Democratic Rights and Despotism in India

From: Aspects of India’s Economy, No 69, June 2017 / Research Unit of Political Economy, Mumbai, India

1. In order to understand the situation of democratic rights in our country, as well as in order to build the democratic rights movement, it is necessary to know something about the political economy of our country. For this helps us grasp two things: Firstly,  why oppression and repression of the people are forocious and endemic in our country. Secondly, what is the material basis upon which people’s consciousness about democratic rights develops. This in turn helps us orient our building of the democratic rights movement.

2. We need to look at the concept of rights with a historical approach. As Marx said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”1 Countries such as England and France, at different times in their history, underwent bloody struggles to break the feudal order. In the course of these struggles, the emerging capitalist class had to mobilise the working masses in the rural and urban areas in order to defeat the ruling feudal class. Even though the new regimes that emerged did not give power to the working people, but became the new oppressors, the people achieved a legacy of certain rights, and even more importantly a consciousness of those rights, which might be dimmed from time to time but cannot be wiped out.

3. India underwent great upheavals under British rule and thereafter, but the demolition of the old order and the democratic reordering of society were finally aborted, and the new rulers since 1947 opted to maintain continuity with colonial rule in many respects. For lack of a democratic reordering, the actual course of economic development, and particularly the pattern of employment, have become more and more distorted and deformed, with vast numbers crowded into the informal sector struggling for a bare subsistence, while a tiny elite corners the bulk of the income. This, in turn, strengthens all retrogressive features of social life. To quote Marx again, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”2 Indian society is perhaps the world’s most fragmented, its toiling people divided by caste, religion, nationality, etc, and there are many hierarchies and oppressions woven into social relations. These conditions provide a material base for autocracy; and indeed autocracy is  manifest in the political life of the country and the structure of the Indian State.

4. The last 25 years have seen a massive expansion of foreign investment, both in the entry of foreign firms and foreign financial investors. In an attempt to make up for the narrowness of the Indian market (which narrowness itself is the result of mass poverty), the ruling classes and global capital are increasingly resorting to grabbing assets of the people, including their meagre productive assets such as land and forest (and of course the minerals underneath). In doing so they are able to make full use of the autocratic character of the Indian State and political life. This is driving the present intensified onslaught against the peasantry, particularly the tribal peasantry, by foreign and domestic big capital.

5. Against the historical background sketched earlier, we can see that the democratic consciousness of the people (which is the base for the democratic rights movement) will grow in direct relation to the democratic movement of the country, i.e. the struggles of people for a better life and for a pro-people transformation of the present social order. Hence the democratic rights movement will have to base itself, not on abstract concepts such as universal human rights or paper constitutional rights, but on the people’s right to struggle for their betterment; it will advance in close association with the movement of people’s organisations; and it will be addressed ultimately to the broad masses of people, although its actual reach at any given time will depend on the state of the democratic movement in the country. 

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When I was invited for this lecture, I happened to talk with your president, Professor Golak Nath. He raised a question that had been troubling me as well. The recent demonetisation had a devastating impact on the masses of labouring people, particularly in the vast informal sector which accounts for the overwhelming bulk of employment in India. Even Amartya Sen, hardly a radical leftist, termed it “despotic”; now this description of the act of demonetisation is precise. Yet across this great land of such a vast population struggling to survive, there was no sizeable mass movement – let alone popular revolt – against such a despotic action. Why?

Although the demonetisation was a particularly wanton, sweeping and devastating action, it was by no means an isolated instance of despotism in this country, supposedly the world’s largest democracy. Let us take a seemingly unrelated question. As you are all aware, in your neighbour state, Chhattisgarh, the rulers have shed all pretence of rule of law, let alone democracy. Tyranny parades naked. The instances are too many to fully list. First the police authorities themselves set up private terrorist army, which perpetrates atrocities and drives a whole population of the most downtrodden to flee to a neighbouring state; when ordered by the courts to disband this private army, the authorities merely absorb it as a wing of the police force. The police are not there to enforce the law; the police are the law.

The regular security forces themselves commit crimes which make one weep to hear. What is most revealing is that the perpetrators make no attempt to perform these deeds in private; rather they perform them in public view. A tribal boy of 13, returning from gathering red ants from a mahua tree, is captured by security forces, tied to a tree trunk, and stabbed as he is interrogated; the child, hard of hearing, is unable to answer their questions; he is shot at point blank range in the presence of villagers. Similarly, the protectors of ‘law and order’ carry out gang rapes in a systematic and open fashion, on entire hamlets.

Those brave enough to investigate and document the ‘rule of law’ in Chhattisgarh, that is, the rule of the police, are treated as enemies of the State. One leading human rights activist is charged with the capital offence of sedition, and jailed; another’s ashram is demolished; lawyers are terrorised and turned out of their rental accommodation; journalists are jailed or driven out of the state; academics investigating State terror are charged with murder; a woman activist exposing police atrocities is tortured in police custody; a scholar documenting the worst atrocities is terrorised in an attempt to drive her out; the police hold demonstrations burning effigies of human rights activists.

Nor are these horrors unique to Chhattisgarh; Orissa receives similar treatment, albeit on a smaller scale so far. We know that similar attempts are being made to hound and persecute a leading activist of GASS. We also know that whole regions of the country, such as Kashmir, are under the sway of a law (the Armed Forces Special Powers Act) which in effect says that there is no law but the sweet will of the armed forces. When a human rights organisation holds a meeting in Bengaluru on the Kashmir question, its office bearers are charged with sedition. In Tamil Nadu, a people’s artist sings a song against the reigning empress; she has him arrested on a sedition charge.

