Articles posted by Radical Socialist on various issues.

Radical Socialist stand on the Scrapping of Articles 370 and 35A

Radical Socialist resolutely and unequivocally oppose and condemn the effective abrogation of the fundamental meaning and purpose of Article 370 and the overturning of Article 35A. This was carried out through anti-democratic, unconstitutional legal manoeuvrings and accompanied by the deliberate armed intimidation of the people of Kashmir. What has taken place is dishonest and a fraud on both the letter and spirit of the relevant Constitutional provisions.

Abrogation of Article 370 could only have been done with the assent of a reconstituted J&K Constituent Assembly which was dissolved in 1957. So first a Presidential Order impermissibly (without a Constitutional amendment) changes Article 367 so as to shamefully equate the J&K state assembly which has representative authority to the Constituent Assembly which has a superior sovereign authority. Since there is President’s Rule in J&K, on the recommendation of the Governor, the President then acts to scrap Articles 370 and 35A. Furthermore, for the first time in the history of independent India, a Reorganisation Bill was presented and passed in the two houses of Parliament to downgrade a region having the status of a state into two bifurcated Union Territories of J&K, which like New Delhi and Puducherry will be allowed to have a legislature, while Ladakh will join the five other Union Territories that have no legislature. This Reorganisation Bill at least would not have gone through if it was not for the pusillanimity of the opposition parties which went along with the BJP.

The Congress (most responsible historically for systematically eroding J&K autonomy) formally opposed these actions by the current government but with some of its leaders (e.g., Abishek Singhvi and Jyotirmoy Scindia) and members voicing objection to the manner in which this was done but not to the outcome. Only the mainstream left parties immediately organised street protests and called for an all-India day of protest.

Let us be very clear, the main motivation for this sanctioning of a brazen political and military occupation by the BJP government and Sangh is a) first, hatred of Muslims and the fact that this was the only Muslim majority state in the country. b) Second, it expresses the determination to humiliate the Valley population hence the prior sending of 35,000 more troops beyond the more than 650,000 armed personnel already there, along with house arrests of leaders of the mainstream Kashmiri parties, curfew orders and a complete communications lockdown on the whole of the Valley population. c) Third, it is to further advance the project of establishing a Hindu Rashtra. d) Fourth, it is a way of sending a geo-political message to Pakistan, the US and the rest of the world that there is no longer any ‘regional dispute’ that must be settled bilaterally with Pakistan, let alone that it should feature in any way on the UN or international agenda, humanitarian considerations be damned!

What now to expect in the shorter and longer run

  • The issue will be taken to the Supreme Court (SC) and a Constitution bench will be set up. This bench, given how suborned the SC has now become to the will and power of the Executive, will never have the courage or integrity to even give a stay order temporarily halting and reversing what has been done till a final judgement is reached, let alone be honest and faithful to the precise constitutional provisions regarding these Articles. This bench can be fully expected to endorse by a majority, if not by consensus, the abrogation of 370 and 35A. It is possible, but still unlikely, that there will even be a ruling against the downgrading of status from state to Union Territory in either or both of the cases. 
  • A Delimitation Commission is very likely to be set up probably before forthcoming elections to the J&K legislature to gerrymander more assembly and LS seats for the Jammu region so as to enable a majority for the BJP and allies via future elections.
  • Scrapping of 35A was necessary to begin the process of changing the demography of J&K, including of the Valley, so as to eventually render Muslims living there a minority.
  • In the Valley there will be growing anger and deeper and wider public alienation from the rest of India especially among the youth. There will very likely be greater recruitment and support for, as well as collaboration with, cross-border insurgent forces themselves abetted by the Pakistan government. This, and even non-violent mass actions will be taken as an excuse by the Indian government and armed forces for the exercise of greater brutality and repression including use of the newly amended legislations on ‘terrorism’ and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA to arbitrarily and pre-emptively arrest, harass and even torture those deemed as ‘suspects’.
  • For all the talk about how development in the region was stalled and can now proceed, in actual fact the Sangh’s Hindutva project in the Valley is to ‘integrate’ it by trying to completely finish off all popular resistance through brutal force and enduring military occupation.
  • The likelihood of cross-border military skirmishes with Pakistan rises significantly as also the possibility of these turning into a conventional war of some scale and degree thereby also raising the chances of a miscalculated or inadvertent nuclear exchange breaking out.
  • The fact that this move by the current government will generate throughout the rest of the country far more public support than opposition, reflects how deep and widespread are the tentacles today of a hubristic, aggressively muscular Hindu nationalism. None of the opposition parties, including the mainstream electoral Left, have consistently or seriously opposed this anti-secular and anti-democratic way of trying to build a ‘strong’ India. This way of thinking has become largely hegemonic and requires a long term fight by a new intransigent Left.
Our Position

We warn that the erosion of federalism and state powers more generally, is very much part of the Hindutva project and carries a danger even for those regional forces who think they can grow and expand through their despicable alliances and tacit agreements with the BJP at the Centre.

We call on all progressive-minded people who recognise the Hindutva project for what it is and oppose it, to stand in solidarity with the people of Kashmir. Justice and respect for Kashmiris demands the immediate de-militarisation of the Valley and the complete freedom for them to move around, to voice their legitimate anger at how they have been treated and to democratically protest in whatever way they see fit.   

We strongly oppose the kind of exclusivist, culturally racist and militaristic nationalism that is being generated and of course reaffirm the right to full political self-determination by the oppressed people of Kashmir. 




There is no Caste discrimination in West Bengal?

By Maroona Murmu


Note by Administrator:  Dr. Maroona Murmu, Associate Professor of History, Jadavpur University, wrote an article in Bangla in Ananda Bazar Patrika, which has generated a huge debate on social media. She has been supported, as well as condemned. Condemnation and criticism has come from dominant caste Hindus claiming as usual that casteism happens only due to reservations, but also from adivasis taking a kind of adivasi purist stance. Dr. Murmu has issued the following translation on Facebook with a short preface. We are reproducing the entire thing with her permission because the article, and the subsequent debate, raises important questions about how radical politics needs to be configured in West Bengal. -- Admin, Radical Socialist


Some of you who are not acquainted with Bengali might think why my wall is flooded with my saree-clad photo. Recently I wrote a post-editorial in a popular newspaper, Anandabazar Patrika. It created a hue and cry because I have written on the prevalence of caste discrimination in West Bengal which is otherwise considered to be progressive and liberal. If you are interested in knowing the cause of tirade against me, here is a translation of the piece.
I am grateful to my friend Anirban who helped me translate a draft version of the paper earlier. This translation is mostly mine.…/the-discrimination-in-rbu-was…

There is no caste discrimination in West Bengal?
Exactly like the Santhals

Recently, there was an uproar concerning caste-based abuse on the head of the Geography Department of Rabindra Bharati University, Dr. Saraswati Kerketta. She was physically and emotionally harassed citing her caste, skin tone, birthplace and gender. The incident took a political hue. As if this has never happened in West Bengal before. Due to pervasive dominance of the upper castes over political, social, economic and cultural domains, political or academic discourses dismiss caste-based dominance as an illogical and irrelevant analytical category. Ironically enough, the very fact that such dismissive generalization goes unchallenged shows up how strong or pervasive the caste system has been in practice. I am forced, as a member of the Santhal community, to expose this skillfully devised myth that caste does not exist in West Bengal.
Sometime ago, an adivasi professor of a university in Kolkata informed me about slow and steady everyday practices of social discrimination she faced from her childhood. Every time her family members carried harvested paddy over to the upper caste households, the yard would be cleansed with a paste made of cow dung and water to remove pollution caused by the entry of lower caste individuals within an upper caste household. As a standard five student, a Brahman batchmate once ordered her to touch her feet as part of her body accidentally came in contact with that of the Brahman classmate. She complained against the discriminatory practice of adivasi students being singled out for cleaning the restrooms of the residential school where she studied. The authorities retorted: How can a poor adivasi girl dare to challenge their style of operation?
How true! How audacious of an adivasi girl to even think of having the right to feel humiliated, insulted or possess a sense of honour and dignity. They are reserved for the upper castes since time immemorial and for all times to come. According to the convention, adivasi are allowed to enrol after general candidates and assigned the last roll numbers. An upper caste classmate informed her how, she, despite being a member of the upper caste, befriended a student belonging to the last few roll numbers and shared the same table at lunch, marvelling at her own generosity and progressiveness. What an accomplishment!

Later, in the college hostel, she once hurriedly turned off the faucet seeing her classmate’s water bucket overflowing. Her classmate overturned the bucket filled with water. In government propaganda, water is life. It becomes an issue of great concern if that precious life is defiled by an untouchable. The mother of her roommate in the accommodation where she previously lived nonchalantly addressed her: Hey, Santhal girl. Obviously, Santhals do not possess an identity of their own. When she applied for her passport, the same roommate asked with profound amazement – “Even you would be going abroad?”
She ‘suffered’ from a unique disqualification of possessing fair complexion. Seeing such a strange adivasi, the bhadralok observers would patronisingly greet her with a grin – “Oh! You look like us!”. She retorts – “You don’t even have the ability to understand how insulting your praise is to me”. When she was appointed as Assistant Professor in a university, the head of her Department informed her that the students did not wish to study grammar and dense theoretical papers with her. O yes, these subjects are the ancestral professional preserve of the educated elites of our society.
Going back to the past – my mother Shelley is probably the first Hindu Bengali woman in West Bengal to fall in love with an adivasi batchmate in the university and marry him subsequently. Neither the adivasi community, nor the Bengali Hindu society was willing to recognise this marriage socially. So, in my forlorn childhood, the feeling of insecurity was my sole companion. This was compounded by my existential crisis. I was made to understand early in my childhood that I was only a ‘marginal other’. The Hindu Bengali bhadralok society did neither grant me the right nor the permission to live just as a ‘human being’, an unmarked individual.

