The Promise of Equality: A Comparative Analysis of the Constitutional Guarantees of Equality in India and the United States

Article excerpt


All men are not created equal. This assertion seems wrong, even immoral, as modern liberal thought has established the inherent, equal worth of every person. But true equality among people cannot be achieved because there are natural inequalities among us. We recognize that one individual may have greater innate literary or athletic talent than another, or superior beauty or strength. These talents, in a just society, should be rewarded even though they have no moral significance. Therefore, some measure of discrimination among people is legitimate, and even mandated under a conception of a just society.1 The difficulty in establishing and furthering such a meritocratic society, however, arises from the pernicious effects of longstanding illegitimate and immoral bases for discriminating among people, such as gender, race, and class. Over time, these differences compound, so that the child born into a relatively privileged family often gains certain advantages without any demonstration of superior talent, ability, or moral worthiness.2

This Article explores the differing conceptions of equality in the very different constitutional systems of India and the United States. The respective histories and predominant religions in each country have shaped divergent views concerning equality. India's long and complex history of entrenched social hierarchy has led its people to view the concept of equality as rather collective; in particular, the idea of perfect equality, for many Indians, would chiefly include elimination of caste barriers and inferiority. In the United States, historical and religious influences resulted in, and perpetuate, a view focused on equality of individuals. This view has been described as "equality of opportunity," or as embodying an "antidiscrimination principle."3

Every aspect of national expression reflects the self-identification of the people in a nation as predominantly individualist or collectivist - whether in the areas of economic policy, foreign affairs, trade, or human rights. This Article primarily focuses on the issue of class equality, although that focus will hardly prove distinct. In India, an examination of class inequality must inevitably focus on caste inequality, yet elements of racial inequality and gender inequality will certainly intersect. Similarly, in the United States, while the concerns of the poor and of blacks are not fully aligned, black Americans are disproportionately poor. Moreover, the American paradigm of individual rights finds its strongest expression in the politics of economic disparity.

National identification with either of these paradigmatic worldviews - individualist or collective - and the resulting conception of equality as it existed at the time of constitution drafting, find embodiment in the documents themselves. In addition, I would argue that those constitutional imperatives subsequently mold and shape a national ideology of equality. In particular, India's hierarchical social order and the historical degradation of certain groups led to compensatory discrimination programs in its constitution. Subsequently, the constitution shaped the view of social organization, with upper-caste groups now perceiving themselves as disadvantaged. Established after independence, the Constitution of India reflects the assumption that Indian society represents inequality, and the provisions regarding compensatory discrimination programs propose reforms toward that goal, with an ultimate aim of ameliorating unequal effects.

Americans' belief that their nation is essentially classless has led to a Constitution uniquely focused on individual rights. An examination of the 14th Amendment as representative of a color-blind approach toward remedying inequalities reveals how the assumption that the United States is a nation of equals has been used to hamper reforms, in particular by disregarding the apparent effects of societal inequality and focusing instead on the implementation of a formalistic antidiscrimination principle. …