Response to Vishnupad and Hansen
From the Series: Reading Achille Mbembe in Indian Majoritarian Politics
From the Series: Reading Achille Mbembe in Indian Majoritarian Politics
Vishnupad began this exchange by applying to India the three cultural configurations suggested by Achille Mbembe (2006) as possible frames to define the place of violence in postcolonial politics. Vishnupad’s conclusion is that, beginning with an attempt in the Nehru period to reduce political violence through the institutionalization of practices of the rule of law within a culture of multiparty electoral democracy, India has in recent years seen a shift toward a second configuration of majoritarian dominance in which controlled violence is sanctioned if it is exercised in pursuit of the supposedly legitimate demands of the majority. Vishnupad stops short of suggesting that this could be just a step away from moving to Mbembe’s third configuration of necropolitics, that is, the violent expulsion or annihilation of the minority.
Thomas Blom Hansen responds by arguing that neither in the British period nor after independence was the rule of law ever established in India on firm liberal principles. Instead, the law has always been applied differentially to different classes of people and dominant groups could always resort to the arbitrary use of violence to preserve their power. An apparent respect for the law could be maintained in the Nehru period only because the political culture was that of an Anglophile elite democracy. With the entry of wider sections of the population into the political arena, vernacular ideas of popular sovereignty produced a culture of populist democracy in which all sections of political opinion, from left to right, participated in a culture that sanctioned the instrumental use of violence to achieve so-called popular demands. According to Hansen, except for a few marginal minority groups, intellectual opinion in India has never affiliated itself with the liberal principles of constitutional patriotism described by Habermas as the necessary foundation of a plural and just modern democracy.
I strongly disagree with both of these arguments. While building on a set of correct observations about political practices that prevail in India, both Vishnupad and Hansen relapse into the claim that postcolonial democracy is a pathological perversion of a more desirable form of liberal polity enshrined in Western democracies. I believe that their arguments should be turned around into the claim that postcolonial democracies like India are today revealing features that were always a constitutive, even if concealed, part of Western democracy.
Let me sketch here an outline of what might be called a postcolonial view of Western democracy. Liberal representative government in Europe and North America has never been comfortable with the idea of popular democratic participation. It began with the two great revolutionary moments in the history of the modern nation-state. The American Revolution created the political foundation for white settler liberalism based on the expulsion of Native Americans to clear the land for European settlement and the import of African slaves to supply labor for European property owners. The expansion of suffrage was the result of long, hard, and relentless struggle that has not yet ended. Even today, practices continue, ranging from underrepresentation in public institutions to voter suppression, which effectively exclude minorities from political participation. The rule of law has always applied differentially in the United States between European settlers, on the one hand, and Native Americans, Blacks, Hispanics, and non-European immigrants on the other, as any civil rights lawyer will testify. As far as the sanctioned use of violence is concerned, from border protection and security checks to police brutality and incarceration, the overwhelming proportion of victims are minorities. Why, then, should we not say that American democracy, founded on necropolitics (the forcible expulsion of Native Americans), has now become an example of Mbembe’s second configuration, that is, a majoritarian democracy?
To turn to Europe, beginning with the French Revolution, the history of European democracy has been no different. Cutting across the differences between various factions in the revolutionary leadership, there emerged a commonly shared concern with containing, and ultimately suppressing, the political initiative of the so-called sans culottes. Even as the idea of popular sovereignty as the only legitimate foundation of the modern state gained ground in Europe through the spread of linguistic nationalism and democratic revolutions in the nineteenth century, the suspicion of popular political participation continued. In Britain, even as there was pressure to expand suffrage, resistance in intellectual circles, including such jurisprudential luminaries as Henry Maine and James Fitzjames Stephen (both newly returned from India), was fierce. As for the rule of law, its origins long preceded the era of democracy and its procedures were devised to remove the element of arbitrariness in the working of state absolutism: a crucial phase in the emergence of the idea of the unique and bounded territorial jurisdiction of nation-states. The emergence of mass democracies in Europe in the twentieth century has involved, let us not forget, significant phases of populist claim-making, including, needless to say, the necropolitical violence of fascism. From the point of view I am taking here, European fascism must be regarded not as an incidental aberration but as an essential component of the history of democracy in several Western and Central European countries.
The constitutional patriotism that European liberals speak of today is the wishful remembrance of an era that perfectly fits Hansen’s description of “elite democracy, in which a democratic order and liberal principles of lawfulness were mediated by the paternalist power and authority of those with property, status, and land.” This was threatened in the first half of the twentieth century with the rise of mass working-class organizations and mass political parties. Beginning in the 1960s, economic prosperity and social democracy enabled the European working class to transition into middle-class lifestyles and individualized political preferences, banishing the specter of mass politics. Except, of course, economic reconstruction required the increasing and continuous inflow of an immigrant labor force from elsewhere. That has produced, at our present moment, a new populist backlash that wants to establish—yes! —Mbembe’s second configuration, majoritarian dominance.