Those who believe that identity-based mobilisation makes room for divisive politics, let me tell them that the very prejudice that predisposes them to somehow tie me down to an essentialist paternal ethnicity fixes me up as an irreversible ‘other’ in societal perception. I would often be made to face my utterly marginal location, even as a child, as if I was an exhibit in a museum of strange objects. I was a second standard student when the class teacher made me stand up and asked if I belonged to the ST category. I was struck dumb. My parents never informed me that I was the holder and bearer of those two letters or what those stood for. Otherwise an alert student who promptly answered all questions, my silence had raised the eyebrows of my class teacher. I could not comprehend whether she was surprised or irritated but I did realise that I was something that the rest of the students in the class were certainly not. I was somehow fundamentally different from others.
When I was in the eighth standard, those two letters came back to haunt me yet again. There was a turmoil at home on the issue of obtaining a “ST” certificate and me getting photographed for it. My mother argued that since I was a good student, I need not apply for that certificate. But my father believed that it was a formal recognition of my ethnic identity, and therefore a highly desirable and affirmative exercise. It was after all an official recognition of my very existence as an adivasi. The disagreement ended and I became an officially certified member of the Scheduled Tribe community.
Thanks to my father Gurucharan Murmu’s government service, we were a comfortable middle-class family. My father could buy me quality education that ensured sufficient academic competence in my early years. This secured me a seat as an Honours graduate student of History in the most eminent undergraduate college in Calcutta in those times. But in this case, my lack of cultural capital cannot be wished away. Even after three years in that premier college, I had not heard of the world-famous social sciences university in Delhi, where I eventually went up for higher studies. A classmate had perchance purchased two forms for the entrance test and passed me the spare one and I incidentally got selected. I was hurt, when I came to know that my “ST” identity is the only benchmark to my friend and her family. I woke up to the reality when the father of this Brahman batchmate called my mother, enquiring if she would be interested in a groom for me. The groom had made it to the hallowed Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and was therefore eminently eligible but was not good enough for the admittedly proud Brahman family. Even the most prestigious government job in the country was not going to make him or her suitable enough for an upper caste match. Just like the admission form, the groom was in excess.
Intriguingly enough, even at that famed bastion of progressive politics and pedagogy where I continued my post-graduate studies in Delhi, my birth and ethnicity appeared as a negative influence and I was made to understand that I did not belong to the mainstream. My formal training in vocal music for over a decade and a half prompted me to carry on research in the social history of the origin and development of the Bishnupur school of classical music in the second half of eighteenth-century Bengal. But the Chairperson of the Centre replied: 'Being a tribal you want to work on high culture? You are not even an insider.’ Forever an outsider to the classical high culture of the bhadralok, it was as though my adivasi origin had permanently limited the range of what I am allowed to research.
I now teach in a five-star university in the heart of urban Kolkata. The place is well known as a nursery of protests and as a bastion of progressive politics. Yet, there too I have seen several instances of everyday casteism. Derogatory phrases like sonar chand or sonar tukro would be casually tossed around in departmental meetings. These are sarcastic Bengali phrases punning with the abbreviations of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes with the metaphorical connotation conveying ‘privileged ones.’ To several upper caste department heads, the very idea of a competent Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe professional appeared as an impossibility. The mere mention of some surnames would be enough for them to deduce that those candidates were academically worthless. They were cocksure that the ability of those candidates did not require any test. I was once told that some students felt that they did not have much to learn from my classes, presumably because I looked like an African. While taking a class on Modern Indian Political Thought, I even heard my female students admit that they would never marry a man who belonged to the ‘lower caste’ or the ‘Muslim’ community. This is frightening as many of these students are now teachers in schools and will successfully carry forward the dreadful tradition of casteism. I have heard that many among them still believe, even in this twenty-first century when Indian satellite is orbiting Mars, that there should be separate cremation grounds for dalits and adivasis. Even in death, ‘impure’ lower caste people do not lose their ability to pollute the upper castes. Times are strange indeed. The older I grow, the more I learn that logic or reason do not travel equitably.
The more genteel bhadralok society display casteism through their cultural aggression. A colleague once told me that I did not look like a typical Santhal. On being asked how a typical Santhal should look, the colleague offered a description that more or less matched with how Satyajit Ray had portrayed Duli the Santhal woman in his film Aranyer Dinratri. Ray, a filmmaker who had otherwise acquired a worldwide reputation for his meticulous attention to details, did not hesitate to transform a fair skinned Simi Garewal, with her pointed nose and large eyes into a Santhal woman with a dab of soot on her body. The Santhals continue to bear the literary or cinematic burden of such cultural stereotypes
This perception is so widespread that it is easy to draw random samples. Take for instance this new dictionary called Abhinaba Bangla Abhidhan (A Unique Bengali Dictionary) published by the Unique Book Centre. Unique indeed! Professor Debashish Dutta, defines Santhals as ‘Original residents of Santhal Pargana, an uncivilised community.’ We are proud to be ‘uncivilised’. The ‘civilised’ community has no attention to spare for the unique culture that informs our lifeworlds and livelihoods. Their most usual means of dispensing cultural patronage is to call us over for a dance performance, whether it is for government-sponsored pageantry, at an expensive private retreat or family gatherings. In no uncertain terms, I register my severest contempt for such civilised endeavours.

The victories – and continuing struggles – of women in Sudan

One of the most popular images from Sudan’s protests that led to the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir is that of Alaa Salah – a young, female university student. The image of her speaking to a crowd highlighted the presence and role women had in the uprising. [1]

One of the most popular images from Sudan’s protests that led to the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir is that of Alaa Salah – a young, female university student. The image of her speaking to a crowd highlighted the presence and role women had in the uprising. [2]

While the video challenged narratives prevalent in global media – which sometimes portray African and Muslim women as victims who lack agency – Alaa Salah’s courage is but an extension of the roles that women have played throughout Sudan’s history.

Warrior queens and queen mothers had crucial power in Sudan’s ancient kingdom of Kush and its metropolis, Meroe (circa 1069 BCE to 350 CE). [3] Women, like the poet Mihera Bit Abboud, mobilised men against the Turko-Egyptian colonial invasion of Sudan in the 1920s and Anglo-Egyptian rule in the 1950s. [4]

Women were also major actors in the opposition to Bashir’s regime throughout its 30 years of rule, which began when he led a military coup against a democratically elected government in 1989. This resistance was not unusual given the regime’s discrimination against women, in both law and practice. [5] This included the use of rape in war and also violence against women activists in youth movements. [6]

Both locally and abroad, Sudanese women led organisations to help women challenge human rights violations, build leadership skills, protest and mobilise. [7] For example, when Bashir’s government imposed austerity measures in 2013 and 2016 – causing the prices of basic commodities and medicines to soar – women mobilised civil disobedience. [8]

There were hopes that the overthrow of Bashir would lead to change in the situation of women. But there are now worries under the Transitional Military Council, which assumed power and has since violently suppressed protesters. [9] The council has created an atmosphere where it is difficult to advocate for broader participation for women, commitment to women’s human rights, or gender equality.

These become less of a priority as the situation worsens.

Lessons - good and bad

Sudan must learn from the experiences of neighbouring countries. Take Egypt. The transition to civilian rule, following the Arab Spring in 2011, was accompanied by a backlash in women’s human rights and a rise in sexual violence and harassment. [10]

I started teaching about the Uprisings in North Africa (Arab Spring) as the protests were unfolding. As with Sudan, women played a key role in the 2010 and 2011 protests. Initially, Egyptian feminists described Tahrir Square, where Egyptians camped, as a “utopia” where sexual harassment against women in public spaces, for example, disappeared. [11] Unfortunately, women later faced various forms of sexual violence and harassment in the streets. The government also attacked women’s organisations. [12]

Leaders in Egypt’s women’s movement continue to face arrest and detainment. The director of Nazra for women’s studies, Mozan Hassan, was unable to travel to New York to attend the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women this year because of a government-imposed travel ban.

It is possible, however, to also learn from partial successes in post-conflict countries on the continent. These include Rwanda and Liberia.

Rwanda has one of the highest number of women legislators in the world. The country has also introduced several laws that promote women’s rights. [13]

In Liberia, a broad and vibrant women’s peace movement played a key role in resisting the oppressive government of Charles Taylor. [14] This ended war and paved the way for Liberia to elect the first woman president in an African country. Former president Ellen J Sirleaf introduced important laws and policies to safeguard women’s rights during her presidency.

The way forward

As Sudan mourns for those who have lost their lives in recent crackdowns and massacres, there is an urgent need for immediate action – in the form of independent investigations – against human rights violations. [15] These are crucial for accountability.

Looking to the future, as I argue in my book “Gender, Race, and Sudan’s Exile Politics: Do We All Belong to this Country?”, Sudan needs to build a strong and independent women’s movement that reflects the diverse priorities, realities, and visions of Sudanese women. [16]

And as the country looks to a possible transition, the ruling transitional council must hand power over to a civilian-led government with at least 40% representation of women. It is crucial to ensure that women have meaningful participation at all levels, and that commitments to gender equality and women’s human rights permeate constitutional, legal and policy reform.

The Conversation


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From International Viewpoint

Manila, Philippines: Alternatives to water privatization

In 1997, the Philippine government privatized the operations of its publicly-owned water service provider for Metro Manila. The aim was to reduce government’s role in the provision of public services. Two decades later, however, the goals of Philippine water privatization continue to fall short of its promises, to the detriment of consumers (See article below).

The Philippine experience is mirrored in the experiences of other countries. This has led to initiatives for alternatives to water privatization by citizens’ movements and local governments, to bring back ownership and control of water services to the public sector and guided by the principle that access to water is a human right, rather than a market transaction driven by the corporate profit motive.

The Philippine situation reflects the state of water privatization around the world. In fact, however, public delivery of water services remains a viable and sustainable form of public service. Balanya et al. (2005) document successful cases of people-centered participatory public models of water services in Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States. Dargantes, Batistel and Manahan (2012) surveyed public sector water service delivery in Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Central Asia covering 646 listed water utilities servicing 10 million people. Kishimoto, Petitjean and Steinfort (2017) reported initiatives to reverse the privatization process in 45 countries.

The following alternatives to water privatization thus arise:

Public/nonprofit partnerships (PuNPP). In PuNPPs, “one or more public sector agency works with one or more civil society or community-based organization to deliver water services.” The joint management between local communities and the water utility is “based on equity, resource management, reduction of water consumption, improvement of reliability, and reduction in operating and maintenance costs.”

Public-Public partnerships (PuP). This involves collaboration among public sector agencies in collectively developing performance benchmarks, implementing tertiary-level treatment of wastewater and reducing demand for piped water, use of excess water, and access to other water sources such as natural springs.

Single nonprofit agencies (SiNPs). Some NGOs, acting as SiNPs, “have the capacity to develop noncommercialized water systems” by establishing water harvesting structures and check dams using an integrated water resources management approach, water system improvement, and securing dependable water supply from third-party bulk providers.

Deprivatization and/or remunicipalization. A popular alternative is deprivatization and/or remunicipalization—that is, returning public services back to government. This involves public ownership, public management and democratic control that is transparent and accountable. There have been 835 successful remunicipalization cases in 45 countries, of which 267 were in the water sector in 37 countries, benefiting more than 100 million people.

The above experiences show existing and viable public ownership of water services and success in preventing privatization. The key is cooperation between citizens’ movements, public officials, water service workers and communities, and guided by the values of participation, empowerment, equity, accountability, quality or safety, efficiency, transparency, solidarity and replicability.

Eduardo C. Tadem, Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem

• Inquirer, April 23, 2019: 

Water privatization hasn’t delivered

The global economic crisis of the 1980s resulted in governments relying on privatization for economic development and the delivery of public services. This was in accordance with World Bank and International Monetary Fund conditionalities and prescriptions for loan packages that also insisted on austerity measures.

