Synopsis: Human rights and their violation in India represent a significant problem for the people of the country. We trace the origins of this problem and its historical evolution through pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods of Indian history. Our thesis is that the perpetuation of colonial political thought and practice in independent India, in defence of the Indian capitalist class and its accumulation of private wealth through the exploitation of human labour, is the primary cause for the violation of human rights in our country today. The bourgeoisie, which is in the driving seat today, has given birth to its dialectical opposite, the working class. The working class is fighting for the inviolable rights of human beings, irrespective of caste, gender, class or any other consideration. Our contention is that the modern definition of human rights can be affirmed only in a new dispensation that places human beings at the centre of development, and articulating the vision of this new dispensation is the most urgent task of political philosophy at this time.
Human rights by definition are those that are inalienable to any human being, simply by the fact that he or she is a human being. These include freedom from hunger and want, availability of shelter and basic necessities, a secure future, basic education and the right to be a useful member of society. Whereas these are available in paper across the world, in reality they are not available to most even in the modern epoch. Such a definition has been arrived at over history, through the collective struggles of generations over millennia. They can be achieved only when society enters a certain stage of maturity, and when the economic and political systems allow these to become a reality. Many definitions remain formal and there is no way of enforcing them, especially since there is no universally agreed upon covenant to enforce them. It is a particularly pressing problem in a country like India with a diverse population, and several constituent nations, and also a colonial history.
In this enquiry, we step back and gauge the conditions that have brought us to the present state of affairs. In doing so, we hope to unveil a solution for the future so that the people of India may live in dignity and lead a human existence. In our opinion, this question can only be fully answered by examiningthe relations of social production prevailing in India today. The affirmation of the human identity, which is central to the question of human rights, is linked to the birth and emergence of the working class, which has come into being on Indian soil in the last century and a half or so.
It is worth recalling that the people of India represent about a sixth of all of humanity, and live in a region that has been the cradle of civilisation over the last several millennia, and whose peoples have contributed to the growth of the human race in far reaches of the globe. This region may or may not have been a concrete political unit for most of its history, but definitely in the last seven decades it has been so. The region has been governed by one common system of law and jurisprudence, of the institutions of civil society, with one single currency and the same administrative machinery. It is therefore of great importance for the both the peoples of the land, as well as of all of humankind to take stock of the conditions in what today constitutes India.
Apart from some border wars with neighbouring countries, this region has enjoyed significant `peace’ and has not been visited by modern warfare. Yet many of its provinces continue to be restive and there are regions where what is in effect martial law prevails. Across the length of breadth of the country, the authority has armed itself with tremendous powers of repression, legitimized by central and state level draconian laws, which have little parallel elsewhere in the world.
As India enters the third decade of the third millennium of the Christian era, it is faced with crises of unimaginable proportions. The peoples of India have been told in the recent past that the economy, the fundamental pillar of society, is growing handsomely and will soon deliver development for all:”sab ke saath, sab ka vikas!” They were also told some years ago that good times (`achhe din’) were just around the corner. Nothing has proved to be farther from the truth.
Conditions of working people, the vast majority of the population, have grown from bad to worse in recent years. Anyone who opposes the existing policies and course of development is declared an enemy and is locked away under one pretext or another. This kind of arbitrary exercise of power remains one of the forms of gross violation of human rights. It is therefore an urgent task of political philosophy to address this reality. By carrying out a detailed enquiry of the underlying reasons for this state of affairs, it is necessary to find a solution to the problem of widespread violation and denial of human rights in India. This article is an enquiry into this problem.
Looking back at the way human society evolved in this subcontinent, we note that as people began to settle down and civilisation arose, so did class society. As human beings began to settle down and the agricultural revolution took root in the great river valleys of Hindustan, the primary conflict of human beings with nature began to ebb. The laws of nature began to be understood and applied in the interest of human development. The bounty of nature was put to the service of human beings. The other force which shaped the development of human society was the conflict between classes within society, which began to play itself out and is yet to resolve itself fully.
Human civilization has advanced on the basis of certain definite relations of production, and codes of social behavior consistent with them. The development of Indian civilization gave birth to Indian philosophy and political theory, or raj dharma, defining the rights and duties of citizens (Praja) as well as that of the State (Raja). According to this political theory, the duties of the State include taking care of the basic needs of the population. The State is duty bound to take care of the needs of agriculture, handicraft industry and trade; and the needs of defending the borders of the realm. It was also considered the duty of the State to protect people affected by natural calamities. Citizens, on their part, were duty bound to carry out the productive work assigned to them and to pay taxes to the State. Most importantly, a Raja who did not discharge his duties could be removed and replaced with another. Being the cornerstone of the political philosophy which emerged in this subcontinent, these principles have permeated Indian consciousness.
All of the above need to be viewed in the context of the relations of production which existed at the base of society in pre-colonial times. The work involved in keeping the engine of society running was divided among different groups of people, based primarily on the caste of their birth.
