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Mainstream, VOL LV No 44 New Delhi October 21, 2017

Does Democracy Die a Fitful Death in India?

Monday 23 October 2017


by Zahoor Ahmad Wani

Now fear no more shall bridle speech;
Uncurbed, the common tongue shall prate of freedom;
For the yoke of state lies are broken on the bloody beach —Aeschylus, The Persians 584-94

The key question this brief article addresses is: can citizens enjoy the freedoms of demons-tration, assembly, and open public discussions about everything? Democracy, properly under-stood, is the context in which citizens freely engage in a process of broad-based discourse, debate, deliberation, and enhance the critical assessment. And opinions and ideas can be freely expressed and discussed without any fear, restraint, and unease. Citizens enjoy greater freedom and human development in well-functioning democracies than citizens of non-democracies. They also experience less depri-vation, violence, suppression, dehumanisation, and domination.

In short, its lifeblood is the free and vibrant exchange of ideas. It is a robust and a vibrant mechanism. It is not like what Thomas Hobbes opined that democracy fosters destabilising dissension among the subjects. Indeed, demo-cracy encourages institutions and individuals to be more autonomous. It entails freedom and tends to encourage people to think rationally because it makes a difference whether people do so or not. Free speech has been considered as one of its key values. It is best construed as a generic or umbrella shorthand term for a number of distinct freedoms. So, freedom of discussion and thought is the one which contains a ‘democratic culture’. It enhances the virtues of citizens and empowers them to make auto-nomous choices in shaping their lives. It also rescues ordinary people from both the tyranny and mayhem and promotes human welfare, fairness, public deliberation, individual freedom, security and social equality. So, a ‘democratic culture’ is necessary for democracy to be sustained. In a nutshell, it provides more pluralism and more tolerance. We should also bear that freedom depends on more than rights, but without rights, there is no freedom.

Having debates and discussions in public places regarding all questions is a good and not a bad thing. Criticising or showing dissent is not an anti-national element, but a cardinal virtue of “real democracy” (means not deviated and betrayed their original promise: promise insofar as democracy reflected the needs of the culture founded on the dual imperative of equality and autonomy). Ralph Young has argued in his seminal work, Dissent: The History of an American Idea, that “dissent created the USA, and it played, indeed still plays, a fundamental role in fomenting change and pushing the nation in sometimes-unexpected directions”. But our part of the world looks at it as being very perilous and problematic. Some germane questions which have arisen in my mind are: does Indian democracy become quixotic? Does it provide genuine autonomous choice to its citizens and institutions? Do people enjoy political thinking? Dealing with these questions in a detailed manner is a daunting task in this short write-up.

It has been argued that democracy appears so innocuous in India. In his famous Tryst with Destiny speech at midnight of August 14-15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister, had brilliantly posed: “What shall be our endea-vour?” He elegantly answered: “To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.” These objec-tives remain as aspiring as they have been elusive. Whatever may have been the vision of the founding fathers of this nation, its demo-cracy hasn’t lived up to their expectations.

The democratic values and norms have had been attacked under all the regimes. The first blow came when Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in 1975; it was followed by the anti-Sikh riots in 1984; demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992. Also, it is suffering varying combination of corruption, poor security, lack of transparency, and intractable conflicts. These features are undermining the citizens’ allegiance to the very idea of democracy. In addition, what we are experiencing today is the abating of the values of self-expression. These have had a significant impact on the democratic institutions because these values are inherently pertinent to the political and civil rights that constitute democracy.

In the existing system, it seems more fragile, volatile, and blemished because of serious internal cleavages and more sensitive and divisive issues. It gives birth to forces of authoritarian and anti-democratic nature, and moral backlashes against the individual choices and autonomy. As a result, it seems unworkable and lies in tatters. The democratic values are basic to the legitimation of a democratic regime. But, the censorship that the present regime is excecuting seriously threatens the foundational values of the republic. These values are under severe strain.

The democratic principles are putrid with the communal agendas. The voices of dissent are being ruthlessly crushed. The importance of free speech and civil liberties is being eroded as both these principles are sought to be squeezed and debased. The competition is collapsing. People are in disagreement and expression of divergent preferences are labelled as or charged with sedition (which is actually a colonial invention and legacy in India). The state is dehumanising the people for disagreement, crushing their voices and using coercive powers to control the public instead of engaging in a constructive dialogue with them. The denial of autonomy of individuals and institutions destroys the key values of the Constitution. In short, life is pretty grim in the world’s so-called largest democracy. The mythical version of democracy becomes more clear and plain. To speak of the defence of democracy as if we are defending something that became self-deception and pretence. The criterion simply rests in the question where power resides and how it is exercised. It becomes more or less synonymous with “the rule of the mob” which leads to the demise of individual freedoms and rights.

The author is a Research Candidate for International Politics, School of International Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar.

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