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Mainstream, VOL L No 44, October 20, 2012

Political Culture of Engaging with the State

Wednesday 24 October 2012, by Suranjita Ray


India has a rich history of political culture to engage with the state. The transition from a colonial hegemonic state to a post-colonial, non-hegemonic, democratic and decentralised state that claims to be increasingly citizen-friendly, needs to be seen in relation to the different contextual trajectories of such engagements with the state. Recent years have witnessed a growing interest in understanding the complex and dynamic nature of state-citizen relationship in the context of the struggle to realise citizenship rights not only in a pluralist society but also in a global world. Understanding citizenship in practice needs to see the day-to-day experiences of the state by the citizens.

State: The Chief Land Broker

WHILE integrating with the liberal world has made oneself more conscious of one’s rights and liberties, it has also resulted in widespread violation of rights of large sections of society. As a rapidly industrialising economy, India has integrated with market-oriented reforms that converge with the interests of the economically privileged and powerful class of citizens resul-ting in a harmonious relationship. However, it has resulted in rising inequalities and their intensification between and within countries antagonising the relations of the state with the underprivileged and powerless groups and communities. The growing paradox is that while the country is becoming one of the world’s fastest growing economies we see the overlapping sites of discriminations and discrimination-induced inequalities which have contributed to the growing social, economic and political cleavages.

The skewed feudal agrarian land structure alongside the unequal caste-based oppressive social structure has manifested in an iniquitous society increasingly alienating its people. Contemporary capitalism and an alliance with the market forces have seen an increased role of the state in emerging land grabs. Today ‘public purpose’ is indistinguishable from the private capital accumulation and SEZs have become epicentres of land wars across the country, and the state is the chief land broker for capital accumulation. (Levien, 2012: 933, 964) We see increasing dispossession, deprivation, displacement and disempowerment of large sections of society.

Globally India has the largest number of people uprooted due to the development projects. Since independence the number of displaced people is 60 million and a majority of them are marginal farmers, fisherfolks and quarry workers. (Shah, 2012: 10) Amongst the displaced, almost 60 per cent belong to the Adivasi and Dalit communities. (Ibid.) Only a third of the displaced are resettled in a planned manner.

The most significant confrontation with the capitalist nature of the state is illustrated in social movements and people’s protests across the country resisting such land grabs and dispossession which deny the right to livelihood. One can only be hopeful that the proposed Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, if passed, will help avoid several historical injustices to the losers of livelihood. (Ibid.)

Failure to Negotiate with Conflicts

‘PEOPLE’S Rights’ Movements have compelled the state to take cognisance of its responsibilities to initiate investment in human capital. The rights-based entitlement to promote an inclusive development in society has no doubt increased the socio-economic space of the state in the lives of the common people. Though the state has been brought into focus creating a support base legitimising its power, its failure to create condi-tions to alter the multiple systemic deprivations has resulted in strengthened power asymme-tries. This has further marginalised large masses. The state has not only failed to reach vertically down to the hitherto unvoiced which has increased alienation, distrust and insecurity of the marginalised in particular, but has also increa-singly used its power to control the subaltern classes.

The process of effective representation in the institutions of governance has failed to challenge the skewed distribution of power in a society. In practice, the presence of the marginalised and hitherto excluded groups in the institutions of governance has not provided them with sub-stantial power to change the rules of the game. The ground reality reveals that representative democracy even in its most inclusive form has not resulted in increasing participation of the marginalised at the local level particularly in decision-making. Ironically, there is enough evidence to cite that despite decentralisation procedures and efforts to make the planning process more citizen-friendly, the decision-making process continues to remain centralised.
Despite the change in the approach of the state as well as non-state agencies, which emphasise involvement of the community and people at the local level, various plans and schemes are launched periodically, without addressing the local needs and demands. In fact, analytical study of some of the policies reveals that in practice the themes and parameters are laid down from above, which are not in accordance with the local conditions. The government’s campaign that the economic reforms of liberali-sation are ‘hard decisions’ which will benefit the people in the long run is indeed misleading the aam aadmi. (Varadarajan, 2012c: 10)
The nuclear power plant at Kudankulam (KKNPP) is being forced on the people without taking into account their safety concerns. There has been no open debate or detailed public hearing on the KKNPP by involving experts from the government and protesters’ side to enable public understanding of the facts pertaining to nuclear power programmes. The Centre as well as the State Government have ignored the issues raised by the anti-Posco protesters (Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti). In the past the demands and needs of the protest movements—against big dams (Narmada Bachao Andolan), against SEZs, against alloca-tion of natural resources, and against corrup-tion—have been ignored.

The merit of being the biggest democracy in the world lies in negotiating with the conflicts and public action calls for a state which should create conditions to have a dialogue with its people. While political presence is a deliberate intervention, mere presence without participation and the lack of political space to negotiate and bargain have failed to empower the deprived and powerless. Protests against the recent hike in the prices of essential commodities, against the decision to go ahead with the opening up of 51 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail trading, the arbitrary and discretionary allocation of scarce natural resources, the recent coal block allocation scandal (see also Iyer, 2012: 10) illustrate that the government can govern the country with the deliberate intention of obfuscating issues raised by the CAG Reports, by ignoring the demands of people’s rights movements, and without paying any heed to the voices raised by the Opposition parties (though the latter did not protest FDI when it was allowed in mining and infrastructure projects), and without consensus within the ruling alliance.

