It all started with a lawless State of Nature.
Before the kings and their nawabs and the Rajputs and their shahs, people used to live in the natural condition of humankind. They hunted, ate and lived in communities. There were no laws to transgress and no ruler to obey.
But as people started owning private property, they needed protection. They came to an agreement and appointed a ruler who would frame law codes and ensure adherence to these codes. Thus, sophisticated systems were established to impose rules and give punishments. Some obeyed these rules, others hesitated and a few resisted.
This is how human civilisation came into being from its primaeval state, or so says the social-contract theorists of Western philosophy. The question of how people should be governed, or ruled in some cases, have arisen in the minds of political philosophers or thinkers, and politicians (notice how the two are usually exclusive of each other).
Today, as we stand at a milepost in India’s history – with indefinite protests against the law of the State – it might help us to go back to some of these Western philosophers who defined the role of a government. Is there a social contract between the governing and the governed to be called a State? How do the two parties negotiate? Is there scope for a bargain in this social contract?
Thomas Hobbes was concerned with order and governance in Britain in the seventeenth century during the Civil War between those in favour of a Parliament rule and those in favour of the rule of the British Royal. At such a time, it was difficult for scholars to not think about the future of Britain and what a victory of either side might mean for the common man (the future of a woman was meant to be equally bleak either way).
According to Hobbes, prior to the political society that man is a part of (again, not women; they weren’t recognised as citizens, or even humans in some societies), he used to live in the State of Nature, where life was chaotic and led in constant fear. He was brutish and his life was short. In want of order and security, men decided to come together and appoint an authority figure who would be responsible for protecting the life and property of all. But in order to maintain law and order, the people would have to surrender their rights.
What Hobbes was favouring was the rule of an absolute head, a monarch, who would promise to establish a society and protect its members, but at the condition of consented obedience.
But what if the governing authority breaks its promise of protecting people and their property? What if some people are more protected than the other? Does this type of social contract also let people reach another consensus and have the existing authority dethroned? Can there ever be a true consensus?
Writing in the same period as Hobbes, Locke was also concerned with the future of governance in British society. However, his idea of the implied social contract was very different from Hobbes’.
According to Locke, human beings in their natural state were free and lived with goodwill and mutual assistance. This was opposite of the Hobbesian state of nature, which was chaotic and brutal. Locke believed that this liberal state lived under natural laws was an ideal state. Things only went down with the concept of private property.
According to Locke, people came together to form a civil government and abandon the State of Nature only to protect their private property. When it came to giving power to an authority for their own protection, men only surrendered the right to maintain order and enforce laws (women, as one could guess, had no rights in the first place to surrender).
The purpose of the government was then to uphold the three natural and inalienable rights that men decided to retain – i.e. the right to life, property and liberty. Man is born with these rights and they cannot be taken away from the government. However, once the legislation is chosen, people are obliged to accept their decisions.
Locke was proposing a more democratic, participative society instead of Hobbes’ monarchical one: people are not expected to subject to power (though the legislature is made, people are obliged to accept their decisions) in Locke’s liberalism. But what remained the same was the patriarchal and elitist conception of a State.
What about people with no private property? Where did they stand in this political hierarchy? What if the right to one’s liberty is in conflict with that of another? And again, can true consensus ever be reached?
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his radical political propositions in 1762 in his book The Social Contract, built upon the Lockean foundation, but his proposition was more radical than Locke’s. For Rousseau, the State of Nature was that of equality and benevolence. This was corrupted by greed, competition and vanity with the invention of private property. So, when the time came for the people to choose a government, instead of giving power to an individual authority to make laws, they gave power to a collectively framed document called General Will, which aimed at the common interest of people.
The difference between Locke’s and Rousseau’s appointment of power was that in the former, people came together to assign power to an individual to frame and implement laws. In the case of Rousseau, the social contract was not an agreement between the governing and the governed, but among citizens. Even the laws, in case of Rousseau, were made by the people.
And so, if the government infringes upon the rights of citizens as written down on the General Will, people don’t just have the right to but are obliged to, revolt and take back the power. Thus, for Rousseau, the rights and interests of a citizens’ collective were at the centre, while for Locke, the natural rights of a man were at the centre. But be it a citizen or a natural man, they both promoted the liberty and dignity of human beings via representative democracy.
These values can be said to be the foundation of the Indian Constitution as well. Our fundamental rights are Locke’s inalienable rights that ensure the right to life, property and liberty (in addition to education and religion). These rights were written by an assembly that can be said to be representative enough. This led to the convening of the Indian Parliament that is representative enough.
And that is what India has always been: representative enough. The Constituent Assembly, which drafted the Constitution, was fairly represented by members from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, women, Gorkha communities, non-Anglo-Indian Christians and heads of various princely states. But it is hard to deny that the Assembly was dominated by savarna Hindu men. Thus, a General Will that has been framed by only a particular community of people – albeit with the mention of Sovereign, Socialist, Secular and Democratic Republic – is bound to misrepresent the rights of the whole State.
It is the nostalgia of the media and academic narratives that wants us to believe that things were hunky-dory before the election of the face of fascism to the Centre. The Congress party, in its glory days, has been right-wing at worst and centre-right at best. Rohith Vemula died by suicide under the thuggery of the ABVP at the University of Hyderabad. But caste discrimination and dropout percentage of students from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes were high even 20 years ago.
Violence at the borders of Assam and Nagaland, racial abuse of Northeast Indians, militarisation of Kashmiris – people have been facing violence at the hands of the State since Independence. The 90s decade is infamous for insurgencies across the Northeast (Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh to name a few).
Scams worth crores of rupees have made news in almost every sector in India even before the entry of the BJP – from the final 2G scam in telecom to the Coalgate scam, AgustaWestland helicopter scam (2013), Commonwealth Games scam (2010) and Bofors (1980s and 90s), among others.
It is also the UPA government under which capitalists such as Reliance, Birla, Adani and Sahara Group raised their empire. They built their capital on top of the sweat and blood of farmers and forest dwellers. This was simultaneous to the challenges that the UPA government was throwing at the farmers from another direction in the form of liberalisation in the 1990s that led to the first agrarian crisis of independent India.
And finally, something that crops up during every General Election and dies out the moment the elections get over – Women’s Reservation Bill, which has been pending since 1996.
What is needed then is for us to stop looking back at how Sovereign, Socialist, Secular and Democratic Republic this sone ki chidia was before 2014 and redefine the social contract that citizens signed “at the stroke of midnight” on August 15, 1947.