb’s book to realize that it is possible to explain, examine and analyse philosophical thoughts, questions and developments without mixing it with religious themes.

A related idea is of critically analysing ancient (and not so ancient) thinkers and philosophers and commenting on their theories, worldview, metaphysics and philosophies. This is another area, where we need to learn from western liberal traditions. Even Gottlieb is not shying away from critically analyzing and examining various theories and ideas of earlier philosophers, at times, even inferring as to why and how they thought the way they thought, looking at historical, social, political and cultural factors. As far as my understanding goes, this kind of open analysis is yet to make a mark in Indian philosophical writings.

I also see a vacuum of research, analysis and literature in the areas of Indian thought and philosophies of medieval and modern periods. There is hardly any popular, or for that matter scholarly, book covering these period and thinkers from these eras. A book emphasizing Indian thought and philosophical development should tackle medieval time’s religious and other currents, like bhakti and sufi, development of puranic traditions and thoughts, ideas of Tulsidas, Kabir, Tukaram, Nanak, Chaitanya, Surdas and others, as well as philosophical engagement of Islamic thought in India influenced from Arbic/Persian/Middle eastern thoughts, including Buddhist and Jaina thinking. I feel myself too inadequate to elaborate it further as my knowledge is sketchy, but am sure that this is a hugely neglected area. There has been some good research and literature for this period, but that largely pertains to disciplinary areas of historical and social analysis.

Moving further to British period, I again hardly find popular or serious and scholarly books on philosophy and development of thought. Books for this period should include and analyse ideas of such thinkers like Ranade, Gokhle, Tilak, Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, Periyar, Ambedkar, Patel, Bose, Ahmad Khan, Roy, Krishnamurthy, Radhakrishnan, Azad, Rajgopalachari, Phule, and many others, including Savarkar and Mukerjee. Whatever is available is again within the confines of historical and social analysis (and there is a rich literature here), where obviously, the emphasis in not on examining and critically analysing the thought process, writings, philosophical and scientific ideas ingrained therein, development of these ideas and thoughts, their inter-linkages – temporal and spatial.

Further, there are books on individual thinkers (most numerous on Mahatma Gandhi), analysis of their writing and thoughts, but again it is more historical-political and less philosophical, analytical and comparative. Another worrying trend is that of growing intolerance where supporters of different thinkers are not ready to have them analysed critically. Here again, Mahatma Gandhi, accompanied by Nehru (to a lesser extent) are the only thinkers who have been put through critical analysis since long. In fact, of late, criticizing Nehru seems to be becoming a fashion.

In any case, I see a huge gap here also in terms of unavailability of popular, scholarly yet interesting books covering Indian thought and philosophical process of medieval and modern period.

Whereas Many Options for Learning Western Philosophy 

The contrast between books available for Indian and western philosophical tradition becomes sharper when I compare what is available on western philosophy. Apart from Gottlieb, there is one classic, hugely popular book by Will Durant. Though this too is an old one, again more than half a century old (last edition was in 1933); the style, the approach, the treatment and the prose, all are first rate. This was the first book I tried reading about western philosophy, around a decade ago (I don’t remember whether I could finish it or not).

Let me list three more, excellent books on western philosophy, which I plan to read. The first one is another classic, by the great philosopher of twentieth century; Bertrand Russel titled ‘History of Western Philosophy’, first published in 1945. The edition with me runs in to more than 750 pages and divided in to three parts; ancient, catholic and modern philosophy. It follows the traditional approach of tracing the development of philosophical thought through life, work and times of important philosophers and thinkers in western tradition. Another modern books is written by British Philosopher of Oxford University, Sir Anthony Kenny titled ‘A New History of Western Philosophy’, originally published in four volumes starting 2005. The combined volume with me is a tome of more than 1000 pages (first published in 2010) with rather small font. The treatment is primarily periodic with four parts dealing, in turn with ancient, medieval, early modern and modern times. However, within each of these periods, instead of analyzing ideas of great thinkers, Kenny prefers being thematic. Thus, we have discussion on knowledge and language, metaphysics, science, mathematics, ethics, god, mind and soul, logic, epistemology, truth etc., under each of the period. However, within these there is an attempt to analyse and synthesize the ideas of different thinkers too, making cross references and comparisons.