If we dispense with the liberal myth of the institutionalized rule of law through universal franchise and multiparty electoral democracy as a normative standard gifted by Europe to the rest of the world, then what would the trajectory of Indian democracy look like? Competitive electoral democracy in the Nehru period, despite universal adult suffrage, was not only a system of one-party dominance, but also, as B. R. Ambedkar (1945, 1947) characterized it, the dominance of a communal majority that acquired overwhelming superiority because of Partition and the separation of the communal minority. Not until the late 1960s was there actually a multiparty electoral system in India based on rival political and social ideologies and programs. But an opposition politics did emerge, surviving the attempt by Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 77 to shore up one-party dominance by suspending constitutional democracy. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the dominance of the Indian National Congress came to an end, it became possible for groups outside of the traditional elites, including lower-caste and minority groups, to forge a variety of shifting social and political coalitions in order to acquire governmental power. They engaged in competitive populism to mobilize electoral support among numerous hitherto marginalized populations. This produced a democratic mobilization on an unprecedented scale, without however transforming the political-economic structure of power. Today, under the Modi-Shah leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party, we see an attempt to recreate, after half a century, one-party dominance based on a permanent communal majority. Recent electoral strategies suggest that the party leadership believes it is possible to win legislative majorities without seeking the support of religious and caste minorities.
Hence, I do not agree with Vishnupad that the Indian republic has moved during its lifetime from the first to the second of Mbembe’s configurations. Rather, I think that it began with majoritarian dominance, even if it was relatively benign in its treatment of minorities (but only relatively so, compared to the violence that majoritarianism has produced elsewhere), moving through a period of competitive and illiberal populism to a renewed quest for majoritarian dominance, this time promising to be aggressive, ruthless, and, whenever necessary, violent.
As for Hansen’s comments on the rule of law, I would press him to ask the question: “Why is there so little faith among ordinary Indians in the liberality of the institutions of the law?” It would not do merely to say that the ideological reach of the rule of law in British India never extended beyond the narrow confines of the Anglicized middle class. Why was it that despite the institutional spread of the culture of legality to virtually all urban and rural property owners through regulations of registration, taxation, policing, and surveillance—forms of legality that have only deepened and widened after independence—there was and continues to be widespread suspicion about the efficacy and impartiality of legal institutions? Why do most people believe that the procedures of the law are slow, opaque, and needlessly complicated, apparently designed in such a way that only the wealthy and well-connected can manipulate the levers to their own advantage? Why is it that the liberal argument that procedural fairness must prevail over the pursuit of predetermined good outcomes gets so little traction in countries like India? Why is there a persistent belief that an impartial and trustworthy judge with arbitrary powers is far more likely to deliver justice than the procedure-ridden courts? Indeed, why is it that the courts themselves have found it necessary to respond to the popular clamor for good outcomes by dispensing with procedure, as happens in the sphere of the Indian innovation called public-interest litigation? These are questions that cannot be brushed aside as unhappy perversions caused by the timidity or fecklessness of Indian intellectuals.
Now that populist nationalism has become an inescapable feature of Western democracy, with party systems of long standing in shambles and Third World–style political practices engulfing the White House, it will not do merely to invoke some lost arcadia of constitutional patriotism. Politicians and intellectuals must, on the one hand, engage with the insistent claims of newly enfranchised peoples for security, justice, and dignity, and on the other, persuade the hitherto privileged, whether a numerical majority or minority within their polities, that their habitual pretensions to authority are a thing of the past. Populism cannot be dismissed as just a bad word; it has become necessary to make distinctions between those populisms that advance, no matter how inchoately or inconsistently, an urge for greater equality of rights and those that are patently reactionary.
In closing, I must make a small observation about another of Hansen’s comments. He notes, correctly, that minority groups, especially dalits and tribal peoples, which are victims of state oppression, are the ones who most seek the protection of the law. But he forgets to add that they are also the ones who have, as a parallel strategy, pursued over decades the path of armed insurrection against the state, whether in central India or in the northeast. When we speak of the place of violence in Indian democracy, we must reckon with the fact that it has managed to live with zones of permanent insurgency in close proximity to, and often within, the spaces of electoral mobilization. Constitutional patriotism is hardly an apt description of this state of affairs.
Ambedkar, B. R. 1945. Pakistan, or the Partition of India. Bombay: Thacker.
_____. 1947. “States and Minorities: What are their Rights and How to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India.” In Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Volume 1, edited by Vasant Moon, 381–449. Bombay: Government of Maharashtra.