Examining the predicament of the residents of Khori Gaon, under duress due to the Supreme Court’s order last month for their eviction from their homes in Aravalli forest land, from the prism of Dr. Partha Chatterjee’s ‘political society’, SAKSHI WADHWA explains how the Khori residents could live ‘illegally’ in a ‘zone of exceptions’ for so many years, and brings up the larger questions of politics raised by this conflict.
THE strict stance of the Supreme Court towards the people of Khori Gaon who illegally reside in Aravalli forest lands in Faridabad, raises crucial questions on the survival of a peculiar ‘political society’ that lives in a ‘zone of exceptions’ where lack of leadership from within the society, powerful enough to firmly negotiate with the government, can lead to drastic consequences, including a threat to their right to life.
Such realities that generate the fear of being rendered homeless are not even mitigated by extraordinary circumstances like the ongoing pandemic. Further questions are raised like for how long can a political society remain struggling for subsistence, and whether the marginalised can ever be included in the mainstream.
The ‘Trials’ Of Slum Dwellers: In Life And In Court
Recently, about a million slum dwellers residing in Aravalli forest land in Faridabad found themselves in the grip of existential fear due to a ruling by the Supreme Court ordering their houses, illegally constructed on the forest land, to be demolished.
The slum dwellers of Khori Gaon, many of them residing in the area for generations, did not choose the life they have been leading. Some of them were forced to reside illegally in the area ever since mining was banned there. Over the years, several informal workers from Delhi moved here too due to their slums being demolished in the capital, and cheaper rent at Khori. A large majority of the residents here work as wage labourers and sustain themselves on small incomes.
The division bench of Justice A.M. Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari appear to have a ‘no mercy for law breakers’ approach. While quashing a plea for a stay on their earlier judgement so that more time could be given to the residents to move and rehabilitate, the judges emphasised that ample time had been provided since last year for the dwellers to submit relevant documents so that their rehabilitation could be taken care of by the government. But in their failure to do so, “no indulgence can be shown to them”.
Pleas were made by advocates on behalf of the dwellers pointing out their helplessness and suffering, especially for children and women. The pandemic was also cited, pointing out the consequences for evicting residents at the time when being indoors is crucial. But nothing could change the apex court’s mind, which seems adamant in ensuring clearance of the settlements at Khori.
A Political Society
The slum dwellers can be likened to the members of political society, a concept postulated by political scientist and anthropologist Partha Chatterjee.
According to Chatterjee, in post-colonial countries like India, there exists a ‘political society’ which runs parallel to the civil society, with the former being distinct from the latter.
Though the political society cannot sustain autonomously, without the civil one, its distinction from the civil society is important to grasp the “politics of the governed.”
Political society is the “zone of exception” where general norms laid down by the State are violated, and negotiations take place, leading to the State allowing the violations as temporary arrangement.
One can understand the basic difference between the political and civil society as that of class and even caste too. The civil society is composed of urban, elite, English educated professionals who are seen as citizens proper, given rights and are expected to follow norms; the political society, on the other hand, is made up of rural and urban poor and marginalised groups for whom sustenance is a day-to-day fight. Unlike the profit-oriented aims of civil society, people forming political society struggle to survive and sustain themselves.
To survive, they violate State-led rules: for example, putting up a temporary house on a State-owned land, stealing electricity from electric poles, encroaching on the roads as vendors, and so on. However, the response of State authorities is not to punish them for their illegal activities. Rather, they are left to remain as it is so that their survival could be ensured.
This is because the people of political society are seen by political elites as ‘voters’ whose votes can make an electoral difference, which is why they are exempted from punishment and allowed to sustain themselves after negotiations. A series of negotiations takes place between the State and people of political society, and whether the State yields or not depends on myriad factors. As a result, the members of political society continue to eke out an existence, but on the margins of society.
Conundrum Of Political Society
The case of Khori residents highlights the conundrum of political society. Illegal encroachment has undoubtedly taken place, but the sheer fact that the people here bought the land that they live on from builders and middlemen, with the State choosing to look sideways out of convenience, and now they are left to feed for themselves without any State support, raises questions on both humanitarian grounds and the role of the State in such situations. It brings into question the concept of the maai-baap State and ‘enchantment of the State’.
While rehabilitation has been promised in principle to the residents, the requirements for official documents creates confusion because many of the residents at Khori either don’t hold sufficient ownership documents, or their documents are dated after the mandated cut-off deadline of 2003.
It is tragic to witness how citizens have to prove their credentials through cumbersome and often arbitrary paperwork in order to gain survival benefits and merely non-interference with their fundamental right to life from the State.
That the residents of Khori seem to lack a leadership which can negotiate with the government and seek “survival benefits”, is indicative of their being just a marginalised group rather than a well-built political society.
Whatever be the case, the matter raises several theoretical questions on what exactly should be response to situations like these: can the political society ever gain inclusion within the civil society? Will there ever be ‘disenchantment with the State’, to use political scientist Sudipta Kaviraj’s terminology, which means whether we will ever be able to come out of expecting too much from the State, and cease to assign to it the role of our guardian.
(Sakshi Wadhwa completed her Master’s degree in political science from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and is an intern with The Leaflet. The views expressed are personal.)