A similar approach has been taken by Roger Scruton, the British conservative firebrand philosopher in his book Modern Philosophy – An Introduction and Survey (first published in 1996). As the title makes it clear, Scruton is concerned with modern philosophy, mainly but not exclusively, the period from Enlightenment onward. His approach and coverage of ideas seems wider than Kenny in the sense that in addition to themes like ethics, mind and soul, knowledge, language etc, he also involves himself with more modern ideas like perception, imagination, paradox, objectivity, identity etc. However, it is good that he has eschewed himself from engaging in post-modern ideas.

I have only done ‘elementary’ and ‘inspectional’ reading (that there can be different approach to and types of reading has been beautifully described by Adler and Van Doren in their famous book, How to Read A Book) of Scruton and Russell book, yet it has given me the feeling that they are very interesting to read, and have been written with an intelligent lay reader in mind. However, I cannot very confidently claim the same about the book by Sir Anthony Kenny. In any case, its volume and weight itself is sufficient to deter any non-serious attempters.

And there are many, many more books on western philosophy if one wants to go further. But I will not go any further here.

The Troubling Question

Instead I will come back to my two main issues.

First, Why don’t we have similar engaging, popular books on Indian Philosophy? Especially books written after independence.

Or perhaps books are available; it is that I have not tried hard enough to find them.

Second, but equally important, why there is no worthwhile book to name, published after independence, which can be compared to the classics of Russell or Radhakrishnan?

I may not be fully correct in framing the second question. But first let me tackle the first question.

I think I have tired reasonably hard. Amazon, google and goodreads are now well endowed with extensive and comprehensive data base of books published, especially recent books. And I am, therefore, reasonably sure that my search have been rather comprehensive, and there is no popular book on Indian philosophy written after independence which is of the quality and calibre of Gottlieb, or Scruton or Durant.

On the second question, during my search, I came to know of Bimal Krishna Matilal, and books written by him. He was an Indian, professor of philosophy at Oxford, who died in 1991.  Many of his essays have been published by Oxford University press in two volume (see reference) titled ‘Mind Language and World’, and ‘Ethics and Epics’. I have both these books, an ‘elementary’ reading/flipping makes it clear that he is discussing issues like conception of philosophy in India, knowledge, truth, skepticism, logic, simplicity and profundity etc. He has authored many other books too, presumably of high quality. So there is at least one post-independence Indian philosopher with some quality work. There might be few more, I suspect, not in India but abroad. Another name comes to my mind, that of Sheldon Pollock, of Columbia University. Obviously he is not Indian, but has worked extensively on Indian thought, language and philosophy. I still have to read his book titled ‘The Language of God in the World of Men’. Despite their quality and coverage, these books are not of the stature and standard of that of Bertrand Russell’s classic, but at least, they are there!!

Why No One Is Studying Philosophy in India

One obvious reason of absence of such books on Indian philosophy is that no one is writing such books. And why no one is writing such books? It is because no one (or very few) is studying Sanskrit and philosophy in India nowadays. As is the case, after independence, and gradually thereafter, there has been a steady decline in quality and quantity of people taking up arts, liberal arts (and few discipline of social sciences too) as a career. For most of the middle class and aspiring middle class citizens, career in technology, engineering, medicine, commerce and economics, and management was, and still is, the dream. Those few, who took social science and arts, mostly wanted to enter civil services, and continued in academic only as a residual choice.

A gross generalization may not be appropriate here. Indeed, there have been, and still are, few intelligent, highly motivated, dedicated individuals who took up academic and research careers in arts and philosophy, and whatever good quality work we find today, we need to be thankful to them for their passion and hard work. I would also like to mention that many such individuals found their calling and have opportunity of excellence in universities and research institutions abroad. Most of the Indian educational and research establishments in social science and arts (except few, again) have steadily deteriorated over the years. I would also say that universities in south and west India have fared much better in this regard.

In a sense, when there are very limited opportunities, and all kind of difficulties and struggle, and very low social and professional recognition in choosing philosophy/Sanskrit/liberal arts as a profession, it is understandable that most young people avoid such paths, unless someone is exceptionally motivated and passionate. To that extent, the way our educational system, especially higher educational structure has developed and taken shape since independence, where arts, liberal arts, and even social sciences have been neglected and under-funded vis-à-vis technology and professional program needs to share the blame. How many educational and research institutions of the standing and with the comparable infrastructure of IITs, IIMs, NITs (and now IISERs, IIITs, NLSUI) etc., can we boast of in the fields of arts and liberal arts? Not only the government but private charitable institutions too are to share the responsibility. Our prominent business philanthropies believe more in constructing temples then in establishing universities, research institutions, libraries and other centers of learning!

