OPINION

Subjects, citizens and maharajas

The Public EyeRajeev Bhargavais Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi

The Public EyeRajeev Bhargavais Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi  

Thoothukudi tells us that we are still a deeply divided political unit, with varying access to basic democratic rights

The massacre at Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) made me think of the political status of those who came out to protest against Sterlite Industries. Formally, constitutionally, they were Indian citizens. But were they? Were they not aliens, the new mlecchas, a threat to the political order, to the state? Or perhaps they were neither citizens nor aliens but a subjugated people, subjects who were punished because they dared to be citizens.

The state’s wrath

What did the locals do to incur the wrath of the state? They were merely exercising their minimal citizenship rights when they were mercilessly beaten by the police or shot by snipers. They made public their grievance about the vulnerable environmental conditions under which they are forced to live, about contamination of groundwater and pollution-induced diseases caused by the Sterlite plant. This discontent notwithstanding, the government, with the connivance of the Tamil Nadu pollution board, granted permission to the industry to expand. In deliberately violating their rights, do they not treat them as their subjects rather than as citizens?

The distinction between citizens and subjects is important in political thought and practice. To be a citizen is, first and foremost, to belong to a particular political community. Citizenship gives us a sense of who we are and creates a special bond with other members, a fellow-feeling that one might call civic friendship. This is why, along with family, linguistic or religio-philosophical groups, it is a source of commitment and obligation. But citizenship also brings us rights. To secure basic needs, citizens can make claims on each other and particularly on the state. Protection of life comes immediately to mind. That one will not be killed by arbitrary or intentional acts of others or by man-made disease or pollution is a fundamental human right. In large, complex, modern societies, so much has come to depend on the state that it alone must help realise it.

Other rights, without which survival is impossible, are dependent on the state too: the right to food, water, clean air, shelter, for example. Or rights that marginally improve the quality of our life: to safeguard our personal possessions, ease of mobility from place to place, public playgrounds, illuminated streets, protection of personal freedoms. All these exemplify rights of what might be called passive citizenship. Passive, because here we are essentially recipients. We receive these benefits if we follow laws and pay our taxes and are left alone to care for our families and do our jobs. But unlike other forms of states, democracy also gives rights which change the quality of citizenship. They enable active citizenship — rights to publicly complaint or protest, to deliberate on issues of public good, to scrutinise and criticise public policies, to hold our governments accountable, to form public associations, to vote, and to stand for public office.

Unlike citizens, subjects have none of these rights. Political participation is simply out of the question — subjects cannot vote, deliberate on public issues, complain, criticise, or stand for public office. They have no claims on the state — not even to the basic right to life. If they get food, shelter or any other personal benefit, it is entirely on the goodwill of the state. Conquered people, the colonised, slaves, all those who live under laws made by others and designed to oppress them, are obvious examples. Subjects live in states meant for others. States, for them, are not political communities but a source of oppressive power. They are located within but do not belong to states. Nor do they identify with them. Subjects are bereft of civic friendship. All they have is a nameless, non-political relationship with other subjects.

A continuum

So, can we call the Thoothukudi protestors subjects of the Indian state? That may not be entirely accurate either. Perhaps, rather than view citizenship and subjecthood in terms of a binary, it is best to see them as part of a continuum. On the citizenship-subjecthood continuum, Thoothikudi protestors are barely citizens and mostly subjects. Better still, this continuum should be viewed more dynamically; large numbers of people in our democratic nation keep sliding from citizenship into subjecthood. Just as they begin to acquire minimal citizenship rights, they are thrown back to being subjects by an economic or political tornado in their lives. This is a normal condition of persons under conditions of domination — whenever oppression increases, people lose their freedoms, cease to be citizens and become subjects. Those generally without wealth or power are always on the edge of being so. In fact, this is true of most of us: citizenship or subjecthood is not a fixed location but a constantly shifting position. When out of fear of government reprisal, the educated middle class shuts up, it turn into subjects. If you want to experience subjecthood, just step in for a moment into any local municipal corporation office. You will instantly feel like a hapless subject of a powerful, opaque empire!

Of course, there are some among us who are neither subjects nor citizens, except perfunctorily. They command such enormous resources of power and wealth that they treat the entire apparatus of state power as their private instrument. Some heads of corporations, business magnates and politicians behave like, and indeed are, today’s imperial rulers, reincarnating reckless maharajas of yesteryears who may exploit, oppress, dispossess others at their own sweet will.

Thoothukudi tells us that we are still a deeply divided political unit — most of us are largely subjects, some are citizens and a tiny group are maharajas who can even use public force as private army to kill, if it serves them or their friends.

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