The Motilal Nehru College (Evening), University of Delhi, recently organised a two-day UGC sponsored national seminar on “Today’s India: Culture, Society, State and Economy”. This writer was invited to deliver a talk in the plenary session, “State, Sovereignty and Governmentality: An Interpretation of State Discourse in India”. I spoke on what I called, following leading philosophers, Georgio Agamben and Michel Foucault, “State has the capacity to kill, but it should not let you die”. Half of the title, that is, “state has the capacity to kill” in a state of exception is taken from Agamben; the remaining half on “state should not let you die” is from Foucault’s fascinating lecture on “governmentality”.

Those in power need to know what are the problems and grievances of people which can be handled and resolved in such a way that there is political stability, peace and tranquility, equitable social relations, enforcement of a progressive law with the idea of justice for all and general economic well-being. These will ensure people are not killing each other on the streets, not dying of hunger or for lack of proper healthcare facilities. If these are taken care of, occasional assassinations of political critics can be easily swept under the carpet; else the scandals of the state will be difficult to contain, which will eventually sink those in power.

Early modern European emperors had realised that if they had the power to conquer and build an empire they also had the capacity to control and govern. They would not need to offer religious justification for their action and, thus, religion would not be required for the purpose of political legitimation. This would lead to separation of the church and state, secularisation of politics and restriction of religion to the private and personal domain of people.

This kind of sharp break did not happen in medieval and early modern India, though examples can be given to show that from time to time the state asserted its dominance when religion sought to assert its supremacy. The need for broad-based political theory and commitment to law which does not discriminate between people on grounds of religion, the idea of justice, or the circle of justice, has been emphasised historically. The idea of justice is all inclusive and the circle of justice takes care of things naturally. When the law based on evidence fails, natural justice takes over for necessary course correction. Depending upon what kind of framework rulers worked with, they will produce contrasting cases like Mughal emperors, Akbar and Aurangzeb. Rulers have to decide what kind of image they want to leave for posterity. They should know the distinction between the two: all inclusive approach to politics and governance at the height of their power, or known for abusing religion for justification of political violence.

In this context, mention may be made of fourteenth-century Arab historian and proto-sociologist, Ibn Khaldun’s insight on how political propaganda, rumour and falsehood cannot be the guiding principle of the state. They will lead to anarchy, which will consume the state and unleash social unrest. Further, eleventh-century Islamic revivalist of Persian origin, Imam Ghazali, believed that one day of anarchy on the streets of the city was worse than a thousand years of despotism. And as the fourteenth-century Delhi historian and political theorist, Ziyauddin Barani noted: governing principles of the state must be supported by strong secular laws called zawabit, or rules and regulations asserting moral and legal authority of the state and giving extraordinary powers to the person of the Sultan, to the extent that even conventional Muslim law,shari‘at, was to be disavowed.

Men of religion were needed for creating conditions of cultural harmony and social stability, for containing diversity and maintaining peaceful coexistence, but such figures were not allowed to dictate terms politically. Following the above and as analytical philosopher, Akeel Bilgrami has insisted: when broad-based political framework, theory and governing principles run into a confrontation with religious beliefs, practices and cults, the former, that is, inclusive governing principles of secular or non-religious kind, must be privileged.

The moral and legal authority of the state thus asserted, it was required to provide for social infrastructure, arrange for educational facilities, healthcare, etc. If the people in power do not want to take responsibility for these what is the point in being in power, except ruthless use of force to smother any opposition or criticism? This is understandable in an autocratic regime, for despots must enjoy power and use and display it in an arbitrary and unaccountable manner. However, the best of the medieval conquerors and empire-builders took the business of governance seriously, equitably, and responsibly. Indeed, peace with all was the mantra for success even at the height of their power.