The French Philosophes of the Enlightenment and other sentient thinkers of the time who were not French gave to the world our modern notion of “human rights.” This was a great leap forward from entrenched beliefs that human beings were ordained to be unequal rather than equal. Thus after millennia of endorsed privileges that set the chosen apart from the dispossessed, by fiat as it were, the concept of undifferentiated citizenship was born to the accompaniment of the idea that the post-feudal state would ensure to all citizens lawful prerogatives without distinction and discrimination.
That of course did not happen, primarily because it was not meant to happen. The ringing slogan about “equality, fraternity, liberty” was forged by a new class of leaderships who made universalist claims but were canny enough to restrict their emancipatory operations to those who owned the new means of production and to the elites who made opinion on their behalf.
Thus the basket of “human rights” included only such rights as were nearest to the endowed heart—mainly civic rights of freedom from state and civil oppression. Things that the new rulers already had in abundance—food, water, shelter, health services, education, sanitation—did not, expectedly, form any part of the basket of “human rights” even when these comprised, incontrovertibly, universal human needs. Indeed, the new mantra was that the ever-increasing productivity and prosperity of the dominant classes would ipso facto trickle down to the foot soldiers and lift them out of their indigent condition, enabling them to access on their own steam food, water, shelter, health services, education, sanitation, none of which therefore required to be mandated as “human rights.”
That too did not happen, because even as the new ruling classes sloganised about “equality, fraternity, liberty,” they put in place a political economy guaranteed to deny all these to a majority of the population by ensuring a system of ownership and wage work that would consign the labouring to a perpetual struggle for existence.
Not until the accomplishment of the further revolution in Russia did a state attempt to put the notion of rights on a footing rather different from the one that had been bequeathed by the French event of the eighteenth century. Yet, in so doing, the new totalitarian state disregarded fatally the importance of that basket of “human rights” which the predecessor revolution had legated. The fact that the most well-meaning of the world’s leaderships continues to be unable to find an economic and political arrangement that might successfully incorporate the seemingly warring and incompatible archives of “rights” speaks to the intractability of the task.
It is in that testing context that the endeavour of India’s current government, propelled, it must be said, chiefly by the influential chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Sonia Gandhi, and the falange of Left-leaning intellectuals she has been able to press to the task, to resolutely extend the notion of “rights” beyond altruistic welfarism to legally enforceable entitlements, most crucially to food security, must be seen as a third part of the world-historical transformation that began with the first flush of Capitalism. Needless to emphasise that no Capitalist state and economy has made such an attempt before now—reason why India’s owners and purveyors of wealth (thanks to the neo-liberal economic policies pursued by the Indian state since it signed up to the Washington Consensus, some 75% of India’s Gross Domestic Product is today privately owned!) are up in arms against what seems to them an unconscionable waste of national resources, namely giving India’s poor the right to food. Never mind that some 25 lac crore rupees worth subsidies from the state have thus far gone to private entrepreneurs, or that a slew of big industrial houses refuse to repay bank loans amounting at last reckoning to some 5 lac crore rupees—enough to wipe out india’s fiscal deficit were these “non-performing assets” to be recovered.
India’s “main” opposition party, the BJP, unable for tactical/political reasons to decry the food security entitlement measure, although ideologically one with the classes who denounce the legal entitlement stature of the legislation, but unwilling to allow the current government led by the Congress party to run away with so monumental an achievement has been employing every dirty trick in the party- parliamentary structure to stall the passing of the food security bill in the current session of parliament. With about a week or so more to go, it remains to be seen whether the government succeeds in getting the legislation through, or whether it will be forced to re-promulgate the Ordinance which has enabled it to roll out the measure already in some states of the Union.
These filibustering endeavours of the BJP, meanwhile, find their class-based support among India’s corporate-owned electronic television channels. The reactionary attack follows two axes: one, that the right to food security is a sure road to bankrupting the state; and two, that the Congress party is doing this only with an eye on the General Elections of 2014.
As to the bankrupting charge, smart anchors devotedly tutored in the ways of private expropriation, face difficulty when confronted with the scale of subsidies routinely passed on to the fat cats. As to the other obloquy—that the measure is a cynical attempt to snatch yet another, indeed a third, electoral mandate—the question may be asked as to why it seems alright for some political forces to unleash inter-community mayhem leading to the massacre of the innocents, and generally to feed into the basest bigotries of the day to further electoral prospects, but not so alright for a policy decision to be made that may rescue vast segments of the hoi polloi from hunger because they might then vote in favour of those that made the policy. Presumably, parties in power within a democratic system must never think of enhancing their electoral acceptability, but leave such privilege only to those who seek to take over the state. Some logic that.
From a macro-historical perspective, however, the recognition must dawn that in constituting access to food, even if at the most basic levels of sustaining cereals for now, as a “human right” India’s current government seeks to extend the theory and history of rights to a new arena from within a Capitalist order.
Only the most degradedly cussed may deride such an initiative.