There were no strict notions of private property. The bounty of nature was to be shared by all. Community feasts to the present day reflect that India was bounteous with plenty of food to go around, with celebration of animals and their contribution to community life, and also elaborate rituals surrounding the partaking of meals. It was considered to be the duty of the State to ensure sukh (prosperity) and raksha (protection) to all members of society. However, the entitlements of human beings depended on social status within the caste hierarchy. Women were relegated to an inferior position.
Notions of caste-based rights and privileges were challenged by social movements within this subcontinent. The Bhakti movement, for instance, rebelled against the caste hierarchy. The Bhaktas asserted that the right to conscience belongs to every human being, irrespective of caste or gender, in a manner and metaphor suited to their times. However, as long as caste-based division of labour remained the basis of the relations of production within society, human rights could not be affirmed. Stated differently, notions of caste-based rights and duties clashed with and overwhelmed all attempts at asserting the human identity. Various belief systems arose and fell, and yet did not fundamentally alter the caste-based division of labour at the economic base. Yet the question of political philosophy remained a pressing one.
The Moghul Emperor Akbar proposed an inclusive approach to governance, which he formulated as Din-Ilahi. He even commissioned a major text that codified what could be considered political philosophy in his Ain-e-Akbari. Herein lay deliberations on the nature of rights and duties required for the day to day running of the Empire, which are worth considering by serious scholars even today. And yet, into this period as well as in the ensuing period after that, the fundamental relations of production on Indian soil were primarily based on caste-based labour, essentially of a hereditary nature. This latter comprehensively proved to be a roadblock for the further development of notions of human rights in that period, and whose shadow continues to fall into the present.
With the passage of time, as the Mogul Empire rose and declined, less and less importance was paid to the well-being of the people. The path of self-destruction began with the expansionist policies of Aurangzeb and the restoration of Jizia tax which caused deep resentment in the hearts and minds of the people of India. Subsequently, as the British East India Company consolidated its hold in India, matters came to a head. They exploded in the form of the War of Independence of 1857, which was nominally led by the last Moghul Emperor Bahadur Shah. With the defeat of the insurgents, India became the `Jewel in the Crown’ and found herself with an Empress, Queen Victoria.
After 1857, the British Raj began to systematically impose its own political philosophy on colonized India. Eurocentrism began to dominate the thought process of the newly educated stratum of Indians. The economy was oriented towards maximum plunder, with the surplus generated by Indians flowing to England. Raw materials were to be procured from India, sent to England for being processed in factories, and then sent back to India for sale. This colonial trade, which grew to staggering proportions, led to the immiseration of millions of Indian people and to the enrichment of the capitalist class in England. India became the seat of famines, year after year. By the early twentieth century, the life expectancy in India was less than 30. The once great civilisation lay in ruins, unable to contend with the colonial onslaught. India was reduced to the position of a vassal, enslaved to a foreign power whose rule was based on a completely alien political philosophy, whose central tenet was that Indian people were unfit to rule themselves and that our society consisted of religious communities and castes which were in perpetual conflict with one another, It was alleged to be the “white man’s burden” to rule over India and maintain “communal harmony”.The growth of British colonial plunder required, at a certain stage, the development of capitalist relations of production within India. An Indian capitalist class began to grow, mainly composed of those who betrayed India during 1857 and were rewarded with industrial and commercial licenses. In the course of time, Indian industries began to compete with the products of British industry.
By the time of the First World War, Indian capitalists began to play an important role in the matters of the Empire. After the end of the war, they began to demand their pound of flesh. The Empire retaliated with draconian laws such as the Rowlatt Act. The Indian bourgeoisie began to rally the people around its own aim of acquiring India for itself. The Empire retaliated with an iron hand, and the nationalist struggle surged forward in response.
The Congress Party, formed towards the end of the nineteenth century, became the most important party of the Indian bourgeoisie, while the Muslim League formed by the big landlords also staked its claim for a piece of the pie. A whole host of small parties sprang up, articulating the desires of propertied strata in local regions. In the meantime, the dialectical opposite of the capitalist class also took birth, namely, the working class. The Communist Party of India emerged in the first quarter of the 20th century. In the meantime, the Bolshevik Revolution had taken place in Russia, opening the path of socialism. The anti-colonial struggle in India was greatly inspired by the Russian revolution. Political philosophy began to develop around the notion that the people of Hindustan must become their own masters.
At the end of the Second World War, faced with the prospect of losing India once and for all, the British headed by Lord Mountbatten put forward the notion of the communal Partition. India was to be divided along religious lines. By August 1947, two different post-colonial states came into being, each with several constituent nations. They came into being in the midst of mutual hostility. And to this day, the hostility has not ceased.
Many of the problems in India today stem from the failure to make a break with the colonial past in 1947 and ever since. The 1950 Constitution of India did not represent any break with British colonial political theory and practice. The most important features of statecraft from the period of British Raj were retained. About three-fourths of the 1950 Constitution was a reproduction of the colonial Government of India Act of 1935. The other quarter includes various features of European constitutions; as for instance, the Directive Principles of State Policy, which is inspired by the Irish Constitution.
