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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 18, April 24, 2010

Experiencing the Indian Democratic State

Saturday 24 April 2010, by Suranjita Ray


Institutional Democracy

A conceptual understanding of the democratic state often distinguishes it from other forms of non-democratic/absolutist/feudal aristocracy institutions. By displacing monarchical sovereignty with popular sovereignty the democratic state champions the cause of public interest based on the basic principles of equality, liberty, rights, freedom and justice, enshrined in the Constitution. To strengthen democracy and its functioning further, procedural methods are laid down empowering citizens not only to turn to the state for protection of their rights but also challenge the state when it curtails human freedom/violates human rights.

In recent years a wide range of Acts [such as the Right to Information Act, Right to Protection against Domestic Violence Act, the proposed Draft of National Food Security Act, Reservations for the SC, ST, OBC and Women in the PRI (the proposed bill for 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament), Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act], fundamental to secure the rights of citizens, have been passed as landmarks in the history of democracy. In fact, institutions and mechanisms have been incorporated to set right the wrongs in the political history of the country and ensure a brighter future for democracy. Periodic elections, free press, public hearings, organised protests, people’s movements, campaigns, public opinion, public action and an active civil society often channelise the voice of the citizens thereby legitimising democratic governance.

Today transnational civil society and world public opinion have become important guidelines to modify the potentialities, capabilities and strategies of the state. It becomes imperative to enumerate certain characteristic features to further our objective understanding as to how Indian democracy has been operating at different levels. Therefore the institutions, which are pillars of democracy and decentralise power, are prioritised in strengthening our arguments in favour of its successful functioning. Indian democracy has been theorised by many scholars and social scientists in a similar fashion.

Though theoretical engagement with the state is important, grand theorising about the state in general is of little help to understand the state that one experiences. Besides taking cognisance of the constitutional characteristics of such a state it is equally important to unravel the experiences of the state which people encounter in their everyday life. A common man’s (aam aadmi’s) experience of the state builds into the way he/she perceives the state. Therefore exploring the consequences of state forms and manifestations experienced by citizens is important for under-standing the democratic state. A holistic compre-hension of what is happening today compels us to rethink the democratic state of which India claims success.

A War State

What we experience today is increasing massacres, violation of human rights, poverty, hunger, deprivation, distress, suppression and exploitation. We come across several instances of violence and brutality orchestrated by the state. Violation of human rights is not exceptio-nally a characteristic feature of undemocratic regimes. While we have the best of laws to protect human values and rights we have situations where the worst forms of violence are encountered by people and there is ample evidence to cite the wrongs in the history of India’s making of the largest democracy. There have been such turning points in the history of Indian democracy when the state has taken resort to undemocratic means in the pretext of maintaining law and order. The institutional approach to democracy makes it convenient for the state to redefine democracy in the language of Emergency/President’s Rule/use of military/ armed forces to maintain law and order and to silence citizens who raise their voice against it. Burying the colonial past and rewriting history on a fresh page without any Western biases provided legitimacy to a plural multicultural secular society only on paper. Our ethnographic research entails that we have not moved far away from the colonial policies where the White man’s burden to civilise non-Whites masked the torturous and criminal policies of the former. Today the only difference is that the elites amongst the non-Whites are justifying their exploitative behaviour against the poor tribals and Dalits and their hegemonic rule is fuelled by the same divide-and-rule policy, now dividing the poor against the poor.

The welfare state’s intervention has politicised the various socio-economic cleavages further as its development policies protect the interests of the elites against the marginalised. The latter are pushed further to the margins shrinking their socio-economic and political space. Despite its focus on inclusive growth and including those who have been left out, the state has failed to eliminate the cause of unrest and secure the basic needs of its citizens.

The political parties represent the down-trodden and weaker sections and offer the vision of a brighter future for India. But the ground reality reveals the continuing victimisation of tribals and their displacement, expropriation of their lands, lynching of adivasis, increasing molestation of tribal and Dalit women, war and violence in the so-called Red Corridor of the country, the arrest of human rights activists (Binayak Sen, Abhay Sahu, Narayan Reddy, Gananath Patra or accusing social rights activist Arundhati Roy of supporting the Maoists), the consequential effects of violence perpetrated by the police and security forces and combing operations such as Operation Green Hunt, Salwa Judum—the killing of adivasis, Maoists or police (the massacre of 76 CRPF jawans in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh and 11 SOG commandos at Mantriamba along the Malkangiri-Koraput district border area in Orissa), agrarian crisis and farmers’ suicides, increasing honour killings, pogroms and criminalisation of politics, anti-Sikh roits of 1984, anti-Muslim riots after Godhra in 2002, endless violence and growing intensity of the state in curbing people’s protests in Nandigram, Singur, Kashipur, Kalinganagar, Narayanpatna, Niyamgiri, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.1 These are recent memories where the strategy of trying to quash violence with greater violence has only triggered more and more violence. These experiences awaken us to engage in serious rethinking of the democratic state as well as an active civil society of which we are a part.

Are these the consequential effects of a successful democracy where only public interest is the principal objective of all the political parties despite their ideological differences? Every official speech highlighting the achievements of the government prioritises the needs of the common man. Certainly the Constitution does not establish a state which decides public interest but it is the aggregate of interest of the people at large which should be recognised by the state. The absence of a unified socio-economic and political class has encouraged the state to adopt the vested interest of the ruling elite as public interest.2 Therefore what is happening today is a reflection of the socio-economic and political effects and unintentional activities of the state.

