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Ramjas Incident: The Crisis Of The State's Legitimacy Under BJP

No longer can the State be relied upon to be a protector of constitutional values.

24/02/2017 5:08 PM IST | Updated 01/03/2017 11:57 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By monopolising the use of coercive power for the State (and institutionalising checks and balances to regulate it), India's founding fathers and mothers eliminated what Thomas Hobbes characterised as "the war of every man against every man." In doing so, they radically upturned the principle that civil society could supersede the State in dictating what the socio-political and economic order would be (which it routinely did, often violently and on the basis of repressive scriptural rules). They enshrined secular values in India's Constitution and made the State their sole custodian and enforcer.

This social contract has more or less collapsed in the last three years. Under the NDA government, the State no longer claims sole monopoly on the legitimate use of coercive power. Whether intentionally or otherwise, the NDA has democratised violence by allowing non-State actors (including gau raksha senas and assorted organs of the Sangh Parivar) to usurp and freely exercise power to enforce what they deem moral and acceptable (which is invariably antithetical to constitutional principles). In doing this, the government has partially abdicated the very essence of stateness, which in the Weberian sense is enforcement.

[T]he NDA has democratised violence by allowing non-State actors to usurp and freely exercise power to enforce what they deem moral and acceptable...

At the same time, the government has also been disinclined to engage with differences or dissent constructively. On the rare occasions when that it has deployed the state apparatus has been to harass, dis-empower and even murder citizens. The current political dispensation's complicity in the murders of eight under trials in Madhya Pradesh, the attacks on numerous journalists and activists in Chhattisgarh, the undemocratic dismissals of state governments, the censorship of the media, the assaults on students/academics and the detention of opposition leaders have been well recorded. Together these indicate a massive contraction in the State's enforcement functions vis-à-vis illegal/extralegal elements, and a corresponding expansion in the application of those functions on law abiding citizens with views/ideologies contrarian to that of the government.

The recent fracas in Delhi University's Ramjas College is a case in point. In the spirit of furthering a culture of debate and critical thinking, two student leaders (Shehla Rashid and Umar Khalid) of the Jawaharlal Nehru University were invited to speak at a seminar titled "Cultures of Protest: Exploring Representations of Dissent" at Ramjas. The BJP's Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) vociferously protested their participation and the college's decision to conduct a seminar on dissent (the irony being that they sought to suppress the very freedom that gave them the right to dissent). What transpired next is a matter of great shame to any civilised society. Visualise the situation: Much like General Dyer's modus operandi in Jallianwala Bagh, the ABVP blocked all escape routes in a seminar room where students and academics were engaged in a peaceful dialogue and turned off the lights to spread confusion. Without warning, they started pelting those inside with stones and bricks for well over an hour, all the while screaming abuse. When the students/teachers tried to march towards the nearby police station to lodge a complaint the next day, the same mob arbitrarily escalated the issue by physically chastising them, this time publicly.

With the Prime Minister unwilling to enforce the rule of law uniformly and check the violence of non-state actors, there has been a dramatic dilution of faith in the State.

Here is an example of a non-State actor (the ABVP) violently suppressing, much like Nazi storm troopers, a constructive and peaceful social engagement and disallowing them from applying for help from the State. This is in stark violation of not just the Magna Charta Universitatum (which mandates an unfettered and free dialectic in universities), but also constitutional principles. Shockingly, instead of providing security for the event and enforcing the rule of law, the State apparatus reportedly facilitated its breach (by first intimidating the college administration for conducting the seminar and then being mute bystanders to the ABVP's unprovoked attack on innocent citizens on two separate occasions). Not only that, the BJP minister in-charge of Human Resource Development has refused to rein in the ABVP. This reluctance to force the ABVP to conduct itself in a civilised and constitutional manner is especially appalling, given he (as also numerous other ministers and MPs of the BJP) rose from it.

Similar kangaroo courts have been witnessed on numerous occasions in the last three years, with the horrific atrocities in Muzaffarnagar, Dadri, Una, and oppressions in Hyderabad University, FTII, IIT-Madras, Banaras Hindu University, being just the tip of the iceberg. In all these, not only has the government restricted the State apparatus from upholding the rule of law, it has also (directly and indirectly) legitimised the use of violence by atavistic forces. What is especially worrying is that these forces are intimately connected to the government, and may even go on to play important roles in it!

Rather than upholding and safeguarding the inviolable rights of citizens, the State has shockingly led the charge against our fundamental rights.

At one level, these incidents highlight the ongoing war between two opposing ideals, one committed to the democratic values enshrined in the Constitution and the other to regressive societal norms. On another level, these indicate a serious crisis in the State's political legitimacy. This is because the legitimacy of the State in India is not entirely derived from "rational-legal authority" (that is, on the basis of a written Constitution, the rule of law and an institutionalised bureaucratic set up) as it has been since independence. Since 2014, this legitimacy is increasingly drawn from the Prime Minister's person who has centralised powers to ordain norms and order (Weber characterised this as "charismatic authority"). However, with the Prime Minister unwilling to enforce the rule of law uniformly and check the violence of non-state actors, there has been a dramatic dilution of faith in the State. No longer can the State be relied upon to be an infallible protector and promoter of constitutional values.

In fact, rather than upholding and safeguarding the inviolable rights of citizens, the State has shockingly led the charge against our fundamental rights (namely the Rights to Equality, Against Exploitation, Freedom of Speech/Expression and Religion). This abdication of core responsibilities and sponsored terrorism by the government strikes at the very heart of India's democratic experiment.

The real question facing us is how we should respond to this crisis. By either normalising or trivialising these incidents (and hence the deeper malaise afflicting the body politic), we forget who we are, and who we can be. We simply cannot adopt a chalta hai (everything goes) attitude and allow this to be the new status quo. Given this, it may be expedient to pay heed to Babasaheb Ambedkar's exhortation:

"If we wish to preserve the Constitution in which we have sought to enshrine the principle of government of the people, for the people and by the people, let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path... nor to be weak in our initiative to remove them. That is the only way to serve the country."

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