Socio-Cultural Tasks of the Democratic Rights Movement
Paper Presented in the Third Arvind Memorial Seminar
• Jai Pushp
Carrying out struggle against the repression of the democratic rights by the state remains an important and immediate task of the democratic rights movement. As the spontaneous motion of neo-liberal economic policies makes the state more and more autocratic, repressive and totalitarian, the onslaughts on the civil liberties and the democratic rights of the people through various draconian laws are getting more intense and aggressive. The repression of the democratic rights by the state machinery and raising voice against is indeed our shared concern. However, there is another fundamental aspect towards which I wish to draw the attention of the democratic rights activists, intellectuals and esteemed citizens who have gathered here to deliberate upon the problems and challenges before the democratic rights movement in India.
In reality, it is not only the state which represses and encroaches upon the democratic rights in a democratic society but also the pre-capitalist values, beliefs and institutions which are rooted in irrationality, inequality, superstitions-, prejudices and the medieval practices. These structures which remain outside the direct control of the political structure and which exist from an earlier era not only build the support base of undemocratic character of the state but they themselves encroach upon the democratic rights of the citizens. In the broader context of the democratic rights, we will have to examine the relationship not only between the state and the citizen but also between the citizens themselves as also the one that exists between the social institutions and an individual.
It is clear that in a class society, all the citizens do not have uniform democratic rights. The scope of the democratic right of every individual expands or shrinks depending upon his status in the social hierarchy. Even if the state confers uniform rights to all the citizens through legislation, the social stereotypes and customs act as a material force to encroach upon the rights of the people. The social values-customs-institutions not only curtail the rights of the ordinary citizens directly or indirectly in a spontaneous manner, they also control and direct their social activity and participation through numerous hidden hands. The hegemony of the irrational superstitions, prejudices, norms and institutions in the day to day social life of the broader populace prepares the mindset of accepting the autocracy and despotism of the state or that of not opposing it.
Another aspect of the same phenomenon is that the social structures infected with the medieval age inertia act as the social props of the state, they spontaneously maintain a symbiotic relationship with the state and they also manufacture the consent for the structural violence inbuilt in the day-to-day behavior of the state. In such a situation, organising mass resistance in the event of the autocratic repressive activities of the state becomes even more challenging. The state easily manages to use the tyranny and oppression prevalent in the social life in its interest and the people who are habitual of living with the undemocratic values and institutions in a way accept even the undemocratic and repressive behavior of the state with the relative ease.
So, owing to the absence of democratic consciousness and a sense of modernity in the social milieu, an ordinary citizen fails to realize the lack of democratic space even in the political milieu and thus he fails to put up an organised resistance against the autocratic and despotic behavior of the state.
The current era is marked by increasing shrinkage of the democratic space all over the world, but the problems of the post-colonial agrarian societies like India are much deeper and widespread. There are many such institutions and customs in the social fabric of our country even today which subject a substantial population to repression, injustice, oppression and insult in all walks of life. For numerous citizens of India, the ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity bear no meaning in the day to day life due to their social status and background. The ‘Khap’ Panchayats carry out cold blooded murder of the rights of two adults to spend life together. Women have to face insult and discrimination many times in a single day from home to the workplace. Along with the growth of literacy, the incidents of domestic violence, dowry related oppression, female infanticide and the recent phenomenon of sex change have also increased. Despite the constitutional and legal prohibition, caste-based oppression and discrimination is rampant in the day-to-day life of masses. Many among us might possibly think that these issues are not related to the democratic rights movement. But we need to deeply realize that such an inequality and the customs and institutions based upon it erect a wall of segregation which precludes the democratic rights movement to become a broad based mass movement. Under such a situation it becomes important for all of us concerned about the democratic rights movements in India to develop the correct understanding of the role of undemocratic tendencies and institutions in the Indian society in the context of democratic rights movement and to deliberate upon the long-term strategy of dealing with this challenge.
Before we proceed, let us examine the causes for the prevalence of the undemocratic values and medieval institutions and customs in the Indian society even till this day. Comparing against the western societies we find that there has been utter lack of a complete historical process of renaissance and enlightenment in India. For sure, some voices of resistance and rationality did emerge from time to time which could disseminate rationality and a sense of modernity in Indian society if their subsequent editions could develop. In ‘Nirgun Bhakti’ movement, we could discern the voices in different forms against the caste-based discrimination. Today it is difficult to guess what shape the successor movement of the ‘Nirgun Bhakti’ movement could have adopted had India not been colonised, but there was a strong possibility that such a social reform movement arriving as it was through an internal spontaneous motion, could disseminate rationality, sense of modernity and the democratic values by breaking the medieval era stagnation in some novel forms if not exactly like that in the west.
