Unravelling the State-People Disconnect: Need for a New Order

(Contribution by CPI(ML) General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya to a Panel Discussion on “The Indian State: Protector or Alienator?” at the Tehelka Summit of the Powerless, Delhi, 20-21 November, 2006)

Is the Indian State a protector or an alienator? I think it is both and much more. Of the one billion people in our country, there are certainly a few millions who feel perfectly protected in whatever they do, not only with our human and natural resources but also with our history and heritage. They enjoy all kinds of immunities, legal and extra-legal; and the whole of India is virtually reserved for them as a Special Exemption Zone, sorry a Special Economic Zone.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are many millions more who feel increasingly alienated, their Indianness constantly subjected to ever newer tests of national integrity and cultural nationalism – tests that are often conducted at gunpoint and through lethal demonstrations of public-private partnership. For many of them the state is not just an alienator, it is an outright annihilator or terminator. In fact, if we care to listen to the people who have somehow escaped being annihilated, the line of demarcation between alienation and annihilation is actually quite thin and pretty blurred at times.
Such alienation is usually dismissed as just a minority syndrome, a lack of sufficient integration or conformity with the so-called national mainstream on the part of the minorities. When it becomes impossible not to acknowledge such alienation, we still come across arguments that describe it only as an occasional aberration.
But what would we say about the vast majority of Indians who are permanently consigned to the huge social oblivion spanning the villages and slums and unauthorised colonies of India? The BPL cards and subsidised food meant for them provide perfect fodder for routine scams. When they die of chronic hunger and acute malnourishment, the state starts banishing the word starvation from every dictionary. When they are driven by debt and despair to death, the state dubs them psychologically unstable and treats them to courses in stress management and the art of living.
These are people who find themselves excluded almost everywhere and everyday, to be included only either once in every five years as a name in the electoral roll or maybe only once in a decade, just as another nameless faceless digit. These are people who constitute a permanent riddle for the state. They were as much a riddle for our colonial masters as for our current and elected rulers. This is a growing disconnect or mismatch that cannot be resolved by a telecommunication revolution.
We have had governments ousted from power after an Emergency or almost after every election in recent years. But beyond some temporary course correction, there has been no diminishing effect on the fundamental disconnect between the state’s policies and priorities and the urgent and immediate needs of the people. At the end of the day, this disconnect can only be corrected by replacing the present narrowly based state with a much more broad-based and inclusive order – a higher, broader and deeper variety of democracy that will work not according to the dictates of property and profit but will be shaped by the real needs of real people who are now being squeezed and squashed by the state-market combine.
It has nowadays become quite customary for our rulers to brand the vision of a new and really inclusive and participatory social order a threat to national security. On a different level, such a vision of qualitative change is also sought to be countered by creating and promoting a commonsense that sees the state increasingly as a helpless and useless institution that is destined to implement only the mandate of the market. Such a view understands change only in technological terms and vulgarises politics only as an art of mass entertainment and social management. Behind this curtain of commonsense, the state has actually been busy rewriting its role and priorities at a furious pace, and in the process it has been weaving a tangled web of contradictions for its own declared principles and venerable institutions.
Let us just take a quick look at a few glaring examples. Our Constitution is still quite young but it has already attracted nearly a hundred amendments. One of these amendments chose to render the Preamble more profound by giving it some new and elegant epithets. We are constitutionally ordained to be a socialist and secular republic. It is another matter that the jury is still not out as to what is basic and what is secondary or redundant in our constitution. Mercifully we have once been told that secularism is a basic feature but nobody knows the status of the word socialist. Now, if secularism is a basic feature how come the state is yet to mete out any punishment to the perpetrators of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the masterminds of Babri Masjid demolition or the perpetrators of the genocide in Gujarat? We have no answer.
We swear by national unity and integrity, yet we have fenced off Manipur by erecting this huge barrier called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The colonial rulers might have thought that their Army needed absolute and arbitrary powers against their subjects, but why on earth in free India does the Indian Army need special powers against the people of India?