Privatization was meant to (1) reduce the extent of the government’s involvement in business; (2) promote competition, efficiency and productivity; (3) stimulate private entrepreneurship; and (4) avoid the monopolies and bureaucracies of government-run agencies.

Economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, however, maintains that the promise of privatization remains unfulfilled. Privatization has failed to stimulate private entrepreneurship and investment, as economic assets are diminished and diverted to take over state-owned enterprises. Not only do “private funds (become) less available for investing in the real economy,” he says; opportunities for small- and medium-sized enterprises are also crowded out.

Sundaram notes that “since a significant portion of state-run activities are public monopolies,” privatization will simply create new private-run monopolies. And since “private interests are only interested in profitable or potentially profitable enterprises… the government will be saddled with unprofitable and less profitable activities.” Long-term investments are thus sacrificed in favor of short-term profits.

Privatization also results in inequalities in the delivery of services — “one for those who can afford more costly, private — including privatized — services, and the other for those who cannot, and hence have to continue to rely on subsidized public services.” Lastly, Sundaram argues that “privatization in many developing and transition economies” frequently breed “patronage and corruption… enriching a few with strong political connections, while the public interest (is) increasingly sacrificed to such powerful private business interests.”

In August 1997, the Philippine government privatized its publicly owned water provider, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS). It was the first large-scale water privatization in Asia. Two decades later, however, the goals of Philippine water privatization continue to fall short of its promises. The problems under water privatization include:

1. The rising price of water, leading to inequality and a class bias

2. Excessive profit-taking beyond allowable limits

3. Inadequate and unreliable coverage, particularly for the urban poor

4. Poor water sanitation and wastewater treatment services

5. The increase of nonrevenue water

6. Inefficient management—underspending and irregular practices

7. The noninvolvement and/or diminished role of local government units and the local community

8. Workers’ welfare and unemployment issues

9. Use of public funds for water privatization

10. General weakness of the regulatory process

Given the above, it is time to rethink the privatization policy and give back to the public sector the ownership and control of public services, particularly the provision of water services. This is premised on public management and democratic control that is transparent, accountable and participatory. The key drivers are vibrant citizens’ movements that have to work hand-in-hand with water service workers and local governments to reclaim ownership of essential public services.

Eduardo C. Tadem, Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 05:18 AM March 14, 2019:


• Eduardo C. Tadem, PhD, is convenor, Program on Alternative Development, University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP CIDS) and retired professor of Asian Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman.

Teresa S. Encarnacion Tadem, PhD, is professor of political science, UP Diliman and executive director, UP CIDS. This commentary is excerpted from a research study of UP CIDS, the Department of the Interior and Local Government-National Capital Region (DILG-NCR) and the Office of the Quezon City Mayor on “The Administrative Region of the Republic of the Philippines: A Study on the Implications of Federalism in the National Capital Region and Considerations for Forming the Federal Administrative Region.” The project is funded by DILG-NCR.


From Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres


China’s rise as a world power


by Ashley Smith, Au Loong-Yu

China’s rapid rise as a new center of capital accumulation has increasingly brought it into conflict with the United States. The ISR’s Ashley Smith interviewed activist and scholar Au Loong Yu about the nature of China’s emergence as a new imperial power and what it means for the world system.

One of the most important developments in the world system over the last few decades has been the rise of China as new power in the world system. How has this happened?

China’s rise is the result of a combination of factors since it reoriented on production within global capitalism in the 1980s. First, in contrast to the Soviet bloc, China found a way to benefit in a twist of historical irony from its colonial legacy. Britain controlled Hong Kong up until 1997, Portugal controlled Macau up to 1999, and the US continues to use Taiwan as a protectorate.

These colonies and protectorates connected China to the world economy even before its full entry into the world system. In Mao’s era, Hong Kong provided about one-third of China’s foreign currency. Without Hong Kong, China would not have been able to import as much technology. After the end of the Cold War, during Deng Xiaoping’s rule, Hong Kong was very important for China’s modernization. Deng used Hong Kong to gain even more access to foreign currency, to import all sorts of things including high technology, and to take advantage of its skilled labor force, like management professionals.

China used Macau first as an ideal place for smuggling goods into mainland China, taking advantage of the island’s notoriously lax enforcement of law. And then China used the Casino City as an ideal platform for capital import and export. Taiwan was very important not only in terms of capital investments, but more importantly in the long run was its technology transfer, first and foremost in the semiconductor industry. Hong Kong and Taiwanese investors were also one of the key reasons for rapid growth of the Chinese provinces of Jiangsu, Fujian, Guangdong.

Secondly, China possessed what Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky called the “privilege of historical backwardness.” Mao’s Communist Party took advantage of the country’s precapitalist past. It inherited a strong absolutist state that it would retool and use for its project of national economic development. It also took advantage of an atomized precapitalist peasantry, which had been accustomed to absolutism for two thousand years, to squeeze labor out of them for so-called primitive accumulation from 1949 through the 1970s.

Later, from the 1980s on, the Chinese state drafted this labor force from the countryside into the big cities to work as cheap labor in export processing zones. They made nearly 300 million rural migrants work like slaves in sweatshops. Thus, the backwardness of China’s absolutist state and class relations offered the Chinese ruling class advantages to develop both state and private capitalism.

China’s backwardness also made it possible for it to leap over stages of development by replacing archaic means and methods of development with advanced capitalist ones. A good example of this is China’s adoption of high technology in telecommunications. Instead of following every step of more advanced capitalist societies, beginning first with using telephone lines for online communication, it installed fiber optic cable throughout the country nearly all at once.

The Chinese leadership was very keen to modernize its economy. On the one hand, for defensive reasons, they wanted to make sure that the country was not invaded and colonized as it was a hundred years ago. On the other hand, for offensive reasons, the Communist Party wants to restore its status as a great power, resuming its so-called heavenly dynasty. As a result of all these factors, China has accomplished capitalist modernization that took one hundred years in other states.

China is now the second largest economy in the world. But it is contradictory. On the one hand, lots of multinationals are responsible for its growth either directly or through subcontracting to Taiwanese and Chinese firms. On the other hand, China is rapidly developing its own industries as national champions in the state and private sector. What are its strengths and weaknesses?

In my book China’s Rise, I argue that China has two dimensions of capitalist development. One is what I call dependent accumulation. Advanced foreign capital has invested enormous sums of money over the last thirty years initially in labor-intensive industries, and more recently in capital-intensive ones. This developed China but kept it at the bottom of the global value chain, even in high tech, as the world’s sweatshop. Chinese capital collects a smaller part of the profit, most of which goes to the US, Europe, Japan, and other advanced capitalist powers and their multinationals. The best example of this is Apple’s mobile phone. China merely assembles all the parts which are mostly designed and made outside of the country.

But there is a second dimension, autonomous accumulation. From the very beginning the state has been very consciously guiding the economy, funding research and development, and maintaining indirect control over the private sector, which now accounts for more than 50 percent of the GDP. In the commanding heights of the economy, the state maintains control through the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs). And the state is systematically conducting reverse engineering to copy Western technology to develop its own industries.

China has other advantages that other countries do not have; it is huge, not just in size of territory, but also in population. Since the 1990s, China has been able to have a division of labor within three parts of the country. Guangdong has a labor-intensive export processing zone. The Zhejiang delta is also export oriented, but it is much more capital extensive. Around Beijing, China has developed its high tech, communication, and aviation industry. This diversification is part of the state’s conscious strategy to develop itself as an economic power.

At the same time, China suffers from weaknesses as well. If you look at its GDP, China is the second largest in the world. But if you measure GDP per capita, it is still a middle-income country. You also see weaknesses even in areas where it is catching up to advanced capitalist powers. For instance, Huawei mobile phone, which is now a world brand, was developed not just by its own Chinese scientists, but more importantly, by hiring four hundred Japanese scientists. This shows that China was and is still heavily reliant on foreign human resources for research and development.

Another example of weakness was revealed when China’s ZTE telecom company was accused by the Trump administration of violating its trade sanctions on Iran and North Korea. Trump imposed a trade ban on the company, denying it access to American-designed software and high-tech components, threatening the company with collapse overnight. Xi and Trump eventually worked out a deal to save the company, but the crisis ZTE suffered demonstrates China’s ongoing problem of dependent development.

This is the problem that China is trying to overcome. But even in high tech, where it is intent on catching up, its semiconductor technology is two or three generations behind that of the United States. It is trying to overcome that with dramatically increased investment in research and development, but if you look closely at China’s huge number of patents, they are still mostly not in high tech but other areas. So, it still suffers from indigenous technological weakness. Where it is catching up very fast is in artificial intelligence, and this is an area that the US is very concerned about, not only in terms of economic competition, but also military, where artificial intelligence plays an increasingly central role.

On top of these economic weaknesses, China suffers from political ones. China does not have a governmental system that ensures peaceful succession of power from one ruler to the next. Deng Xiaoping had established a system of collective leadership term limits that began to overcome this problem of succession. Xi has abolished this system and reinstituted one-man rule with no term limits. This could set up more factional fights over succession, destabilizing the regime, and potentially compromising its economic rise.

Xi has dramatically shifted China’s strategy in the world system away from the cautious one pioneered by Deng Xiaoping and his successors. Why is Xi doing this and what is their program for assertion of China as a great power?

The first thing to understand is the tension in the Communist Party over its project in the world. The Chinese Communist Party is a big contradiction. On the one hand, it is a force for economic modernization. On the other hand, it has inherited a very strong element of premodern political culture. This has laid the ground work for conflicts between cliques within the regime.

Back in the early 1990s there was debate among the top echelons of the bureaucracy over which clique of rulers should have power. One clique is the so-called blue bloods, the children of the bureaucrats that ruled the state after 1949––the second red generation of bureaucrats. They are fundamentally reactionary. Since Xi has come to power, the press talks about the return to “our blood,” meaning that the old cadre’s blood has been reincarnated into the second generation.

The other clique is the new mandarins. Their fathers and mothers were not revolutionary cadres. They were intellectuals or people who did well in their education and moved up the ladder. They usually climb up the ladder through the Young Communist League. It is not accidental that Xi’s party leadership had repeatedly and publicly humiliated the League in recent years. The conflict between blue-blood nobles and the mandarins is a new version of an old pattern; these two cliques have had tension for two thousand years of absolutism and bureaucratic rule.

Among the mandarins, there are some who came from more humble backgrounds like Wen Jiabao, who ruled China from 2003 to 2013, that are a bit more “liberal.” At the end of his term, Wen actually said that China should learn from Western representative democracy, arguing that Western ideas like human rights possessed some kind of universalism. Of course, this was mostly rhetoric, but it is very different than Xi, who treats democracy and so-called “Western values” with contempt.

