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How secular is the state apparatus?
May, 31st 2008

A foundational principle of a democratic political system is that a professional and permanent civil bureaucracy and police force should be entrusted with the task of implementation of law and maintenance of order in society. These upholders of the rule of law are expected to perform their official obligations on the basis of boundaries and limitations laid down by laws enacted by democratically elected legislatures. The doctrine of the supremacy of rule of law in a democracy can be concretised only if every citizen is treated as an equal by the functionaries of the State.

The citizen's right to be treated as an equal before law is bound to be violated, if in the process of actual implementation of the law, officials of the state operate on the basis of their personal likes and dislikes. A biased civil bureaucracy and police force are incapable of upholding the principles of the rule of law in an impartial manner. Hence, it is essential to find out if there are any serious deviations between the claims made by democratic theory about the neutrality of state apparatus and its actual praxis.

A few instances may be mentioned to substantiate the argument that functionaries of the state have ceased to be impartial and neutral guardians of the rule of law in the country and a close nexus has developed between political parties and permanent members of the state apparatus.

First, Indira Gandhi supported by her chief political advisor gave a clarion call in 1970 for the need for a 'committed bureaucracy', which in reality meant that the state functionaries should be loyal servants of the ruling political party. Indira Gandhi's authoritarian Emergency Regime of 1975-75 witnessed the functioning of 'loyalist' civil and police personnel.

Second, Indira's defeat in the Lok Sabha elections of 1977 brought social conservative forces into power under the formal leadership of Morarji Desai whose government was really dependent on more than 85 Lok Sabha members owing allegiance to the RSS and Jan Sangh. Not only this, but the Morarji government at the Centre also 'dismissed' all duly elected Congress-led state governments and for the first time in the history of post-Independence India, RSS-Jan Sangh led state governments were formed in major states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

The entry of RSS-Jan Sangh political leaders into the corridors of power, both at the Centre and in major states, created a fertile ground for the cooptation of state functionaries in the ideological beliefs of the forces of Hindutva. The 1970s is a watershed in the history of post-Independence India because the practitioners of Hindu religion-based politics succeeded not only in winning elections but they got a good opportunity to create a state apparatus in their own ideological image.

Third, chief election commissioners like T N Seshan, J M Lyngdoh and N Gopalaswami tried to cleanse the state machinery for the purposes of holding 'free, fair and fearless' elections under 'officials' who the EC could trust as 'neutral and impartial'. What is the need for the Election Commission to ask for 'transfer of politically and ideologically tainted officials' before every election? If democratic elections cannot be conducted by fair-minded officials and if they have to be under the strict vigilance of the Election Commission, it is impossible to expect that such officials can ever implement in a fair manner the rule of law in normal circumstances.

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