The demands and social protests made by citizens are shaped by the activities of the state. The common thread of methodology, conceptua-lisation and analytical understanding of the state suggests that the policies pursued by the state influence the conflicts in society, which determine the agendas of people’s protests. In fact the formation of social action groups depends in significant ways on the very state they want to influence. The state influences the behaviour of its citizens as much as the citizens make the state. Political awakening amongst the disadvan-taged groups in recent years has made India a more genuine democracy but has also made it a more difficult country to govern. (Manor, 1996:471-2) The logic of democracy often works against the stability of the nation-state. (Kaviraj, 1995:126) These are some of the valuable findings that have emerged from the debates on comparative and historical studies of the state in the social science discourse.

Need for a Purposeful Dialogue

These experiences call for an urgency to address the root causes of such violence as brutality and violence can never be justified for whatever reasons. Will the strategy adopted by the state to cleanse the Maoist and convert the Red Corridor into a Corporate Corridor secure the basic needs of the marginalised and deprived?3 Condemning the huge loss of life of Indian citizens will not stop the ongoing armed conflict. It is important to immediately halt such butchering and killing of the adivasis, Maoists/Naxalites, police and the never ending blood spill. This compels us to rethink and reconceptualise the democratic state meaningfully by looking at essentially what people experience face-to-face with the state.

A democratic state should work out means to engage in a more purposeful dialogue to ensure that the lives of its citizens are secured in the war zones and elsewhere. The threat not only to the lives of the poor adivasis, Dalits and backward castes but also to their livelihood needs to be addressed. The rise of armed militancy reduces the space for further dialogue and participation of the marginalised as well those who represent their interests. Therefore the state should not only provide space for discussion and negotiation but must also ensure that the livelihood of the deprived is protected. Failing which, the deprived will create a political space for themselves which will provide space to violence as a means to win the battle to survive. This will lead to destruction and killings of many citizens.

Much of the destruction and violence are the consequential effects of denial of the right to own and control productive resources and means to sustain livelihood which perpetuates structural poverty. It is critical for the state to address the underlying causes of deprivation and denial of the basic human right to survive. If the democratic state can ensure minimum sustenance to the deprived and marginalised, then justice and peace can triumph and democracy can be meaningful to its citizens. When the state will work for the security and protection of the poorest of the poor there will be no protests led by the poor or those who fight for and on behalf of the poor. History stands evidence to the rise and decline of the modern state but there has been no point in terms of time, space and circumstances which saw the demise of the state. Even when the non-state institutions play an active role and the state is downsized, its role has not been undermined in providing security and protecting rights of the citizens. Then where did the state go wrong? Who would the citizens look up to for protection of their rights?


Engaging in such encounters of everyday living enables our understanding of the democratic state. I agree with Paul Brass that “India is not heading for catastrophe but is a living catastrophe and its people including intellectuals know it”. (Brass, 2006: 120) But the need of the hour is to challenge such encounters with the state more so in the remotest corners of its boundaries where the lives of a number of people has been disturbed and threatened in significant ways. The 21st century might witness many such massacres and violence due to increasing disparities and violation of rights. The war state which has terrorised innocent people needs to be opposed and resisted. For the people at the grassroots and bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy, democracy simply means to cast their vote during elections. But has this exercise of the political right protected their socio-economic rights? Procedural democracy should lead to substantial democracy. While scholars have focused on the political decay of the institutions/ crisis in governability/weakening of the party system, it is pertinent to move beyond the institutional democracy to understand the democratic state, which is larger than an institution or set of institutions and government.4 A democratic state implies a democratic society which should provide space to rethink the state and work towards its making. n


1. Paul R. Brass argues that persistence of communal riots is another fundamental blot on Indian democracy, not only because violence is a great evil but also ‘because power relations are sustained by maintenance of communal violence and communal talk’ and ‘most political parties have many times benefited from the persistence of riots and many local political leaders have thrived on them’. (Brass, 2006: 133)

2. In the context of divided, fragmented and competitive interests represented by different social groups the state becomes stronger as it has the legitimacy and responsibility for nation-building and economic development. Rudolph and Rudolph’s explanation for a strong state which prevailed against weaker parties was in the context of such divided trade unions and unorganised groups in Indian politics which lacked the ability to influence national policies. (Rudolph and Rudolph: 1987: 273)

3. Kothari’s call for the need to return to humane governance which is based on concern for human rights and justice is extremely important today when ‘governance has been usurped by governments’ and ‘governments have been taken over by corporate interests and the military-technical order, and by the ideology of national interests and national security’. (Kothari, 1989: 1-2; see also Brass, 2006: 123)

4. Atul Kohli argues that India is confronted with a crisis of governability because of the political decay of institutions and therefore there is a need for well-organised political parties as the hegemonic rule of Indira Gandhi adopted strategies which undermined democratic institutions and weakened the party system. (Kohli, 1990: 16-30)


Brass, Paul R. (2006), “India’s Development State” in Lloyd Rudolph and John Kurt Jacobsen (eds.), Experiencing the State, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Kaviraj, Sudipta (1995), “Crisis of the Nation-State in India” in John Dunn (ed.), Contemporary Crisis Of The Nation State, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

Kohli, Atul (1990), Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Manor, James (1996), “Ethnicity and Politics in India”, International Affairs, Vol LXXII, No. 3.

Rudolph, Liyod and Susanne H. Rudolph (1987), In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Kothari, Rajni (1989), State Against Democracy: In Search of Humane Governance, Ajanta, Delhi.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi.

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