In some other places, such as Gujarat, lumpen communal mobs are given a clear signal by the authorities to loot, murder, and rape at will; the police look the other way; when the authorities feel enough slaughter has taken place, they send another signal, and the riots stop. Later, it is those who try to bring the guilty to book that are instead hounded, while the guilty rise further and further in the political system.

It is precisely this feature – namely, that the rulers can switch off the rights we nominally enjoy as easily as one might switch off a light – that makes the term ‘despotism’ appropriate. Nor is this something new. The demonetisation measure of November 8 recalls the June 25, 1975, declaration of Emergency in its tyranny, except that the demonetisation’s effects are more widespread and with deeper economic linkages. Foreign and domestic big capital no doubt pressed for measures in the direction of digitisation, and no doubt they will benefit from the effects of demonetisation, but the actual decision appears to have been taken by a tiny coterie, perhaps to be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The Prime Minister discarded all the trappings of the supposedly hallowed institutions of the Indian State. Parliamentary supremacy? Let alone obtain prior legislative approval for demonetisation, or even issue an ordinance, the Prime Minister did not even deign to debate the question post facto in Parliament. The presidency? The President was not even informed, but only briefed 10 days later. The cabinet of ministers? They were informed, not consulted, an hour before Modi’s speech. Federalism? Most state governments – the units of the Indian State that are in direct contact with the people – were informed along with the general public. The Reserve Bank of India? The board of the RBI was informed at most a day in advance, and signed on the dotted line without a murmur; the RBI governor was reduced to the status of a glorified mute clerk (much like Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in 1975). This clerk in turn refused to part with even the bare minimum of information to Parliament, such as the quantum of withdrawn currency actually deposited, or whether he knew of the demonetisation in advance, or which Act ordained the action of November 8. The Supreme Court? After making a few critical noises, it discreetly refused to intervene. In brief, the entire episode was a most enlightening lesson in the actual political and practical content of these hallowed institutions, and regarding how much we can bank on them to protect our democratic rights.

Political economy
In what follows, I wish to make a connection between this despotism and the structure or character of the political economy of India, and the consequent tasks that get posed before the democratic rights movement. Before doing so, we must clarify what we mean by the terms ‘political economy’ and ‘democratic rights’.“Political economy” is a grand phrase, and may sound mysterious. But it in fact boils down to very simple things – at the base, it concerns what most people must do to survive.3In other words, how they must labour to go on living in the given society. (“Given” means in a historically defined period and place.) Phrases such as “make a living” (in English), or guzaara or jeevika (in Hindi), literally express that without labouring, most people cannot live. The actual labour people do in order to get enough to eat, how much they get to eat, the relations they form with other people (or with various sections or classes of society) in the course of trying to put together enough to eat, these realities so dominate working people’s lives that without understanding these hard facts and conditions, one can convey nothing to the people.

In order to “make a living”, in order to labour, people need to get access to the means of production – land, water, instruments or machines, raw materials, and so on. But who owns those means of production, or has the money with which they can be bought or rented? So who can extract a surplus from labour without themselves labouring? Who, lacking those means, must accept the terms on which they are allowed to labour? These relations between those who own the means/property and those who do not, between those who exercise control and those who do not have that control, are the essence of political economy, and determine how the fruits of labour get distributed. In class societies, these relations are necessarily hierarchical, whatever be the specific nature of that hierarchy, say, feudal or capitalist.

That hierarchy is sustained, reproduced, by the ruling group or class, which is a minority, even a tiny minority. It is no doubt sustained by the fetters of historically passed down culture and customs – the first line of guards against rebellion. But it is ultimately protected by coercion, force, punishment, even death for those who rebel.

On such oppressive terms, labour becomes a torment, even torture. Indeed, the English words “labour”, “work” and “toil”, all come from roots meaning pain, suffering, even torture.4 In Marathi, the word for labour is “kasht”, which as you know also means suffering. Throughout history people have been coerced to work, whether as slaves, or as feudal serfs, or as oppressed castes, or as workers in a capitalist society coerced by hunger.5

At the same time, the surplus yielded by the labour of the working people is appropriated by the propertied or dominant or powerful class in each society over the course of history. The accumulation of surplus thus grabbed then further consolidates the property and power of the ruling sections/classes. When the tormented labouring classes struggle to lighten the heavy burden of their toil, to get a larger share of the fruits of their labour, and thus to gain greater control over their own lives, the dominant minority uses all its means to suppress that struggle and defend its extraction of the surplus. This is the logic of repression, and of the social-political instruments to maintain that repression, of which the State is the most organised force. Thus repression is systemic (not individual).

This has taken different forms in different societies over history. At the heart of political economy is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions, the study of specific societies with a historical approach.6

Democratic rights
So we must apply a historical approach to the question of democratic rights. We are generally taught to think of ‘rights’ as something abstract and timeless – “given” or “taken away”. Human rights are thought of as coming from ‘natural law’ or eternal human values (now embodied, say, in the U.N. Charter), constitutional rights from the Constitution, legal rights from different legislations, and so on. But these ‘rights’ did not always exist, not even on paper. Even today, they do not really exist for most citizens of India, except on paper. The articulation of these ‘rights’ was the product of a long history, and the realisation of them remains a matter of future history.

The democratic rights movement always takes place in the context of a definite political economy, which in turn is a product of a specific historical process.

No rights were ever won except through a fight; and in societies based on exploitation, it is precisely the ruling classes, or some section thereof, who pose the main obstacle or threat to democratic rights. That is, this threat does not basically arise from some anti-democratic individual or even some party, or from some innate urge among humans to dominate and oppress others, or the inherently reactionary nature of some culture or religion. It arises rather from the need of the class that enjoys the surplus to keep the other classes down, and prevent them from reordering the sharing of the social product. Of course, they are confident their best interests will be served if all sorts of reactionary culture and tradition thrive, any unhealthy tendencies among sections of people are nurtured, and power-crazed individuals are given scope, for all such phenomena provide the rulers additional tools to suppress challenges to their system of exploitation.

