Hurling Insults not Stones: Visioning a Civilized Democracy
Sigmund Freud believed that the first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization. Sixty years of the Republic is as good a time as any to keep this in mind as we reflect on and, if necessary, refine or redefine the vision for the country.
Of late, the “super-power” tag, as a goal, has gained ascendancy amongst many people; others prefer descriptions like “economic power-house” or “a seat at the high table”. The objective branding of “biggest democracy” has been supplemented by the corporate favourite: “fastest growing free-market democracy”. Many also focus on India’s cultural richness and talk of India’s “soft power”. Yet, to at least a few, none of these capture adequately the essence of what we could (or should) aspire to be.
Continuing to be a democracy, especially in the context of our neighbourhood, is doubtless an achievement in itself and a necessary on-going goal. However, it is hardly sufficient and certainly needs to be redefined. While we have a vibrant electoral democracy, participatory democracy is weak, despite the very positive structural elements of local self-governance brought in through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution. Even electoral democracy is under threat, with the increasing influence of money power and the coercive pressure of criminals, some of whom have made their way into politics and thence into Parliament and State Assemblies.
Sadly, democracy occasionally degenerates into majoritarianism. A majority riding roughshod over the rights or views of a minority certainly cannot be the vision for India; nor an aggressive, organized minority coercing others through threats. Unfortunately, while the former sometimes rears its head, we see increasing examples of the latter too. These have taken various forms: apart from fear-induced forcible “bandhs”, they now include violence to impose “bans” on screening some movies, and sale of certain books; disrupting celebrations like Valentine’s Day; attacking pubs; threatening violence if Pakistani cricketers play in India, etc. These regressive and fascist tendencies often ride on linguistic or regional chauvinism, caste or religious identity, or xenophobic pseudo-patriotism. Surely, this too cannot be our vision for India.
It is an unpalatable fact that education – supposedly enlightening and civilizing – has not been an antidote to these tendencies: not, at least, the prevailing system of education. It is not just the illiterate lumpen proletariat who is the foot solider of the marauding bands who seek to enforce bans, bandhs and behaviour; it is often the educated, even the middle-class. Certainly, the driving force or master-minds behind each such violent episode have been well-educated, middle class (even prosperous) leaders. While freedom to protest is an inherent part of democracy – and, even more so, of a civilized society – this cannot be at the cost of other people’s freedom to go about their life.
Violence as a form of protest – through destruction of public property or, worse, taking the life of others – cannot be a part of democracy. While the government is coming down with an ever-heavier hand on those militant groups who espouse violence, one hardly sees the same determination in tackling the equally insidious acts of many other groups, which are formally within the democratic framework (most of them even contest elections). Is this a subtle discrimination between rural and urban, between centre and periphery? Has it to do with the fact that every political party, when in the Opposition, does the same?
Be that as it may, does this kind of polity and society fit into our vision of India? It cannot be that we want to evolve into a society where a few thousand determined and violent people can smash taxis or dig up a cricket pitch or attack a media office and brazenly get away with it. On the other hand, it is necessary that people not be alienated, that everyone gets a fair share and equal opportunity, so as to be stakeholders in the system. Today, many groups – particularly the poor, tribals and women – do not get justice and are often oppressed or exploited. Traditional stoicism of the voiceless is now giving way to activism, which takes different forms – including Naxalism. The solution lies in addressing the root causes quickly rather than mere suppression by force. A democratic and civilized society does not wage war against its own people.
The legal system delivers little justice to the poor, even as the rich and powerful seem beyond its reach. While the homeless are heartlessly evicted – in the middle of a cold winter – from a building to be taken over for the Commonwealth Games, in the very same city the government admits that it can do nothing about a well-known colony which is completely illegal! Needless to say, the latter houses many of the capital’s educated, prosperous and obviously powerful people. Can such inequitable justice be a part of our vision for the future?
In many such cases, it is easy to find an individual on whom blame can be pinned: the rabble-rousing politician, the child molester, the rich and spoilt brat, the bribe-giver. But what of the system that enables this: the police force that harasses a victim’s family or recommends bail to an alleged murderer; the education system hat delivers unthinking, irrational supporters to the venom-sprouting leader; the administration that admits it can do nothing about corruption or about an illegal colony? These structures, too, surely cannot be a part of our vision.
Many of these are deep-rooted problems, and some defy easy solutions. Yet, we can do little to even start tackling them unless we have a clear vision of what we want to be. At the moment, India is the toast of Davos and the flavour of the decade, thanks to our economic growth. We are traveling fast, and accelerating, but are we on the right road? Being the fastest growing democracy is great, but can we resolve – as the Republic crosses 60 – to hurl words rather than stones or bullets, and also be a more civilized, cultured, caring and compassionate country?