Although it is applicable to all post-colonial agrarian societies, in case of Indian society this socio-cultural deprivation is much deeper and widespread. The 200 year long colonial slavery and economic plunder has impeded the healthy internal development of the Indian society and consequently the growth of social consciousness as well. After independence, even though capitalism developed in a gradual manner from the top, the medieval feudal values and customs remained intact in the social fabric. The Indian constitution itself was not made in a democratic manner and as a result this constitution was at best a modified and enhanced version of the Government of India Act 1935. About 80 percent laws were made by the British regime in order to enslave the Indian people. The Indian ruling class even now uses the colonial laws such as Sedition Act and Land Acquisition Act to attack the civil and democratic rights of the people. The CrPC, IPC, Jail Manual, Police Manual all have their roots in the colonial era legislations. It goes without saying that instead of making a radical rupture from the heritage of colonial political and intellectual structure, the native rulers who took the reins of country after independence found them suitable to their interest.
This aspect of continuity is not just confined to the politics and governance and administration, rather to a large extent there exists a continuity of colonial and medieval era values in the social life throughout the country even after independence when looked in totality. Some attempts for social-reform are discernible during the national independence movement after the complete colonisation and some militant social movement were indeed organised against the religious superstitions, caste-based discrimination and the pathetic condition of women. However, this stream was very feeble to begin with and often past was invoked to inspire the people against the colonial regime during the national liberation movement, instead of developing modernity and militant materialistic world outlook, religious symbols were resorted to and the religious values were idealised.
The political streams talking about revolutionary change prevailed in the backdrop both before and after independence but even they did not lay adequate emphasis on the importance of social and cultural reform movement and it would not be an exaggeration to say that they were unsuccessful in organising such a movement. As a consequence of the above circumstances, the ground for democratic values, materialistic consciousness and rationality remained weak in Indian society during and after the national movement.
After 1947, the capitalist development which took place in India with a gradual and slow pace in-fact adopted the pre-capitalist, medieval, autocratic and despotic social institutions and values with some modification rather than stamping them out. Newer forms of the caste-based and gender-based segregation and oppression and irrationality emerged apart from the old forms of the tyranny of the medieval era. The feeble streams of radical democratic consciousness and radical social reforms which existed during the national movement also started disintegrating and decomposing after the independence. Even though the independent dynamics of the capitalist development did, to some extent, produce a sense of modernity, it has failed to make a decisive blow to the old social institutions, particularly the medieval Indian classical form of cast-based and gender-based oppressions.
The autocratic and semi-fascist tendencies prevail in every joint of the social fabric of India till this day. The degeneration of the bourgeois politics has on the one hand given rise to the new forms of destructive ghosts of the caste, religion and language based sectarianism and on the other hand the onslaught of the consumerist culture has spread and propagated the orthodoxy and irrationality among the people. In a society where ordinary people live their day to day life under highly undemocratic and irrational social values, not only does the social base of the repressive state machinery gets strengthened but even the fascist tendencies get conducive environment for flourishing in the form of religious fundamentalism. The religious fundamentalist fascism represents the most reactionary political stream of the finance capital and the undemocratic institutions and medieval values and beliefs prevalent in the backward societies act as their social base.
It is clear that the democratic rights movement, today, will have to carry out an intense analysis of the social content and social structure. In the post-colonial and agrarian societies like India, one aspect of the democratic rights movement will be that of radical social movements. It is a backlog of history which will have to be completed within the scope of the democratic rights movement itself. If it has to wage a struggle against the despotism and tyranny of the state, it will also have to open a front against the social and cultural despotism and tyranny.
The undemocratic social institutions act as a social prop of the tyranny of the state and they themselves encroach upon the democratic rights of the people. Without freeing themselves from the shackles of the despotic social values and customs, the ordinary people cannot carry out organised resistance against the state repression. An intensive and prolonged campaign needs to be waged against the social institutions and values which help to establish the socio-cultural and ideological hegemony of the state. It is important, today, to extend the democratic rights movement to the people by taking it out of the intellectual circle. Instead of being confined to the activities of petition-plea-prayer on some incidents or issues, it must be a broad based people’s movement against the violation of the democratic rights at every step in the day-to-day life of masses. It should not only be a political movement but a broad based socio-cultural movement as well.
The democratic rights movement will have to make a long-term plan and strategy for awakening and educating people apart from extremely important tasks such as raising voice against the repressive acts of state and the draconian laws. It will have to go to the grass-root level and uplift the ideological and cultural level of the people and at the same time it will also have to boldly organise the masses at the basic level against the varied forms of undemocratic social institutions and social oppression. It calls for a protracted and multidimensional socio-cultural and political work of agitation and propaganda. Without building a broad based mass movement against the undemocratic tendencies prevalent in the social life, the battle of the democratic rights of the masses against the state cannot be taken to its logical conclusion.
(Translated from Hindi: Anand Singh)