He won out in this struggle against the mandarins, consolidated his power, and now promises that blue-blood nobles will rule forever. His program is to strengthen the autocratic nature of the state at home, declare China a great power abroad, and assert its power in the world, sometimes in defiance of the United States.

But after the crisis over ZTE, Xi conducted a bit of a tactical retreat because that crisis exposed China’s persisting weaknesses and the danger of too quickly declaring itself a great power. In fact, there was an outburst of criticism of one of Xi’s advisors, an economist named Hu Angang, who had argued that China was already a rival to the US economically and militarily and could therefore challenge Washington for leadership in the world. ZTE proved that it’s simply not true that China is on par with the US. Since then, a lot of liberals came out to criticize Hu. Another well-known liberal scholar, Zhang Weiying, whose writings were banned last year, was allowed to have his speech officially posted on line.

There was already hot debate among diplomacy scholars. The hard-liners argued for a tougher stand in relation to the US. The liberals, however, argued that the international order is a “temple” and as long as it can accommodate China’s rise, Beijing should help build this temple rather than demolish it and build a new one. This diplomatic wing was marginalized when Xi chose to be more hard-line, but recently their voice has reemerged. Since the conflict over ZTE and the trade war, Xi has made some tactical adjustments and retreated slightly from his previously brazen proclamation of China’s great power status.

How much of this is just a temporary retreat? Also, how does China 2025 and One Belt One Road factor into Xi’s longer-term project of achieving great-power status?

Let me say clearly that Xi is a reactionary blue blood. He and the rest of his clique are determined to restore the hegemony of China’s imperial past and rebuild that so-called heavenly dynasty. Xi’s state, the Chinese academy, and the media have churned out a huge number of essays, dissertations, and articles that glorify this imperial past as part of justifying their project of becoming a great power. Their long-term strategy will not be deterred easily.

Xi’s clique is also aware that before China can achieve its imperial ambition it has to eliminate its burden of colonial legacy, i.e., take over Taiwan and accomplish the CCP’s historic task of national unification first. But this will necessarily bring it into conflict with the US sooner or later. Hence, the Taiwan issue simultaneously carries both China’s self-defense dimension (even the US acknowledges that Taiwan is “part of China”) and also an interimperialist rivalry. In order to “unify with Taiwan,” not to speak of a global ambition, Beijing must first overcome China’s persistent weaknesses especially in its technology, its economy, and its lack of international allies.

That’s where China 2025 and One Belt One Road come in. Through China 2025 they want to develop their independent technological capacities and move up the global value chain. They want to use One Belt One Road to build infrastructure throughout Eurasia in line with Chinese interests. At the same time, we should be clear that One Belt One Road is also a symptom of China’s problems of overproduction and overcapacity. They are using One Belt One Road to absorb all this excess capacity. Nevertheless, both of these projects are central in China’s imperialist project.

There has been a big debate on the international left about how to understand China’s rise. Some have argued that it is a model and ally for “third-world” development. Others see China as a subordinate state in an American informal empire that rules global neoliberal capitalism. Still others see it as a rising imperial power. What’s your viewpoint?

China cannot be a model for developing countries. Its rise is the result of very unique factors I outlined previously that other third-world countries do not possess. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that China is part of global neoliberalism especially when you see China come forward and say that it is willing to replace the US as a guardian of free-trade globalization.

But to say that China is a part of neoliberal capitalism doesn’t capture the whole picture. China is a distinctive state capitalist power and an expansionist one, which is not willing to be a second-rate partner to the US. China is thus a component part of global neoliberalism and also a state capitalist power, which stands apart from it. This peculiar combination means it simultaneously benefits from the neoliberal order and represents a challenge to it and the American state that oversees it.

Western capital is ironically responsible for this predicament. Their states and capitals came to understand the challenge of China too late. They flooded in to invest in the private sector or in joint ventures with the state companies in China. But they did not fully realize that the Chinese state is always behind even seemingly private corporations. In China, even if a corporation is a genuinely private, it must bow to the demands put to it by the state.

The Chinese state has used this private investment to develop its own state and private capacity to begin to challenge American as well as Japanese and European capital. It is therefore naïve to accuse the Chinese state and private capital for stealing intellectual property. That’s what they planned to do from the beginning.

Thus, the advance capitalist states and corporations enabled the emergence of China as a rising imperial power. Its peculiar state capitalist nature makes it particularly aggressive and intent in catching up and challenging the very powers that invested in it.

In the US there is increasingly a consensus between the two capitalist parties that China is a threat to American imperial power. And both the US and China are whipping up nationalism against each other. How would you characterize the rivalry between the US and China?

Some years ago, many commentators argued that there was a debate between two camps over whether to engage China or confront it. They called it a struggle between “panda huggers versus dragon slayers.” Today the dragon slayers are in the driver’s seat of Chinese diplomacy.

It is true that there is a growing consensus among Democrats and Republicans against China. Even prominent American liberals bash China these days. But many of these liberal politicians should be blamed for this situation in the first place. Remember that after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre it was liberal politicians like Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in Britain that forgave the Chinese Communist Party, reopened trade relations, and encouraged massive investment flows into the country.

Of course, this was about padding the ledgers of Western multinationals, which reaped super profits from exploiting cheap labor in Chinese sweatshops. But they also genuinely, if naively, believed that increased investment would lead China to accept the rules as a subordinate state within neoliberal global capitalism, and “democratize” itself in the image of the West. This strategy has backfired, enabling the rise of China as a rival.

The two camps of panda huggers versus dragon slayers also find their theoreticians in academia. There are three main schools of the foreign policy establishment. On top of that, all three schools have their own panda huggers and dragon slayers, who could also be called optimists and pessimists. Within the optimist camp, different schools argue different perspectives. While the liberal internationalists thought that trade would democratize China, by contrast, the realists argued that even if China had its own state ambitions to challenge the US, it was still too weak to do so. The third school is social constructivism; they believe international relations are the result of ideas, values, and social interaction, and like the liberals, believe economic and social engagement would transform China.

In the past, most of the American establishment bought the optimist liberals’ case. The liberals were blinded by their own belief that trade could change China into a democratic state. China’s rise has thrown all of the optimist schools into a crisis because their predictions about China have been proven wrong. China has become a rising power that has begun catching up and challenging the US.

Now it is the pessimist camp of these three schools that is gaining ground. The pessimist liberals now believe that Chinese nationalism is much stronger than the positive influence of trade and investment. The pessimist realists believe that China is rapidly strengthening itself and that it will never compromise over Taiwan. The pessimist social constructivists believe that China is very rigid in its own values and will refuse to change.

Yet if the pessimist school is now proven right, it also suffers from a major weakness. It assumes US hegemony is justified and right, ignores the fact that the US is actually an accomplice of China’s authoritarian government and its sweatshop regime, and of course never examines how the collaboration and rivalry between the US and China occurs within a deeply contradictory and volatile global capitalism, and along with this a whole set of global class relations. This should not surprise us; the pessimists are ideologists of the American ruling class and its imperialism.

China is moving in an imperialist trajectory. I’m against the Communist Party dictatorship, its aspiration to become a great power, and its claims in the South China Sea. But I don’t think it’s correct to think that China and the US are on the same plane. China is a special case right now; there are two sides to its rise. One side is what is common between these two countries––both are capitalist and imperialist.

The other side is that China is the first imperialist country that was previously a semicolonial country. That is quite different from the US or any other imperialist country. We have to factor this into our analysis to understand how China functions in the world. For China there are always two levels of issues. One is the legitimate self-defense of a former colonial country under international law. We should not forget that even as late as the 1990s US fighter jets flew on the southern border of China and crashed into a Chinese airplane, killing its pilot. These kinds of events naturally remind Chinese people of their painful colonial past.

Britain until recently controlled Hong Kong, and international capital still exerts enormous influence there. An example of Western imperialist influence just came to light recently. A report revealed that just before Britain withdrew from Hong Kong, they disbanded their secret police and reassigned them into the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The ICAC enjoys huge popularity here as it makes Hong Kong a less corrupt place. But only the head of the Hong Kong government, formerly chosen from London and now chosen from Beijing, appoints the commissioner, while the people absolutely have no influence over it at all.

Beijing was very concerned that the ICAC could be used to discipline the Chinese state and its capitals as well. For example, in 2005 the ICAC prosecuted Liu Jinbao, the head of the Bank of China in Hong Kong. It appears that Beijing is trying hard to take control of the ICAC, but the public is kept in the dark about this power struggle. Of course, we should be happy that the ICAC goes after people like Liu Jinbao, but we must also recognize that it can be used by Western imperialism to advance its agenda. At the same time, Beijing asserting its control will mean consolidation by the Chinese state and capitalists, something that will not serve the interests of the Chinese working masses.

There are other colonial holdovers from the past. The US basically maintains Taiwan as a protectorate. We should, of course, oppose China’s threat to invade Taiwan; we should defend Taiwan’s right to self-determination. But we must also see that the US will use Taiwan as a tool to advance its interests. This is the downside of the colonial legacy that motivates the Communist Party to behave in a defensive manner against American imperialism.

China is an emerging imperialist country but one with fundamental weaknesses. I would say that the Chinese Communist Party has to overcome fundamental obstacles before it can become a stable and sustainable imperialist country. It is very important to see not just the commonality between the US and China as imperialist countries, but also China’s particularities.

Obviously for socialists in the US, our principal duty is to oppose US imperialism and build solidarity with Chinese workers. That means we have to oppose the relentless China bashing not only on the right but also among liberals and even the labor movement. But we should not fall into a campist trap of giving political support to the Chinese regime, but with the country’s workers. How do you approach this situation?

We must counter the lie used by the American right that Chinese workers have stolen American workers’ jobs. This is not true. The people who really have the power to decide are not the Chinese workers but American capital like Apple that choose to have its phones assembled in China. The Chinese workers have absolutely zero say over such decisions. Actually, they are victims, not people who should be blamed for job losses in America.

And as I said, Clinton, not China’s rulers or workers, was to blame for the export of these jobs. It was Clinton’s government that worked with China’s murderous regime after Tiananmen Square to enable big American corporations to invest in China on such a massive scale. And when jobs in the US were lost, those that appeared in China actually were not the same kind of jobs at all. The American jobs lost in auto and steel were unionized and had good pay and benefits, but those created in China are nothing but sweatshop jobs. Whatever their conflicts today, the top leaders of the US and China, not workers in either country, put today’s wretched neoliberal world order in place.

One thing we have done here in the US is help to put on tours of Chinese workers on strike so that we can build solidarity between American and Chinese workers. Are there other ideas and initiatives that we can take? There is a real danger of nationalism being whipped up in both countries against workers in the other country. It seems overcoming this is very important. What do you think?

