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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 20, May 2, 2009

Repressive State

Saturday 2 May 2009, by Anand Chakravarti


While agreeing with the main thrust of Vandana Mishra’s article, ‘Crises of Indian Parties’ (Mainstream, March 14, 2009), I am unable to endorse her introductory paragraph. In fact, it runs against the grain of her own argument. The principal argument of her article may be summed up in her words: “Opportunism has overtaken ideology in politics.” (p.14) This is elaborated in the sections on the personality cult, defections, and criminalisation. It is evident from the deep-rooted character of such distortions that neither leaders nor the plethora of political parties have shown any genuine concern for the major issues raised at the time of elections. Thus, while issues such as poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and lack of access to healthcare and education have featured in the electoral agenda from the very beginning, they have not been seriously addressed by governments both at the Centre and in the States. Hence, these problems continue to afflict a very large proportion of India’s population, in spite of the fact that governments at the Centre and in the States are constituted through the will of the people. A government formed through the democratic electoral process that does not work for the welfare of the people at large is democratic only in an extremely superficial sense. Indeed, if it can be shown, as I shall attempt very briefly here, that the government is actually antagonistic to the interests of the common people, then, arguably, the outcome is truly a mockery of democracy.

It is a major fallacy to equate democracy solely with the existence of competitive politics. In my view, the operation of democracy should be assessed at a deeper level by examining the behaviour of the state, as an institution, in relation to the people at large, and especially the marginalised. The overall picture is one that shows that the Indian state tends to act against ordinary people, and hence is essentially undemocratic in character.

Perhaps it is precisely because of the distortions in the working of the party system, as enumerated by Mishra, that the political wing of the state (that is, the party or coalition forming the government) is unresponsive to the needs and demands of those who constitute the marginalised. The dismal failure of land reforms, launched soon after independence, to take account of the interests of the landless and provide security of tenure to tenants-at-will, barring some exceptions, is a major indication of the caste and class bias of the state. Ironically, land reforms have empowered, both materially and politically, the dominant castes, and reinforced the structures of oppression against the underprivileged castes, including Dalits, who constitute a significant proportion of the landless.

Since the early 1990s the state in the country as a whole has been perversely ‘corporate friendly’ and antagonistic to the livelihood concerns of the marginalised, for instance, in Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. Indeed, the partiality of the state to corporate industrialisation in West Bengal, as shown by the experience of Singur and Nandigram, testifies, ironically, to the perversion of Marxist practice—favouring the interests of corporate capital while abandoning petty cultivators and the landless, who constitute its own support base in the rural areas.

IT is not only with regard to livelihood issues centring on the underclass that the state is nakedly repressive. It has acted repressively, in the name of territorial/national integrity, against the assertion of regional identities by people in the North-East and in Kashmir. The state has also failed to protect the minorities, including Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs, from the violence unleashed against them by fundamentalists in the dominant Hindu community. It is indeed pathetic that even when the violence against minorities assumes the form of genocide, which includes gross acts of sexual violence, the perpetrators as well as their instigators enjoy virtual impunity because of the violation of basic democratic values, such as the rule of law and state accountability. These issues are not even on the horizon of any major political party.

The demonstration of the undemocratic character of the Indian state cannot be complete without showing its hostility towards voices of dissent in civil society critiquing its functioning and highlighting the atrocities committed by it against the poor and the oppressed. Perhaps the most outrageous example of the antagonism of the state towards those who struggle for civil and democratic rights is the incarceration of Dr Binayak Sen in Chhattisgarh since May 2007 under draconian laws [the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2004]. Dr Sen, a pediatrician by profession, is also the national Vice-President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. While devoting himself to providing medical care to marginalised adivasis, he also highlighted police excesses, including fake encounters, in areas with a Naxalite presence. There can be little doubt that Sen is paying the price for dissent.

Therefore, it appears to be meaningless to imagine that democracy has survived in India since independence, as indicated in the opening statement of Vandana Mishra’s article: “Democracy in India has survived for about six decades now”. There is a crying need among social scientists to look beyond the formal structuring of democratic institutions and engage with the conduct of the state for comprehending the true meaning of democracy.

Anand Chakravarti
G-4, Anand Niketan, New Delhi-110021 | Tel: 24116196

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