On 26 November, an estimated 250 million workers from different sectors belonging to 10 central trade unions and hundreds of workers associations struck work in what may be the biggest nationwide strike. It is not coincidental that lakhs of farmers of several states chose the same day to march towards Delhi from all directions, opposed by Police at multiple places. It was a virtual siege of Delhi when they were stopped at the border, the scenes being shown on national and international TV channels. Notably, the agitated farmers were entirely peaceful.
It is significant that while Government chose (not without justification) to observe 26/11 to commemorate the sacrifices and condole the deaths of people killed during the horrific terrorist attack in Mumbai, it paid little or no attention to observing the date as Constitution Day, the day in 1949 when the Constitution of India was adopted, and promulgated on 26 January 1950.
A writer has recently called the Constitution as the Temple of India. By this analogy, the values of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, so pithly expressed in the constitutional Preamble, are the dieties within the temple, and the Directive Principles of State Policy are the “mantras” which should guide governments to govern We the People who built that temple.
It is no secret that over the decades since 1950, governments of different political persuasions and ideologies in the states and centre have not paid much attention beyond lip service to constitutional values. But especially since the 1991 economic reforms, the poor and marginalized majority have been, gradually at first but with ever increasing speed and intensity, pushed back in favour of big money. Corruption grew by leaps and bounds. People were important only at election time. Money spoke loudly, drowning out the voices of the vast majority of people at the bottom of the socio-economic heap. Corporate power grew to not merely influencing governance but controlling governments.
People had little or no access to the persons who were in power at any level of the political or administrative executive, legislature or judiciary, to even express their grievances and problems, let alone remedy them. People were mere spectators or victims of mega projects which deprived them of land or livelihood. People were unable to understand huge expenditures on show-off projects like mammoth statues, when funds for people-directed development are scarce. Resentment grew.
This is not to trivialize the undoubtedly difficult tasks of governance. But it is governments’ prioritization of money-over-people in policy and planning, and neglecting to genuinely address social realities of economic, caste and gender inequality, which has resulted in widening and deepening social unrest.
However it goes beyond neglect of constitutional values and its directive principles “mantras”. In more recent times, extra-Constitutional entities have been stoking hate and peddling lies to instigate violence which divides people by religion or caste. Politicians across the spectrum have cynically used this to further their political ambitions, although some have failed not due to want of trying.
People mostly view positions or appointments of political or administrative power as the base from which the incumbent makes up for the money spent on purchasing “lucrative” positions, and some more. Money for election campaigns comes from pernicious electoral bonds, created in 2017 to provide secrecy to the donors who are almost all corporate honchos, while legitimizing acquisition of funds for election campaigns. (Three years later, the constitutional validity of electoral bonds remains under judicial examination, like several other urgent issues).
Unplanned demonetization and inadequately planned GST roll-out have not only hit financial institutions, but directly and indirectly ruined the lives and livelihoods of poorer sections among workers and farming communities. In their already economically debilitated condition, the brutal Covid-related lockdown to enforce physical distancing, caused millions to migrate, mostly walking, from urban areas to their homes hundreds of kilometres distant. Consequently, the economy, which in any case puts economic growth in GDP terms ahead of people’s economic needs, all but shutdown.
In order to revive the economy, governments enacted laws to legitimize 12-hour days for workers, besides diluting some provisions of labour laws which were already pro-employer, all without discussion with labour representatives. Likewise, governments enacted laws which seriously impacted the lives and livelihoods of farming communities, a huge section of the population already wounded by the economic reforms initiated in 1991, and suffering enormous penury-related suicides. Prior consultation with primary stakeholders had never been a consideration, but in the current political ambience, it was perhaps not to be even expected.
Some laws like the CAA with its NRC and NPR agendas, were thrust upon an unsuspecting populace, and served to increase social unrest, while peaceful protests were met with extra-constitutional physical and social-media attacks to add to on-going injustices.
Instances of governments crushing voices of dissent by using archaic or existing laws with draconian amendments as an instrument of colonial-style repression, or passing ordinances and enacting new laws for the purpose, only served to raise dissatisfaction levels.
The public perception is one of rank injustice as the order of the day, whether inflicted by the executive, accepted unquestioningly by a legislative tamely occupied by crorepati-s, or unremedied by the judiciary. Bolder thinkers have written about an undeclared emergency.
The increasingly dystopic situation benefitted the already well-off. As an indication, the economic top 10% people own 77% of national wealth, 1% of the richest own four times as much as the 70% at the bottom, and India boasts of having 117 dollar billionaires. The constitutional Directive Principles, particularly Article 39 concerning livelihood, resources and economic conditions, are almost as if they had never been written.
All this has been happening with constitutional institutions and authorities becoming increasingly dysfunctional, as ignorance, guilt, greed and fear fill the corridors of power. The attention of political leaders remain narrowly focussed on winning elections, and on feathering their party and personal nests while eliminating opponents. People appeared to be an entity to be controlled and brought to heel any which way, to fit an unstated “master plan”.
Trade unions across various sectors protested against labour law amendments as even more anti-worker than earlier. Farm Laws enacted recently were objected to by the farming community as being designed to benefit corporate farming at the cost of their own lives and livelihoods.
It is no wonder that workers and farmers chose 26 November to coordinatedly send a forceful wake-up call to government, because they perceive that governments have systematically violated the constitutional values, the combination of which define the working of democracy.
Lakhs of hitherto unorganized farmers, coming under the All India Kisan Sangharsh Samiti umbrella, knocked at the “gates” of Delhi, determined to lay siege to Parliament. They demand that the Farm Laws should be rescinded.
It is not this writer’s purpose to opine on the validity/reasonability or otherwise of the reasons for farmers demanding scrapping of Farm Laws, or of workers objections to provisions of labour laws. Rather, it is meant to show that governments have erred in unilaterally piloting and enacting laws, not addressing the real concerns of hitherto silently suffering people, not realizing that development (howsoever defined or understood) cannot be achieved by neglecting or violating constitutional democratic values.
Thousands of determined farmers, braving government’s cruel water-cannons in the winter cold, pushed aside heavy road obstacles placed by Police, and finally entered Delhi, the seat of national power. The force of the farmers’ push for Delhi is evidence of dissatisfaction coming to a head, due to successive governments’ neglect and violation of constitutional values and provisions, with the incumbent government taking it to a new level.
All this, while corporates increase their influence on government and grow wealthier along with the politicians with whom they have a democratically toxic quid pro quo. Those who imagine that farmers and workers are unaware of the government-corporate nexus at centre and states live in a fool’s paradise.
The world has just seen how justice is demanded in the world’s largest democracy. Now the world waits to see whether and how justice will be dispensed by government. The outcome may well be a defining event in more ways than one.
S.G.Vombatkere, a retired Indian Army major general, is a cross-discipline, free-thinking sceptic.