And let me make one more contrast here. Today, on the one hand, we are in a situation where we have completely neglected our actual ancient history, philosophy, knowledge and thought, where we have not bothered to promote the study and scholarships of these disciplines, where today most of the scholars choose to study Sanskrit/philosophy only because they could not get in to IIT/Medical or some other professional course; whereas on the other hand, we are increasingly becoming chest thumping chauvinists willing to fight (and even kill) in the name of some stupid, imaginary ancient cultural practices and (philosophical) ideas.

Who cares for what Aryabhatta or Nagarjuna thought and discovered, it is much more important to save the holy Cow, the lynchpin of our philosophically rich civilization!!!!

And it becomes all the more easy and natural to believe in sacredness of cow when we graduate from IITs/IIMs etc, specializing in dynamics, calculus, finance, computer coding and what not, but without even an iota of actual understanding of our rich, diverse yet syncretic, accommodating and adjusting cultural and philosophical heritage.

Children and Philosophy?

Let me end with talking about a philosophy book written exclusively for children! (Of course, we can equally be benefited by it)

I was much impressed by this superb book – Sophie’s World, a novel, a story, about history of philosophy by a Norwegian story writer, Jostein Gaarder, first published in 1994. It is actually written as a novel for children introducing them to the western philosophical thought. It has been a hugely popular book, has attained the status of a cult classic and has been translated in to more than 60 other languages with more than 40 million copies sold worldwide. I have the book, and I read few chapters. Sophie is a school going girl. The story starts one May afternoon, when she is returning home back from school with her friend. Her father periodically visits home as he works in an oil company; her mother has gone to work. She, at the gate of her home, in the letterbox, finds a white envelope addressed to her… and the story proceeds.

The novel is as interesting and engaging as Gottlieb book, and truly a golden treasure for all middle and high school children. It should be a required reading in school, as is ‘The Diary of A Young Girl’.

When are we going to have our own Sophie’s World?

I am waiting for a Gottlieb or a  Durant or a Gaarder and dream of seeing popular intelligent books on Indian philosophy someday.


Main Books Referred Above:

  • Adler Mortimer, Van Doren Charles: How to Read A Book (1940, 1972); Simon and Schuster, New York
  • Chatterjee Satischandra, Datta Dhirendramohan: An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (1939, Reprinted 2007): Rupa Publications, New Delhi
  • Dasgupta Surendranath: A History of Indian Philosophy (5 volume) (1922); Motilal Banarsidas, New Delhi
  • Durant Will: The Story of Philosophy; (1961) Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York
  • Gaarder Jostein: Sophie’s World – A Novel About the History of Philosophy; (1994) Orion Publishing Group, London
  • Gottlieb Anthony: The Dream of Enlightenment – The Rise of Modern Philosophy; (2016) Penguin Books, New Delhi
  • Gottlieb Anthony: The Dream of Reason – A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance; (2001, 2016) Penguin Books, New Delhi
  • Kenny Anthony: A New History of Western Philosophy; (2010) Oxford University Press, UK (4 volumes published combined)
  • Matilal Bimal Krishna: Ethics and Epics (Collected Essays, vol – 2); (2002) Oxford University Press, New Delhi
  • Matilal Bimal Krishna: Mind, Language and World (Collected Essays, vol – 1); (2002) Oxford University Press, New Delhi
  • Pollock Sheldon: The Language of God in the World of Men – Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India (2006); University of California Press, Berkeley
  • Radhakrishnan Sarvepalli: Indian Philosophy (Vol -1); (1930); Second Edition, Oxford University Press, New Delhi
  • Radhakrishnan Sarvepalli: Indian Philosophy (Vol – 2); (1930); Second Edition, Oxford University Press, New Delhi
  • Russell Bertrand: History of Western Philosophy; (1946, 1996) Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, London, UK
  • Scruton Roger: Modern Philosophy – An Introduction and Survey; (1996) Bloomsbury Reader, New York
  • Zimmer Heinrich (Edited by Joseph Campbell): Philosophies of India (1951); Motilal Banarsidas, New Delhi

(Word Count: Approx 4000)

सच और साहस की जीत ! पी.के. है क्या ?