It is important for the left in the rest of the world to recognize that China’s capitalism has a colonial legacy and that it still exists today. So, when we analyze China and US relations, we must distinguish those legitimate parts of “patriotism” from those whipped up by the Party. There is an element of common-sense patriotism among the people that is the result of the last century of imperial intervention by Japan, European powers, and the US.

It does not mean that we accommodate to this patriotism, but we must distinguish this from reactionary nationalism of the Communist Party. And Xi is certainly trying to whip up nationalism in support of his great power aspirations, just like American rulers are doing the same to cultivate popular support for their regime’s aim to keep China contained.

Among common people nationalism has been declining rather than rising because they despise the Chinese Communist Party, and more of them now don’t trust its nationalism, and hate its autocratic rule. One funny example of this is a recent opinion poll that asked if people would support China in a war with the US. Netizens’ response online was really interesting. One of them said, “Yes, I support China’s war against the US, but we first support sending the members of the Political Bureau to fight, then the Central Committee, and then the entire Chinese Communist Party. And after they either win or lose, we at least will be liberated.” The censors, of course, immediately deleted these comments, but it is an indication of the deep dissatisfaction with the regime.

That means there is the basis among Chinese workers to build international solidarity with American workers. But that requires American workers to oppose their own government’s imperialism. Only that position will build trust among Chinese workers.

American imperialism’s threats are real and known in China. The US Navy just sent two warships through the Taiwan Strait in a clear provocation to China. The American left must oppose this militarism so that Chinese people understand that you oppose the US imperialist agenda on the Taiwan question––although one should also acknowledge Taiwan’s right to purchase arms from the US. If the Chinese people hear a strong voice of anti­-imperialism from the American left, they could be won over to see our common international interests against both US and Chinese imperialism.

Source International Socialist Review ISR issue #112.

Stop police brutality in Hong Kong! No extradition to China!


Saturday 15 June 2019

We, the undersigned organisations, are deeply concerned about the high-handed approach by the Hong Kong government in dealing with the recent mass protests against the proposed extradition bill.

We condemn the use of unprecedented excessive force by the Hong Kong police in dispersing and arresting protesters. The use of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds, as well as beating up unarmed protesters have caused injuries to many. Such brutality is unacceptable.

Despite the massive peaceful demonstration on 9 June, the largest since the handover of Hong Kong to China, the Hong Kong government led by Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor continues to ignore the demands of the people. In fact, the refusal of the Hong Kong government to listen to the people’s demands and its insistence in pushing the extradition bill has ignited and expanded the protests.

In recent years, the shrinking of political space and the Hong Kong government’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in curtailing civil and political freedom has become a worrying trend in Hong Kong. Many political dissidents and activists have been targeted for arrests and selected prosecution with various allegations. The erosion of democratic freedom in Hong Kong also instils the fear that Hong Kong is losing its unique autonomy with the expansion of Beijing’s political control over the city. Deterioration of political freedom will definitely hinder efforts to tackle social inequalities in a city with a widening wealth gap.

Hong Kong is the only city in China which can still freely commemorate the June Fourth massacre. To protect Hong Kong autonomy is thus not only the concern of the people of Hong Kong but also of all the people of China.

We urge the government of Hong Kong to:

withdraw the proposed extradition bill;

stop the violence against peaceful protesters;

stop the repression and persecution of political activists.

We stand with the people of Hong Kong and express our solidarity with their fight to defend their political freedom and autonomy.

Signed by,

1. Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM)

2. Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor, Malaysia

3. North South Initiative, Malaysia

4. Agora Society, Malaysia

5. Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas (JERIT), Malaysia

6. Liberasi, Malaysia

7. Socialist Alliance, Australia

8. Australia Asia Workers Link

9. Fightback Aotearoa/Australia

10. Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), Cambodia

11. Europe solidaire sans frontières (ESSF), France

12. Forum Arbeitswelten – Forum Worlds of Labour, Germany

13. Centre for Workers Education, India

14. Worker’s Initiative, Kolkata, India

15. Radical Socialist, India

16. Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, India

17. Working People Party (Partai Rakyat Pekerja), Indonesia

18. People’s Liberation Party (PPR), Indonesia

19. Lembaga Informasi Perburuhan Sedane (LIPS), Indonesia

20. Confederation of National Union (Konfederasi Serikat Nasional), Indonesia

21. Konfederasi Pergerakan Rakyat Indonesia (KPRI), Indonesia

22. Konfederasi Persatuan Buruh Indonesia (KPBI), Indonesia

23. National Network for Domestic Workers Advocacy (Jala PRT), Indonesia

24. RUMPUN, Indonesia

25. Korea House for International Solidarity, Korea

26. Labour Education Foundation, Pakistan

27. Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM), Philippines

28. Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa (SENTRO), Philippines

29. Labor Education and Research Network (LEARN), Philippines

30. Kalipunan ng mga Kilusang Masa (KALIPUNAN) / Social Movements’ Coalition, Philippines

31. Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – Asia Pacific (CATW-AP)

32. Action for Democracy in Thailand (ACT4DEM)

33. Just Economy and Labor Institute, Thailand

34. New Isan Movement, Thailand

35. Socialist Resistance, UK

36. RS21, UK

37. TheOwl, Hong Kong

38. Borderless Movement, Hong Kong

39. League of Social Democrats, Hong Kong

Does the Constitution keep its promises?




What makes India so distinct? Clearly no other country matches the scale of its religious, linguistic and ethnic diversity. India’s racial heterogeneity is exceeded by only a handful of West European and New World countries—the result of, among other factors, colonial-era experiences of conquest, the slave trade and resettlements, as well as post-colonial migrations from the south to the north. But while systems of exclusions predicated on notions of purity and impurity have been widespread across societies—solidified through kinship networks, status hierarchy and endogamy—nowhere else in the world does there exist a system of such extreme gradations of human worth as the caste system.


India was not the only former colonial country that opted for a liberal-democratic political set-up following independence. Even so, the enormity of its territorial expanse, population, social diversity and economic backwardness made it unique among democratic states. In the West, universal suffrage was extended to women and all races long after large-scale industrial and economic advancement had taken place. India, under vastly different circumstances, erected a political framework based on democratic principles—and barring the 21-month Emergency, it has sustained this framework so far. It is part of the reason why the Constitution, since its promulgation in 1950, commands such widespread admiration.


But now, almost seventy years later, the country is in the midst of a general election that threatens to return to power an organ of the Sangh Parivar—a group that has, in word and deed, demonstrated its antipathy to the progressive elements that exist in the Constitution. In light of this, it is time to open a more critical debate on the foundational charter of the republic.


Any evaluation of the Constitution cannot but be influenced by the political beliefs of the evaluator. Unlike liberals or social democrats, I believe that a more just, free, humane, egalitarian, democratic and ecologically sustainable country and world can only come about through the transcendence of capitalism and its associated political forms. I would contend thateven a liberal democracy, in the pursuit of such a country and world, soon runs up against insurmountable limits. The belief that today’s neoliberal capitalist order and the restricted freedoms and social benefits it allows can be substantially extended, or that its great inequalities of wealth and power can be dramatically reduced, is wishful thinking. The guiding vision for judging the Constitution should be one of a highly democratic and anti-bureaucratic socialism. But even those who do not share my vantage point, may be persuaded to find  that even by the best standards said to be contained in the document—social justice and welfarism, liberal democratic freedoms, secularism—the Constitution is wanting.


How well the Constitution measures up to its stated aspirations depends in large part on an evaluation of what it does to protect cultural and minority rights. This is a familiar standard for those of a liberal democratic worldview. But there is another criterion by which the Indian Constitution must also be judged: its commitment to the promotion and pursuit of social justice in a much wider sense, beyond just affirmative action for select groups. We need, then, to look at three things—the democratic content of the Constitution, its social-justice thrust, and its particular ways in which it addresses India’s distinctiveness.


Many claim that the Constitution is basically very good, but that its implementation has been flawed because of the ineptitude of politicians, bureaucrats and judges. The scholar Madhav Khosla, in his book The Indian Constitution, quotes Ambedkar saying “however good a constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those called to work it, happen to be a good lot.” But even while recognising the value of this admonition Khosla would not place so much emphasis on the power of individuals.


The political scientist Samir K Das in The Founding Moment: Social Justice in the Constitutional Mirror points to weaknesses in the document, mainly of omission. He cites the constitutional doyen, Granville Austin’s famous 1966 text The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation to argue that the document’s makers understandably could not foresee or account for future complexities and developments. But Das also sees the Constitution as having “multifarious concepts of justice” circulating within it, and argues that despite its weaknesses, proper interpretation and implementation of the Constitution would nonetheless constitute a bulwark against democratic degeneration.


This view flies in the face of how the Indian polity looks today. One cannot take refuge behind the argument that the Constitution—meant explicitly to shape all spheres of society—is blameless for the chasm between its good intentions and eventual societal outcomes. Around thirty percent of the population is in absolute poverty. If we account for the costs of basic needs such as education, health care and housing, another forty percent or so fall under the category of what the late economist and former chairman of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, Arjun Sengupta called the “vulnerable poor,” for whom the shock of a bad harvest, high inflation or an illness in the family can wreak havoc. Inequalities of income and wealth, and therefore of political power, are soaring. Hindu chauvinism, championed by the Sangh, has grown to be the single most dominant political ideal across the republic, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Sangh’s electoral arm, has achieved a truly national presence. Communal violence, previously episodic, in the last five years has become banal, with the police and courts doing little or nothing to stop or punish it. The one consistent bright spot in India’s trajectory over the last three decades is the political assertion of the oppressed castes, but even that is under constant assault.


The Constitution is widely said to be a “living document”—one that not only shapes the evolution of Indian society, but is itself influenced by evolving societal trends and patterns. If some countries replace old constitutions with new ones to keep them relevant, in India keeping the Constitution “alive” has required a steady accumulation of amendments. (The country has had 103 constitutional amendments in 69 years, where Australia has had eight in a hundred years, and the United States 27 in over two hundred.) It is then necessary to ask whether these changes, meant to address earlier flaws, have guided the Constitution in a more progressive direction, and by this helped to move society in the same way. Going by the current state of the polity, the answer is no.


 A chronological study of the complex interplay between the respective trajectories of the Constitution and Indian society is a worthy enterprise. I do not propose to take that ambitious course here, but this two-way interaction underlies all the questions I ask of the document. How much concern, past or present, is there in the Constitution for issues of social justice, or for generating stronger movement in that direction? What kind of democracy has the Constitution sought to promote? How much responsibility, if any, does it bear for sanctioning the undeniable authoritarian drift of the polity over time?


