Today’s dharma is the Constitution

Where The Acorn interprets the Mahabharata

Continuing the discussion on Naxalism, Gautam Sen points to an op-ed by Nandini Sundar, a sociologist from the Delhi School of Economics, and a member of the Independent Citizen’s Initiative (ICI) that investigated the situation in Chattisgarh in July 2006. Similar to the position the ICI takes in its report, Dr Sundar’s op-ed equates violence conducted by state authorities and violence conducted by non-state authorities (Maoists and the anti-Maoist Salwa Judum militia). This is perhaps a pacifist middle-ground position, but is untenable as an organising principle for a democratic nation. It has been rejected by the Maoists themselves: Mupalla Lakshmana Rao (Comrade ‘Ganapathy’), the Maoist chief, retorted that “those who imagine themselves to be impartial referees in class war and try to set the rules equally for both sides will ultimately end up as apologists for the oppressors, in spite of their good intentions and sincere attitude.”

Dr Sundar attempts to find a basis for the “middle-ground” position by taking recourse to the Mahabharata and codes of conduct according to dharma.

If both must fight, ignoring saner counsel, let me draw their attention to another aspect of the Mahabharata. As Matilal points out, it was indeed a dharmyuddh, but only because both parties were expected to observe certain laws of dharma, or codes of conduct in war. [New Indian Express]

Now, quite clearly, it is untenable to suggest that the Indian state allow the literal Hindu dharma to guide its behaviour. Beyond a literal interpretation though, the idea that the actions of the king and his subjects are circumscribed by a code of conduct, or dharma, in its contemporary form simply indicates that the government and citizens are subject to the Constitution. And the Constitution empowers the government to use force—under laws, checks and balances. It forbids others, for instance the Maoists, from doing so.

The correct interpretation of the Mahabharata is that the government must behave according to the Constitution (and disband the Salwa Judum), but also, defeat the Maoists who, by rejecting the Constitution, are on the side of adharma.

13 thoughts on “Today’s dharma is the Constitution”

  1. Nitin:

    What if the constitution were considered as adharma by reasonable men and women? As you well know, Communist China, Islamic Iran, the Apartheid South Africa, the Nazi Germany, and the Stalinist Russia, all have/had constitutions and laws deriving from them.

    What should circumscribe armed rebellion against a constitutional state (this is most likely the universe)? For e.g., is it possible to think of a draconian tax or expropriation regime as armed robbery by the state, and therefore, armed self defense is justified? Just curious to know the views of the INI community on this.

  2. RF,

    I usually get worried when “reasonable men and women” are introduced into arguments. I suppose the question is really under what conditions can a citizen take up arms against the Indian state? As I chew on this profound question, perhaps I could invite others to comment first. [When the going gets tough, the tough invite others to comment]

  3. As long as there is democracy in a country, I don’t find any justification for citizens taking arms. In most of the examples you mentioned (USSR, China etc), there was/is no democracy.

    In the language Nitin used here, i guess, a constitution will be “Dharmic” if and only if it guarantees democracy.

    Of course, just having democracy need not solve all problems. But that is an absolute necessity.

  4. I wanted to say this at the end:

    Just having democracy need not solve all problems. But once there is democracy, then there is a democratic way of solving all problems. So all “reasonable men and women” should consider a constitution that guarantees democracy as “dharmic”.

  5. I don’t think the dharma can be changed with a simple majority vote.

    We really should hope that the Constitution fulfills the dharma, we shouldn’t be assuming that it automatically equals it.

  6. India has a democratic political system, along with a Constitution that can be amended through democratic means. These two are reasons enough to rule out accepting any armed uprising as morally justified.

    Further, unlike systems like USSR and DPRK, the Indian State does not restrict its citizens from moving out. If anyone is absolutely convinced that his/her problems are impossible to be addressed within the Indian framework, they are free to move to another country. Lets not forget that no matter how democratic a country is, it can never satisfy the demands of every individual.

    Mr. ABC may want India to be a purely communist state, Mr. XYZ may want India to be a purely theocratic one. They may discover that it is impossible to turn India into either. When such a thing happens, and they remain firm in their convictions, the best course of action for them (and for everyone else) would be for them to move to countries which satisfy their requirements.