If you can read Hindi, please go through this. A piquant, sarcastic, witty yet biting piece, reminding you of the ground realities of development challenges in Bihar. (Its written by someone who is a close friend)

But be on guard, Hindi is not always easy!


“हमका लागत है भगवान से बात करे का कम्यूनिकेशन सिस्टम इस गोला का टोटल लूल हो चुका है….” पी.के. का यह कालजयी संवाद यूं तो सभ्यता के इतिहास की कई त्रासदियों में भगवान की घनघोर असफलता को रेखांकित…

Source: सच और साहस की जीत ! पी.के. है क्या ?

‘Facts’ and ‘Values’ in Economics: From ‘Is’ to ‘Ought’


0.1      The question of ‘is’ and ‘ought’, or what more popularly is known as distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘normative’ ideas and statements is an important issue which has significant bearing on how economics, its findings and its recommendations should be taken by policy makers, public representative and society. In fact, the very question of findings, descriptions and explanations offered by ‘economics’ as well as recommendations and policy lessons derived on the basis of these findings of economic methodology are positive and normative issues, or if I may say issues concerning  ‘facts’ and ‘values’.

The distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ and the contention as to whether these are two separate categories, treated as water-tight compartment by many on the one hand, and as a continuum of phenomenon with these ideas/concepts lying at the end by other economists and social scientists has very important implication for any policy science and it can really help in understanding the nature, logic and methodological issues in economics in general and the applicability and usefulness of concepts, theories and findings of economics  in policy and governance in particular.

The larger issue of ‘fact’ and ‘value’ and the dichotomy between these two distinctions has occupied philosophers and other intellectuals for quite a long time. One of the 20th century most erudite philosopher Hilary Putnam’s (who died very recently in March 2016 at the age of 89) as well as Amartya Sen has made major contribution in bringing ethical and value based questions by bringing it to the forefront of economic analysis in general and in welfare economics in particular. They successfully disputed the claim that positive, fact based analysis in economic is superior to value question and have also claimed that the dichotomy between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ is largely artificial.

0.2       What I propose to do in the following paragraphs is to examine and elaborate the ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ issue in reference to economics as a ‘policy science’ and would try to infer how these insights can be useful in governance and public policy. I would try to keep the language and style of the essay non-technical so that my readers without much advanced knowledge of economic theory and concepts are able to appreciate it, though it may not be possible to totally avoid referring to some technical economic concepts.

The essay has three main parts: the first one defines, elaborates and analyses the concepts of ‘facts’ and ‘value judgement’ including its historical roots. The second part then examines how judgments and policy prescription on the basis of ‘facts’ and ‘value’ differ and issues involved in evaluation of alternatives taking distinctive notions of facts and values as paradigm. The penultimate part then tries to elaborate and examine whether economics is really a value free policy-science, including some insights into how important theoretical concepts in economics fare on this question. I conclude with some final observations.

1. Hume’s Guillotine

1.1        Let me first start by making the ideas and the meanings of these two concepts clearer. There are many words/phrases which have been used since long to make and claim the distinction between the two concepts of ‘fact’ and ‘value’, and these will be used by me also, often interchangeably in this essay. The table below makes the so called dichotomy clearer:

The Distinction and The Dichotomy
Fact Value (judgement)
Positive Normative
Is Ought
Objective Subjective
Engineering approach Ethical approach
Science Art
Descriptive Prescriptive
True-False Good-Bad
Means Ends
Declarative statements Prescriptive evaluations


Let me have the following statement using the phrases from the table above, to elucidate the meaning even further:

A ‘fact’ or ‘is’ statement is something which is materially true or false – it asserts something about the state of the world

A ‘value’ or ‘ought’ statement is something which approves or disapproves, often prescribes, and it is an expression about evaluation of the state of the world. 