The asymmetries of class power are obscured in the Constitution by propping up a notion of the “people’s will,” as expressed through electoral democracy.  The Constitution is testament to the fact that the members of the original Constituent Assembly, incidentally not elected by universal suffrage, were overwhelmingly members of the Congress party—an organisation that headed an independence movement that sought not so much to overthrow colonial power, but to transfer it from British to Indian hands. It retains to this day, copious and detailed provisions for protecting the machinery of administration and governance. These were adopted almost intact from the Government of India Act of 1935, the colonial legislative instrument that preceded the Constitution.The senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan, in his book The Constitution of India: Miracle, Surrender, Hope, gives a somewhat cynical but not inaccurate portrayal of how the Constitution acquired its shape. “We the People of India,” Dhavan writes, “who had little say in the making” of the document, “have been informed to accept this Constitution ... part of which is a British India clone,” and which “makes unreal promises.” Indians “have no choice but to accept this arrangement ... which our leaders have given to themselves to rule over us.”


From the beginning, the constitution has carried Hindu, upper-caste, patriarchal biases. (Not by coincidence—the members of the Constituent Assembly were overwhelmingly Hindu, upper-caste men.)  For instance, in Article 1, the name given to the Union is “India, that is Bharat,” invoking a pre-Islamic past of presumed glory—a Bharat Varsha when a legendary Hindu king is said to have ruled. Many of the Constitution’s admirers—including such figures as the jurists Fali Nariman and HM Seervai, and Justice VR Krishna Iyer—do not appear to have drawn serious, let alone repeated, attention to these biases. Very few have dared to argue that the text exhibits any bias at allthem, thereby weakening its claim to secularity. One of those few is the scholar Pritam Singh, and I am indebted to his writings, particularly his paper “Hindu Bias in India’s ‘Secular’ Constitution: probing flaws in the instruments of governance.”


Consider also the kinds of nationalism that is enabled by the Constitution. Successive governments have misused constitutional powers to erode the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, promised to the state under the terms of its accession to India. Even among those who are critical of this trend, no one has gone as far as to state that a truly democratic approach to nationalism demands that the right to self-determination, even up to secession, should be a constitutional clause. The territorial “unity and integrity” of the country is paramount, regardless of what the public in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley, or anywhere else, may want. The land is more important than the people.


These concerns are heightened today, as Indian progressives fear attempts by right-wing groups to expand its control over state apparatuses and civil society. The Sangh, as Hindutva’s fountainhead, is pushing a truly transformative project—the creation of a Hindu state in all but name—and has been unabashed about its desire to muster a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament so as to amend the Constitution in line with its ambitions.


A number of liberal and even left voices have, in resistance, raised the slogan: Defend the Constitution. I suggest that this, as it stands, is inadequate, and propose a more nuanced, admittedly more wordy,slogan: Defend and deepen the progressive values and principles of the Constitution. This recognises the deficiencies in parts of the Constitution, but should still be a fitting rallying cry even for those liberals and social democrats whose admiration of the document is much less qualified than mine. And, should the Sangh ever succeed in amending the Constitution to further its anti-democratic aspirations, this slogan will retain its validity in the long term.


The underestimation of the communal and undemocratic features of Indian society has its parallel in the overestimation of the virtues of the Constitution. Given where India has come to stand, and as we look ahead, we must be clear-eyed about both.


CONCEPTIONS OF JUSTICE AND DEMOCRACY are contested, and there exists  disagreements even about the value and scope of notions such as social justice. In the past, religions provided the moral framework that regulated everyday life. This generally involved the subordination of women and the justification of existing social inequalities. A more universal sense of the common good and of justice emerged with modernity. This owed to the Enlightenment, whose main ideological legacies are Liberalism and Socialism—the most egalitarian version of which is Marxism.


The philosopher Brian Barry, in his book Why Social Justice Matters, argues that until the Industrial Revolution, notions of justice pertained to individuals, not to society. It involved giving each individual what was their “due”: not being cheated; getting a “fair” price in trade; getting ones’ deserts under prevailing ideas of merit; receiving punishment fitting the crime. This view encompassed a corrective, but not a seriously distributive, conception of justice. It has been superseded by the newer notion that inequality among humans is wrong—that all people equally are of worth. This is not the same as saying all people are of equal worth, but recognising a dignity in all individuals simply by virtue of their being humans. It follows that society must somehow be built on this new ideal which constitutes a very significant moral advance, and which requires reforming the basic institutions that shape the provision and distribution of rights, opportunities and resources—be they the factory, market or state, going right down to families, schools, political parties and other civil associations. The question that remains is how inequalities of power, wealth and opportunity should be tackled. The answer has divided Liberals and Socialists.


An undisputed starting point is the need to ensure that all people have an equal opportunity to prosper. This does not, however, mean that a uniformity of outcomes is necessarily desirable. That is to say, there should be equal opportunities to become unequal. But then should greatly unequal outcomes be allowed to emerge? What limits, if any, should there be on inequality? The much-admired American liberal theorist John Rawls provides no real guide on what should be done. He holds that only those inequalities should be allowed that benefit the “least advantaged”.This leads to the argument that many make, in all good conscience, that  the wealthy should be allowed to grow richer as a way to promote more investment and hence economic growth, so that some wealth can trickle down to the poorest making them better off than they otherwise would be.


For liberals and even for social democrats, the “right to property” even in the basic means of production is crucial for the pursuit of the common good. For Marxists, with their socialist vision of the common good, this is not the case. Having a right is one thing. Being able to exercise it is another. Having the opportunity to successfully exercise a right requires resources. Where liberals, in talking of justice, engage in a rights discourse, socialists, because they give greater importance to opportunities and resources, advocate a more substantial change of the sociopolitical status quo.


Unlike liberals, socialists see a strong connection between the individual and larger groups. This is not the same as in the case of multi-cultural enthusiasts, who are preoccupied with the link between the individual and groups that are defined by, and differentiated from others, predominantly by their cultural attributes. The communities of belonging or association prioritised by serious socialists are perceived more in social than cultural terms, and are numerically much broader—for instance, class. Individual flourishing is inseparable from having a society where all can flourish, and the measure of this flourishing is not “happiness,” but that each individual is able to fulfil their distinctive potentials.


Must justice, to some extent, be trans-historical? Must we take responsibility for social injustices before our time? To a large extent, the answer is yes. We are born into unequal positions of power, wealth and status. For most people, what determines their social position in life is—in order of importance—inheritance, luck of birth, and merit (understood as the distance between one’s starting and end point). Some groups such as lower castes have been so historically oppressed as to deserve special social, economic, political and educational support. Minority rights are not enough—opportunities and resources must come into the reckoning.


From its beginning, the document betrayed its elitist character by placing some principles concerning socio-economic justice in the non-justiciable section of the Directive Principles, not in the binding Fundamental Rights. The Constitution’s claim to a progressive social vision resides in these principles, yet the Directive Principles as a whole are best described as a basket of mostly worthy sentiments that our rulers have had very little stimulus to put into practice. Under the constitution, the state has no obligation to fulfil social rights that are not included in the Fundamental Rights. Indian law and Supreme Court rulings only recognise a violation of such rights if the state announces a specific scheme to further them but fails to deliver the promised boon to identified beneficiaries.


This Constitution has often been an instrument for rationalising the status quo more than one for progressive change. Consider, for instance, the unfulfilled promise of universal education. Article 45 of the Directive Principles had called for free and compulsory education for all children up to the age of 14 within ten years of the Constitution’s promulgation. It was only six decades later, with the Right To Education Act coming into force in 2010, that this promise was translated into a fundamental right, and the Centre and states were obliged to fulfil it. But even this has not meant that such education has become universal, let alone that it is everywhere of decent quality.


Nehru’s version of socialism called for a welfare state, albeit a capitalist one. The fact that the term “socialism” did not feature in the original preamble to the Constitution is indication enough that the consensus in the Constituent Assembly was against a serious commitment to socialist ideals. Indira Gandhi introduced the term into the preamble during the Emergency, but the less said about the sincerity of her commitment to socialism the better.


Bourgeois liberal democratic constitutions—and the Indian Constitution is certainly one—are always tolerant of serious class inequalities, usually defended as part and parcel of “basic liberties” that entail the right to private property and to accumulation in productive assets. In India, in the immediate aftermath of independence, given the widespread concern for social justice and therefore for land reform, an uneasy compromise took place. The right to “acquire, hold and dispose of property” was put into the fundamental rights but made subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest. What pro-poor land reform measures took place was unevenly spread, limited and half-hearted. An Amendment in 1978 removed this right from Article 19 and made it a legal right only. Overall, there has been no real hindrance subsequently to the steady accumulation of private wealth. The expansion of the public sector and even the nationalisation of banks in earlier years has proven to be much more an aid to the growth of the capitalist class than a hindrance. Indeed, over the last three decades, the trend has been to de-nationalise and de-regulate productive assets. With respect to reducing class inequality, India has performed no better than other liberal democracies with explicit constitutional protections of private-property rights.


What does the Constitution have to say on caste inequality? Article 15 declares prohibition of discrimination on grounds that include caste. But this is with respect to state services and the domains of public control and administration. It does not extend to the sphere of ordinary and everyday social relations in Indian society as a whole. The Protection of Civil Rights Act focusses on untouchability. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act  has been in existence for over two decades, and was set up to check crimes against oppressed castes. These Acts are worthy measures but banning untouchability and merely condemning caste discrimination does not go far enough. There should, at the very least, be an unequivocal and comprehensive ban on caste discrimination, and the document should take a stand on eradicating the caste system itself, an imperative that should be included in the directive principles.  


The fact that there has been no move to do this is revealing. It speaks of the nature of Indian secularism as it prevails in the Indian Constitution and is practised on the ground. Originally sanctioned by the predominantly dominant-caste Constituent Assembly, the current framework suggests that untouchability and even discrimination may disappear, but the caste system will remain intact. We must begin the debate on what steps should be taken to legislate against the caste system within the bounds of a democratic framework.


The Constitution itself affirms positive discrimination, in the form of caste-based affirmative action—through reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.. With the entrenched character of the caste system, this will remain a necessary means to counteract the caste system for many generations to come. Given this framework, it might be argued that a total ban on caste discrimination may not make total sense.  But that does not hold water. A simple comparison with liberal constitutions in other countries indicates that it is possible to outlaw racial and gender discrimination even while governments pursue affirmative action along racial or gender lines as a means to ultimately ending such discrimination. India could very well do the same on caste.


On the issue of gender discrimination, the makers of the Constitution should have established a progressive Uniform Civil Code rather than the current mishmash of personal laws specific to—and conceding to—the traditional customs of each major religion. This would have been difficult given that the Congress’s political mobilisation during colonial times rested on inter-religious collation, mediated in the Muslim case via Islamic clerics. But the party’s immense prestige and authority as the undisputed leader of the freedom movement could have allowed it to impose uniform personal laws during negotiations in the Constitutional Assembly if its leadership really desired them. Of course, the non-secular and pro-Hindu character of much of this leadership at Independence also had its part in determining the party’s course. A few years later, Hindu Personal Law was substantially reformed to give women greater freedom and equality, but it is still a long way from granting women their rights in full. The directive principles includes a call for a UCC, but this is another worthy sentiment which has never been seriously pursued. A gender-just UCC would require the abandonment of many current Hindu laws and practices regarding marriage, divorce, succession and matrimonial property, but India’s political leaders have never had much appetite to challenge the prejudices of the country’s dominant religious constituency.


