India's Social Contract is Broken by Citizens And the State Alike

Mantasha Ansari

In the minds of Indians, a fire is burning. We are stirred so much that one group of citizens is willing not to accept another group of citizens as citizens, as equals. This is not new. For thousands of years, the highly educated Indians vilified, discriminated and subjugated the vast majority of Indians. We know this vast majority as Dalits.

This is also not new that an attempt is being made to vilify the Muslim minority. On 15 September 2020, hearing the Sudarshan TV case, the Supreme Court criticised the television broadcast on UPSC Jihad, observing: "It does appear to the court that the intent, object and purpose of the episodes which have been telecast is to vilify the Muslim community…. The drift, tenor and content of the episodes is to bring the community into public hatred."

Indeed, Indians are divided. One group of Indians thinks it is right to malign the other group. The government elected by citizens appears to be protecting the interest of groups of citizens, not of all citizens. The issue of citizenship is contested. This can damage our social contract, the core of our existence and unity. In his celebrated work, The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau defined social contract as "a form of association which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with the others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as free as before."

Rousseau also argued that the "general will" of a society is "always rightful" and "tends to the public good." However, India is now passing through a stage where the will of a specific group of Indians – not the general will of all Indians – seems to be prevailing. In any society, public good, or public interest, can be protected only when a group of citizens acts in support of another group of citizens, not against it. Democracies are the government of the majority, but they also protect the interests of the minority groups like Dalits, women, Muslims or tribes.

In Indian society, it is not only groups of people who are acting against other groups of people. It is also the state which seems to be breaking our social contract by siding with the majority. For example, the Citizenship Amendment Act is seen to be supporting the majority community and can potentially render the minority Muslims stateless in the long run, without citizenship. In diverse societies like India, it is essential to support marginalised communities. 

When the state does not treat all citizens equally, its unity and cohesion will be threatened. The principle of equality balances and protects people’s interests. Equality binds all citizens into a strong and just nation. When the state does not uphold equality, it is weakened; and its enemies notice its weaknesses. For example, China noticed that Indians are divided. So, the Chinese army surprised us by occupying 1,000 square kilometres territory in Ladakh which belonged to us, according to a report by journalist Vijaita Singh of The Hindu. It is imperative for India to work to uphold the general will of Indian society, thereby defending the public interest.

Currently, it seems that the state is working mostly for the majority community. Perhaps Rousseau was aware of such a situation. He recognised the idea of "partial will" – will of a section of citizens as against "general will." General will was in public interest, while partial was in the interest of a section of people. Rousseau felt that partial will is "a will liable in such circumstances to be unjust." The idea of justice itself is under attack in the current situation.

Groups of citizens feel that the Indian state is not just with them. Farmers feel the government policies are unjust, while the big corporates think they need those policies against which the farmers are protesting. On September 25, farmers staged protests across the country over the issue of new laws on agriculture passed by the parliament. And the Shiromani Akali Dal quit the ruling National Democratic Alliance over this issue. To farmers, the state is unjust. In fact, the state sometimes misleads even the Supreme Court over critical issues. Notably, after the nationwide lockdown began, the state told the Supreme Court there were no migrant labourers on the roads "as of 11 am on March 31", which turned out to be a lie.

In such situations, farmers and other marginalised groups feel they are being left out from law-making and the nation's development. Aristotle argued that justice is the essence of the state. Today when democracies are advanced, it appears they are also unaccountable. In such situations, the social contract is broken. To ensure that all groups of citizens – whether the majority, minority, farmers, students, women and tribes – must perceive that the state is just with them and is listening to their problems equally.

In a recent article, Srinath Sridevan and Aadil Currimbhoy – advocates practising at the Madras High Court – stressed that the Indian state must take into account the interests of all groups of citizens, observing: "What is required is not just a decentralised approach but also a state which is sensitive and responds not only to the needs of those who cry out for help but also meets the requirements of those who are voiceless." Our social contract can be repaired only if the state is seen as just by all sections of citizenry.

A vast majority of Indians remain economically, socially and educationally backward. India must be a transformative state. Citizens' lives can be transformed positively only when India remains a tolerant state and is willing to accept divergent habits, practices, aspirations, values and interests of all of its citizens. A transformative state must be seen to be respecting differing opinions. It must also be seen to be proactively engaged in improving the lives of all sections of citizens without causing injustice to marginalised communities.

For Rousseau, social contract was the opposite of chaos and conflict. So that the state is not destabilised, he advocated a balance of relations between different organs of the state. Rousseau observed: "If the state is to be well balanced, it is necessary, all things being weighed, that the product of the power of the government multiplied by itself should equal the product or the power of the citizens." India cannot hope to progress when groups of its citizens are left behind.

Mantasha Ansari is a writer based at the University of Lucknow. She can be reached at:

Oct 3, 2020

 Mantasha Ansari

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