Modi ‘governmentality’ similar to British Raj’s

Deepanshu Mohan

Any detailed historical review of the British Raj in India during most of late 19th century shows how the purpose of Britain’s imperialist vision remained centered on enhancing its market integration through and with colonial spaces of the time (especially India), while strengthening its position as a global economic empire.

Britain’s industrial revolution required India to be utilized as its workshop, and required the ‘imperial umbrella’ to function in colonial India for this purpose, as seen in the provincial cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.

This led to significant measures being undertaken in transforming the form and content of the imperial umbrella’s three tools -- ‘law’, ‘language’ and ‘knowledge’ -- across India. To centralize economic power for greater revenue control, ‘law’ was used to redefine the arrangement of property ownership across India (say, for cultivation and trade of indigo, opium and cotton) to ‘simplify’ processes of business ownership and investment for merchants (and new foreign investors).

The entry of new businesses into India for higher productivity resulted in a number of contractual disputes between the locals and the merchants, which then led to codification of laws in the form of labour, contract and property laws around the 1870s, thereby providing maximum control and power in the hands of the merchants that later included some of the elite Indian groups that possessed capital for investment.

The communication of legal content, to spread awareness about it, did require an executive implementation, for which reforms in the bureaucratic systems were made, further incorporating efforts to homogenize the administrative ‘language’ itself -- English being used as against any other language.

At the same time, ‘knowledge systems’ were further restructured in the form of the education system. One might even argue that current curriculums in English-taught education predominantly suffer from the same fallacy, of imparting education from an assembly-line work requirement perspective.

What is currently happening in India isn’t very different to what happened in the late 19th century. The pace at which Bills are being introduced and passed in both Houses of Parliament without adequate discussion – for instance, in the context of the recent passing of labour Codes, is reminiscent of British imperialism and ‘pro-business’ motivations, echoed in Modi’s governmentality.

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In the case of the Code on Wages (2019) and the Occupational Health, Safety and Working Conditions Code (2019), there is an effort to codify concentrated control in the hands of the employer and the State. For example, in matters of fixing the ‘minimum wage’, ‘overtime’ and ‘bonus’ payments, the Code on Wages (2019) provides no space for employees or any collective unions to provide inputs (or help in setting the wage structure).

The Code replaces four laws (The Payment of Wages Act, 1936; The Minimum Wages Act, 1948; The Payment of Bonus Act, 1965, and The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976), giving the central and state governments absolute authority in setting the wage-structure for companies to follow. However, the actual process of ‘setting the wage’ itself isn’t made clear by the government, which causes doubt as to how progressive the wage-structure will be for the working classes across sectors.

The greater substitution of capital for labour in manufacturing has already eroded existing incentive-structures for workers. Based on years of demands made by trade union boards, the expectation from the much-needed labour reforms was that they would allow for a more transparent and inclusive wage-determination structure, and for workers to be involved in the process periodically and for the government to ensure greater supervision of this process. On the contrary, the reverse has been done.

Now, employers are no longer required to even cooperate with labour inspectors (as required by the existing law). Also, the language, communication and approach to legal reform under the Modi government has strong resemblance to British’s imperialist efforts, undertaken in the 1870s and 1880s, the essence of which was to centralize economic power in the hands of merchants and businesses.

As Tirthankar Roy has argued, the economic aims of colonial law served primarily three types of institutionalized strategy, which were: appropriation (seen in cases of property and land ownership), incorporation (securing loyalty of capital-owning businesses to the State), and standardization (which included bringing diverse legal codes in conformity). The codification of the labour laws underway resembles strongly these strategies.

Through laws on property and contract enforcement, there was (and still is) an effort to amalgamate older regulatory structures which allowed greater protection and agency for workers, especially in terms of bargaining for a better (and more reasonable) wage structure. And in each of the contexts, discussions around ‘reforming’ the economic and legal system were presented as efforts to ‘simplify’ regulations, but they provide little agency to workers in improving conditions of work.

Making a ‘fragmented multi-class State’ like India into some form of a centralized ‘cohesive-capitalist State’ (similar to today’s China or the South Korea of the 1970s) is only likely to spell disaster for the current (and future) governments. One can already see this from the growing resentment among workers and unions that is evident from the nature and scale of protests by labour and worker unions in the capital.

At the same time, current economic conditions across sectors is making patterns of employment and wage-determination extremely exploitative, being subject to greater ‘contractualization’ of the entering and the existing workforce. And this was also true for 19th century British India when workers were voluntarily moving from one sector to another, with little rights and working under exploitative conditions (with limited alternatives). In terms of sectoral priority, farming and agriculture -- then and now -- remain of least priority to the governmentality of those governing, whereby the ones governed – particularly those of lower classes -- remain subject to extreme economic conditions. The future bears a resemblance to our colonial past. 

(The writer is Associate Professor and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies, O P Jindal Global University)

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