AS WITH THE MEANING OF SOCIAL JUSTICE, the meaning of democracy is also contested terrain. In the conventional and dominant discourse on liberal democracy, the liberalism is given greater importance than the democracy. Liberalism is about the restriction of state power for the presumed benefit of the individual, where human fulfilment is essentially understood as the freedom to live as one desires as long as it does not impinge unfairly on the ability of others to do likewise. For liberals, the key attributes of a democratic order include free and fair elections with universal adult suffrage, as well as protections against arbitrary arrest, with a presumption of innocence upheld by an independent judiciary. There must be basic civil liberties—such as those of speech, assembly, association, occupation and trade—subject only to reasonable restrictions as determined by the judiciary. A liberal democratic order must also allow minority rights of varying scope. In addition, there should be checks and balances on state authority through a division of powers and responsibilities between the three main arms of the state—the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.


The liberal conception of democracy focusses on the proceduralist domain of legal and political rights. The legal commitments it insists on are all indeed important. But it can nevertheless be contrasted with the more substantive conception of democracy upheld by socialists. Democracy, in the classical understanding, entails popular empowerment in an ever-widening and deepening sense, making it always an unfinished business. This empowerment must go beyond the realms of political representation and civil liberty to encompass the social, economic and cultural domains of human existence. The political representation of the citizenry by some select group is unavoidable in any democratic set-up, but this should be seen as much as a problem as a solution. Democracy should be about the dis-alienation of state power, or the progressively greater capacity of people to influence the decisions that most affect one’s life within a collective framework of the pursuit of the common good. Here, human fulfilment or flourishing is not seen as a privatised affair. The aim is a levelling of power equations, and far more decentralised, participatory and direct forms of decision-making that can exist alongside the indirect structures and mechanisms of representative authority.


But hewing to the standards of liberal democracy, where do the Constitution’s democratic credentials stand? First, we must ask how effective its system of checks and balances between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary has been.


The Indian parliament does not exercise sufficient democratic control over the executive. This is due to powers constitutionally afforded to the latter—particularly the provisions for the executive to proclaim a state of emergency over the whole or part of the country, and thereby suspend fundamental rights.


The imbalance is further abetted by a host of laws in the Indian Penal Code and elsewhere, that were inspired by colonial forms of rule. Measures for preventive detention, like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, are used to restrict dissent, target political opponents and undermine progressive movements. So are laws against sedition. The central government, with the assent of the governor of a state—appointed by the central government—can declare President’s Rule and dismiss the state’s elected government. Laws such as these should simply be abolished.


Rather than function as a check on each other, the executive and parliament have all too often acted in cahoots. The task of making both organs accountable has fallen to the courts. The lower judiciary—magistrates and sessions’ courts—is mostly suborned by local or provincial powers. Even at higher levels—High Courts and the Supreme Court—justice is all too often greatly delayed, and therefore denied. The higher courts can hold the executive accountable by supervising its work as well as setting up investigations into its behaviour. Despite this, the higher judiciary has been very lax when it comes to curtailing repressive laws and state actions.


There has been an ongoing tussle between the legislature and the judiciary as to which is the final arbiter of the Constitution. The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the document has not been based solely on the text itself. Sometimes, it has aimed to give effect to the “intent” of the document’s framers. Other times, the court has leaned towards “creative adaptation” of the document in the light of what it understands to be “Constitutional morality.” The doctrine of the basic structure of the Constitution, formulated by the Supreme Court in 1973, has given the court decisive and often controversial powers. The elected legislature, presumably representing the people, has the power to amend the Constitution, but the unelected Supreme Court, under the doctrine, has the power to annul any amendments that it deems to be violating the document’s basic features.


The court has used its powers of interpretation to uphold progressive causes—as with the Right to Information Act, or its judgment on privacy being a part of Fundamental Rights. But should benches of the apex court act as guardians of the Constitution with only the court’s own higher benches able to check them? And what is to discipline and direct their power if there has never been judicial consensus on what all the basic features of Constitution are, beyond certain generalities such as secularism, democracy, federalism, human rights, republicanism, rule of law and so on? It is also alarming that there is neither sufficient transparency in appointments to the highest levels of the judiciary, nor any public accountability in how they reach their decisions.


Supreme Court judges, including chief justices, have played a part in legitimising the political behaviour and ideology of the Hindu right. The court never demanded the removal of the Ram idols illegally installed in the Babri Masjid in 1949, and refused to authorise the use of security personnel under the central government to prevent the demolition of the mosque when petitioned to do so. In 1995, it ruled that Hindutva, far from being an anti-democratic ideology, was a religious “way of life.” The most that can be said of the judiciary on this count is that it has sometimes acted to slow Hindutva’s forward momentum—for matters would have been even worse in the absence of the basic-structure doctrine and the Supreme Court’s use of it to defend the Constitution..


Next, we must consider whether the parliamentary and party system defined by the Constitution fairly represent the popular will. Here too, there are weaknesses. Members of the Rajya Sabha do not need to be domiciled in the state they are supposed to represent. In parliament and state assemblies, members are not free to vote against their own party on any matter that the leadership claims is central to the party programme. It makes obvious sense to prohibit voting against one’s own party in the case of a motion of no confidence, but beyond that the practice belittles rationality and quality in legislative argument and debate. What need for them if legislators cannot be persuaded to change sides?


However, what shines the harshest light on the Constitution’s claim to democratic representation is the first-past-the-post electoral system. The justification so often peddled for it is that, in contrast to a system of proportional representation whether partial, mixed or full-blown, the first-past-the-post arrangement ensures a certain stability. The argument goes that it encourages a competitive two- or three-party system that lends itself to sturdy governments, rather than one with multiple contenders creating unstable coalitions that all too often do not last a full term in office. But stability is not a virtue in itself, and should not be allowed to trump proper representation of and fidelity to electoral choices. Moreover, ruling coalitions have lasted full terms both in individual states and at the Centre—in the case of the latter, on three consecutive occasions between 1999 and 2014.


Some kind of proportional representation would today provide an institutional bulwark against the undemocratic thrust of Hindutva. From independence up to the 2014 general election, whenever the country came under single-party majority rule, the winning side never had a majority support. Always, its share of the popular vote remained within the band of 40 to 49 percent. In 2014, the concentrated support in the Hindi-speaking states for the Bharatiya Janata Party saw it secure a majority in the LokSabha with only 31 percent of the vote. This made a huge mockery of any claim that the government represented the popular mandate.


The Indian public’s sheer political and social diversity is better reflected by the country’s cornucopia of smaller regional parties, along with ones such as the Nishad Party, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party that have their bases in very particular social groups. These parties might be expected, in their own interest, to call for proportional representation in the Lok Sabha, but the problem is that a similar system would then also have to be put in place for the state assemblies. This the stronger regional parties would not want, because it would dent their own hopes of securing state-level power—which rest, more often than not, on acquiring a disproportionately high number of seats in state assemblies vis-à-vis their actual vote share.


THE CONSTITUTION’S DEFICIENCIES when it comes to social justice and democratic governance have enabled Hindutva’s ascension within the republic. But the document also has two other defects that have been wind in the sails of Hindu nationalism.


One defect is shared with almost all constitutions everywhere. It is based on a flawed and self-serving understanding of the nation and nationalism. Like the Indian Constitution—which, as the legal scholar Upendra Baxi has observed, helps to “uphold the belief that almost all practices of power directed to maintaining the unity and integrity of the nation are inherently justice enhancing”—they allow for territorial expansion from the original national boundaries prevailing at their birth, but disallow any secession of territory.


Constitutions do this partly on the assumption that all secessionism stems from some external attack or influence. They are generally blind to the notion that territorial unity is not an incontestable virtue in itself, but that its virtue is always subordinate to the voluntary and continuous assent to membership of a territorial unit from all of its constituent parts. That assent is never to be taken for granted. When substantial sections of people in a given province or region do not wish to be part of the Union—because of a pre-colonial history of separateness from the constituents of the new country, or because they suffer from disregard or even repression by the country’s rulers—then the call for respecting their right to self-determination, even up to secession, can arise. There are only a few governments that are prepared to consider or accept such a call by a section of their citizenry, even as their constitutions do not inscribe this highly democratic principle.


India practices an asymmetrical federalism, one where all the states in a Union do not have the same legislative powers. Put another way, some states have special ad hoc powers denied to the others. This kind of federalism often emerges from the dissolution of colonial empires whose masters did not administer their territorial units through uniform rules and procedures. In both Nagaland and Kashmir, the Indian government after independence has behaved atrociously in denying the aspirations of their respective populations. Longstanding repression has succeeded in ending the Naga quest for independence, now replaced by a search for some degree of autonomy. Kashmir is another story.


The exact circumstances under which the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to the Indian union, and whether the Indian state was involved in duplicity, are a matter of dispute. Not under dispute are the legal and formal commitments India made for the accession to take place. Jammu and Kashmir would have its own flag and premier, and its own constituent assembly to draw up its own constitution. The original arrangement was much more a “confederal” than a federal one—only the territory’s foreign affairs, defence and communications came under the control of the Centre. Jammu and Kashmir was not to be bound by any future Indian Constitution since it could have its own. But since Presidential orders can be used to bring in terms set by the Indian Constitution through “consultation” or “concurrence” with the state government, the key path for central efforts to undermine the original intent and spirit supposedly embodied in Article 370 lies in having obedient state governments in J&K.


What followed is a sorry tale of repression. In 1953, Sheikh Abdullah, the territory’s popular leader, was arrested and replaced as premier by the Centre’s toady, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed. Manipulation of the Jammu and Kashmir constituent assembly diluted earlier commitments to maximum autonomy, and instead allowed the imposition of Union powers. Those articles of the Constitution were made applicable to Jammu and Kashmir that allowed the central government to dismiss an elected state government as well as assume its legislative functions. Both in the time of Jawaharlal Nehru and afterwards, Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy was systematically eroded as the region came under the jurisdictions of the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service, the Election Commission and the Supreme Court.


Jammu and Kashmir has suffered repeatedly from president’s rule and governor’s rule, approaching a total number of of 3,500 days in all, as it is still under such rule. Punjab, where the Khalistan agitation has long ended, was under president’s rule for 3,510 days. But even here, the single longest continuous stretch of this rule, well over six years, has happened in Jammu and Kashmir.


