ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Conscience of the Constitution and Violence of the Indian State

The conscience of the wielders of state power fails to resonate with the conscience of the Constitution.This is evident in the Indian state's criminal disregard of the constitutional rights of large segments of its citizens in (i) confl icts over the acquisition and use of natural resources, (ii) capital's overriding infl uence over the terms of employment of labour, (iii) struggles for national self-determination, (iv) religious-communal pogroms, and (v) atrocities perpetrated against the "underclass".

I thank Uma Chakravarti for reading several versions of this essay and suggesting many improvements. I also wish to acknowledge my association with the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, which sensitised me to issues concerning state violence.

The editorial “State Demons in Forests of Bastar” (EPW 2012: 8), on the brutal killing of 19 ordinary adivasis, including minors, by the security forces on 28 June, has compelled me to reflect on the violence that is inherent in the governance characteristic of the Indian state. A critical question concerning governance in the Indian context is how the state handles certain major “fault lines” in the polity. (I shall use the term “fault line” to cover deep-rooted conflicts in a society arising from fundamental differences over material interests or ideological issues. By the term “ideology” I mean simply a system of ideas underlying real or imagined social relations.) My principal argument is that the violent intervention of the Indian state in the various fault lines runs against the grain of what has quintessentially been termed the “conscience of the Constitution”,1 encompassing the “fundamental rights” and the “directive principles of state policy”. Ideally, in a democracy such as ours, where the right to life and certain basic freedoms are sacrosanct, the conflicts generated by the fault lines ought to be resolved through debate and negotiation.

The fault lines touched upon here are viewed from the perspective of those who are at the receiving end of asymmetrical relationships of power. The following conflicts are of far-reaching significance in the contemporary Indian scenario: (i) between industrial capital and local populations in the mineral belt in central and eastern India over the acquisition and use of natural resources; (ii) between industrial capital and labour over the terms of employment; (iii) between champions of the nation state and aspirants of sub-national identities over issues of nationhood; (iv) between the majority Hindu population and minorities, especially Muslims; and (v) between dominant castes in rural India and subordinate, labouring, castes, especially dalits, over wages, land, and dignity. (I wish to emphasise that my concern is with the response of the state to each of these fault lines per se. I am not addressing issues arising from the fact that those who are at the receiving end in one fault line may be among the dominant in another. For instance, exploited workers who happen to be Hindus may be among the rioters in communal violence against the Muslim minority.)

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