The Republic under Siege

AS India observes the 66th anniversary of the Republic, it is necessary to have a hard look at the state of affairs in the country. The adoption of the Republican Constitution on January 26, 1950 was a major achievement of the independent India. It is under the Republican Constitution that a parliamentary democratic system was instituted.

That the democratic system has survived despite the constrains on it due to the bourgeois-landlord character of the Indian State is mainly due to the democratic commitment of the Indian people and the popular struggles and the democratic movements.

The Directive Principles enshrined in the Constitution of India directs the State to promote the welfare of the people by securing “a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life”. It enjoins the State to see that the “control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good” and to ensure that the “operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to common detriment”. It further calls on the State to strive “to minimise the inequalities in income…”

Herein lies the contradiction. Six and a half decades since the promulgation of the Constitution, the State has abandoned these Directive Principles. The direction of the State and policy making are contrary to these goals set out in the Constitution. Much of the conflicts and crises in our system can be attributed to this contradiction – political democracy coexisting with concentration of wealth and economic inequalities.

Under neo-liberal capitalism, inequalities are fostered and widened instead of being minimised. The richest one percent of Indians currently own 53 percent of the country’s wealth. On the other hand, one-fifth of the total world’s poor reside in India. The year 2015 saw an alarming spurt in farmers’ suicides around the country. Thousands of farmers have committed suicide in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha and other places. Maharashtra, alone, has recorded 3,228 suicides by farmers in 2015, which is itself an underestimate. Agrarian distress is swelling the ranks of the rural poor.

The Indian Republic is founded on four foundational principles of democracy, secularism, social justice and federalism though with inherent limitations. All four have become devalued and appear in a bedraggled form after a quarter century of liberalisation and privatisation. Those who control the levers of power today are striving to erode whatever secular content exists in the Indian State. The project to desecularise the State and society is underway under the BJP-RSS rule. The basis of democracy is equal rights for citizens irrespective of religion, gender or caste. This can be ensured only by a secular State. The rulers who currently rule the country believe in an ideology which seeks to equate the Hindu identity with nationalism and ultimately citizenship. The concept of `Hindu Rashtra’ will relegate people belonging to other religions to second class citizens. RSS spokesmen have openly questioned the need for secularism in the Indian Constitution.

A distinctive feature of the Constitution is the provision of affirmative action to remove social discrimination and disabilities like untouchability. This is a concept of social justice which seeks to address the iniquitous caste system in a reformist manner. 65 years later, the myriad forms of caste oppression continue to hold sway in society including the evil of untouchability. The Hindutva advocates uphold the Hindu shastras in this regard. The biggest failure of the State is to render justice to the most oppressed in society, the dalits. With the advent of the rightwing Hindu chauvinists, the oppression has intensified. The ghastly burning to death of two dalit children in Faridabad and the tragic end of Rohit Vemula who was driven to commit suicide in Hyderabad University tells the tale of this continuing caste bigotry.

Just a few days before the Republic Day, a big religious function was organised at the Pejawar Mutt in Udupi where, in the Krishna temple, there are practices like pankthi bheda (serving food separately for brahmins and other castes) and made snana (people rolling over left over food eaten by brahmins) conducted even today which discriminates against the dalits and the lower castes. The function was attended by BJP central ministers, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, former chief ministers and ministers from the Karnataka government. None of them spoke out against these blatant caste discrimination practices.

Increasingly, the State patronises and promotes religiosity in the public sphere whereas the Constitution enjoins citizens “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. Far from promoting the scientific temper, the prime minister himself lauds the achievements of ancient science when, according to him, plastic surgery was used to graft the elephant head on Ganesha.

The federal principle which exists in the Constitution, albeit in a limited form, has seen steady erosion that has been accelerated under the neo-liberal regime. States have been reduced to competing entities in the market for resources and capital. Denuded of powers and hamstrung for resources, the states are reduced to entreating for special category status or for getting some largesse from the centre in the form of an AIIMS or an IIT. The abolition of Planning Commission and the dismantling of the National Development Council have further left the states at the mercy of the centre.

Neo-liberal politics is corroding the vitals of the parliamentary democratic system. Money power and the capitalist-politician nexus are dominating the bourgeois parties. This ensures that whoever comes to power and when change of government takes place, the policies remain the same. The people are becoming powerless as to the choices they can make. What Dr Ambedkar had warned about the disconnect between political equality and social and economic equality has come to stay.

The attenuation of democracy is manifested in various ways. The right to form unions and associations, which is a fundamental right in the Constitution, is circumscribed and difficult to exercise. The State connives in depriving workers of the right to form unions and legalises it as in the case of SEZs. The flaw in the Constitution of providing for preventive detention has been used indiscriminately to make draconian laws which restrict personal liberties. The present regime brands dissenting opinion and protests by minorities as anti-national and sedition laws are used with impunity. A mix of neo-liberalism and State-sponsored Hindutva communalism is paving the way for authoritarianism. The Republic is in danger of degenerating into a constitutional authoritarianism.

The fight to defend democracy and secularism requires a combined and simultaneous fight against neo-liberalism and communalism. The fight for social justice and democratic rights is a key link in the struggle against the Hindutva authoritarian forces. Every attack on the democratic-secular basis of the Republic has to be repelled. That should be the resolve of the citizens on this Republic Day.

(January 19, 2016)

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