Still keeping Victoria’s promise

But breaking Sardar Patel’s

There were over 554 Princely States within India’s boundaries in 1947. By the time the Constitution came into force on January 26th, 1950, every one of them had acceded to the Republic of India. That feat was made possible by the energy and ingenuity of two men: V P Menon, the secretary of the States department, and his political boss, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the Home Minister. Together the cajoled, coerced or convinced the Maharajas, Nawabs and other rulers to hand over political power to the Indian Union. In return the Republic of India made them solemn promises: their pensions, special privileges and rights were enshrined in the Constitution.

On October 12th, 1949, defending the guarantees that the Indian Union gave the former rulers, Sardar Patel told the Constituent Assembly: “These guarantees form part of the historic settlements which enshrine in them the consummation of the great ideal of geographical, political and economic unification of India, an ideal which, for centuries, remained a distant dream and which appeared as remote and as difficult of attainment as ever even after the advent of Indian independence… the minimum which we could offer to them as quid pro quo for parting with their ruling powers was to guaranteed to them privy purses and certain privileges on a reasonable and defined basis. the privy purse settlements are therefore in the nature of consideration for the surrender by the Rulers of all their ruling powers and also for the dissolution of the States as separate units… The Rulers have now discharged their part of the obligations to by transferring all ruling powers and by agreeing to the integration of their States. The main part of our obligation under these agreements is to ensure that the guarantees given by us in respect of Privy Purses are fully implemented. Our failure to do so would be a breach of faith and seriously prejudice the stability of the new order.”

Just two decades later, the Indira Gandhi government breached that faith. On December 28th, 1971, the 26th amendment to the Constitution abolished the privy purses and withdrew the recognition granted to all former rulers.

All, that is, except the Prince of Arcot.

Why the exception? Because, it turns out, that the Government of India is honouring a pledge made by Queen Victoria in 1867. The British colonial government, after applying the notorious doctrine of lapse, appointed Azim Jah as the Prince of Arcot, and awarded him a tax-free pension in perpetuity.

The Indian republic broke the promise it made. But it’s still keeping the one Queen Victoria made. Now isn’t that something?

There are alternatives to Naxalism

…and armed struggle is blocking out conventional political movements

The recent post and op-ed on Naxalites and human rights sparked a good debate. It is also a timely and important one. Yesterday, Gautam Sen posted a longish entry on his blog responding to some of the issues raised last week. It is a well-composed post, not least because it reserves such delectable phrases as “the laptop bombardiers for India Shining” to describe Offstumped, and just perhaps, The Acorn. While Yossarin will certainly love that description, Mr Sen can rest assured that the only “alignment” between the Indian National Interest and the Nixon Center is on Realism in international affairs. [And ironically, Realism suggests that there are no permanent “alignments” between nations, only permanent interests.]

Mr Sen correctly notes that the main issue is about the state’s “normative legitimate monopoly on violence”. He then goes on to ask why the State has this monopoly and what kinds of violence can it employ. These questions have unambiguous answers. First, the State has the monopoly over violence as part of a grand contract between citizens—who give up some of their individual freedom in order to enjoy the security (a public good) that the State provides. Without security and law & order, society follows the ‘rule of the jungle’, matsya-nyaya, or law of the fish, in Ancient Indian parlance [1, 2]. The Indian State’s monopoly over violence, therefore, safeguards equality and creates the necessary conditions for human development. Morally, the nature of the State is important in the context of the monopoly over violence, but we are dealing with India, a constitutional democracy. Yes it’s imperfect, except for the alternatives.

Second, what kinds of violence can it employ? Only those authorised by the Constitution and the laws that follow from it. But what if it exceeds its brief? Well, both unconstitutional laws and unconstitutional acts by state officials can and should be challenged in court. And such challenges are fairly common in the Indian context. Mr Sen’s feeling that “Pai doesn’t want to constrain the hands of the state in the exercise of its legitimate right to violence” is misplaced. It may be that he didn’t notice the condemnation of the extra-constitutional militia and the restrictions on press freedom—in the post, in the op-ed and in the link to March 2006 post. “In principle” The Acorn argued two years ago, “maintenance of law and order is the government’s responsibility. It cannot outsource back to the citizens what citizens outsourced to it in the first place…It is naive to think that a society, especially one outside the mainstream, will be able to (turn) swords into ploughshares on its own, or that the government will be able to persuade it to do so. Tribal militias may show effective results in the short-term. But in the longer term, they are likely to become part of a larger problem.”

