there will be general agreement that the judgement in
Binayak Sen's case represents a gross miscarriage of
justice, most people will attribute it to the overzealousness
of a lower judicial functionary, or, at the most, to
the prevailing atmosphere in the state of Chhattisgarh.
If the trial had been held elsewhere, they would argue,
Binayak would not have got the verdict he did. They
are probably right, just as those who attribute the
bringing of sedition charges against Arundhati Roy and
Syed Ali Shah Geelani to the overzealousness of certain
functionaries of the Delhi police, and against Sudhir
Dhawle to the overzealousness of the Maharashtra police,
may well be right. But such overzealousness, whose instances
are multiplying alarmingly, thrives within, and derives
sustenance from, a certain ambience; and this consists
in the tendency under the current neo-liberal dispensation
increasingly to see any basic ideological opposition
to the parameters of official policy as anti-national.
The tendency in short is to criminalize ideological
dissent. Of course, one must not cry wolf, but one must
not ignore this tendency either; to do so will be fatal.
less a person than the Prime Minister, while speaking
to IPS probationers in the capital the other day, invoked
a curious argument against the Maoists. He did not just
make the usual criticism that they were attempting to
overthrow the Constitutional order by violent means.
He went on to add: ''If we don't control Naxalism we
have to say good-bye to our country's ambition to sustain
a growth rate of 10-11 percent per annum'' (Deccan Chronicle,
Dec.25). And this, he clarified, is because central
India is where the bulk of the country's mineral wealth
lies. Ten or eleven percent growth rate in short is
elevated to the status of a national goal. Any one who
opposes policies that seek to achieve this goal is therefore
acting against the national interest, and is ipso facto
The reification involved in this piece of reasoning,
as Karl Marx would have noted, is astounding. A nation
can have objectives like the eradication of poverty,
or the elimination of hunger, or the removal of illiteracy,
or the maintenance of full employment, or the achievement
of an egalitarian order; but the mere rate of augmentation
of the mass of goods and services produced can not possibly
be a national objective. True, some, including the Prime
Minister, would argue that this rate of augmentation
holds the key to the achievement of the national goals
just listed, but this is a particular ideological position;
others may have a different position on the relationship
between growth and poverty. To posit the growth rate
as a national objective is to sanctify one particular
ideological position above all others as a nationally
accepted one, and hence to decry any one who opposes
it as anti-national. Decrying those who oppose a particular
ideological position as being anti-national is implicitly
to criminalize dissent.
The Prime Minister, let us not forget, was talking not
to a group of his party functionaries but to budding
police officers whose job consists precisely in identifying
what constitutes criminal activity. He was in short
articulating an official position. Besides, given his
intellectual eminence, what he says both expresses and
sets the trend for the thinking of the entire establishment.
His remarks therefore have to be taken very seriously.
More than a century and half ago, John Stuart Mill,
while theoretically anticipating a ''stationary state''
(i.e. zero growth economy), had nonetheless remained
unfazed by the prospect: he had declared that he would
not mind a stationary state as long as the working people
were better off in it. Mill had thus implicitly advanced
two propositions: first, the condition of the working
people did not depend upon the rate of growth of the
economy, that it could be better even in a stationary
economy than in a growing one; and, second, what mattered
to him, and hence by inference what should matter to
society according to him, was not the rate of growth
per se but the condition of the working people. Both
these propositions of John Stuart Mill, a liberal, are
diametrically opposed to what the official neo-liberal
argument advances today and wants to elevate to a national
The fact that Mill was right, that high growth may be
accompanied by increasing poverty, is amply demonstrated
by the recent Indian experience itself. Indeed, the
empirical evidence for absolute impoverishment in the
recent period of high growth is overwhelming. Let us
briefly look at this evidence. The official criterion
for the identification of poverty (until it was changed
recently after the Tendulkar Committee Report) has been
the intake of 2400 calories or less per person per day
in rural India and 2100 calories or less in urban India.
By this criterion, poverty has certainly increased:
direct measurement of calorie intake suggests that 74.5
percent of the rural population was ''poor'' in 1993-4,
and 87 percent in 2004-5; the corresponding figures
were 57 percent and 64 percent respectively for the
urban population. (These figures, based on NSS data,
are from Utsa Patnaik, Economic and Political Weekly,
Jan 23-29, 2010, and their veracity can not be questioned).
Foodgrain absorption figures confirm this conclusion.
Per capita foodgrain absorption (defined as net output
minus net exports minus net increase in stocks) which,
in round figures, was 200 kg. per annum in ''British
India'' at the beginning of the twentieth century declined
drastically to less than 150 kg. by the time of independence.
Strenuous efforts by successive governments in independent
India raised it to 180 kg. by the end of the eighties;
but there has been a decline thereafter, marginal at
first but precipitous after the late nineties, so much
so that per capita foodgrain absorption in 2008, at
156 kg. by FAO estimates, was lower than in any year
after 1953. The period of high growth is precisely the
one associated with reduction in foodgrain absorption,
and hence with significant absolute impoverishment.
But the official position apotheosizing growth as a
national goal and vilifying any opposition to it as
anti-national, is not only a reification, and a vacuity;
it is also dangerous, both because it criminalizes ideological
dissent, and because it implicitly justifies corporate
control over the State. If ten or eleven percent growth
is elevated to a national goal, then obviously the agents
through whom this goal is to be achieved, especially
in the neo-liberal era when the public sector and public
investment are frowned upon, namely, the domestic and
foreign private corporations and financial interests,
must be kept happy. The State must cater to their caprices,
so that their ''state of confidence'' is kept high, and
they undertake the investments necessary for high growth.
Since the alternative approach, of taxing the corporate
and financial interests and using public investment
as the means of raising growth, has been eschewed, even
as growth itself has been apotheosized as a national
goal, the achievement of this goal necessarily requires
appeasing these interests by putting the entire State
machinery at their disposal. It necessarily means corporate
control over the State machinery. And when the Prime
Minister talks of the need to get unhindered access
to the mineral wealth of central India as the means
to achieve the ''national goal'' of 10-11 percent growth
rate, he obviously means ensuring unhindered access
to this wealth to corporate interests.
This is precisely what has been happening; and the series
of scams that the nation has watched with stupefaction
over the last few weeks are only one manifestation of
the extent of this corporate control.
Such corporate control inevitably brings forth resistance.
All such resistance necessarily threatens the ''national
goal'' of growth, and hence is labelled anti-national,
i.e. criminal. The criminalization of dissent is immanent
therefore in the corporate control over the State machinery,
and the reified view of ''national goals'' is a justification
for such control. Many have rightly attacked the draconian
laws which have been introduced into the statute books
in many states and under which protesters are punished.
These laws, which are often attributed to the authoritarianism
of this or that political formation, really spring from
the authoritarianism inherent in the corporate control
over the State. The renowned economist Paul Samuelson,
a political liberal, had reportedly remarked that economic
liberalism can be practiced only under political authoritarianism.
Contemporary India testifies to the truth of this remark.