Between 1947 and 1964, all barring three of the 97 subjects in the Union list which allows the Parliament to make laws, 26 of the 47 in the Concurrent list which includes subjects that give power to both the state and central government, and 260 out of 395 articles from the Indian Constitution were extended to Jammu and Kashmir. Then and subsequently, repressive acts such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Public Safety Act and Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act were brought into play. It has come to the point where, today, many leaders of the BJP and the Sangh openly declare their desire to finish off even the limited autonomy available to the state, under the much-diluted provisions of Article 370. No arm of the democratic Indian polity—whether the legislature, executive or judiciary—has seen fit to seek a reversal of this systematic erosion, let alone a restoration of earlier commitments.


ANOTHER AREA THAT WARRANTS DEEPER ANALYSIS is the Constitution’s claim to secularism and therefore to democracy. There are political scientists who argue that a democratic state need not be secular—a view that allows for Israel, an explicitly Jewish state with formally constituted second-class citizenship for non-Jews, to be called a democracy. But most others, including those of a liberal democratic persuasion, see a fundamental overlap between secularism and democracy.


There are some key principles then that make a state secular. First, it should not be the job or goal of the state to help promote or secure spiritual or religious salvation for anyone. Second, its institutions are free from the control of religious personnel and institutions. Third, there should be equality of citizenship rights irrespective of religious affiliation though these rights may not be democratic. This points to the fact that a state can be secular but not democratic, such as Kemalist Turkey, Mao’s China or Stalin’s USSR.


How far should the state intervene in religious practices that many would consider morally offensive? Some general principles can help guide us at least. There are certain basic individual rights of equality across caste, gender and racial lines that must take priority over group rights. There must also be the “right of exit” for individuals from groups or religious injunctions felt as demeaning or imposed. None of this is to be taken as meaning that the principle of minority rights is to be rejected. The principle remains fundamental to any democratic set-up. So the attack on “minorityism” by Sangh spokespersons is to be completely rejected even as we can of course oppose specific abuses by those enjoying such rights. Religious bodies must also be pushed to change older injunctions in the light of modern democratic and humane values.


But states believing themselves to be secular must also be careful in how they address the issues of religious freedoms and personal choices even when these are to some extent the result of socialisation processes. For example, India sensibly enough and unlike certain European democracies has not, in the name of upholding secular principles, gone to the absurd extent of outlawing certain forms of dress by Muslim women such as the hijab, burqa or niqab when worn in public. Apart from certain professions as in medicine or teaching where full face-to-face interaction with patients and students may be required, there is no justification for such bans. Rather, there should be a ban on the forcible imposition of such apparel. The basic and innocuous freedom to dress as one wishes should be respected.


Many a progressive has pointed out that there is a disturbing gap between the secular principles laid down in the Constitution and their practice on the ground. This serves as an exculpation of sorts for the Constitution, but an unconvincing one. The fact is that the text of the document is itself religiously biased.


The Constitution makes concessions to clerical Islam, such as the lack of a uniform civil code, as well as to Sikhism, with provisions for the public possession of a kirpan. Furthermore, in the name of freedom of religion, the Constitution allows educational institutions set up by any particular religious denomination, sect or body to provide religious instruction to students, even if the institution is partially—though not fully—funded by the state. Moreover, it says that if an educational institution set up by an endowment or trust that insists on imparting religious instruction is taken over by the state, such instruction can continue at the institution. A forthright secular stand would be for the state to refuse both these things: to not provide any funding to such institutions; and to refrain from taking over institutions that insist on specific religiou instructions.


The most prodigious biases are those in favour of Brahminical Hinduism.


I have already mentioned the Constitution’s effective sanction for the persistence of the caste system, with its untenable position that this is quite compatible with ending untouchability and caste discrimination. I have also mentioned its controversial choice of the name “Bharat.” There is more to add to this set of faults.


In the Constitutional Assembly debates, BR Ambedkar defined religious freedom as entailing only the freedom to worship, and excluding all practices outside of that act. Such a definition would have created grounds to oppose Hindu practices such as sati and child marriage. The final definition of religious freedom in Article 25 of the Constitution reflected a compromise. It enshrined the freedom to practice and propagate religion, “Subject to public order, morality and health.” Given the wide latitude in how this clause can be interpreted, it is no surprise that many an unsavoury religious practice persists without state intervention.


Brahminical diehards in the Constitutional Assembly could not get a complete ban on cow slaughter, but smuggled an emphasis on the need to protect cows into the Directive Principles under the cover of animal husbandry. The overwhelming majority of states have since banned cow slaughter, and a few have even banned the killing of bulls and bullocks.


Many states have banned conversions if done by force, fraud or allurement. These bans are aimed at Islam and Christianity, since there is much eye winking at Hindu conversions passed off dishonestly as “reconversions” to the ostensibly “original” faith. The ban on forcible conversion is justifiable, but the two other grounds for prohibition allow for unwarranted state interference on flimsy grounds. Many a Hindutva stalwart has said that Christian beliefs in heaven and hell constitute fraud. The prohibition on conversion via allurement is particularly directed at progressive missionary groups setting up civic institutions such as schools and hospitals in tribal and other underserved areas. This as a criterion for preventing conversions should simply be dismissed. There are numerous religious sects worldwide—including many Hindu ones—that win converts by providing for their material as much as mental and spiritual welfare.


Article 25, while establishing the freedom of religion, also states in a sub-clause that this freedom shall not prevent the state from making any law for “the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.” The document notes that, in the sub-clause, “the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion.” Here, the Constitution can almost be seen in line with Hindutva’s assimiliationist project, which sees these faiths as having a lineage that goes back to ancient India, and being given shape by Hinduism, which preceded it. Unlike Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam and Judaism these faiths are indigenous, not “foreign” and therefore acceptable, in the Hindutva view. Within the Sangh Parivar it is common to find references to Sikhs as protectors of Hindus against Mughal/Muslim oppression. Jains have been seen as a part of the wider Hindu fold. As Sikh and Jain identity has crystallized, this assimilationist attitude has caused some degree of resentment but this Hindutva position also ensures that Sikhs and Jains need have no or much less fear of a rising Hindutva. Ambedkar’s counter positioning of Buddhism to Hinduism has made little ground even as Dalit assertion has strengthened.


Article 26 allows every religious denomination to “establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, but clause 2(a)  of Article 25 saves the power of the state to regulate or restrict “any economic, financial, political or other secular activities which may be associated with religious practice.” It can oversee the construction of facilities and look into the spending of monies given by devotees, and even ratify the qualifications of priestly candidates. Article 26 is seemingly impartial towards all religious institutions, but in reality a huge and powerful nexus has emerged between the state, the corporate sector and the Hindu religious establishment. The writer Meera Nanda, in her book The God Market: How Globalization is Making India More Hindu, provides a devastating exposé of this nexus.


Sikh affairs are governed by the 1925 Sikh Gurudwaras Act, Muslim mosques and charities are largely unified under the 1954 Wakf Act, and Christian churches obey the National Council of Churches, set up in 1914. But the thousands of Hindu sects lack any single authority to watch over them. State governments have set up various regulatory bodies to oversee the affairs of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples.


The Constitution designates Hindi the “official language of the Union,” to be used along with English in Centre-state exchanges. Though Hindi is spoken by more people than any other Indian language—even as we ignore that a Hindi nationalism has been at work, wherein other north Indian languages have been subsumed by Hindi and rendered as dialects—it is still spoken by a minority of the country’s entire population. Achieving this status had not a little to do with north Indian and upper caste dominance of the Constituent Assembly. The Constitution also grants official status to Sanskrit, spoken by a perhaps few hundred people, by including it in the Eighth Schedule. The tribal languages of Bhili and Lammi, each spoken by over a million people, are denied that honour. Article 351 promotes a Sanskritised Hindi that relies for its vocabulary “primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages.” The promotion of Hindi comes at the expense of Hindustani, which affords greater importance to Urdu with its stronger Persian and Arabic borrowings.


The Indian state, at the central and state levels, promotes the propagation of Hindu priestcraft through gurukuls, rishikuls and pathshalas, and “vedic sciences” through astrology courses at the college level. Governments sell lands at throwaway prices, or outright gift them, to Hindu religious bodies, for the construction of schools, hospitals and other institutions, to which the state also provides patronage and accreditation. These are then built and maintained by private and corporate donations. The end result has been a growing trespass of Hindu institutions into such supposedly secular areas as public education and health.


AT ITS VERY CREATION, the Indian Constitution was never the remarkable document many have claimed it to be. Its commitment to secularism, liberal freedoms and social justice was never whole-hearted, and was more restricted than it needed to be. The end goal of its “transformative vision” was the establishment of a welfarist, capitalist democracy, and the society that has emerged over time under its aegis in no way repudiates this. And so we have arrived at a neoliberal capitalism, averse to serious welfare provisions for the general public, that allows large-scale poverty to persist and inequalities of wealth and power to reach obscene levels.


Indian democracy, though it long enjoyed a relative stability in its macro-level structures and institutions, has forever tolerated violence and a lack of democratic practices at its meso and micro levels. Over the last three decades, things have turned for the worse. The legislature, executive and judiciary and the media have been gradually hollowed out through partisan appointments and corruption, including by the government itself.


Worst of all, the country’s single most dominant political force is now the Sangh Parivar, a far-right force with undeniable fascist characteristics. Other such forces are resurgent across the world, but, unlike them, in the RSS, the Sangh has a wellspring with an unbroken life of almost a century. The Sangh’s hegemonising drive will continue as it always has, with greater or lesser success, irrespective of the ups and downs of electoral verdicts. Its cadres and institutions have implanted themselves in Indian society at a depth unmatched by any rival, and key components of the Sangh’s own transformative vision for the country have found resonance among a wide public—even among many opposition parties that otherwise oppose the idea of a Hindu India.


What are some of the key themes of this growing public ‘common sense’? One, that there is no alternative to a neoliberal economic order, and that the only question for economic debate is whether this should take a more disciplinary or compensatory direction depending on the prevailing balance of social forces. Another, more directly spawned by Sangh success, is that any party aspiring to electoral success must pander to the Hindu majority, distancing itself from even the suggestion that it appeases religious minorities and adopt to a greater or lesser extent various aspects of the Hindutva worldview. Furthermore, that there is no escape from playing on the same ground as the BJP and Sangh—we are all for a more belligerent and militaristic nationalism and for asserting our regional dominance as the path to achieving the status of a rising global power.


There are enough positive aspects of the Constitution for us to take selective recourse to it in the struggle against the Sangh. But, we must ask, how well does the document stand against the new common sense seeping into ever more sections of the public?


The centre of gravity of Indian politics has moved very much to the right. The Congress is not a far-right force, but long ago transmogrified into a rightwing force. It has no inspiring transformative vision of its own. Constructing a counter to the Sangh will require a search for new ways on all fronts—economic, political, social, cultural and ideological. That must precede the emergence of a Constitution that can deliver more to the people of India than it yet has.