Mr Sen then goes on to ask why “Pai never (concerns) himself with what causes the violence, either by the state, or by non-state actors?” On the contrary, Pai does, perhaps obsessively. But he does not accept explanations that suggest that a “rape victim, dispossessed tribal or bullied villager” will automatically join an armed movement against the state. Only an extreme degree of frustration causes people to resort to violence. And even then, the violence is local and targeted against immediate perpetrators of injustice. It takes something else to mobilise this into an “armed struggle” against the state. For someone who claims he does not support the Maoists, it is strange that Mr Sen cannot see the difference between local disaffection, even violence; and people’s war.

It is from this point onwards in Mr Sen’s post that the moral relativism and moral equivalence begins to creep in. In a bizarre rhetorical question, he asks “But from whom would you reasonably expect a greater responsibility in upholding law and order—the state, or those who fight it?” We should expect no responsibility in upholding law & order from the Naxalites, and entirely by the state. Not for a single instant have I expected otherwise. But that’s not the issue. The point I made was that human rights activists must be alive to the context.

Activists who criticise only the state and spare the Maoists cannot be taken seriously. But those who “abhor violence of all kinds – both by Naxalites and the state” are freeriders at best and hypocrites at worst: for they use the very security that the state provides (through its monopoly over violence) to condemn it. It is entirely possible for reasonable people to agree that the methods used by the state are wrong, but it is entirely another matter for us to condemn the state for using force to ensure internal security. Does Mr Sen not know that “armed struggle” is not merely a tactic for the Naxalites, but central to their dogma? They differ from your garden-variety Communists in the sense that they believe violence is the only way. Say hello to Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.

It is in his final sentence that Mr Sen unambiguously justifies Naxalism: “so while I find the methods of the maoists morally abhorrent because they cause violence and suffering, I wonder what one is supposed to do when the institutional or legal alternatives to violence are so weak, scarce and ineffective?” Mr Sen either lacks imagination or is fatally seduced by Maoism, for he somehow cannot see alternatives. He makes two immense leaps of logic: first, that those with grievances must resort to violence, and second, that the violence must take the form of a mandatory armed revolution. This, in a country like India, which demonstrated that non-violence can defeat a superpower. This, in a country like India, where elected dictatorships were brought down by electoral politics and non-violent struggle. This, in a country like India, where leaders like EV Ramaswamy Naicker and Mayawati have demonstrated how conventional political mobilisation can upturn the status quo. [Also this, in a country like India, where not a single armed struggle has actually succeeded.]

If Mr Sen is genuinely concerned about the oppressed he would do well to realise that it is the Naxalites and their uncompromising insistence on violence that is standing in the way of democratic political mobilisation. As long as it is the Naxalites that mobilise popular disaffection, and not conventional political parties, the people are condemned to their oppression. Surely, right thinking people like Mr Sen would not want that?

Graceful exit wounds

The manner of Musharraf’s exit

Most people think Pervez Musharraf is toast. And that, apart from a matter of time, it is a question of how he should go. The American senators who were in Pakistan for last week’s elections have publicly called for a ‘graceful exit’. Well, he’s reportedly building a new home—complete with security bunkers—in Islamabad. “He has already started discussing the exit strategy for himself,” a close friend told the Sunday Telegraph “I think it is now just a matter of days and not months because he would like to make a graceful exit on a high.”

Now the wonderful retired Major General Rashid Qureishi has denied the authenticity of the report, not its content. So it may well be that we will soon see some grace.

It won’t be impossible for Mr Musharraf to hold on to the presidency—but he will have to share power with the politicians and Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani. If he was the sort who could share power he wouldn’t have been in this hole in the first place.

Impeachment—and there’s a lot of political support for this—is not impossible. But as Ali Khan of Washburn University School of Law argues on Jurist, impeachment is for legally elected presidents, not usurpers. “The proper constitutional treatment for usurpers”, Mr Khan writes, is “removal by incarceration”. Since lawyers are a vocal political lobby at the moment, they might insist on meting out the proper constitutional treatment to Mr Musharraf. Such an exit is unlikely to be graceful though.

Grammar of Anarchy

Lessons from another Maharashtrian

Those who take to the streets often invoke Mahatma Gandhi. Like Raj Thackeray. Surely, if the Mahatma could break the law, then it’s perfectly kosher for lesser mortals to do so?

Not quite.

