Sabarimala: Consent of the Governed vs Divine Right

Agents of social change should generate consensus by understanding societies actual needs and then implementing solutions to these problems through correct non-manipulative channels.

Ramesh and Suresh get into a conflict over a piece of land. Unable to resolve their conflict they mutually decide to approach Chandrakant, a wise elderly man known for his impartiality. They explain the situation to him. Chandrakant listens patiently and gives his verdict in favour of Ramesh. Suresh, though disappointed accepts the verdict and the conflict is resolved. The question here is, why is Chandrakant’s judgement acceptable to both? Is it because he is elderly or because he is wise? Actually, it is neither of this. The reason his judgement is acceptable to both is that both Ramesh and Suresh gave him consent to be the arbitrator, they reposed their faith in him.

In a democratic setup, the relationship between a government and citizens is maintained on a similar principle – Consent of the Governed. In a democracy, citizens have given their consent to public institutions (Parliament, Judiciary, Police etc.) to govern them. In order to govern, the state uses 2 methods,

  1. Create laws and policies which the citizens consensually abide by
  2. Use of force/ penalties where citizens don’t abide by the law

A Citizen’s faith is crucial for the government to pull off its policies. Just go back to our demonetization days. Whether demonetization succeeded or failed is another discussion but the unshakable faith which citizens had in PM Modi helped him pull off something which would otherwise have produced widespread resentment. But in cases where rogue elements do not abide by laws, the state reserves the right to use force, again a right which is given by its citizens. Basically, the state has to balance between these 2 stated methods, it cannot expect 100% compliance and hence it has to use force but then neither can it only resort to force all the time against the wishes of the people.

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When there is an imbalance in A and B, society is pushed into turmoil. If the state is not able to use force where required, the crime rate will increase and if society’s faith in its institutions goes down, it will increase disobedience and create excessive strain on law enforcement. Hence the balance is important. Let us take 2 recent examples – firecracker ban and Sabarimala. In both these cases, there has been widespread disobedience and if the state wants to implement these policies against the will of people, a disproportionate amount of force will have to be used. The Kerala government is doing just that, it is using force to coerce this judgement on people. This will create further mistrust between government and the governed and is a very slippery slope to walk on.

But what is it that is giving ordinary citizens a motivation to disobey at such a mass scale? Let us go back to the initial example. When Ramesh and Suresh approached Chandrakant to be the arbitrator, it is because he has earned that right based on his past conduct. Also, there were 2 implied conditions,

  1. Impartiality
  2. Arbitration is limited to this particular case

Same is the relationship between state and citizens. Citizens give consent to the state to govern a part of their lives, leaving the remaining part to their discretion and secondly the state is supposed to be impartial. In the above 2 judgements, both these unstated tenants have been broken. Ordinary citizens believe that the state is overstepping its mandate and entering places where it should not be interfering in. Also, people no longer believe that the laws and policies are impartial and this is the basis of current disobedience. Both these are not good signs and can have major undesirable effects on our future.

Let me again refer to the Wikipedia article linked above, “This theory of consent is historically contrasted to the divine right of kings and had often been invoked against the legitimacy of colonialism. Article 21 of the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”.”

It is very important to understand the subtle yet very important difference between the 2 philosophies – ‘Consent’and ‘Divine Right’. In a democratic setup, the will of people should be the basis of government and not some misplaced notion of divine right where the courts and parliaments can impose their sense of righteousness on the people. No matter how lucrative it is, the law has to resist the temptation of moral policing. This works in a colonial setup but not in a democracy. However, recent judgements seem to have been delivered on the assumption of ‘Divine right’- where law insists on guiding people in a direction which it deems fit. This short-cut approach to social change also suits the NGO’s and third parties who don’t want to take the burden of society’s aspirations but love to impose their moral code on society.

There is one more concept in political philosophy – ‘The right to revolution; of the people of a nation to overthrow a government that acts against their common interests and/or threatens the safety of the people without cause’. Leftists always try to invoke this right to revolution by introducing victimization in society, dividing society and pitting groups against each other. But what we are seeing in Kerala today is a more spontaneous revolution and it is indeed ironical that a leftist government is at the receiving end.

But does that mean that society can only be populist in a democracy? Not at all, social change is required at many levels. But this social change should be brought about by the will of the governed. Agents of social change should generate consensus by understanding societies actual needs and then implementing solutions to these problems through correct non-manipulative channels. But as long as custodians of public institutions refuse to get down from their self-imagined pedestals of moral superiority, the balance between consensus and force will always be tilted.


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