The state, religion and civil society

India’s inclination to resist unification
by Apoorva Tadepalli

Francis Fukuyama in his lecture at the American Enterprise Institute on “The Origins of Political Order” said that one of the most important political institutions is rule of law, to govern not only the members of a society, but also its rulers, and keep their powers in check. In this way, it is an institution always in conflict and negotiation with the state, which is about concentration and use of power. Fukuyama says that one of the major factors that enables rule of law and resists totalitarianism is religion. In the history of many societies, like “Ancient Israel, the Christian West, the Muslim world, and Hindu India”, religion was a very powerful governor of societies and had a strong relationship with the law.

In contrast, China did not experience the rise of religion to the same extent and therefore had – and still has – a state that was not fully bound by rule of law. As a result, the state-society balance in China is heavily in favour of the state – it has a strong state and a weak civil society. The same understanding can be extrapolated to the Indian context. India has a state-society balance in favour of society because of the myriad of religious, caste, and community identities that have managed to co-exist in the same geographical and political space. Since many of the communities that exist in India are much older than the Constitution, they establish an alternate framework of judging citizens which the State is constantly negotiating with. In this sense, Indian society is strong and does not give itself to being subject to totalitarian control.

This is exemplified by the space given to personal laws in an Indian’s right to freedom of religion. The state attempts to place the same laws on every citizen, homogenising the population. This has been relatively successful in China: the nation is treated and governed as having a common interest, explaining why strong state centralisation has survived, and also why huge national-level infrastructure projects are carried out with efficiency. However, given the nature of Indian society, community specific interests have to be represented, and the presence of personal laws increases the strength of society in relation to the state. In this way, the presence of religion and other sub-communities in India, questions the autonomous power of the state, something that Chinese society is unable to do.

Fukuyama gives the example of how the Chinese political system, though peppered with periods of rivaling rulers, has always defaulted back to that of a centralised state. This is because, as he says, it is in the Chinese nature to prefer to share power in order to ensure control. This is the exact opposite of India, whose history has been dominated by multiple rulers punctuated with a unified state only a few times before the British. This is still indicative of Indian politics today, considering the myriad of political parties.

Fukuyama proposed that because of the presence of religion in several regions around the world, ruling powers were faced with other authorities that had to be negotiated with and that they were accountable to, enabling rule of law. In the contemporary Indian context, these other authorities can also be understood as local communities and their representatives who do not identify primarily as Indians, and therefore render the need for the state to justify its actions in the name of national interest.

Apoorva Tadepalli is a Communications Associate at the Takshashila Institution.

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