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Aberrations in our democracy

WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah

The fact that India happens to be the world’s largest democracy is no guarantee that the best facets of democracy are in evidence in our country. It will not do to forget that the world’s largest democracy also happens to be one of the youngest on the face of the earth. It came into being only 71 years ago, whereas several democracies of Europe are a few centuries old. True, India has had a long tradition of well-run monarchies with kings who have always regarded the welfare of the people as their most cherished objective. The concept of a benevolent dictatorship has been a familiar one in India considering that our tradition has generally been one of benevolent monarchies. After all, monarchies too are dictatorships of a sort considering that a king can always be regarded as a dictator as well—particularly those whose records as rulers are eminently forgettable. However, India has also had a large number of monarchies headed by benevolent kings.

The obvious decision for independent India was to forge one large democracy out of the several provinces and the many princely States that had existed right up to the end of British rule. This was by no means an easy task, but what was far more difficult was to ensure that we had a true democracy rather than one that was merely labelled as such. The task was even more difficult because several centuries of monarchic rule were followed by a takeover of the country by conquerors from elsewhere. This was followed by about two centuries of British rule during which many of the princely States were allowed to remain independent. But what happened to the people of India who were not residents of these princely States was that they were compelled to remain loyal subjects of the Mogul rulers and then the British. They remained in perpetual awe of the foreign rulers for centuries. This did not do any good to their spirits or their personalities. They were doomed to remaining the loyal subjects of foreign rulers. There was obviously no question of the people participating in any way in the governance of their country. A slavish mentality began to be considered the foremost prerequisite of any kind of dignified survival in such a dispensation. We still see the vestiges of this mentality in a large number of people, especially among citizens whose forefathers have had a long tradition of having worked in the administration for the foreign rulers.

It is from this kind of a situation that the people found themselves being catapulted to the position of being potential participants in governance when India became independent in 1947. Obviously, no ordinary citizen, who was not already in some way connected to the Indian National Congress was given the privilege of participating in the task of governance. But the new leaders of India concentrated on two tasks—(a) of constantly reminding the people that they were free citizens of an independent country who had the responsibility of sharing the governance of their country; and (b) of making the most of what general elections empowered them to do for their country. [Later on, this opportunity for seizing power they never had earlier began to be used for empowering them to work for personal benefit.] The participation in governance remained just a pleasing assurance for most people, because politicians who came to power through elections had no intentions of letting ordinary citizens participate in governance in any way. The most significant difference between British rule and rule by our own citizens was that during British rule people saw trained British officers in charge of administration rather than elected leaders who had neither the training nor the experience for handling administration.

The most fundamental myth created by leaders of independent India was that the sole requirement of a democratic set-up was elections. This is an extremely erroneous concept of democracy that has managed to entrench itself very deeply in our collective psyche. So much so, that the salient features of democracy that distinguish it from other forms of governance are often obscured for common people. Perhaps the most important attribute of democracy is the ready acceptance of dissent. Most other forms of governance do not countenance any dissent mainly because they do not know how to handle dissent. This is not to suggest that leaders in all democratic countries know how to deal with dissent. At least in India, we know that our leaders do not know how to deal with dissent. But there is no dearth of pretence related to the business of handling dissent. The most common practice in India, therefore, is to set up a committee even to deal with simple, quotidian decisions. As it is, democracy is a form of government where decisions are slower because of the perpetual concern with the majority view—even in very small matters. So when minor decisions are passed on to committees, we end up by making things even slower. In monarchies, oligarchies and dictatorships decisions are taken and executed much faster because there is no room for dissent. This is also true of totalitarian regimes that have no use for any kind of dissent. In a true democracy, people must agree to disagree in peace and to resolve to tackle differences through majority decisions. In democracies, we cannot have a leader forcing his will on the people with the expectation they must accept unilateral decisions because they come from leaders.

For me, the second most important attribute of democracy is concern for the will and the needs and aspirations of the people in all important matters. This is one attribute of democracy that should be an abiding concern of our leaders in deciding their courses of action in matters that have an impact on people’s needs and aspirations. It will simply not do to imagine that merely conducting elections to determine the majority is the same thing as striving to determine the will of the majority on important issues. Unfortunately, this is what is happening in India. Most elected leaders imagine that elections are all that is needed in democracies and that determining the majority in an election is the same thing as evincing concern for the will and aspirations of the people on important issues after the election. This is not an acceptable position for any democrat.

We have a very recent example of how democratic principles can be overturned in the attempt to forcefully foist the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 on the people of Assam totally against the wishes of the people. This is a Bill that seeks to grant Indian citizenship to people belonging to the minority communities of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Sikhs and Christians in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. What is being totally overlooked is that there are already millions of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam. The majority of them are Muslims, but there is also a sizeable number of Hindus among them. Assam has already been turned into a dumping ground for illegal Bangladeshi migrants. It is not that the Centre is unaware of this. However, there is a great deal of pretence to suggest that people in New Delhi have forgotten what the situation vis-à-vis Bangladeshi migrants is in India. Otherwise, where was the need for a Bill that is geared mainly to the task of encouraging lakhs of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh to take Indian citizenship? The Bill has the objective of getting lakhs of Hindu Bangladeshis to migrate to India and take Indian citizenship so that they can all vote for the ruling party in India. The Bill is bad in law because it goes against India’s commitment to secularism enshrined in our Constitution. It is a black law also because it pretends that the protection of Hindus persecuted anywhere in the world is the duty of a secular republic like India. It is not. We shall then even have Hindu rogues all over the world demanding that they have a right to be protected by India just because they are Hindus.

In the ultimate analysis, what is the credibility of a government that chooses to foist a law on a State that has had more than its share of illegal migrants from Bangladesh to take an additional load of lakhs of Bangladeshi Hindus so that the ruling party can win elections more easily with their votes? Is this how a democratic government is expected to function? Can electoral equations be allowed to set aside what is good for the greatest number of citizens of a State? And does the Centre have any divine right to inflict the worst forms of injustice on just one State merely because it is one of the peripheral States? Why does the Centre not ask a State like Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra to take on this responsibility since Assam has already given shelter to millions of Bangladeshi migrants?