The Preamble of the Constitution, which begins with “we, the people”, conveys the impression that the human identity and rights of all Indians are being affirmed. However, the operative parts of the 1950 Constitution perpetuates the notion of Indian society being divided into a “Hindu majority”, a Muslim minority and other religious minorities. Communal and caste identities have been reinforced and become dominant features of the vote bank politics practiced by rival parties that dominate the Parliament. The aspiration of the anti-colonial struggle remained unfulfilled. Power was transferred from London to Delhi but we, the people, remain powerless victims of inhuman conditions.
The Constitution does not guarantee the inviolability of democratic rights or human rights. Most of the “fundamental rights” mentioned in the Constitution are subject to the pleasure of the State, which is empowered to deprive people of their fundamental rights whenever it pleases, in the name of national security or law and order.
The Indian bourgeoisie, having acquired the State created by the British colonialists to exploit and plunder the land and labour of this vast country, found it convenient to retain the institutions and theories of oppressing, dividing and ruling over the exploited majority of people. Not only did they adopt a Constitution which represented continuation of the colonial legacy, they also adopted the Westminster model of representative democracy as the political process. While one party of the bourgeoisie has replaced another through periodic elections, all the policies of all governments in the last seven decades have been aimed at the enrichment of the capitalist class. The Green Revolution was sponsored to overcome dependence on imports and foreign food aid. While it achieved that, it also led to the advance of capitalism in agriculture, in selected regions.
Life expectancy of Indians has increased whereas the quality of life remains abysmal for the vast majority. The question then arises as to why this state of affairs continues. What precisely is the political philosophy that justifies the negation of human rights and lends stability to the present highly exploitative system? What is the political philosophy with which this system which negates human rights can itself be negated? Anyone who raises such questions today runs the risk of being considered a menace to society, the risk of being deprived of all human rights, of being tortured in jail.
From 1947 up to the present, capitalism has been the dominant and most rapidly growing system of production in India. Until about 1985, Indian capitalism went under the guise of Nehruvian socialism. In recent decades it has been replaced by a programme of liberalisation and privatisation, which is a different phase of development. From the days of the Tata-Birla plan to build state monopoly capitalism to the present period of highway robbery by the monopoly capitalists in the name of reform, the people of India have been victim to a ferocious capitalist system. Indian capitalism brings to life the old saying of the late American activist and political philosopher Malcolm X who notes “Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture.” Capitalism at its present stage is a highly parasitic bloodsucking system. In these conditions, the affirmation of human rights requires the overthrow of capitalism, and along with it all the remnants of old relations of discrimination and oppression, including the caste hierarchy.
Seven decades after independence from British colonial rule, India has some of the poorest people in the world, with endemic hunger and malnutrition, worst human development indices, atrocious living conditions in its cities, and the worst possible levels of pollution anywhere in the world. The country has some of the highest infant mortality rates. The public health system is in shambles. Indian cities have atrociously poor hygiene, with many millions of families not having basic toilet facilities. There is no availability of primary health care and no financial or even food security for most. At the same time, India today has some of the largest numbers of billionaires and largest numbers of coupon clippers in the world.
To summarize, we have thus far argued that the problems of India today lie in the failure of political philosophy in articulating a vision of a State and Constitution which genuinely guarantees human rights, and that this is a feature of the continuation of the colonial legacy. The capitalist system of exploitation and plunder as well as the statecraft based on the notion of “white man’s burden” and the motto of “divide and rule” were acquired from the colonial masters and have been further perfected over the decades. The denial of human rights manifests itself both in the absence of basic human dignity and lack of fulfilment of basic human needs, and in the presence of draconian laws and mechanisms for the State to deprive people of “fundamental rights” listed in the Constitution.
Despite the pretensions of our political leaders, facts show that fulfilling human needs is not at all at the centre-stage of economic and social development. Today it is the rights of private property that is supreme in India, or to be more precise, the “right” claimed by monopoly corporations and financial institutions to keep on making maximum profits at all times. The mission of overcoming this roadblock to the liberation of human beings and fulfillment of human rights belongs to the working class, the dialectical opposite of the bourgeoisie.
The birth and development of the modern working class in India has provided the material basis for the assertion of the human identity and the inviolability of human rights. When persons start being paid for their “labour power”, irrespective of caste, they begin to acquire the consciousness of being a “worker”, similar to all other workers, irrespective of differences of caste.
Alongside capitalist growth has grown this class of people with the consciousness that one could have a value that is independent of the caste in which one was born. This working class consciousness contains within it the seeds for the future, for a system of society which permits the full flowering of the human potential and in which the modern definition of human rights is guaranteed by the Constitution and protected by the State. The notions of loka kalyan and sarva jana sukhono bhavantu as the goal of society, which have been completely forgotten, can then be brought back to life, for the benefit of every human being on India soil.
If indeed the people of India are to have a future that can be considered human, all these burning questions of human rights have to be brought to the centre-stage of political life. The well-being of over a billion people has to be brought to the centre-stage. Eurocentric notions of great nation, spheres of influence and big power politics have to be rejected.
Thus, the affirmation of the inviolability of human rights is a major burning question of political philosophy today. In addressing this and solving these problems lies the possibility for the liberation of the people of India from all forms of enslavement, exploitation, oppression and social discrimination.
by B.A., Bangalore, May 5, 2020