As we noted earlier, the nature (or character) of that political economy also basically shapes the consciousness of the masses regarding their rights. As yet the underdeveloped societies have undergone only partial and distorted transformations, each of a unique pattern, and these patterns leave their stamp on the consciousness of the people.

So we need to understand the political economy, both in order to grasp the need for a democratic rights movement and to know how to build a democratic rights movement – i.e., both from the angle of demand for, and supply of, such a movement.


The very concept of ‘rights’ is itself the outcome of a long historical process.7 It is with the emergence of classes, and the emergence of the State as an instrument for the economically ruling class to hold down and exploit the oppressed class, that the notion of ‘rights’ emerges. Then, too, rights do not emerge in some abstract, universal form of the ‘rights of man’: “in most historical states the rights conceded to citizens are graded on a property basis, whereby it is directly admitted that the state is an organization for the protection of the possessing class against the non-possessing class.”8

This situation changed, or at least appeared to change, with the emergence of the ‘democratic’ republic. For this to emerge in Europe, it took a class struggle over several centuries between the bourgeoisie and the feudal classes. The first victorious struggle against the feudal classes was the English Civil War of 1642.9 In this struggle, the bourgeoisie took the lead, and the masses sided against the feudal oppressors and with the bourgeoisie. In order for Parliament, representing the trading and industrial propertied classes, to defeat the King representing feudal property, the fight needed to call upon wider masses of the population and represent the fight to the masses as being in their interests too as anti-feudal.Once having called the common people to political action for the first time in history, the new ruling classes could not easily put the genie back in the bottle. Parliament was “aware of the risks which appealing to the common people involved; but the simple fact remained that the royalists could not be beaten without arming and taxing ordinary people.”10 The Civil War thus unleashed a great wave of free expression and political thought for 18 years (1642-60), in which parties such as the Levellers, the Diggers, and the Ranters propagated radical ideologies. In 1642, the Diggers revived the radical preaching of the peasant revolt of 1381: “When Adam delved [i.e., tilled] and Eve span, who was then the gentleman [i.e., nobility]?”

Eventually, the Diggers and Levellers were defeated, and the rule of bourgeois property replaced the rule of feudal property, and stabilised its rule over the working masses. But there are lasting political consequences to having moved the people into political action. No King thereafter could forget that the people had executed King Charles. A royalist commented bitterly but pithily of the Parliament:

“They have cast all the mysteries and secrets of government … before the vulgar (like pearls before swine), and have taught both the soldiery and people to look so far into them as to ravel back all governments to the first principles of nature … They have made the people thereby so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to a civil rule.”11

The most developed instance of this struggle between feudalism and capitalism was the French revolution of 1789-93. It was a bloody struggle, in which the broad masses of peasantry and the urban downtrodden (the nascent proletariat) threw in their lot with the bourgeoisie in order to secure their liberation from feudal exploitation.

At the time of the French revolution, four-fifths of Europe’s people lived in the rural areas. Most lived under one or the other type of bondage or constraint. France was the most populous and powerful state, yet its peasantry, some 80 per cent of the population, were land-hungry and bore the growing burden of feudal dues, tithes and taxes. The July 1789 revolution in the capital city of Paris sparked revolt in the rural areas. The palatial houses of the nobility and the church abbeys were sacked by the peasants seeking to burn archives and force surrender of manorial rights. But the peasants also attacked the encroachments by the budding rural bourgeoisie: Free pasturage was reclaimed, enclosures destroyed, forests invaded, commons taken back or demanded for the first time.12

The French National Constituent Assembly in August 1789 passed the remarkable and sweeping Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen – a document asserting the right to liberty, freedom of thought and expression, equality of all citizens, due process of law, freedom of religion, the right of citizens to participate in public life, and so on. But, at the same time, it asserts the right to private property as an “inviolable and sacred right”.13 This right could only be enjoyed by a minority.

This set up a contradiction: could the propertyless masses use the other rights of the Declaration – free expression, association, due process of law, etc. – to agitate for seizing the private property of the rich, thus violating that “inviolable” right? The labouring masses of the cities indeed began to agitate for an egalitarian order, and certain radical democratic thinkers became their spokespersons. The direct democracy of the masses in the streets managed to hold its ground for a surprising length of time, and it was only with much effort that the bourgeoisie eventually succeeded in crushing these ‘extremists’.

[From the beginning the assertion of bourgeois democratic rights had global consequences for a political economy that was already dependent on colonial slavery and colonial exploitation. The Declaration of the Rights of Man in France was immediately seized upon by the people of the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) as a rationale for anti-colonial and anti-slavery struggle. The Declaration became central to the ideology of the Haitian Revolution and was employed in different ways by the various revolutionary classes (mulattoes, slaves, even the slave-owning planters).] 

Despite the ultimate defeat of radical democratic tendencies, the impact of the English and French revolutions, particularly the latter, was enormous and lasting. A revolutionary tide continued till 1848. We have recounted the above to make a simple point: Once the masses directly participated in revolution, going as far as (in the case of England and France) executing their monarchs, the new rulers could no doubt restore ‘order’, suppress the masses, exploit them, and even fool them, but the masses could never simply be sent back to their old consciousness. The masses would never ‘know their place’, and keep to it, as docilely as they had under feudalism.