1.2        It was David Hume, who almost 275 years ago, in his famous ‘Treatise on Human Nature’ made the distinction stating that “one cannot deduce ought from is”. This meant that we cannot infer norms, prescription and other ethical recommendations from factual, descriptive and objective statements. Such factual statements can only lead us to other factual and descriptive statements. Most people can readily distinguish questions concerning (non-moral) facts from questions concerning what is good or bad or what ought or ought not to be done. However, it is often difficult to make this notion precise (Hausman, 2006) and making a water tight distinction may not be very logical.

This water-tight and sharp logical distinction made by Hume between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ has often been called ‘Hume’s Guillotine’ reminding us of the sharp, scary edges of the guillotines so effectively and efficiently employed during French Revolution in separating human heads from their bodies!

1.3        In modern times, the issue of fact versus value has engaged social scientists and philosophers alike. Hilary Putnam emphasize as to how the idea of an absolute dichotomy between fact and value was from the beginning dependent upon a second dichotomy of ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ judgement and that these two dichotomies ‘facts versus value judgement’ and ‘facts versus analytic truth’ have corrupted our thinking about both ethical reasoning and description of the world, not least of all by preventing us from seeing how evaluation and description are interwoven and interdependent (Putnam, 2002).

1.4       Coming to the Economics, positive economics has been said to be concerned about ‘facts’ whereas normative economics has been about ‘values’ or about what ought to be done. However, this poses perhaps the most important question for a policy science like economics as to whether ‘ends’ or ‘values’ can or cannot be rationally discussed. In other words, whether the notion of rationality can be applicable to normative questions? And these issues have been hotly debated in economics for decades.

Interestingly and insightfully enough, Amartya Sen identifies two rather different origins of economics, both related to politics, concerned respectively with ‘ethics’ on the one hand and with what he has called  ‘engineering’ on the other (Sen, 1987). For Sen, the ethical question is broadly ‘How should one live’ that is, concerning with ultimate ‘ends’, whereas the engineering question mostly concerns with logistical issues, and finding appropriate ‘means’ to serve the ends.

In light of above, the next question I examine is the issues, ideas, relevancy and usefulness of policy analysis and judgement on the basis of maintaining such a distinction.

2. Judgement and Policy Prescription on the Basis of ‘Facts’ and ‘Values’

2.1        As of now, the standard view maintains that questions of facts and questions of value are not only distinguishable, but are independent too. No question concerning value is supposed to be settled by the facts alone and similarly, no question concerning facts is supposed to be settled by value. Therefore, it is possible to have a value free inquiry in to questions of facts.

However, I argue that at a deeper philosophical level, the distinction of fact and value is largely misleading. To speak of a value free inquiry may be misleading, because it suggests that the conduct of the inquiry is value free, which possibly cannot be true. Inquiring involves actions and actions are driven by values. Value influences choices of what methods to employ and consequently of what hypotheses to discard or to pursue. And therefore, it does not make much sense to talk of value free inquiry. On the other hand, there are economists who argue that value free inquire is an inquiry into a question of fact or of logic in which the answers are not influenced by any value except those that are part of scientific activity itself (Hausman, 2006).

2.2       Investigations into matters of facts (positive investigations) are relevant to policy because these results may show the effectiveness or otherwise of the policies designed to attain certain objective. And we must be careful here in noting that the objectives are value criterion, set on the basis of some value judgment and normative considerations.

Many economist agree that part of economics (normative economics) is concerned with value and ethics, but that ethics is not relevant for another branch of economics – the positive economics of factual analysis and theorising which represent, explain and predict how economic system function. This is the same as making a distinction between fact and value aspects of social inquiry. On the other hand, it is also claimed that without reference and understanding of moral and value based questions, economists, especially those involved in policy advice, would not be able to formulate clear and relevant technical questions for positive investigation.

2.3      J.S. Mill also made a distinction between what he called ‘science’ and ‘art’ of political economy. He realized that in passing from science to the art, extra-scientific, ethical premises necessarily make their appearances, and that non-economic elements borrowed from other social sciences were required in addition to value judgement to give meaningful advice on practical problems (Marc Blaug, 1992).

2.4       To examine the issue still deeply and to further clarify, we may make a distinction between what is called Characterizing Value Judgement or Methodological decisions, which involves choosing more or less factual questions, like what to be investigated, mode of investigation and criteria for judging the validity of findings etc. Next comes the Apprising Value Judgement or Normative decisions which includes details and evaluative criteria for different state of the worlds and desirability or otherwise of certain social and economic outcomes, including certain types of human actions and behaviours. Thus, all desires and statements about an ideal or good society are Apprising or Normative value judgement, which plays a part even in positive analysis and investigation of policy issue.