Because once the Constitution of India came into force in 1950, the rules of the game changed. In one of his last speeches to the Constituent Assembly, on 25th November 1949, Dr B R Ambedkar said:

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us. [Archives of the Parliament of India]

That manoos from Maharashtra got it right: political violence—and non-violence outside the constitutional route—are the grammar of anarchy. So don’t let the invocation of Gandhi be a fig leaf for practices that have no place in a democracy.

Socialism and the Supreme Court

Expunging socialism from it should matter to all those who take the Constitution seriously

Whether it was Indira Gandhi, Joan Robinson or Shashi Tharoor who first came up with the aphorism, India’s highest constitutional authorities proved it right this week.

Refusing to entertain a petition that sought the deletion of the word “socialist” to describe the Indian republic, a bench of the Supreme Court—presided over by the chief justice of India—said, “Why do you take socialism in a narrow sense defined by Communists. In broader sense, it means welfare measures for the citizens. It is a facet of democracy.” The next day India was described as the “fastest growing free market democracy” by the president. Whatever you might say about India, and its opposite, it turns out, is equally true. (Also true, perhaps, is another aphorism: that the truth is somewhere in between.)

What the president says at NRI conferences is of little import. What the Supreme Court says matters a lot. So it is rather disappointing to see the Supreme Court’s decision and justification for not entertaining the petition to restore the Preamble to the Constitution to its original state. While the bench did admit (via Lex) a petition to review the requirement that all parties swear by Socialism in order to register with the Election Commission, this is as much about principle as it is about practical matters like election rules.

Socialism, the bench said, “hasn’t got any definite meaning. It gets different meaning in different times”. It is strange that the bench should think this justifies keeping the term. If it has no definite meaning, and can mean different things at different times, then it stands to reason that such terms should be kept out of an eternal document like the Constitution. Going by the bench’s logic, would it be justified to amend the Constitution again and declare India a “sovereign, socialist, secular, generous, benevolent, popular, liberal, political, equal, fair, reasonable, indefinite, nice, happy democratic republic”? This might sound flippant, but if there are grounds to keep words that lack definite meaning then why only socialist, why not these other fine adjectives that too broadly mean welfare measures for citizens?

Indeed, the Constituent Assembly debated—and discarded—the idea of including the word “socialist” in the Constitution. And the bench’s position squarely contradicts Ambedkar’s. Socialism, the chairman of the Constituent Assembly held “cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself”, because it amounts to “destroying democracy altogether”. The meaning of the word “Socialism” has not changed since Ambedkar’s time. The Supreme Court bench has failed to give this question the attention it deserves.

The preamble is the place where India describes itself. One would think that the adjectives used there mean something definite. If they don’t, then there’s no reason to keep them there.

Related Posts: Any party you like. As long as it’s socialist. (views, views & views; and the judicial challenge)

Structural asymmetric secularism

Arvind Sharma, a professor of comparative religion at McGill University, “pinpointed asymmetrical secularism practised in India as a reason for Hindutva and went on to suggest that it is a structural problem with the Indian Constitution” and that “the asymmetry was not merely in discourse, but structured in the Indian Constitution that favours some religion over the other.”

The Indian variety

India Today’s S Prasannarajan refers to an “apt term to describe the official Indian secularism”. That term is “asymmetric secularism”. Speaking at a panel discussion at the launch of Tavleen Singh’s new book, Arvind Sharma, a professor of comparative religion at McGill University, “pinpointed asymmetrical secularism practised in India as a reason for Hindutva and went on to suggest that it is a structural problem with the Indian Constitution” and that “the asymmetry was not merely in discourse, but structured in the Indian Constitution that favours some religion over the other.”

Arun Shourie agreed with Dr Sharma and “suggested that individual-based policy planning is necessary for a secular state”. Salman Khurshid, on the other hand, said individual rights and rights guaranteed collectively to a group are both important for the functioning of a secular state and Constitution.

Is asymmetric secularism an oxymoron? In a strict sense, yes. As for Khurshid’s argument, it is hard to square group rights with equality of all citizens under the law. Such an argument holds up only if we accept that equality too should be asymmetric.

Update:Bibek Debroy in the Indian Express

Except where there are clear inequities in access to physical and social infrastructure in some backward districts and villages, deprivation is an individual concept. The apparent religious deprivation flagged by the Sachar Committee breaks down, once one controls for other variables like class and educational status. There should be legitimate resentment at UPA’s attempts to equate deprivation with collective caste and religious categories and this brings one to a difference between the two major political parties on what may be called a social-cum-political continuum, with ideology now focused on what one means by secularism. Does secularism mean rejection of religion for formulating public policy and neutrality across religions, or does it mean positive affirmation in favour of minority religions? [IE]