Opinion | The upside-down Indian state
Year after year, our Independence Day only seems to mark freedom from colonial oppressors
Last week we celebrated Independence Day with great fervour, but it is quite evident that Indians are not really free. 15 August 1947, marks the day that divided British India and created two new and fully sovereign dominions of India and Pakistan. While that is an important occasion, our freedom fighters did not spend much time celebrating—they were too busy with the events of Partition and writing a Constitution. On 15 August 1947, our leaders had their eye on a much more important task—to understand how we become a self-governing democratic republic.
The framers of our Constitution were some of the best legal and political minds, who thought quite deeply about the meaning of a sovereign republic. Why do we need a state? What should be its role? More importantly, what should be its limits? Framing these questions differently, they were trying to solve two types of problems. The first is private predation and disorder. This is where individuals in society infringe on the liberty of others—situations of crime, religious and caste violence and discrimination, theft, expropriation, bribery, fraud, monopolistic behaviour, externalities like pollution and open defecation. Simultaneously, the framers were extremely aware of the abuse of state power, or public predation (expropriation, unjust taxation, discrimination, fraud, and false imprisonment), having served prison sentences for participating in the nationalist movement.
The concerns of Indian framers were not new. They had been pondered over and debated for centuries. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes proposed the Leviathan to control private predation and disorder or “the war of each against all”. On the other end of the spectrum was David Hume, who assumed all men were knaves in both private and public office and was concerned with rules and constraints to control the rulers and prevent dictatorships in his 1738 treatise.
The Indian framers, through the constituent assembly, were concerned with both kinds of predation, but within a specific social context. Particularly, the institutions that emerged from the persistence of private predation, feudalism, the caste system, and oppression of women. The core idea was to be free from private oppression and disorder. To achieve this freedom required a strong state with wide authority that would prevent these violations.
In creating a strong state, the fear is that state actors will abuse their power. That the state will commit theft and violence and fraud against its citizens. Indian framers were concerned about this kind of abuse and tried to restrain the state by guaranteeing fundamental rights for citizens, bicameralism, federalism, and an independent judiciary. However, there was also an inherent belief that Indians will not commit a fraud upon their own nation, in the way the British had exploited India. The checks and constraints to state power were not as strong as the powers granted to limit private predation.
How does a strong state prevent private predation? The monopoly over the use of force (police and law and order functions) allows the government to prevent individuals from violating the liberty of others. The ability to tax allows the government to provide public goods and eliminate externalities. Law and order to prevent crimes against property and life, a judicial system to enforce contracts, and public goods such as water, transport, waste management, and basic education are all part of this basic function of the state. The problem is that the Indian state is too weak to perform these functions competently. There is no law and order and women, children, and minorities feel unsafe in public. The environment is a catastrophe waiting to happen with no sensible waste or water management. Infrastructure is crumbling, and the Indian judicial system is delayed to a point where justice is almost always denied.
One would imagine that with such a weak state, there is little fear of public predation, but the Indian state defies that notion. Expropriation by the state has been the constant since the birth of the Indian republic. In the past, governments were playing Robin Hood, robbing the rich to give to the poor, and now it is the reverse, where the poor are victims of most of the expropriation. For Jawaharlal Nehru it was land reform, Indira Gandhi had nationalizations, and Narendra Modi has followed up with demonetization.
Even our reform-minded leaders have erred on one or the other side. Atal Bihari Vajpayee reined in public corruption but could not prevent or limit the Godhra riots. Manmohan Singh’s government was much more effective at reining in private predation, but failed to control corruption at the highest levels.
The Indian state is the exact opposite of what it should be. It is weak in preventing private disorder and strong in executing state oppression. The present government had made the fear from private disorder much worse. With unchecked mob vigilantism, violence against women and Dalits, and shootings within spitting distance of Parliament, there is a genuine fear among citizens. Either the state is completely inept, or complicit in certain kinds of violence, and neither bodes well. With demonetization, this government has also shown an uncanny fervour for public predation.
Year after year, our Independence Day only seems to mark freedom from colonial oppressors. But the Indian state is free to oppress and expropriate—by either ignoring private disorder or imposing public oppression, or most often, both. We need a new freedom movement.
Shruti Rajagopalan is an assistant professor of economics at Purchase College, State University of New York, and a fellow at the Classical Liberal Institute, New York University School of Law.
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