This brings us to the issue of how these two types of judgements can be reconciled. It is generally accepted that there are long-established, well-tried methods for reconciling different methodological options, whereas, on the other hand, such methods for reconciling normative value judgement are not readily found. The only way, and now most widely accepted method for deciding and reconciling value judgments and normative questions is largely a field of inquiry considered separate from economics – politics and democratic political elections.

However, we may be making the distinction between methodological/factual and value judgement too sharp again, which has been so effectively emphasized by Hilary Putnam in his book (Putnam, 2002). Holding a view that normative issues are not amenable to rational discussion aiming for reconciling differences between people is not necessary. We should be able to note that ‘ises’ often influence the ‘ought’, as I have already pointed out above. In other words, what values we hold is almost always depends on and is derived from a large number of factual believes and experiences. Therefore, we indeed can have a rational debate on a normative value question. An example could be the normative question of how much inequality a society or a nation should tolerate and once a decision has been taken, a value judgement has been arrived at; the methodological or factual question of how to achieve that may well be tackled much easily. Nevertheless, the issue of whether such important question of acceptable level of inequality and distribution of wealth among citizen should be decided by the most widely accepted method for deciding value and ethical issues today being democratic political process (election) remains an open question.

2.5       I would like to point out that it was Paul Samuelson who in his famous ‘Foundations’ (1947) gave prominence to the idea that society, expressing itself through its political representatives, does in fact compare the utilities of different individuals, these comparisons are, so to speak, recorded in a social welfare function that aggregates the preferences of individual in a social ranking of states of the economy. However, I may again note that even the political process is no guarantee that we would be able to decide and implement a less skewed distribution program. Some of my readers may note that this desire of a less unequal society of mine is in itself a value judgement of mine! I would here like to bring Amartya Sen in my defence, who argued that economics, as it stands today, can be made more productive by paying greater and more explicit attention to the ethical considerations that shape human behaviour and judgement (Sen, 1987).

2.6       To help us move forward, I found a further distinction and guiding principle made by Amartya Sen very useful and insightful (Sen, 1970). He exhorts us to distinguish between ‘basic’ and ‘non-basic’ type of value judgments. Mark Blaug (1992) prefers to call them ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ value judgement. A basic value judgement is supposed to apply under all conceivable circumstances to a person, which non-basic value judgement is not. In case of non-basic value judgment, an appeal to the facts of the case, which are generally less divisive – may be made and a decision should be arrived at on that basis. Amartya Sen recommends that through this method, once we reach at a pure value judgement stage, only then it may be accepted that we have exhausted all the possibility of rational discussion and analysis. However, we also need to appreciate that this methodology of Sen may not be able to settle some value judgement issues in full, especially in the cases of social or macro normative issues, like the one on inequality mentioned in the aforementioned paragraph. Nevertheless, I am tempted to agree to Professor Sen to a large extent, as most value judgement on social questions are generally impure and therefore are amenable to the above approach.

However, even with the above ideas, the basic question of difference between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ or (pure value judgement and factual statements) remains, though it may be said that the difference is more of a degree than of a kind. But, even if of degree, we should not be content with it. This brings us to the perhaps the most important question: Is social science value free? Or for my purpose, Is Economics a value-free and objective field of inquiry?

2.7       There were attempts by economists and thinkers like John Cairnes and John Neville Keynes (please note, he is father of his famous son, John Maynard Keynes) to distinguish three types of inquiries, 1. Positive Science, 2. Normative or Regulative Science and 3. Arts. Art was meant to be a system of rules for attainment of given ends. However, these ideas of considering normative science as a bridge between positive science and arts did not gain currency. Most economists clung to the dichotomous distinction of positive and normative science. And we also move forward with the two fold distinction as our primary tool of further analysis.

3. Is Economics “Wertfreiheit” (Value-free)

Wertfreiheit is a German word, pronounced “wet-pri-heit” (this is the closest I could get to the pronunciation with the help of my friend who is an expert in German). It was first used by Max Weber implying something like ‘freedom from value’ and Mark Blaug (1992) uses it in that sense in his book on methodology of economics.

