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Re-Appropriating 'We the People' From Politicians Who Only Want Control

Social movements are bound to impact forms of protest politics in years to come. What is important is that through protest, these movements create a ‘we the people’.

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On November 26, 2021 the Preamble to the Indian Constitution was read aloud in Parliament by the president of India, the prime minister, ministers and members of parliament belonging to the National Democratic Alliance and its allies. The special ceremony memorialised November 16, 1949; the day when the Constituent Assembly finalised the Constitution of India. Following the basic precept of democracy, that of popular sovereignty, the Preamble opens with the words ‘We the People of India’.

On the same day, in Gurgaon which is a few kilometres away from Parliament, hooligans surrounded a small group of Indian citizens immersed in their Friday prayers. They bullied and insulted people saying the namaaz. Their prayers were drowned in chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and other provocative slogans. This has been happening again and again. In Karnataka gangs have appropriated the interiors of Christian churches and performed Hindu rituals in spaces sacred to Christianity. Vigilantes now decide who will pray where. So who are the people? The ones who exert brute power over hapless minorities, and strip members of their fundamental right to follow their own religion vide Article 25 of the Indian Constitution? Are the minorities not part of the people of India? Why are their rights not protected by a government that many of them might have voted for?

The phrase ‘we the people’, it follows, is neither uncomplicated nor self-explanatory. The distinguished jurist Sir Ivor Jennings had famously announced that the principle of self-determination that declares ‘let the people decide’ was ridiculous. ‘The people,’ he remarked, ‘cannot decide until somebody decides who are the people.’ He warned us that ‘the people’ is not a demographic category which includes each and every individual who lives within the territorial boundaries of a country. It is a political concept. The politics of power can include; it also excludes.

Recollect how easily governments render large sections of ‘the people’ politically irrelevant, by labelling them ‘illegal immigrants’. And then our power elite turns around and tells us that it speaks, legislates and governs in the name of the people. We might have to conclude, on a pessimistic note, that ultimately the question of who are the people is decided by cynical calculations of power. It has been conveniently appropriated by governments seeking to legitimise power in the name of the same people they oppress.

The Constitution of India.

Edmund Morgan in his Inventing the People: the Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America labels the notion of the people as a political fiction that was invented to challenge and replace another fiction – the divine right of kings. During the English Civil War, ‘representatives invented the sovereignty of the people in order to claim it for themselves…In the name of the people they became all-powerful in government.’ The interpretation is persuasive, particularly when we recollect how often the phrase is invoked to validate disturbing and contentious policies.

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Perhaps elite appropriation of a phrase that lies at the heart of democracy is not all that surprising. Whereas the exercise of governmental power reinforces relations of domination and subordination, power-hungry politicians want more. They want to secure their own future by producing compliant subjects out of citizens, and by shaping the social order to fit their ambitions and party ideologies. The people might elect the government; but astute power-holders create ‘the people’ by appropriating democratic languages and practices. The people should be holding governments that they have elected to account. When a collective called the people speaks, elected leaders should be listening. But the holders of power have hollowed out the phrase and reduced it to a legitimising strategy. And ‘we the people’ do not even recognise how we have been manipulated by ignoble ideologies, and by cynical politicians who play upon social insecurities and vulnerabilities in our name.

Fortunately history recounts that no story of power can be abstracted from resistance. Someone, somewhere will stand up and protest against laws that threaten livelihoods and lives. In the process, they might spark off a major social movement that re-appropriates notions of popular sovereignty. It is possible to re-appropriate democratic vocabularies and to wrest them out of the closed fists of politicians, because politics is always contested. What is not contested cannot be political. Sometimes contestation over political meanings can take the form of everyday resistance. On occasions, contestation is expressed through social movements that bring people together to protest and to author an alternative politics. The politics of a democratic movement cannot be negative. Embodied within the imaginaries and the languages of the movement is a more democratic and a more humane notion of politics. We are of course speaking of a movement that is inclusive in its breadth and awe-inspiring in its vision of freedom.

The onset of a new social movement inaugurates a new phase of politics in a different mode. People come together, occupy public spaces and through sheer togetherness demonstrate the power of alternative forms of politics. They reinvent the notion of popular sovereignty. The very act of assembling in public spaces to protest and to create, reminds us of the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that politics demands not only spaces where people can assemble, but also the physical appearance of bodies. This is an essential precondition of action.

This insight gives us cause to celebrate the mobilisation of the farming community as an important watershed in literature on social movements. Thousands of farmers assembled on the borders of the capital city a year ago to demand the withdrawal of laws that were bound to harm the agriculturalist. Alongside, they asked the government to protect their livelihoods through other means. The visual and the political impact of the assembly was extraordinary.

Farmers and agricultural workers attend a rally against farm laws, in Barnala, northern state of Punjab, India, February 21, 2021. Picture taken with a drone. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

So was the scale of the movement, led initially by farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Within a short period of time farmers from other states joined in to create one of the most spectacular struggles for wellbeing, state protection and the right of people to protest. The occupation of public spaces reiterated the basic right of citizens to protest against palpably unjust laws. We witnessed the recovery of agency in times of authoritarianism. The movement demonstrated that ordinary people possess the political competence to evaluate laws, and to judge an elected government. Politics is too important to be left to crafty politicians. In a democracy, the people have the ability as well as the right to participate in decision-making processes. In a democracy, the government is obliged to heed popular opinion. If it does not do so, citizens have the right to protest through a variety of means. The occupation of public land is one of these means.