Indian reality
Let us now turn to our country. At the time of the transfer of power to Indian hands in 1947, under an Act of the British Parliament (!), the population was overwhelmingly rural, the workforce overwhelmingly agrarian. It was widely acknowledged that the prevailing agrarian relations, shaped for the needs of colonial exploitation, were retrogressive, and held back the progress of not only agriculture but of the Indian economy as a whole. Indeed of Indian society itself. Parasitic forces (landlords, layers of intermediaries, usurers, officials) diverted the surpluses they extracted from the peasantry to luxury consumption, or redeployed them in parasitic or speculative activity. The stranglehold of such forces on the agrarian economy depressed the consumption of vast millions of producers, and thereby restricted the market for industrial goods, and in turn the growth of industry and the industrial working class. Also, it was too easily assumed among progressive circles that caste as an institution would be eliminated in the new India.

However, despite any number of official committees, surveys, and legislations, negligible progress was made in bringing about such change, indicating the grip of the parasitic classes on the State machinery itself. The area actually declared surplus under land ceiling laws was less than 2 per cent of the cultivated area, and even less was distributed, much of it of poor quality. Inevitably, while holdings have got subdivided, inequality in land distribution as such has not declined. According to the latest data, 2.2 per cent of ownership holdings account for 24.6 per cent of the area, and 7.2 per cent of the ownership holdings account for 46.7 per cent of the area.14 The authoritative Planning Commission Task Force on Land Reforms (1973) stated bluntly the reason why real land reforms did not take place in India: “Considering the character of the power structure obtaining in the country it was only natural that the required political will was not forthcoming.”15

And now, the new meaning of agrarian ‘reform’
Properly speaking, “agrarian reform” means a democratic reordering of rural productive assets, as the base for a democratic reordering of the political economy as a whole. But, over time, the emphasis in public discussion and Government policy shifted, first to promoting high-productivity pockets (the Green Revolution), then to ‘free’ the market in every sphere of agriculture. As the Planning Commission Working Group on Land Relations (2006) remarks:

From the mid-eighties when liberalization started entering the Indian economy at first rather stealthily and then with thunderous gale force from 1991, land reform went off the radar screen of the Indian polity. It became a forgotten agenda. Marketers in the Government find it repugnant to talk about it, just in case the operators in the market get frightened by any state intervention in the land market. They are finding the existing land reform laws that were enacted on the basis of Central Guidelines of early seventies not only unwanted road blocks but also obnoxious to the free play of capital in the land market. Hence there is strong lobby to enhance or give up land ceilings, to recognize tenancies and allow free market forces to determine terms and conditions of tenancy leases to allow corporate houses to enter the agrarian sector to introduce direct capitalist farming or to go in for contract farming to move away from tradition of crop husbandry to export oriented crop production and the like.16

Now ‘reform’ means the dismantling of protections for the peasants, and transfering of assets to landed interests and the corporate sector. In another reversal, official quarters now are pressing for reviving and legitimising tenancy, which once was condemned as a parasitic institution.

For the phenomenon of peasant suicides, which has grown rapidly under the neoliberal regime, the rulers do not propose ending exploitation by traders and usurers; instead, their ‘solution’ is to create more scope for global agribusiness giants to enter Indian agriculture. But in fact the phenomenon of peasant suicides is also linked with the policy of so-called ‘globalisation’: rising input prices, dependence on firms like Monsanto for seeds, dismantling of public extension services, dependence on private extension services, systematic undermining of public procurement, opening of India to agricultural imports, and increased vulnerability to swings in global commodity prices.It is obvious that any programme of conscious agrarian change would have to be carried out through a political process, and hence would confront the question of political power, i.e., class rule. Regardless of the changes that have taken place in the last six decades, and the official

spread of so-called panchayati raj, even now the Indian village is hardly a democracy of small owner-peasants. Rather, the Indian village is by and large a site of profoundly oppressive and arbitrary power exercised by the rural propertied classes, largely drawn from the dominant castes.As a study of the distribution of household wealth in India puts it, “Land continues to remain the symbol and substance of both wealth and power in rural India.”17

Land ownership is key to the sway and exercise of authority by the rural rich. Other factors – ownership of other productive assets; control over nominally common property resources (water, common lands, government land); caste domination; influence with officials and parliamentary politicians, and influence on elections – play their role in conjunction with land ownership. Moreover, the dominant land holders also shape the markets for credit, inputs, output, and labour.

While the Constitution, elections, institutions, etc, give all the trappings of democracy, the political economy determines that those trappings have little meaning for the vast masses, and the actual content of the State’s relation with the people is profoundly undemocratic.

Structural transformation, or deformation?
Over the decades the share of the workforce in agriculture has declined slowly, even as its share of national income has fallen much more sharply; in other words, the income per person employed in agriculture has lagged further and further behind the income in other sectors. Recently, the pace of workers exiting from agriculture has picked up. This has prompted some to believe that the Indian economy is undergoing a positive transformation. But what are the workers exiting to? Are they being drawn into other sectors, or merely being thrown out of agriculture?

Indeed it was long expected (ever since 1947) that the Indian economy would shift from subsistence activities, agriculture and informal modes of work to capitalist, industrial and formal sectors. Labour markets were expected to become more rule-based. That is to say, it was expected that more and more workers would be wage earners rather than self-employed; they would be either fully employed or fully unemployed; and employment would be formal (with job specificity and security, clear rules to govern employment conditions, retirement benefits and other legal protections). It was also expected that there would be greater unionisation, and that unions and collective bargaining would have a greater role in industrial relations.18 (Below I have tried to present this in tabular form.)


However, in India we find something very different happening:

* The share of self-employment (agriculture, petty retail, artisans, micro manufacturing units, etc) has declined extremely slowly, and still constitutes at least half of all employment.19

* The proportion of regular wage/salary earners in total employment has hardly grown, and remains a small minority.20

* What has grown is the proportion of casual workers in total employment, till they now constitute nearly a third of the workforce.21

Thus there is a partial shift from self-employment to casual work, but not to regular work.


