The path towards a pluralist civil society

The alternative is having a civil society that functions as the handmaiden of an authoritarian state

February 05, 2024 12:59 am | Updated 12:06 pm IST

“The Constitution can only remain a living force in our democracy as long as the phrase, ‘we the people’, can somehow approximate to a discerning citizenry, which effectively discharges its agency as vigilant participants”

“The Constitution can only remain a living force in our democracy as long as the phrase, ‘we the people’, can somehow approximate to a discerning citizenry, which effectively discharges its agency as vigilant participants” | Photo Credit: Getty Images

During the inaugural session of the new Parliament, controversy erupted after Members were gifted copies of the Indian Constitution, wherein the Preamble appeared to have dispensed with the terms ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’.

Interestingly, the civil society debate that followed remained hemmed in on whether either of these terms defined the true spirit of the Constitution. Without going into the merits of that debate, there is a largely unaddressed facet to point out; one which ought to comprise the basis of any such deliberative inquiry: the meaning of the opening words of the Preamble, ‘We the People’.

The meaning or character of our popular sovereignty is often treated as a convenient myth or as a purely abstract assumption in our civil society discussions. Yet, as constitutional scholar Sarbani Sen argued in her book, The Constitution of India: Popular Sovereignty and Democratic Transformations, the revolutionary potential of the Constitution inheres in this very spirit of popular sovereignty. She looks at ‘how the idea of popular sovereignty and its relation to constitutionalism developed as a result of inter-generational discourse in Indian political thought during the pre-founding colonial period’.

One can interpret the enactment of the Constitution as the culmination of a decades-long process of dialogue among contending political actors, wherein an important part of it focused on the character of the envisaged republic. The Preamble explicitly anchors the legitimising ends of the republic in terms of securing justice (social, economic and political), liberty (of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship), and equality (of status and of opportunity) to all Indian citizens.

When we reduce sovereignty of the “political community” to mere state sovereignty, we reduce the constitutional promises given above to vague aspirations floating in ether. The Constitution can only remain a living force in our democracy as long as the phrase, ‘we the people’, can somehow approximate to a discerning citizenry, which effectively discharges its agency as vigilant participants.

The elite versus non-elite spheres

The western tradition of civil society tended to grant such a watchdog function, of counterbalancing the state’s drive to monopolise sovereign power, to an elite public sphere. Counterbalancing the state implies constraining the excesses of government power. This liberal public sphere (as described by theorists such as Jürgen Habermas), platformed the educated middle classes, held to be engaged in a rational discourse centred on individual autonomy and self-interest.

The English language arena in India, particularly in journalism and civil society activism, reflexively borrowed from this western discourse the directing role of a modernising elite. Further, the normative assumptions underlying the question “who constitutes this modernising elite?” served to redouble the hold of the traditional elites on the public sphere. Broadly, the public sphere, tended to privilege the views of segments that skewed male, upper class and dominant castes.

Yet, this elite public sphere has largely remained inert in the face of severe challenges to prevailing constitutional governance.

Indeed, the more forceful democratic claims to the mantle of popular sovereignty have emanated from what we can term as the non-elite counter-sphere. This is the counter sphere of ‘organisations and movements’: social movements, farmers and labour groups, human rights activists, subaltern caste and tribal movements and their powerful examples such as the Una agitation by Dalits against caste-based violence; the Pathalgadi movement of tribals in Jharkhand; the farmers’ movements of Punjab and Haryana; and the nation-wide protests by Muslims (led by women) against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

Often, the liberal public sphere, even while being empathetic towards these movements, seeks to cast them in the subordinate role of ‘sectional movements’ or emotional/irrational upsurges, which can at the most merit conditional support. Yet, if we refuse to accord these counter sphere political actors a position of complete equality within our civil society, we will lose the liberatory potential of these ‘radically democratic’ forms of popular assertions and mass protests.

Ambedkar’s framing

B.R. Ambedkar had framed the Preamble in terms of heralding a “way of life, which recognizes liberty, equality, and fraternity as the principles of life and which cannot be divorced from each other: Liberty cannot be divorced from equality; equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity. Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative”.

Equally, he refused to harbour naive presumptions about the self-perpetuating character of these constitutional principles. In his essay, ‘Buddha and the future of religion’, he wrote, Buddha also “did not believe that law can be a guarantee for breaches of liberty or equality...In all societies, law plays a very small part. It is intended to keep the minority within the range of social discipline.” Since the majority is constrained not by law but by morality, Ambedkar held that “religion, in the sense of morality, must therefore, remain the governing principle in every society”.

It might be instructive to juxtapose Ambedkar’s plea for a transcendent civil morality with Gandhi’s conception of swaraj or ‘self-rule’. In the monograph, Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance (2016), historian Ajay Skaria explains that ‘Swaraj’ for Gandhi did not confine itself to a mechanistic self-rule, but a creative process of self-realisation through which one might reach out towards a more secure and substantive plane of freedom and equality. The means to achieve Swaraj was thus ‘satyagraha’ (defined as “truth force” and “love force”). “For him (Gandhi), sovereign power is not exemplified only in the state. Rather, every self is deeply fissured, and sovereignty is ubiquitous, always exercised everyday by the self,” Skaria wrote.

Therefore, Gandhi’s practice of ‘ahimsa’ cannot be divorced from his insistence on recognising a deeply fissured self. The politically fabricated wholeness or boundedness accorded to the self (whether ‘Hindu Self’ or ‘Muslim Self’), mirroring the colonising Europe’s axioms of national sovereignty, has led to much bloodshed in the subcontinent in the last century.

The folly of mimicking the imperialists’ arrogance wrecked other countries as well, not least the militaristic Japan of the first half of the 20th century. The book, Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts into History (1995), uncovers how Japanese violent militarism was built on the fundamental assumption of a perfected modern self. This construction of this supremely confident self necessitated the reflexive displacement of the western Orientalist category of a ‘backward Other’ from itself onto other subordinated peoples. According to Tanaka, Japan’s historians constructed their own backward Orient, defined by the “Asiatic culture... Asiatic nature was characterized by its gentleness, moral ethics, harmony, and communalism; Japan’s genius lay in its ability to adapt creatively only those Asiatic characteristics that were harmonious with its own nature; and Japan thus became the possessor of the best of Asia”.

Having the right dialogue

It becomes clear that a progressive civil society in India can only be a plural civil society, if it is structured on the free and equal participation of every community. Regarding any particular community as socially backward or intellectually inferior (compared to any assumed authentic ‘self’) inevitably skids into perilously unexamined pride.

The path towards a pluralist civil society must, thus, be forged through honest and introspective dialogue. This is not the shallow but the commonplace mode of dialogue — a form of debate focused on achieving a framework of objectively correct knowledge. But the particular form of dialogue stressed by Gandhi, Ambedkar and modern theorists of deliberative democracy seeks to understand the position of the ‘other’. It is through this empathetic engagement with the concerns and the world views of ‘others’ that we can build a stable foundation of mutual self-understanding, thus opening up possibilities for genuine solidarity. The alternative is a civil society with little self-knowledge beyond chauvinistic pride, and little agency beyond being the handmaiden of an increasingly authoritarian state.

Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist

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