3.1        To start with, the question of whether economics (or for that matter other social sciences) is value free or not, we need to recollect the assertion made in the previous paragraphs of the essay. Let me repeat that: Factual, descriptive, ‘is’-statement is different in kind from that of normative, prescriptive, ‘ought’ statement. Further, the methodological judgement required for ‘is’-statements are different from those required to reach a consensus on ‘ought’-statement being normative value judgement.

3.2       One of the most interesting and relevant attack on wertfreiheit is by Robert Heilbroner (1973), who emphasize that the most important difference between social and physical sciences sprout due to the fact that human actions are subject to ‘latent wilfulness’ and ‘conscious purposiveness’. These characteristics which are thus part of social sciences make them subjective unless meaningful assumptions are made about them. Further, economists, as well as other social scientists cannot help being emotionally involved with the society of which they are members. He further argues that due to this extreme vulnerability to value judgement, economist cannot be impartial or disinterested. Thus, value judgement, partly of a sociological kind, partly with respect to behaviour; have infused economics from its earliest statements to its latest and most sophisticated representation (Heilbroner, 1973). In the end, he declares that he did not believe that economist should aim at value-free analysis. Since economist perform very few experiments that can be rerun in a laboratory, their results cannot be so easily falsified as those of the natural scientists, but they can be equally subject to scrutiny and criticism in the forum of expert opinion like natural sciences.

3.3       We should further analyse the term ‘value judgment’ here to place the ideas in perspective, and compare it with ideas and theories generated by such visions, as well as un-testable statement of facts. For example, let me talk about the concept of utility theory in its most modern form, including its ordinality and preference ordering, wherein the impossibility of interpersonal comparison of utility has long been taken as a value judgement. And therefore, it has been held that such interpersonal comparisons cannot play any meaningful role in welfare economics (which is considered scientific with its framework of Pareto Optimality and related concepts). As such, the belief that an individual’s preferences and ordering can be considered and analysed only for that individual, without any interpersonal comparison, aggregation or social application, has taken economics further away from the important question of analysing and making judgement and categorical policy recommendations on income and wealth inequality and resulting loss of social welfare as aggregation of individual welfare. But is it really the case that utility concepts are ‘value judgement’? Or is it only an untestable statement of ‘facts’. If so, interpersonal comparison may either be true or false – a facet of factual realm and not of value judgement, where the real problem is that we do not have any method of knowing that. So taking interpersonal comparison of utility as a value judgement is not convincing. It is ironic to note that so much of economics has been built on this assertion that interpersonal comparisons of utility are not possible! The eschewing of distributional question in welfare economics and starting the welfare analysis from the premise of a ‘given’ endowment of wealth is again a result of this unfortunate dichotomy between ‘fact’ and ‘value judgement’.

3.4       Lionel Robbins has been credited with persuading economics profession that interpersonal comparisons of utility are meaningless. He strongly held that rational discussion (argument) is impossible in ethics (value judgement) and therefore such questions must be kept out of economics (Robbins, 1935). With one stroke,  the idea that the economist could and should be concerned  with the welfare of the society in an evaluative sense was rejected, and in its place was inserted the positivist idea that such a concern was meaningless at least from the scientific point of view (Putnam, 2002)

So, can we claim that it is possible to put normative questions to rational discussion, reconciliation and resolution? I would say, yes. As I have pointed out above in case of inequality, social welfare and utility maximization, such concepts and questions can be addressed with rational arguments. In these cases, experiments are not possible, and for positive economics also, as we have already noted, (laboratory type) experiments are rarely possible. (I may note the latest trend in development economics of what is called Randomized Control Trials (RCT)- a new evaluation and monitoring techniques – which claims to be a laboratory type experiment in the actual field of economic policy and program implementation, employing sophisticated statistical and regression techniques. It was one of the important aspect of my studies of International Development degree program at Harvard University, and the professors who actually developed this, were too passionate (and too adamant and inflexible!) about this technique. Anyway, this is not a place to discuss RCT further).

3.5       Let me finish this section with two more observations.

We often loosely identify ideology with value judgement. However, there is a basic distinction between them. Bergman (1968) definition is quite useful here: Ideological statements may be usefully defined as value judgement parading as statements of facts. In this sense, value judgments are not ideological statements, although all ideological statements are disguised value judgments.