* The share of the organised sector is still less than one-fifth of total employment.22

* More importantly, “organised sector employment” does not mean a formal job. Within the organized sector, the share of informal workers (those without employment stability and social security, such as ‘casual’, ‘contract’, ‘apprentice’, etc.) has risen steeply in recent years. In fact, the majority of the organized sector workforce now consists of informal workers.23

* The unorganised sector accounts for 82 per cent of all workers.24 In this way informal workers (in the organised and unorganised sectors combined) account for about 92 per cent of the total workers. Employment as such, therefore, is of low quality, devoid of the characteristics of decent employment.25

This, we must note, is not in line with the conventional theory of development or with what was experienced historically by today’s developed countries.Although the employment share of agriculture has fallen during the post-1991 ‘liberalisation’ period, agriculture remains the single largest sector of the workforce.26

There has been only a small increase in the employment share of manufacturing, which remains exceedingly low (less than 13 per cent for all types of manufacturing, including micro and small units).
Some service industries – trade, transport, storage, hotels and restaurants, telecommunications, finance, real estate, business services – have increased their employment share. These are sectors which would include a good number of ‘middle class’ jobs. But they also include large numbers of insecure, low-wage jobs. At the same time, another source of middle class jobs, namely, ‘community, social and personal services’ (largely Government jobs, and therefore relatively secure employment) actually saw its share shrink.

Only one sector has seen a dramatic increase, namely, construction. Its share has risen from 3.1 per cent of the workforce in 1993-94 to 10.6 per cent in 2011-12. This is a particularly sweated sector, in which nearly the entire workforce is informal and insecure, and there is a near-complete absence of trade union organization and actual accountability for the life and safety of the workers. It is the poorest states that are usually the biggest exporters of construction workers across India, and I am sure you know better than I that one can find young Oriya labourers on construction sites across this vast country.

The life of people
This is the labour in which our people are engaged, which determines what they eat, how they subsist. Of course, we know that official estimates of poverty show a steady decline, and now only a fifth or so of the population are officially poor. The World Bank has gone a step further, with a recent document placing India’s poor at just 12.4 per cent of the population in 2011-12! At this rate, poverty will soon be wiped out, at least in the imaginations of Indian and international bureaucrats and economists!By contrast, an official committee (NCEUS, also known as the Sengupta Commission) famously defined the “poor and vulnerable” as constituting 77 per cent of the population in 2004-05.27 Ever since then, the NCEUS figure has haunted the rulers’passion to slash social expenditures. Economists of the establishment have thus tried to denigrate the Sengupta Commission methodology, but other measures too turn up similar figures for the “poor and vulnerable” segment of the population.28 And it turns out that the majority of the population are getting less food than they need. According to one estimate three out of four people in India consume less calories than the official calorie norm.29

An important point to note is that the protein content of the diet is actually declining.

Nearly half of all rural households live in houses made of kuccha material such as grass, bamboo, mud/unburnt brick, and so on. Around 70 per cent of all rural houses have just one or two rooms. Less than 10 per cent of the rural population reach the higher secondary level of education.30 The 2011 Census tells us that nearly two-thirds of rural India did not have a source of drinking water at home. The physical condition of our people is abysmal. Our children are malnourished, stunted, and anaemic,31 and it is well-established that these conditions also affect their cognitive abilities. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, India’s share of the world’s undernourished actually rose between 1990-92 and 2010-12  — in the liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation period.32

Above we have touched on three facts – the failure of agrarian reform, the stunted and distorted pattern of employment, and the miserable condition of the people. It is fashionable nowadays to ignore the connections between these three facts. Whereas it is well-established that agrarian reform is necessary not only for improving the condition of the masses, but also for laying the base for thoroughgoing industrial development and genuine diversification of employment.

Development is taking a perverse path, in which the 92 per cent of the workforce is kept in the twilight of informal employment, largely without security or decent income, so much so that their bodies are being worn down faster than they can be restored. More and more workers are joining the already vast numbers in work that is of low productivity. Their productivity is low, despite the hard labour they put in, because of the pattern of investment in the economy as a whole, which channels vast capital to the summit of the organised sector while dumping the general labour force into the pit of subsistence activities. This persisting, indeed growing, dominance of the subsistence mode contradicts the picture of a modernising economy.

At the same time, this vast pool of under-employed and semi-starved toilers enables the summit of the economy to flourish. The informal workers enable this,

(i) by providing a range of cheap goods and services which directly enter into corporate sector production (e.g, through subcontracting);

(ii) by producing cheap goods and services which form part of the consumption of workers/employees in the corporate sector, thus helping to keep down the wage bill of the corporate sector; and

(iii) by acting as a ‘reserve army’ of labour which can be used by capitalists to threaten their existing workers with sacking.

Thus as informal sector employment/semi-employment grows, the corporate sector fattens off it. Even as the share of the ‘organised sector’ in national income has risen, its share in employment has fallen.

It is remarkable and significant that, between 2000 and 2016, the share of the country’s wealth owned by the top 1 per cent grew from 36.8 per cent to 58.4 per cent.33 There has been a rapid increase in the number of billionaires in India, as also in the assets and power of the corporate sector in the Indian economy. There has been a massive increase in foreign ownership of Indian assets, not only through the direct entry/expansion of foreign firms, but through foreign investors in India’s share markets and debt markets, and foreign commercial loans to the Indian corporate sector. There are three implications.