Declining Political Space

WE find that the political space to engage with the state has declined in recent years. An increase in the non-institutional space to engage with the state has seen a more powerful state which has been successful in suppressing the voices of the large masses. While the political space is a major source of resistance against the state’s policies, the post-colonial state has legitimised a political culture that tolerates repression against certain sections of society and increasing human rights violations as a means to maintain social and political order.

The state that we experience today is a ‘war state’ which has, on one hand, failed to eliminate the causes of unrest and, on the other, orchestrated violence and brutality perpetrated by the police and security forces. The Maoist insurgency in large parts of the country in response to the developmental approach of the state, and the state’s counter-insurgency strategies and use of violence against the Maoists and common people illustrate the paramilitary nature of the state. The Centre’s warning to the Chief Ministers of the worst Naxal-affected States of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha ‘to head unified commands to deal with the problem of Left-wing extremism threat more effectively’ can only increase the conflicts and result in more violence in the war zones.

The state has curbed people’s protests in Nandigram, Singur, Kashipur, Kalinganagar, Narayanpatna, Niyamgiri, Chhattisgarh, Jhar-khand, and elsewhere, and has no method to negotiate conflict. Battles at Kudankulam and the brutal police action (resorting to force, teargas and lathis) and the slapping of sedition charges against the people (around 7000 protesters) of Idinthkarai and other villages protesting against the nuclear power plant, the merciless beating up of the villagers in the recent past in Dhinkia and nearby villages protesting land acquisition for the Posco steel project (Ray, 2010b: 25), the continuing victimisation of tribals and Dalits and their displacement by expropriating their lands for setting up development projects, war and violence in the so-called red corridors of the country, increasing massacres, lynching of adivasis, growing molestation of tribal and Dalit women, burgeoning honour killings, pogroms and criminalisation of politics, arrest of human rights activists on the pretext of supporting the Maoists and combing operations, agrarian crisis and farmers’ suicides, increasing poverty, conditions of absolute hunger, systemic deprivation and distress are manifestations of the declining political space to engage with the state. (See also Ray, 2011a: 17)

The state criminalises people’s movements even when they are peaceful and genuine popular demands are brushed aside and dismissed as illegitimate, anti-national or foreign aided. (See also Varadarajan, 2012b: 10) Dragging the cartoons into controversies for wrong reasons (banning cartoons in the NCERT textbooks) and the more recent arrest of award-winning political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi under sedition charges of insulting the national flag, Parliament and Constitution, and wrongful arrest of ‘Revolutionary Writers’ for their fight against injustice through art and literature are attempts of the state to curtail freedom of speech and expression. Misuse of the sedition law across the country has put many human rights activists, journalists and intellectuals behind bars and the dissenting voices of the people are being suppressed as criminal acts. (See also Vardarajan, 2012a:10; The Hindu, 2012:12) Increasing torture and extrajudicial killings are everyday experiences which remind us of a state that has become more intolerant than in the past. This culture of mounting intolerance has encouraged the conflict situation and violence has always been used as a tool of domination both by the state as well as the citizens.


IT is critical to participate in fight against the hegemonic systems and discourses. The fight between forces of hegemonism and those of self-determinism becomes all the more important in the present context of increasing violence and violation of human rights. Since ‘rights are no longer confined to the concept of liberty in the liberal democratic theory, …reconceptualising rights as political affirmations in the history of creative societies is important’. (Mohanty, 1998; 2012:7) The struggle for people’s rights should be a continuous struggle to affirm conditions to alter the power structures of the state and society to realise desirable human conditions. (Hargopal, 1997)

As long as the demand for change in the structures of power and the dominant power relations do not disappear from the people’s rights struggles, the democratic state will be compelled to revisit the ‘rights’ guaranteed to its citizens to legitimise its very existence. The state has to find new ways of engaging with the resistance movements. This will be a step towards empowering its citizens.

Hargopal, G. (1997), Political Economy of Human Rights. Hyderabad: Himalaya Publishing House.
Iyer, Ramaswamy R. (2012), “Continuing Onslaught On The CAG” in The Hindu, September 24.
Levien, Michael (2012), “The Land Question: Special Economic Zones and the Political Economy of Dispossession in India” in The Journal of Peasant Studies, 39 (3-4) July-October.
Mohanty, Manoranjan (1998), “Social Movements in Creative Society” in M. Mohanty, Partha Mukherji and Olle Tornquist (eds.), People’s Rights, New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Mohanty, Manoranjan (2012), ‘Reconceptualising Rights in Creative Society’ in Social Change, 42 (1) March, New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Ray, Suranjita (2010a), “Experiencing the Indian Democratic State” in Mainstream, 48 (18).
Ray, Suranjita (2010b), “The Developmental State and People’s Struggle for Land Rights” in Mainstream, 48 (10).
Shah, Mihir (2012), “Bill For Land Gives True Value” in The Hindu, September 13.
The Hindu (2012), “Aseem Sees Beginning of Debate on Sedition Charge”, September 13.
Varadarajan, Siddharth (2012a), “Sedition? Seriously?” in The Hindu, September 11.
Varadarajan, Siddharth (2012b), “The Meltdown Of Reason” in The Hindu, September 13.
Varadarajan, Siddharth (2012c), “Old Arguments Warmed Up” in The Hindu, September 24.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at HYPERLINK ""

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