Rage and helplessness

The protests in Delhi are generating two sorts of anxiety. The spectacle of a spontaneous, unstructured, unavoidably vague movement borne out of genuine rage has unsettled the establishment. And it will respond the way it does: by recourse to the language of order. The second is a critique that the movement is misdirected: it is blaming government for what is, in fact, a deep social problem. It is looking to the state's power of order to rectify a social malaise, and what it will get as a result is an illusion of a solution. There is an element of truth to this critique. This column had argued ('By her yardstick', IE, June 22), that one of our biggest challenges will be to rectify the delicate capillaries that nourish social norms. In any society, politics can dance lightly on the surface, only when there is no catastrophic social failure.

But in India the relation between state and society has historically evolved in a way that statism has become our natural response. At independence, the Indian state, and the classes allied with it, placed itself in the vanguard of Indian modernity. The Indian state would be the site of all that is egalitarian, emancipatory and progressive. All institutions outside the state, from family to market, were inegalitarian, oppressive, and reactionary. The reality was never this simple. But this construction legitimised immense state power. Over time, this view was internalised by society itself: the mistrust the state had of it, led it to be, at most, defensive; at worst, all its energies were sapped.

In some ways, it is not so much that the movement is picking on the wrong target, government. It is also an admission that norm creation will now involve different modalities. The two traditional sites of norm production, family and religion, are in some fundamental sense, delegitimised. They have been marked out as not adequate to the task of producing a new morality. They may not condone violence, but their ability to respond to the new economy of desire and freedom is seriously in doubt. It is telling, for example, that the "traditional" response to the problem of violence involves an economy of restraint: prohibitions on drinking, movement and so on, that are unacceptable to the new regimen of freedom. Even if they had progressive resources, these institutions simply do not have the authority any more.

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