(i) There is a huge drain, which as a share of GDP is calculated to be comparable to that under British rule.34

(ii) If any policy does not please foreign investors, they threaten to move out, precipitating a crisis; thus all Governments, regardless of party or formal positions, actually adopt near-identical policies in the interests of foreign investors. (iii) As a result, the rituals of parliamentary democracy have become hollower than ever.

Pervasive oppressions and divisions
The Indian workforce is perhaps the world’s most stratified, the world’s most divided. It is segmented not only by gender and location, but also by the hoary institutions of caste and religion. Dalits and Adivasis, who make up a quarter of the population, suffer the highest rates of poverty, the highest rates of undernutrition and premature mortality, and the lowest access to education.

Dalits suffer exclusion from cultivable land, a particularly important exclusion because 80 per cent of them live in the rural areas, and two-thirds are employed in agriculture. They are thus forced to work as hired labour or casual labour. This, in turn, bolsters and sustains their unique social oppression, rooted in the ancient institution of caste. A Planning Commission Expert Group noted: “Dalits continue to face many kinds of social  discrimination, related for instance to residence, food, clothing, marriage and employment. Even untouchability, the most blatant form of social discrimination against Dalits, persists in many forms…. Large-scale human rights violations, crimes and atrocities have been perpetuated against the SCs in the rural areas. These pertain to civil rights (right to vote, right of access to public places, etc.), social rights (freedom of movement, access to education, etc.), economic rights (ownership of property, change in employment, operating businesses, joining labour unions, etc.) and political rights… The Constitution of India and various legislative and policy measures have created entitlements to undo this structure of oppression. But the traditionally privileged classes have had an undue influence on the process of implementation of these measures.”35

I shall not speak here about the population of Scheduled Tribes in India, which you are well aware of. Their population was put at 104 million in the last Census; if they were a separate nation, they would be just behind Japan, at 12th place in the nations of the world, by size of population. The main causes of their deprivation are related to loss of control over the forest and its resources, and their wanton displacement by the ruling classes. From the British Raj to today, their landlord sits in Delhi, and his forest bureaucracy and police back the assorted exploiters at the ground level, such as sahukars, contractors, timber mafias, and nowadays giant corporations.

Nor shall I dilate on the condition of Muslims, 14 per cent of the population. As the Sachar Committee noted, the economic situation of Muslims is comparable, in terms of poverty and exclusion, to that of Dalits and Adivasis (although the forms of exclusion are distinct). The Committee brought out their lack of access to education, health services, jobs (particularly organised sector jobs, and other wage employment), infrastructure, and bank credit, and linked this to their extreme poverty.

[We must not forget the role of the social institution of gender in stratifying and oppressing the working people. Women suffer discrimination both in the nature of work and its terms. In India, less than one-fourth of women (aged 15 and above) are in what is officially termed the labour force, compared to three-fourths of men. There are few economies in the world that exclude women to this extent.Of course, this does not mean women in India are not working! It just means they are doing unpaid work inside and outside the home, activities which are essential to social reproduction, but are devalued by society flowing from the social institution of gender. In line with this social devaluation, the conventional system by which GDP is calculated ignores these activities, in which women play the overwhelming role (household maintenance, management and shopping for one’s own household; care of children, the sick, elderly and disabled of one’s own household; and community service and help to other households).36 The more oppressed the status of women, and the more women’s work is socially devalued, the lower the wage the employer can pay the male worker. And this holds twice over for paid work of women. As agriculture has become more and more unviable, agricultural work has been increasingly left to women (though land continues to be held in the name of male members, with women by and large denied title to the land). Three-fourths of women workers are in agriculture. Nearly two out of five marginal cultivators, a majority of forestry/plantation workers, and three out of five workers in animal husbandry are women.37 Naturally, in such a situation, the agrarian crisis is increasingly faced by women, and the response to it will involve the struggles and mobilisation of women even more prominently than before. Indeed we understand that there has been a rise in women’s participation in mass struggles, in Orissa as well as elsewhere.] The link between social stratification or exclusion and economic status can be seen in the fact that the mean per capita consumption expenditure for ‘General’ category households is about 80 per cent more than for SCs, STs, and Muslims.38 In one sense social and cultural norms reproduce this exclusion daily, automatically, in countless ways. But it is also maintained by violence. And the subtle threat of violence is never far from the surface. Any challenge, even psychological or cultural, to the existing order is punished. As I write this, comes news of Mirchpur, the Haryana village in which, five years ago, upper caste men burnt alive a 70-year-old Dalit and his disabled daughter, as well as the homes of 18 other Dalit households. The latest attack was triggered by the victory of a Dalit boy in a 1600 metre race at the Government school. A month later, the winner of the race, and eight of his friends, were attacked by upper-caste men armed with rods. Regarding the physical violence wreaked on Muslims (and their consequent ghettoisation and greater dependence on elites of their community) and on Adivasis I shall not speak more here.

Fragmented, isolated consciousness
The above facts give a few glimpses of the material base of people’s lives, the material base that shapes the consciousness of the people. The fragmented nature of most employment outside agriculture gives rise to an isolated consciousness, rather than the collective consciousness of a growing industrial workforce. As for the peasantry, it is really in the course of peasant movements that they can forge a collective; and the real democratic peasant movement, having faced setbacks, is in a defensive situation today.There have been three great waves of peasant movement in India in the 20th century39:

The first wave was in the 1930s, when the Great Depression induced collapse of crop prices triggering movements against land rent and land tax; the second wave was during the immediate post-World War II period (1946-51), in the form of the Tebhaga movement in Bengal, the Warli revolt in Maharashtra, the Kishangarh revolt in Punjab, the Punnapra Vayalar revolt in Kerala, and most of all the Telangana Armed Struggle; and the third wave was from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, which witnessed movements in Naxalbari, Midnapore, Srikakulam, Lakhimpur-Kheri, and many other places in the country, including in south Orissa.

