17/11/2016 6:12 PM IST | Updated 21/11/2016 9:58 AM IST

Whatever Happened To The Sovereignty Of India's People?

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Representational image. ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images

In both the Gandhian and Aristotelian sense, the State is not defined in the narrow, modern sense of an agency possessing a monopoly over the legitimised use of coercive force. Rather, the State (that Aristotle calls polis and Gandhi calls praja) is defined by Aristotle as "an association of citizens in a constitution." (The constitution is understood as a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state is governed.) A "State" clearly means the body of the people, and its end is not merely to survive, but to live a happy and fine life. In this normative framework, the State (and also the government contracted to govern it) is not an end in itself, but merely a means to an end, which is the fulfilment of a good life for each citizen. In this conception, every individual/citizen is the holder of inviolable rights (by virtue of being the sole custodian of sovereignty) and therefore has claims upon the government. Therefore the government must observe her/his rights, and guarantee conditions which are essential for individuals to live a good life.

If the Republic of India is to guarantee fullness of life to all her citizens, no one (including our government) can deny citizens their inalienable rights...

In stark contrast, the modern Nation-State is founded on the ideas of Rousseau, Hobbes and Weber, where the government is perceived to be the only representative of the interests of civil society. By virtue of it being the supreme judge of what is good or bad for everyone, the government deems it essential that limits be placed on freedoms and rights of citizens. This principle demands that every individual surrender her/his sovereignty to the government. In this conceptualisation, individuals cannot have ideas or express their sovereignty unless it coincides with that of the government. Doing otherwise is criminal.

The paradox of an individual as both sovereign (and hence a holder of inalienable rights/freedoms) and the subject of a sovereign State has never been adequately resolved in India. Over the last 60 years, governments have undoubtedly evolved customs and norms that try to balance these two conflicting ideas. Barring a few historical lapses, they have cultivated space for dissent and negotiating ideological differences. However, the truth remains that this negotiation (and space) is entirely dependent on institutional memories/conventions, and not institutionalised mechanisms.

This becomes problematic when the party in power is unwilling to adhere to those established conventions, and is instead more assertive of government sovereignty. When this is taken to its logical conclusion, any act or thought that contradicts the government (or more specifically, the political party in office) is perforce deemed to be criminal, or as it is caricatured in India today, anti-national.

This portends grave dangers to the foundations of who we are as a nation. In the last two and a half years, there has been a radical re-conceptualisation of the individual and the government, and their relationship with each other. Citizens are now viewed as clients of government services (that can be arbitrarily withdrawn anytime), rather than as holders of inalienable rights. Consequently, the government has aggressively spearheaded policies that compromise the wellbeing of large sections of society, and promoted development which is exclusive.

Consider how the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA) Programme, which has proved to be a crucial lifeline for five crore Indians, was subverted by the NDA government. After failing to dilute the programme (by first trying to restrict it to less than a third of all districts, then withholding funds for wages and asset creation from states), it illegally crippled MGNREGA through an off-record WhatsApp group, where it not only ordered states to stop creating work, but disregarded repeated requests to release funds meant for the people. This was effectively violating the very spirit of the scheme (which mandates that the government must provide whenever demanded). Consequently, the number of people demanding work dropped from 2.7 crore in June 2016 to 1.08 crore in September 2016, and 70.9 lakh in October 2016! In doing so, not only is the government denying millions of Indians of their rightful dues but it is also undermining Parliament's sovereignty.

[T]he government has exploited the lack of institutionalised mechanisms to engage with dissent and leveraged violence... for clamping down on individual/civil society's sovereignty.

Similarly, by making Aadhaar a pre-condition for receiving any government subsidy, benefit or service (in stark violation of the August and October 2015 orders of the Supreme Court, which ruled that Aadhaar is purely voluntary), the NDA is depriving anyone who opts not to sign on to the Aadhaar platform of their inalienable rights (which are either constitutionally or statutorily guaranteed). Even those who are (forced) to register themselves onto the Aadhaar platform are being denied their entitlements, as is evident in the Aadhaar Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA), which has been rolled out on a pilot basis in Rajasthan and Ranchi, Jharkhand.

In places, beneficiaries have been receiving less than half of their public distribution system (PDS) entitlements for months on end because the ABBA system has problems of recognition of fingerprints by scanners, as well as repeated machine and network problems. Because of these issues, PDS dealers are unable to manage more than 15-25 transactions per day (as opposed to previously distributing the entire monthly quota within four days). Consequently, beneficiaries have to make repeated trips to the PDS stores or send different members in turn, until the system works. This has also resulted in corruption wherein beneficiaries are forced to pay bribes to obtain their rightful entitlements in a timely manner.

In addition to re-conceptualising development as nation-centric (as opposed to being people-centric), the government has exploited the lack of institutionalised mechanisms to engage with dissent and leveraged violence more frequently, both as the first and last resort, for clamping down on individual/civil society's sovereignty. In doing so, it has (mis)used the entire state apparatus to harass, dis-empower and even murder India's citizens.

It is shocking that rather than upholding and safeguarding our inviolable rights, our current government is leading the charge against each of our fundamental rights...

On one hand, it has methodically engineered hostile conditions which forced citizens to resort to extreme measures, as is what happened with Rohith Vemula, with Subedar Ram Kishen Grewal and with BK Bansal. On the other hand, the government has even been allegedly complicit in extra-judicial murders, like that of eight under-trials in Madhya Pradesh and the attacks on numerous journalists and activists in Chhattisgarh. Along with the undemocratic dismissals of state governments where it is not in power, the censorship of the media, the assaults on students/academics and the detention of opposition leaders who are demanding accountability, the government has completely abdicated its responsibilities to protecting constitutional principles and rights.

These problems are exacerbated with the government tacitly providing protection to regressive elements, both within and outside government, who have targeting minorities (religious, caste and ideological). The horrific atrocities in Muzaffarnagar, Dadri, Una, Faridabad, Udhampur etc. are just the tip of the iceberg. Senior ministers of the government have even glorified and rewarded these elements (for example, the Minister of Culture promised compensation for the Dadri rioter and even attended his funeral).

It is shocking that rather than upholding and safeguarding our inviolable rights, our current government is leading the charge against each of our fundamental rights (these include the Rights to Equality, Against Exploitation, Freedom of Speech/Expression and Religion). This completely contravenes the principles of who we are, and who we can be. Our founding fathers and mothers believed that that no matter who one was, or where one came from, everyone deserved equal opportunities to live with dignity and security, and to have equal access to a better life. If the Republic of India is to guarantee fullness of life to all its citizens, no one (including our government) can deny citizens their inalienable rights or their rightful dues. It would therefore behove the NDA government to pay heed to Marquis de Lafayette, who tellingly argued that "true republicanism is the sovereignty of the people. There are natural and imprescriptible rights which an entire nation has no right to violate".

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