From secularism and national unity, let us move on to social justice and rule of law. Here are two contrasting examples from Bihar where these have been the ruling slogans for the last two decades. We have fourteen activists of the agricultural labour movement in Bihar serving life imprisonment under TADA and the only evidence of ‘terrorism’ against them is that in our supposedly socialist republic some of them had copies of Communist Manifesto in their possession! At the same time landlord armies slaughtering dalit agricultural labourers at will have enjoyed continued state patronage. After the barbaric killing of more than sixty men, women and children in one such massacre in December 1997, a commission had been set up to probe the political links of the perpetrators of such brutal feudal violence. But before the commission could submit its report and cause any possible political inconvenience or embarrassment, the commission itself has been silently disbanded early this year.
If social justice has been the slogan of power in Bihar, the mantra of the market is now ruling the entire nation. Chanted from the rooftop of Parliament and the Supreme Court, it is our de facto new national song in the era of globalisation: Vande Marketam. Now the market, we are told, is all about a free play of demand and supply, and the more unfettered the freedom the merrier for the players and spectators. The Honda workers at Gurgaon did not however know that freedom actually meant a union-free workplace but now we all are aware of the Gurgaon model of governance that the state can unleash to prevent unions from being formed and run in corporate temples. At Kalinganagar in Orissa, the tribal people had thought they were free to demand compensation for the land the state had acquired from them in the name of turning Kalingnagar into a second Rourkela, but now we know they were only free to ask for massacre and mutilation. Farmers everywhere thought they were free to decide if they would sell or save their “do bigha zameen” when some big capitalist comes calling, but from Dadri to Singur they are now realising everywhere that they actually have to deal with the state, the land acquisition act and the police administration.
In the history of land reforms in India, we have never seen the state apply brute force on landlords to enforce any land ceiling legislation. The state has never been in a hurry to implement land reforms, litigation has gone on for years and estates running into several square kilometres have continued to survive, bearing testimony to the great tolerance of the Indian state towards the lords of land. But when it comes to dealing with the landless, with the tribal people who are conveniently called vanvasis on some occasions and forest encroachers at other times, and with slum-dwellers in the cities, the bullets and bulldozers of the state have never stopped. From Arwal to Muthunga, the colonial legacy of Jallianwalabagh continues to be resurrected at regular intervals.
Even this quick survey would not be complete without a look at the external or international profile of the Indian state. Ours is a state that the world usually describes as a post-colonial state and a developing economy. But who are our ideological mentors and who are our strategic partners today? Our rulers take pride in saying that they consider it India’s great fortune to have been ‘nurtured’ as a colony. That was the hoary past of our rulers, and now they are carrying forward that great upbringing into a strategic partnership with the world’s only surviving superpower, complete with a special nuclear deal. From Cuba and Venezuela to Iraq and Afghanistan, the list of countries feeling the heat of American intervention – whether in the form of economic sanctions, military occupation or political threats – is getting longer by the day. Who are we protecting and who are we alienating then in the global arena?
Extreme tolerance towards feudal survivals and unabashed pride in the colonial past, collusive camaraderie with big business and reverential awe for the managers of permanent global war, and supreme contempt for the lives and rights and needs and aspirations of millions and millions of Indians – such then are the key characteristic traits that go into the making of the specific identity of the Indian state as we know and experience it today.

This is certainly not what our freedom fighters had envisioned. The first war of independence that was waged in 1857 largely by the peasants and soldiers of colonial India had revealed a different social potential. Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad and Ashfaqulla had dreams of a different political future. From the days of the great Tebhaga, Telengana and Punnapra-Vayalar struggles through the Naxalbari, Srikakulam and Bhojpur uprisings to the present period of militant assertion of the rural poor, we continue to have a glorious and live tradition of radical peasant movement in the country. The evolution of political power may have followed a different trajectory so far, but no market and no state can retrench the makers of history. New possibilities are opening up and the people of India have every power and every right to build a new India according to their needs.