Gunnar Myrdal (1970) makes another interesting and relevant point. Instead of ducking the issue of value judgement in economic analysis, he recommends its bold declaration at the outset of the analysis. Thus, there is nothing wrong with the value loaded concepts if they are clearly enumerated and declared as value-premises. Perhaps, for Myrdal, everything that is not statistics is a value judgement. Many would argue that he goes even further and denies existence of any ethically neutral, factual assertion in economics. For him, everything in economics is value impregnated. Thus, he asserts that there cannot be a distinction between a positive and normative economics and to pretend to do so only involves self-deception. This, to me, appears to be too farfetched an idea.

3.6       This essay does not have space to analyse the contribution of Amartya Sen in this ethics and economics arena, which in itself is huge. Sufficient is to say that he very strongly argues for an ethical (and value laden) approach for economics and has sought to challenge the standard economic picture of what economic rationality requires, what the motivations of economic actors can realistically be assumed to be, and what criteria of economic performance and social wellbeing welfare economics can legitimately use (Sen, 1987) (Putnam, 2002). Similarly, I am also not venturing into the ideas of ‘justice’ and ‘minimax’ criteria for defining a social welfare function in terms of John Rawls which are again extension of theoretical constructs of classical economics to ethical and value judgement spheres (Rawls, 1999).

4. Concluding Thoughts

Nothing gets settled regarding the questions of ‘value’ and ‘facts’ when we insist that they are very different and distinct. If we take them to be completely different and independent of one another, then all that we can infer is that the truths about ‘values’ are different kind of truths from the truths about ‘facts’. Concomitantly, it would also follow that the methods for searching and arriving at those truths may then be totally different too. This, however, would in no way imply that there are no truths about value questions -good or bad, about right or wrong etc.

Many economists now agree that there may not be a watertight distinction between positive and normative economics, and similarly there cannot be a watertight distinction between means and ends. Therefore, to declare that everything in economics is value judgement, without examining how and at what stage they enter a piece of economic reasoning is like declaring that economic opinions are simply a matter of personal choice. It is now also accepted that the doubts among many economists and philosophers about the ‘is-ought’ dichotomy is genuine. Moral judgements are not simply expression of feelings or imperative commanding someone to act in a particular fashion, but in most cases, special kinds of descriptive statements about the world.

Although it sounds paradoxical, it is possible to regard normative economics as a positive enquiry into the logical presuppositions and practical means to satisfy preferences efficiently (Hausman, 2006). I would also like to state that economists cannot avoid ethical (or value judgement) questions if they want to understand the terms of policy debate, to select relevant and important issues to analyse, and to help decide the policy direction. Normative economics, if at all we want to name it so, plays an important role in apprising policies and evaluative things, is in practice unavoidable in order to formulate well-defined questions for positive inquiry.

I would like to end with what Mark Blaug (1992) says: There are no empirical, descriptive ‘is’-statements regarded as true that do not rely on a definite social consensus that we ‘ought’ to accept that ‘is’-statement.


  • Bergman G. (1968): Readings in Philosophy of Social Sciences, M. Brodeck (ed.) New York, Macmillan, 1968. pg 123-38
  • Blaug Mark (1992): The Methodology of Economics: Or How Economists Explain,2nd ed, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK; ch 5, various pages
  • Hausman Daniel M. & McPherson Michael S. (2006): Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy(2nd) Cambridge University Press, New York, pg 291-296
  • Heilbroner Robert L. (1973): Economics as a Value Free Science, Social Research 40, Reprinted in Marr and Raj – 1983, pg 337-74
  • Myrdal Gunnar (1970): Objectivities in Social Research; Gerald Duckworth, London
  • Putnam Hilary (2002): The Collapse of Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays; Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. pg 1-3, 49-50, 54-55
  • Rawls John (1999): A Theory of Justice (Revised Ed.); Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
  • Robbins Lionel (1935): An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Sciences. Macmillan, London. pg 134, quoted by Amartya Sen On Ethics and Economics
  • Samuelson Paul (1983): Foundations of Economic Analysis; (Enlarged ed); Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
  • Sen Amartya (1970): Collective Choices and Social Welfare;Oliver & Boyd, Edinberg
  • Sen Amartya (1987): On Ethics and Economics; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pg 3-4, 11-12