    It may sound a bit harsh, but keep in mind that people have been doing exactly this for economic reasons for a long, long time. I don’t see why people shouldn’t do the same for political reasons.

    Before someone else points it out to me, I should address the issue of “homeland” demands as well. These are demands from people who can’t move out, simply because their whole demand is fundamentally about not moving out. Well, if you want a homeland for “your kind of people”, the best course of action for you would be to demand federalism (and a reorganization of States, if necessary) and obtain it through non-violent political means. It won’t happen in 10 minutes after you raise your voice, but hastily drawn boundaries have a way of turning out to be bad solutions anyway. All “reasonable men and women” should be able to understand that.

  7. As a big fan of the US 2nd Amendment, I infer you abhor the individual liberty
    to possess firearms for one’s protection against precisely this sort of inhuman
    lunacy. Is this so?
    What is wrong with the Salwa Judum? Of course the state armed them by fiat and
    that might be a problem, but why is the solution not granting firearms licenses to all and
    sundry in affected regions? Simply advancing the “civil war” argument is unnaceptable.
    If you won’t use it for the Warsaw Ghetto, you can’t use it for terrorized villagers.

  8. ‘Dharmic’ criteria:

    1. Democracy with protection for minority rights- ethnic/linguistic/ religious/ any other but no special privileges for them.
    2. Reasonably effective implementation of the laws not just fine words on paper.
    3. Reasonably effective methods to enforce accountability of those who are supposed to implement and uphold the law and your constitutional rights.
    4. Means to self-correct and remove flaws in the system. Perfection not expected but most of the system should work most of the time.

    It is a far cry though to suggest that non-compliance, with even all these criteria *should* lead to armed insurrection against the state. These are not sharp binaries. IMHO that may happen only when somebody is pushed to the brink and their survival threatened (ie. they are faced with a very adharmic reality). I doubt most rabble-rousers have satisfied that criterion, their thresholds appear significantly lower.


  9. I enjoyed reading Professor Nandini Sundar’s very thoughtful article in the New Indian Express. I was led to it first by Gautam Sen’s blog, Gyanoprobha. Dr. Sundar’s allusion to the Mahabharata, with its lovely crescendo in the Bhagavad Gita, is a wonderful metaphor for the bloody civil war boiling over in modern India today.

    War between the state and its inhabitants is invariably caused by a lack of justice and equity in that society, as perceived by the inhabitants of the state, and who find themselves powerless to change the abusive polity through means other than warfare. This was the case for the successful American revolutionary war 233 years ago and the successful Nepalese one recently ended, and is the reason for the ongoing civil wars in Iraq and Sri Lanka among other places. Democracy, in its classical and restricted sense of one-person one-vote, cannot resolve the issue of fairness, as witness Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Belarus and many others. The answer is simply Justice, in both its figurative and literal sense.

    All right-minded humans pray for peace, but peace can never come without justice first. This unassailable verity is often ignored by mighty forces leading to their eventual demise.

  10. Dear Fil Munas

    War between the state and its inhabitants is invariably caused by a lack of justice and equity in that society, as perceived by the inhabitants of the state, and who find themselves powerless to change the abusive polity through means other than warfare

    What a sweeping generalisation no? All it takes to disprove your point is one case where it was not a lack of justice and equity, and poof goes your assertion. Or perhaps you will say it whatever the cause was, is actually injustice and inequity, in which case you have a nice circular argument.

    I suppose the Hutu Power regime, Pol Pot & Co, the Australian colonial government circa 1900, the Third Reich and others were merely killing large numbers of their citizens because of a lack of justice and equity. And the Indian National Congress, it sought…justice and equality from the British? The Hizbul Mujahideen in J&K, looking for justice?

    Where does this leave your sweeping generalisation?

    Here’s a counter-proposition: all armed violence is about gaining power (not justice or equity).

  11. Dear Fil Munas,
    Like Nitin said, there are many examples where a war between state and its inhabitants is not caused by any “lack of justice” or “equity”. What about a war between religious fundamentalists and state ? Demand of Wahabi extremists is not any equity or justice… you know that.. don’t you ?!

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