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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 39 New Delhi September 15, 2018

A State that Fears the Constitution

Saturday 15 September 2018, by Badri Raina

Look as far back as you will, all the way to the Garden of Eden, and you will find that the chief source of the power of ruling establish-ments has been the generation and possession of knowledge.

Thus Adam and Eve were thrown out of Paradise for the sin of getting to acquire knowledge of good and evil. Prometheus was enchained by Zeus for stealing the knowledge of fire. Socrates was obliged to drink hemlock for sharing knowledge with the generation next. Vedic mantras were forbidden entry into the earholes of Shudras and women, and Sambook, the Shudra, was decapitated for daring to meditate, the Valmiki Ramayana tells us. Koranic secrets were monopolised by the male of the species. And, think how knowledge of the divine was meant to be imprisoned in classical languages to which the hoi polloi could have no access; and how those that dared to make translations into vernacular often suffered incalculable ostracisms or were burnt at the stake.

When it comes to the distribution of rights in the secular world, the story is roughly the same. Think how school and higher education have tended worldwide to be restricted to the dominant castes and classes.

The grave fault of the human rights activists who have just been arrested is that they share knowledge of the provisions of the Constitution of India with Indian citizens who, despite seven decades of practising democracy, have remained disenfranchised from the promises of constitu-tional democracy.

The arrested activists are Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves.

Where the ritual of voting has remained necessary in “open” societies for the legitimation of political power, nothing is more inimical to the security of that power than knowledge among the masses and the marginalised of the substance of democracy. Thus, peasants, workers, Adivasis, Dalits, women, the minorities—in short the bulk of the population of India—are expected to believe that their democratic right remains limited to voting once every five years. They are not expected to acquire knowledge about the rights the Constitution furnishes them as citizens, rights that bear the potential of becoming instruments of momentous transformation. The acquiring of such knowledge clearly carries vast implications for those who are privileged, and therefore for the rearrangement of assets among the population at large. Given that such people rarely have access to the judicial system, their quiescent ignorance of the provisions of the Constitution is the best guarantor of the continuance of dominant economic, social, cultural and political power.

It is not for nothing, therefore, that human rights activists who seek to raise the cons-ciousness of India’s marginalised with respect to their place within the structures of constitu-tional democracy are seen as more dangerous than those others who foolishly think that the only and best way to defeat an overbearing state is through the use of arms. Such people, if anything, make the job of the state easy, insofar as consensus against armed resistance is obtainable without much hassle. It is the determined worker, who takes recourse to fact and argument in peaceful propagation against undemocratic appropriations of the Constitution and rule of law, who presents the most serious challenge to dominance born first of the appropriation and misuse of knowledge and then sustained by the coercive mechanisms of the state.

Since no state that pretends to democratic openness can frontally question the right of citizens to know, such activists are best quelled by being charged with the intent to commit violence; when in fact nothing suits an increasingly coercive state more than an Opposition that takes to violence. This is the reason why unproven allegations of the intent to commit violence remain the best tools against human rights activists.

However much the state may pretend that it subscribes to a culture of debate and argument, the facts in recent years are such that this claim is a hollow one. If anything, efforts to challenge official policies in peaceful ways have often suffered vigilante justice with the not-so-silent complicity of state agencies.

When a democratically elected government proceeds apace to subvert all the founding principles of the democratic covenant, an inflexion point confronts the realm. And the more that people make bold to call it out, the more coercive it becomes.

It remains to be seen how the current balance of social forces pans out, and how decisively more and more among the intelligentsia “go over” to the side of those who seek to preserve and protect the constitutional regime.


The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.

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