After centuries of struggle, only in the modern era has it generally come to be accepted that the state cannot be controlled by divine right or brute power. Neither hereditary succession nor authoritarianism is acceptable as arbiter of political power in a civilized society. It should be noted however that state and civil society, and the clear separation between the two, as well as the interaction between the two are essentially modern notions linked to the rise of the nation-state system. In India, though state existed for centuries, the idea of nation-state and the recognition of limits to state power are of recent origin.
Despite this, the relative autonomy of social institutions from state's influence is a remarkable feature of our history throughout the ages. Even during the era of monarchy or authoritarianism or other forms of personalized despotism, the limits to state power were clearly recognised in Indian society. For instance the role of caste panchayats, the village panchayat and traders' guilds has been well recognised and documented throughout ancient and medieval history. While the absolute power of the despotic monarchy was accepted in the ancient and medieval state, the relative autonomy of individuals and groups from state power was recognised and respected in large spheres of human endeavor. It is this strength and vitality of institutions other than state that helped to nurture and sustain Indian society over the centuries of turbulence and seeming anarchy. The hundreds of thousands of villages were largely untouched by state power. Consequently the internecine wars of conquest or succession, the palace intrigues, the frequent coups and bloodshed made no serious impact on the lives of most people. Matters relating to religion and Dharma have been always beyond the realm of the state. Even justice, as understood in ancient and medieval India, was to a large extent left to various social groups beyond the pale of the state.
On the other hand the insularity of the society from the state had ensured that the vertical fragmentation in society continued and institutions remained static and frozen. New ideas were not easily absorbed, and in Tagore's memorable words, 'the clear stream of reason has... lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit'. Hierarchies and divisions on caste lines continued unaffected. Even about a thousand years ago, insightful scholars and historians like Alberuni commented on this stagnation of Indian society unfavorably.
In his Tahqiq-i-Hind, Alberuni pointed out:
"..The Indians believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs¡K. They are by nature niggardly in communicating what they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste from among their own people, still more of course from any foreigner.
"They are in a state of utter confusion, devoid of any logical order, and in the last instance always mixed up with silly notions of the crowd. I can only compare their mathematical and astronomical knowledge to a mixture of pearls and sour dates, or of pearls and dung, or of costly crystals and common pebbles. Both kinds of things are equal in their eyes, since they cannot raise themselves to the methods of a strictly scientific deduction."
In addition to this social stagnation, the limitation of state's influence meant that no empire could really unify India and bring all the people together. The state could not submerge the many group identities and differences for the preservation and glory of the nation. Thus while Indian state even in its most absolutist form was never fascist, the Indian society even at the height of its glory did not allow the fresh breeze of new ideas and institutions to flow.
In the modern era, under the British, the state underwent a significant transformation. The period from 1820-1857 was remarkable for the activism and energy of the state. The spread of the idea of education as a secular activity often sponsored and supported by the state, the establishment of colleges and universities, the introduction of uniform administration and civil services, the codification of civil and criminal laws and procedures, the transformation of land revenue system, the standardization of taxes, and the introduction of telegraph and railways made rapid inroads into society. The breathtaking adventure of social reform through legislation along with the ruthless suppression of anti-state and anarchic elements like Thugs and Pindaris significantly altered the relationship between state and society. In many ways the idea of modern state as the arbiter of relations between individuals and groups in addition to its traditional role of maintaining public order and defending the frontiers has come to be accepted during this period.
It is possible to argue that one of the powerful impulses behind the Revolt of 1857 was the atavist reaction to this reformist zeal of an alien state. Eventually, after 1857 the British rulers came to believe that excessive state intervention was detrimental to the survival of the empire itself. As a consequence, for almost three decades after 1857, the Indian state was largely status-quoist and the dividing line between state and society was rarely breached. Subsequently the controversy and resentment following Ilbert bill, the formation of the Indian National Congress, the introduction of local self-governance during Lord Ripon's period, the partition of Bengal and the subsequent reunification, the Rowlatt Act and the Khilafat Movement transformed the relationship between state and society into an adversarial struggle for freedom. Eventually it became the national struggle with two contending parties onthe alien state and the indigenous nationalist movement oncontesting the legitimacy of each other. Inevitably, people's yearning for freedom could not be contained for long and power had to be transferred to the Indian elite after Second World War.
Expansion of Welfare State
With the transfer of power in 1947, the Indian state consciously and deliberately started intervening in areas that were hitherto left to civil society. The constitution, which declared justice onsocial, economic, and political; equality of status and of opportunity; and promotion of fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual as the objectives of the Indian state has given legitimacy to this deliberate intrusion. The Directive Principles of state policy, which attempted to give expression to these noble constitutional values gave the state the mandate, though somewhat diffuse, to legislate in many such areas. Despite the turbulence and bloodshed accompanying partition in 1947, there was also great excitement and expectation generated by freedom struggle and independence.
Obviously there was enormous pressure on the state to fulfill these expectations in a significant measure. The constitution-makers attempted to balance individual liberty and the state's interventionist role. Thus the Fundamental Rights guaranteed various liberties to citizens including equality before law, nondiscrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, equality of opportunity in matters of public employment, abolition of untouchability, abolition of hereditary titles, freedom of speech, assembly, association, movement and residence, protection of life and personal liberty, freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion, and protection of interests of minorities. All these ensured that the state could not affect adversely the liberty and autonomy of individuals and groups. Only reasonable restrictions could be imposed on these liberties in the interest of integrity of India and security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
At the same time the Directive Principles attempted to give expression to the aspirations of the people and to the ideals of the freedom struggle to control, regulate and reform Indian society. While the Directive Principles of state policy shall not be enforceable by any court, the constitution explicitly stated that the principles therein laid down are nevertheless fundamental in the governance of the country and it shall be the duty of the state to apply these principles in making laws. Promotion of welfare of the people by securing and protecting a social order in which justice, social, economic and political shall inform all the institutions of the national life is the guiding principle of state policy. In particular, the constitution-makers enjoined upon the state the duty to strive to minimize the inequalities in income, and to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities not only amongst the individuals but also amongst the groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations.
In furtherance of these objectives, several principles were enunciated to guide state policy, including right to an adequate means of livelihood, distribution of ownership and control of material resources to subserve the common good, prevention of concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment, equal pay for equal work for both men and women, protection of workers and children, opportunities and facilities to children to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, organisation of village panchayats as units of self-government, effective provision for securing the right to work, to education, and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement and in other cases of undeserved want, and suitable legislation to ensure a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities to all workers. Uniform Civil Code for citizens, provision of free and compulsory education for children, promotion of educational economic interests of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections, separation of judiciary from executive, protection of monuments and objects in places of national importance and promotion of international peace and security, have all been listed as the Directive Principles of state policy.
The mood prevailing at the time of transfer of power and the enunciation of Directive Principles enjoined upon the state the duty to actively legislate, supervise, monitor, regulate and control several areas of activity which were earlier regarded as the legitimate spheres of civil society. Much of it was necessary and long overdue. In many ways the British during the decades before the Revolt of the 1857 had attempted to reform Indian society and this process, which was halted on account of intervention of the 1857 Revolt was restarted after freedom. The abolition of untouchability, guaranteeing religious freedom and equality before law, several legislations to protect workers, children, women and minorities and positive discrimination in favour of the long-oppressed and disadvantaged sections of society were both necessary and welcome given the enormous hold of tradition, superstition, ignorance and prejudice over much of our society. However the frenetic activism of the Indian state had several far-reaching consequences, the impact of which is being felt in today's society.