Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Ravana mode of development – VII

There was a paradox underlying Gandhi’s goal of winning freedom: he had a very low assessment of the role state power should play in human affairs. He was very apprehensive about arming the government with too much power even in what purported to be a welfare state. He believed that the citizens in such a state pay for their dependence with a proportionate loss of their liberty. He was apprehensive about the use of power anywhere, which might prove dangerous for egalitarian growth and individual initiative. He was of the considered view that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. As Blake says in his poem Auguries of Innocence ‘The Strongest Poison ever known / Came from Caesar's Laurel Crown’. His fears about the concentration of power are expressed in some observations:
  • Young India, Nov. 1924 - 'There is no freedom for India so long as one man, no matter how highly placed he may be, holds in the hollow of his hands the life, property and honour of millions of human beings. It is an artificial, unnatural and uncivilized institution. The end of it is an essential preliminary to swaraj.'
  • Young India, Jan 1925 -  ‘…real swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words; swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.’
  • Interview in November 1934 - 'The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence. '
  • Interview in November 1934 - 'I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress. We know of so many cases where men have adopted trusteeship, but none where the State has really lived for the poor.’  
  • Harijan, (November. 1936).  - '...a nation that runs its affairs smoothly and effectively without much State interference is truly democratic. Where such a condition is absent, the form of government is democratic in name [only].'   
So while Gandhi opposed the colonial power, he also inherited this suspicion of the power of the state. Once independence was achieved, however, the Congress went from being the party of the nation to being the party of the nation-state. Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar wanted a centralized, top-down state, each for different reasons, but it was opposite to Gandhi's desire for a minimalist state. The former had a state-centric mindset; the latter had a civil society-centric mindset. Gandhi hoped for a progressively decreasing State but what happened was the opposite. As David Hardiman writes in Gandhi in His Time and Ours, 'Far from there being any devolution of power, the state assumed increasingly authoritarian powers.'

The nation-state is a formal system with a well-defined constitution, strict criteria for citizenship and a monopoly over violence. It has a limited capacity to be flexible and therefore performs poorly when faced with diverse populace that does not agree on the basic rules of co-existence. The resultant dissent is often viewed as an existential threat and it responds with ruthlessness and systematic oppression.  There is thus constant tension between a nation-state's tendency to homogenize and Ambedkar's exhortation to disadvantaged sections to 'educate, agitate, organise'. While Gandhi did not deny an important role for the government in some areas, he resisted any solution that made people depend more on the government.

Gandhi thought of the state as ‘a game of chess’ between rival parties who use people as ‘pawns’ to further their own ends. The judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police and the army of independent India are all descendants of their colonial predecessors. The sedition law is akin to the blasphemy laws in operation in some Muslim countries. There is a term called 'lawfare' which is similar to 'warfare' - it involves using the legal system against people, such as by damaging or delegitimizing them, tying up their time or winning a public relations victory. As Arundhati Roy said about justice in India, 'Punishment is not after due process, due process is the punishment.'

There were Gandhians whose views were opposite to that of Gandhi. For eg. Vinobha Bhave supported the emergency, calling it an era of discipline that would be good for the health of the nation. The type and extent of the disciplining can be guaged from the fact that  when there was a murderous assault on Jayaprakash Narayan during the emergency, he said that he had not witnessed such state terror in all his years of public life, including during colonial rule. Freud said that the state forbids the individual to do wrong, not because it wishes to do away with wrongdoing but because it wishes to monopolize it.

I remember reading that of the 200 million or so people killed by violence in the last century around 2/3 were killed by their own state. Gandhi knew that a centralized, bureaucratic state will result in decisions affecting a community being taken by someone else far away. He thought that it was important to encourage the creation of political spaces that were not part of state power and which would act as a constant check on state power. In thinking thus, he was very different from other political activists of his day or after his time. But the nature of the nation-state is to impose its ideas on the rest of the population. Hence the regular attacks on educational institutions, NGOs and other civil society groups that challenge government views.

The coersiveness of the state has only been increasing. Each crisis will be used as a new means of tightening the screws and further reducing the degrees of freedom available to citizens. The threat of terrorism is actually beneficial for the state because it is a convenient excuse for keeping on tightening the screws on citizens with their consent even though far greater number of people die in road accidents. You are told that  there is no right to privacy, that you don't have absolute right over your own body (when the SC quashed every contention of the government, it smoothly changed its stand), a person being subjected to an IT raid cannot ask for the reason for the raid...(See talk: 'The Databased Citizen' by Usha Ramanathan.)

The Aadhaar card was said to be optional when it was first introduced. Now it is slowly being made compulsory for a range of services. If a service agent asks for Aadhaar mandatorily, then citizens have no option but to get an Aadhaar number. Saying that Aadhaar is voluntary is like saying that breathing is voluntary. Ordinary people are reqired to be transparent to the state and leave a digital trail of their transactions using Aadhaar even though the biggest scams in the country have been perpetrated by politicians and businessmen. The side that is forced to become more transparent (citizens) is required to give data to the areas that are becoming more opaque (government and corporates - the distinction is becoming more blurred with time) This is problematic - you can't know what is being done with the data. As Frank Pasquale says in The Black Box Society:
An unaccountable surveillance state may pose a greater threat to liberty than any particular terror threat. It is not a spectacular danger, but rather an erosion of a range of freedoms. Most insidiously, the “watchers” have the power to classify those who dare to point this out as “enemies of the state,” themselves in need of scrutiny.  That, to me, is the core harm of surveillance: that it freezes into place an inefficient (or worse) politico-economic regime by cowing its critics into silence. Mass surveillance may be doing less to deter destructive acts than it is slowly narrowing of the range of tolerable thought and behavior.
There is a consistency in the views of whoever is in power at the center. The BJP shouted itself hoarse demanding CBI autonomy when it was in the opposition but now there is not one word about it. BJP opposed GST for years, now it is called the most important tax reform since independence. 'On Aadhaar, neither the Team that I met nor PM could answer my Q's on security threat it can  pose.  There is no vision, only political gimmick'. Who tweeted that? Narendra Modi, 8th April 2014. Now it is the flagship program of the government. As an old adage says, where you stand depends on where you sit.

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