The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Civil society, in any mature democracy, always prevails over the state. In India, the country of paradoxes where a demographically huge democracy was created despite a fragile civil society, often the very distinction between state and civil society is blurred. The fragility of civil society feeds into the dominance of the state over every sphere of society and the functioning of many of the crucial institutions of civil society are dependent on state subventions. Years of Nehruvian socialism have only perpetuated this state of affairs and made the state a deus ex machina. A recent illustration of the immaturity of civil society and the state’s dominance is the direction of the Supreme Court to the government to spread knowledge among the citizens about their fundamental duties. The latter are put down in very clear terms in Article 51A of the Constitution and they range from respect to the Constitution, to cherishing the ideals of the national struggle, to preserving the rich heritage of India’s composite culture, to abjuring violence, to pursuing excellence, and other similar unquestionably noble goals. These goals, unfortunately, can never be attained by society and the individuals who make up the society through state intervention and state initiative. They can only grow if the institutions of civil society are allowed to develop by separating them from the state. The state can protect the rights of citizens, it cannot enforce duties. That rights and duties are coeval and coexistent cannot be taught by the state. It can be imbibed through education and through participation in the institutions of civil society.

The direction of the Supreme Court implicitly recognizes the weakness of civil society and it asks the state to act as a surrogate for the failures of civil society. There are inherent dangers in such a move. It makes the state too powerful, the net fallout of which is the further weakening of civil society. Exactly the opposite is perhaps the need of the hour. In an era of liberalization, the frontiers of the state need to be rolled back rather than extended since civil society includes the operations of the market, which is gradually being freed from the shackles of an interventionist state. A free market is ultimately based on individuals free to make their own choices and this too calls for a withdrawal of the state from the lives of individuals. A free individual will, as a member of a democracy, be aware of his rights as well as his duties. The process of establishing such a society and polity has just about begun. By asking the state to step in at this juncture — however well-meaning such a direction might be — can only short circuit the process.

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