However, these waves of peasant movement were either repeatedly crushed by repression or aborted by political failures. And, over time, there has been a great setback to the consciousness of the peasantry. Today, instead of poor peasants demanding land from the landed or the State, it is the ruling class that demands the land of the poor peasants, in the name of ‘development’. Instead of masses of peasants attacking usurers (as, say, indebted peasants had done during the 1875 Deccan Revolt in Maharashtra), today indebted peasants are attacking themselves and well over 3 lakh have committed suicide since 1998. There can be no more stark expression of individual isolation and despair than suicide; for this to be replicated lakhs of times is a terrible comment on the state of our peasantry.

Material conditions for autocracy
Such benighted conditions for the masses provide soil for autocracy. I believe the above picture provides at least part of the explanation for the question with which I began this talk, namely, why did the downtrodden people not rise up in resistance, if not revolt, against ‘demonetisation’? While opinions regarding the measure among the ‘articulate’ classes may have been divided, the main victims of this brutal exercise simply do not have a voice in the absence or weakness of their own fighting organisations. Their day to day oppressions and periodic calamities find no outlet;  and on this occasion, amid a barrage of propaganda from the powers that be, and the general state of repression, they simply had to focus on sheer survival.

The U.P. election results are now being paraded as confirmation that the “people” support the decision to demonetise. However, the actual practice of parliamentary elections in India has nothing to do with people’s democratic consciousness and expression of free will. From the results, we may get hints of what people are hoping, fearing, and so on, but the result is never a democratic ‘mandate’ for this or that policy or decision. Indeed, all the parliamentary political parties essentially represent the ruling classes and as such they are undifferentiated as to their basic programme and policy. They are all also openly opportunistic in their alliances and “enmities”. What they do differ on is their method of implementing.

The BJP this time did not even campaign on the issue of demonetisation. Instead, in line with what we have discussed earlier, the overwhelming bulk of votes were cast along caste and communal lines (for all the three main contenders – BJP, SP, and BSP). In this competition, the SP and BSP were locked into their own identity-bases. The BJP not only retained its base among certain dominant communities and castes, but, in the last three years, it broadened its support-base – by more skilfully and systematically engineering vote-banks of individual OBC/SC castes/sub-castes, expanding its network of power-brokers, and intensifying communal polarisation (note that Modi and Shah personally used slogans regarding kabristans and Kasab). Using these means, and the usual ‘anti-incumbancy’ factor against the earlier SP government, BJP has   essentially managed to retain most of the vote-share it obtained in UP in the 2014 general elections.

It is true that a section of the people who were harmed by demonetisation also believed that their suffering was somehow “worth it for the good of the nation”, and that Modi is a fearless leader. But that precisely underlines the fact that the people, in the absence of their class organisation and class struggle, are prey to all sorts of myths and notions cunningly spread by powerful interests.

From our point of view we have to note that, using its slightly larger support-base and overwhelming parliamentary dominance, the BJP is now in a better position to claim a popular mandate for all it is doing. It will thereby be able to ram through many more anti-people measures than earlier.Let us take another striking example of autocracy in contemporary India: namely, the method with which land has been acquired from peasants, particularly tribal peasants, over the decades. According to one estimate, the total number of those displaced or deprived of their livelihood by ‘development’ projects during 1947-2000 was more than 60 million, of which only about one-third have been re-settled in a planned manner. Of these persons, 40 per cent were tribals (i.e., five times their share of the population) and Dalits another 20 per cent.40

It is likely that the period since 2000, when so-called ‘development’ has been at its most rapacious, would have seen a sharp rise in the rate of displacement. Could such despotic measures even be contemplated against the ‘articulate’ classes, the urban middle and upper classes? Clearly, the ruling classes and global capital have banked on the profoundly undemocratic social order in the countryside to carry out a vast seizure of rural assets.

But increasingly this regime of dispossession has faced resistance. This vast land-grab, in itself an act of violence, has also required an accompaniment of armed violence, both by uniformed and civilian goons. A recent study analysed 289 ongoing land-related conflicts in the country. Together these conflicts affect close to 32 lakhs (3.2 million) people and span close to 12 lakhs (1.2 million) hectares of land in India. Three-quarters of the land-related conflicts involved common lands, either forests or non-forests. More than 40 percent of all land-related conflicts involve forest lands, mostly concentrated in regions where customary rights of tribal communities are not recognized. Districts with Schedule V Areas, with sizeable tribal populations, have 1.5 times the number of conflicts of the national average. Tribal communities account for almost one-third of the total number of people affected by conflicts. Land acquisition by the government is a major cause of land conflict, involving 60 percent of all reported cases. Those thus threatened with destitution turn to those who are willing to help them resist, and so districts affected by so-called ‘left-wing extremism’ have 1.5 times the number of land conflicts of the national average.41

As we mentioned earlier, the failure of the Indian State to carry out agrarian reform, in the true sense of the word, leads to poverty of the masses, and this in turn means there is a paucity of demand in the economy. Since the 1980s, the rulers have tried to overcome this demand constraint by creating financial bubbles: expanding foreign debt, bank debt to industry and consumers, and share market manias. However, when these bubbles burst, as they must, the underlying demand constraint resurfaces, and the corporate sector finds itself in a recession. We are in the middle of one such recession.Such recessions slow down the process of wealth-accumulation drive of foreign investors and the Indian big bourgeoisie, which drive is their very reason to live. They find this situation intolerable, and call for extraordinary measures to revive that drive. And so the corporate sector demands that the State boost investors’ ‘animal spirits’ (i.e., their urge to invest for profit) by handing over to them huge wealth – either in the form of subsidies, or public sector assets, or natural resources. One study found that of India’s 46 billionaires in 2012, 20 had drawn their primary source of wealth (at least originally) from sectors in which monopolistic economic power and the help of State agencies played a crucial role – e.g., real estate, construction, infrastructure, and mining.42 Note also the increasingly direct intervention of the corporate sector in the country’s political life and policy-making, with many corporate bigwigs trying to enter Parliament directly.

