Charter of Vishnusena and the Indian State

People who are unfamiliar with the Indian cultural DNA talk of freedoms being curtailed in India. They fantasise about a powerful right-wing state in India. But the state first needs to exist, substantively, before it can be either right or left-wing. The fact is that for many decades, the state has barely existed in India. Its coercive power is uncertain, arbitrary and whimsical.

M Rajivlochan
Historian

Indians like freedom. They dislike taking orders. From anyone. For anything. They much prefer to do things of their own volition. Whether it be for following a religion, or a baba, or getting married, or electing an MLA. There isn't a single philosopher in India's history who has pontificated on the need, value and uses of freedom. You don't talk of the necessity to protect and preserve oxygen when it is freely available for every breath. The task of discussing the significance of freedom, its moral value, has been left to European philosophers where freedom was actually a rare thing. 

In Indian history, the Charter of Vishnusena, from the sixth century documents, was the pact made by the merchants of Lohata (Gujarat) with samanta Vishnusena. It was called "açara-sthiti-patra" (Charter of Ethical Behaviour). Vishnusena inscribed it on a copper plate. In it was listed how no official could board or lodge with people for free while on tour, no one could be arrested while performing pooja, those arrested could not be handcuffed etc. 

In British history, an analogous charter of rights and privileges was created in the 12th century which limited the King's authority: The Magna Carta. It talked of the freedom of the barons vis-á-vis the King. The merchants and the public had no such protection.

In harmony with the Indian relationship with freedom is the dislike of the Indian state to govern and, its great tolerance of the free rider. For some time, the modern Indian state did make a show of governing. The colonial state soon learnt its lesson — to stop treading on Indian toes — when it faced the Great Rebellion by its Hindu and Muslim sepoys in 1857. Subsequently, the colonial state stopped its effort to impose on India, focused on collecting taxes and using the Indian army to fight its colonial wars. All Indians who joined the colonial Indian army joined willingly. So much so, that in 1942, Master Tara Singh, the redoubtable Sikh leader, even refused to participate in the Quit India Movement, saying that Sikhs benefited from joining the army and going to war. Consequently, the Quit India Movement, like the earlier Individual Satyagraha movement of 1941, failed in Punjab.

After Independence, under the socialist impulse of the 1950s, the Government of India tried to become the vanguard of change. Its short-lived effort to frog-march Indian society towards development and modernity collapsed by the 1970s, when enough people discovered ways and means for gaming the system, siphoning off the cream. Indians called it 'corruption' and preferred to blame Indira Gandhi for it, rather than their own propensity to not work collectively under any system.

Even the caste system of India, the only 'system' said to 'regulate' Indian society, is entirely arbitrary and based on mutual contempt. Calling it a 'system' is abominable. Its supposed religious, social and cultural sanctions are mythical, treated with contempt by everyone who can. The so-called system exists merely as an excuse for the rich and the powerful to bully the weak and the poor.

Behen Mayawati, in front of whom a powerful Jat leader like Ajit Singh takes off his shoes, is no exception. Before her, it was the ancestors of Jyotiraditya Shinde (anglicised to 'Scindia') and, the great Shivaji, who jumped caste boundaries. Then, of course, there are the thousands of boys and girls, across history, across India, every year, who routinely violate caste-based sanctions, disobey parents and village society, to get married to people who belong to a caste lower than their own. 

People who are unfamiliar with the Indian cultural DNA talk of freedoms being curtailed in India. They fantasise about a powerful right-wing state in India. But, first the state needs to exist, substantively, before it can be either right or left-wing. The fact is that for many decades, the state has barely existed in India. Its coercive power is uncertain, arbitrary and whimsical. A sheep in wolf's clothing remains a sheep.

A leading lawyer argued against the Aadhaar programme. "Inalienable and natural rights [of citizens] have been made dependent upon compulsorily acquiring an Aadhaar number," he thundered. When after much deliberation, the Supreme Court acknowledged the right of the government to verify the identity of its citizens, it was a watershed moment in Indian history. For once, the state in India was making an effort to effectively reach out to all citizens instead of merely making polite noises about serving the people. 

Laws that define who a citizen is and what the rights are, are part and parcel of modern state systems. Never having been restricted by any institutional system makes the Indian cultural DNA very resistant to following generalised rules.

The present government in India is trying to create a paradigm of governance that has no precedent in the history or traditions of India. It gets accused of promoting intolerance by anyone who cares to speak out. Intolerant India is a slogan that does not refer to any specific set of instances where the rights of citizens were subverted, but to a deep sense of discomfort at being governed. 

Many expressions of dissent in India are very interesting in their desire to challenge the state. Urban Naxalism is one such. In 2007, the CPI (Maoist) wrote a strategy document on how to mobilise students, middle class employees, women, Dalits and religious minorities, to force a revolution in India. The strategy clearly and explicitly said that they would try to get into communities, divide communities on emotive issues, and try to trigger riots and violence. This, by the way, was precisely how the liberal British, led by John Morley, also tried to strengthen their control over India in the early 20th century. 

The Indian Constitution guarantees to the citizens the right to freedom of expression which includes the right to disagree. But reasonable restrictions on the right would also mean restrictions on actively encouraging conflicts between communities, peddling lies and hate speeches. In April this year, when the Election Commission expressed helplessness against divisive speeches by politicians, it was pulled up by the Supreme Court. On April 15, a chastened Election Commission prohibited Yogi Adityanath, Mayawati, Azam Khan and Maneka Gandhi from campaigning for 48 to 72 hours.

When the powerful are pulled up for their misdemeanours, we clap. When the less powerful misuse the freedoms granted by the Constitution to foment trouble and they are pulled up, we should accept that as well. Cocking a snook at authority for its own sake should not be deemed to be a morally acceptable activity. 

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