Justice Beyond Borders: The Tribune India
The first decades of the 21st century brought a rush of right-wing populists to power across the world. The consequences are well known: an inordinate emphasis on an exclusionary nationalism and an almost complete rejection of cosmopolitanism. India has forgotten the virtues of a radical cosmopolitanism in which Nehru was deeply attached. In the
Discovering India, Nehru wrote that “isolation was both undesirable and impossible. The future that took shape in my mind was that of intimate cooperation… between India and other countries. He believed that a society can only expand hearts and expand the imagination when it looks beyond borders and makes common cause with people from other places.
The cultivation of a cosmopolitan sensibility neutralizes a withdrawn and xenophobic nationalism. Always the statesman who looked beyond the immediate present, Nehru was aware that the world order was highly iniquitous. He leaned heavily in favor of the Western powers, the former colonizers. The only way for the Global South to neutralize this domination was to forge alliances. The Non-Aligned Movement, which built bridges between the countries of the newly independent world and brought contentious issues to the forefront of global consciousness, was born.
It is precisely this commitment to the Global South and the combined resistance to Western domination that has been swept away by populism. India has closed its doors and has become indifferent to others, as needy as they are, like the Rohingya. The solidarity born of a cosmopolitan sensibility has been replaced by a neo-tribalism built on the belief that we only have obligations towards our attributive group.
Then the pandemic struck. We have realized that we can neither be atmanirbhar nor indifferent to others because we belong to an integrated world community. Developments in one part of the world are impacting other parts, be it climate change, trade laws or disease. No country can survive if it does not recognize its interdependence with other countries and the concept of mutual obligation. Significantly, the governments of India and Brazil have suggested giving up intellectual property rights (IPRs) on vaccines and drugs produced in any part of the world. The response from the United States, Canada and some countries in the European Union has been encouraging. Other western countries are buzzing and hawing. These countries have become the hub of medical technology, which they jealously protect with IPRs. Whatever help they have given India is inspired by aid, philanthropy and even charity, but perhaps not by the mutual obligation that we owe each other, especially in when needed.
This is ironic, because for at least four decades the idea that the wealthy West owes the poor around the world has submerged the philosophy departments of the West. The debate was sparked by an essay written by philosopher Peter Singer in 1972 on “Famine, Affluence and Morality”. Singer suggested that the suffering and death for lack of food, shelter, and medical care, in any part of the world, was just plain bad. While it is in the power of the citizens of the well-to-do West to prevent something bad from happening, “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance,” they are morally obligated to do so. The need for foreigners is as pressing as the need for neighbors and fellow citizens. It is not charity, it is a duty.
Western philosophers have begun to justify the notion of global justice on at least three grounds. First, the citizens of the rich West owe the “poor of the world” the same duties of justice as their fellow citizens. Second, the West owes the South humanitarian aid, but justice to its own citizens. Third, elected governments of powerful Western countries dominate global institutions and participate in enacting unjust laws on trade, the law of the sea, and the IPR regime. The citizens who elected these governments have a moral responsibility to ensure justice across borders. In a globalized world, justice is interpreted as an equal sharing of the benefits and burdens of an integrated community.
While academics in the Global South have viewed global justice as yet another manifestation of the “white man’s burden,” it is undeniable that the message of cross-border obligations is extremely meaningful. The Global South must come together once again and forge bonds of solidarity to reform unjust global institutions. For now, however, waiving IPRs on drugs will go a long way in preventing more deaths. We belong to a nation as a citizen; we also belong to humanity. The duty to protect human lives in other countries is as important as our obligations to our fellow citizens. Only then can we open the bars of a narrow nationalism that has crippled our ability to connect with others.
We have to turn to Nehru and Gandhi again. “As long as man remains selfish,” said Gandhi, “and doesn’t care about the happiness of others, he is no better than an animal and maybe worse. His superiority over the animal is only seen when we find him taking care of his family. He is even more human, that is to say much higher than the animal, when he extends his conception of the family to his country or his community. He climbs even higher up the ladder when it comes to seeing the human race as his family. What better justification for cosmopolitanism / global justice can India give to the world?