Therefore, ironically, the very poverty of the masses, which makes them a poor market for the corporate sector, ultimately triggers a State-led dacoity of their meagre assets.For this purpose the repressive forces of the State have been greatly beefed up. There is much that can be said about this, but I shall cite just one set of facts, which did not receive the attention they deserve. The Seventh Pay Commission report brings out that India has just one-fifth the number of central government employees43 per lakh of population as the US. Inevitably, with such skeletal staffing, the services the Government is meant to extend to the people are woefully inadequate. But even further, in India the Ministry of Home Affairs accounted for 55 per cent of Central Government employment.44

Civilian employment of the defence ministry accounted for another 22 per cent, giving a grand 77 per cent for ‘security’. During 2006-14 every major ministry/department witnessed a decline in staffing, with the exception of the Ministry of Home Affairs/Police, which saw a rise of 32 per cent. This is perfectly in line with the basic function of the existing State power which we described above.

In brief, the basis of autocracy and arbitrary rule lies in the stifled and aborted democratic transformation of India, reflected in its distorted political economy. The consciousness formed on the basis of this political economy breeds helplessness and submission; the ruling classes reinforce this amply with terror, in both day-to-day and organised forms, whenever necessary.

[Ideological instruments and counter-measures
Perhaps the most conspicuous threat to democratic rights we witness today is that emanating from communal fascist forces. The economic fragmentation/atomisation of working people we have described above, and the people’s consequent sense of alienation and insecurity, supply fertile soil for the ruling classes to nurture sectarian identities and reactionary solidarities. Indeed, the Indian ruling classes have developed the uses of communal fascist ideology to the level of an art. The most powerful evidence of the strength of this ideological influence is not in the communal pogroms that go by the name of ‘riots’, horrible though they are. Rather, it is in the way communal fascist ideas are more and more made commonplace, treated as ‘common sense’, woven into the fabric of social life, and identified with the ‘nation’. This is a potent means by which to mobilise support for all sorts of reactionary and anti-democratic measures: for example, suppression of free speech, the right to organise, intellectual and religious freedom.

In this toxic, lumpenised, communal atmosphere, the suppression of all other rights too has become so much easier for the ruling classes. In the last month, even as one communal fanatic after another has been acquitted of grave charges, leading union activists of the Maruti Suzuki workers and activists of movements resisting corporate-led globalisation (Professor Saibaba and others) have been awarded life sentences by criminal courts.

Long experience has underlined an old lesson: that a truly effective struggle against false identities and reactionary solidarities requires a base of organisation on the basis of real identities, real solidarities, of the oppressed sections.

On the one hand, working people are fragmented by caste, gender, religion, etc. On the other, all of these fragments are being influenced by the corporate mass media, which have grown exponentially in the past 25 years of neoliberal globalisation. These media actually reinforce that fragmentation, by promoting consumerism, individualism, sexism, national chauvinism, and even outright sectarian hatreds. Such media have had a particularly powerful effect among the vocal intermediate sections, but their penetration has gone even further, to sections of the masses. This penetration has made the task of countering the ruling class manipulation and propaganda even more challenging. At the same time, the interlinked processes of the spread of mobile telephony, digitisation, and centralised identification (Aadhaar) are providing the ruling classes means of wider and wider access, supervision, and control over the masses.

Even such formidable methods of influence and control can be countered through democratic media. But to build such media it is necessary to have an alternative base, which can be found only in organised democratic struggles.]

*          *          *

Against the historical background sketched earlier, we can see that the democratic consciousness of the people, which is the basis for the democratic rights movement, will grow in close relation with the real democratic movement of the country. By ‘democratic movement’ we mean the struggles of people for a better life and for a pro-people transformation of the present social order. In the course of their movements for a better life, people are able to overcome their isolation from one another, and to forge struggling collectives. This experience can provide a tangible basis for them to embrace a progressive collective vision for society. It is only the democratic movement that (in the disapproving words of that English royalist we quoted earlier) can make “people thereby so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit” to their ‘social superiors’.

As the people acquire democratic consciousness, the ruling classes respond with all the more repression. It is in these circumstances that the democratic rights movement can play an important role, rallying broader sections against the repression on any section. Its relation to the democratic movement is like that of an arm or leg to the backbone: it can play a very important role, to the extent there is a strong backbone. At times it even does things which trigger a democratic movement, but its sustenance ultimately also depends on the latter.

Among other classes, such as the educated and articulate sections – employees, professionals, intellectuals – many individuals too embrace a broader democratic vision, either from their experience or by identifying with others’ experiences. For these sections, too, the ability to withstand depends greatly on the broader democratic movement. It is struggles like POSCO and Niyamgiri that put a little spine into us all.

Hence the democratic rights movement is not an umpire in a cricket match; it is partisan with the people. It will have to base itself, not on abstract concepts such as universal human rights or paper constitutional rights, but on the people’s right to struggle for their betterment; it will advance in close association with the movement of people’s organisations, that is, the movement for real democratisation of India; and it will have to address ultimately the broad masses of people, although its actual reach at any given time will depend on the state of the democratic movement in the country.

In sum, to repeat, the democratic rights movement must associate itself with this movement for democratic change, and with the masses.