The moment protestors occupy public land, space is transformed into a site of struggle. Movements imprint onto space the fundamental understanding that politics is contestation. They act against a form of politics that attempts to dominate and subjugate. They fight for a different sort of politics, a more caring politics, and a politics that is sensitive to the needs and the travails of vulnerable sections of society. They act, and in the process, they acquire agency that tells us who we are and what our rights are. This is intrinsic to the right to assemble peacefully.

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When citizens enter the public arena physically, they have to justify the stand they take. The act of entering the public sphere declares: “this is who I am, this is what I stand for”. The process of justifying our stand makes individuals a part of a community. They understand that they are related to others because they believe in the same cause. Alternatively, they bring a critical perspective onto the issue at hand and thereby engage in processes of rethinking and reorganising. From a random collection of individuals, the people become a collective.

That is why we witnessed the forging of a rare virtue called solidarity among different sections of the farming class, and between the farmers and other Indians. We noted with surprise and delight the development of a massive support system that clustered around the movement. Many demonstrators in the movement were not agriculturalists. But they were ready to defy the power of the Indian government; a government that is not precisely known for tolerating dissent. Numerous individuals and groups set up langars, provided tents, health facilities and small shopping areas for everyday needs. They played and sang the music of protest. Farmers planted flowers on their side of barbed wire barricades erected by the police, others recorded day to day activities, some drafted petitions and demands, and answered questions of journalists, others strategised.

All of them bore stoically the infamies that were heaped on their heads by the cheerleaders of the ruling party. Protestors braved epithets, slogans that denigrated them, and allegations that they were nothing but instruments of separatism and terrorism. They saw their comrades brutally run over and killed by SUVs allegedly driven by functionaries of the ruling class in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh. They collectively mourned the death of their own. They withstood the blazing heat of Delhi summers, the crippling cold of winters, and torrential rains that reduced the site of struggle to slush. But they persisted. The scale and the intensity of political protest stirred imaginations and energised other people here and abroad.

Earlier in the 1980s and 1990s, the Narmada Bachao Andolan had involved the same scale of mobilisation and excitement. Issues ranging from the illegitimacy of forcible displacement, to the rights of Adivasis to land, to the harmful effects of big dams, to the disastrous consequences of the generic notion of development, compensation and protection of the environment were catapulted onto political agendas. The movement generated a wide-ranging and exhilarating debate on these and related issues across the country and abroad. Engineers, architects, development experts, activists, academics and journalists discussed, debated and disagreed on the advantages versus the disadvantage of large dams, and the right of forest dwellers to their habitat. The scale of mobilisation was inspiring; the scale of debate over the ambiguous notion of development even more so. Research scholars completed doctorates on these issues, books were written on the theme, and internationally the movement attracted attention. The no-dam stance of its leaders dovetailed into an incisive critique of development by the global community of non-governmental organisations.

An NBA activist showing her feet during a previous jal satyagraha against the Sardar Sarovar Project. Credit: PTI/Files

The movement perfected the art of non-violent struggles. Medha Patkar stood in the swirling waters of the magnificent Narmada river for days to protest against raising the height of the dam, because that would displace even more Adivasis. Participants went on hunger strikes, demonstrated in front the World Bank that had given a loan to the Indian government to build the dam, and as the farmer’s movement would do many years later, stoically bore the most virulent of criticism. The farmer’s struggle similarly catapulted an informed debate on the rights of agriculturalists to be protected by the state. The Narmada Bachao Andolan lost its case before the Supreme Court, but activists continue to fight for the right of forest communities not to be displaced. The farmer’s struggle won, in a manner of speaking. The prime minister agreed to withdraw the three laws that corporatised agriculture, but the leaders of the movement rightfully want the government to deal with other pressing issues that threaten most sections of the community.

Social movements might lose out against the power of the almighty state, or they might win. In any case they leave powerful imprints on the political consciousness of society. Every social movement inspires and instructs. And each movement throws up a number of questions that attract the attention of scholars and social activists. What inspires women and men to leave their homes and their workplaces and occupy public spaces for months on end? Perhaps protestors understand that the politics of assembling in public spaces carries a more powerful message than occasional soap-box activity or online petitions. Demonstrators observe silence together, they sing in tandem, they give and listen to speeches, they clarify issues that have impelled them to come out of their homes and occupy public land. In the process they clarify what they stand for, and from where they speak.

The link which connects individuals into a collective, may be purely transitional and purely ephemeral. It does not matter. Social movements are bound to impact forms of protest politics in years to come. What is important is that through protest, these movements create a ‘we the people’. They wrest the phrase from the cloying palms of power elites who have reduced the phrase to suit their own ends. Popular sovereignty is reclaimed in and through protest and solidarity. This sends a signal to the world. It is possible for ordinary individuals to make history through the transformation of public space into political space and through reclaiming popular sovereignty and re-locating it in the people.

These messages are not inconsequential. They bear great implications for democratic theory and practice. If we value democracy, we must be prepared to struggle. It is perhaps time to mount another massive social movement to protect the fundamental rights of our minorities against vigilantes and demand from the government what is due to all the people of India.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.