Is Indian democracy broken? Carl Packman looks at a new book by Ram Mashru which examines how the Indian establishment is setting back democracy.
Earlier this year Bhupathiraju Ramakrishnam Raju, the convenor of the National Alliance for People’s Movement (NAPM), penned an impassioned defence of Indian democracy away from the elected politicians who currently seek to destroy it from within.
“Day in and day out these politicians are attacking democracy”, he writes. “We have been gifted democracy by our forefathers generation. We have been absolved of struggling or working hard for getting democracy.”
However is the democracy Raju speaks of so solid after all? Has the problem of human insecurity, continued ethnic violence, destructive development, and an inhumane criminal justice system eroded any semblance of a blooming democracy based on human rights and economic prosperity?
The writer Ram Mashru, in a new volume for The Diplomat, certainly believes so. His book Human InSecurity: Fear, Deprivation and Abuse in India rejects the repeated appraisal that India is the world’s largest democracy. For him the various failures of the nation pose particular problems when defining India as such.
Elections are too simple a marker of growing prosperity and equality. Human freedom from fear must enjoy a greater role in definitions of democracy; and Indian falls down hard in this respect.
Mashru identifies in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and affiliated groups a continual risk of jeopardising the strong accolades that the country has received of late, particularly by the western world.
The party, which in all likelihood will be voted back in after the next election, bolsters the inter-ethnic violence that rips through Indian communities today.
The Indian academic Zoya Hasan, it is noted by Mashru, blames Sangh Parivar, the ultra-nationalists allied to the BJP. The suspicion is that the unrest is created towards political gain and subsequently creates a climate of fear that the authorities either have no way of countering or are actively colluding in.
It should, however, be noted that Mashru doesn’t identify this violence as straightforward racial tension without solution. The main players in the tension are extremists. Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Militant Hindu outfits with long histories of violence against Muslims, have been focal parts of bloodshed in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populated state.
As ever extremism risks ruining the lives of many, for the prejudices of so few.
The Indian establishment, however, has a hand in setting back ‘Indian democracy’ in other ways. The National Project on Preventing Torture in India reported that 1.8 million people are tortured each year. At a time when there is heightened consciousness of abuses at the hands of state power, especially in the Middle East, it is curious that this doesn’t get a special airing when talking about how far India has developed as a ‘free’ nation.
However, as Mashru goes to lengths to point out, unlike many other countries where human rights are subject to intense foreign scrutiny, India still remains one of the few countries not to have ratified the UN Convention against Torture (UNCT) – despite pressure to do so.
As Mashru points out, despite their various crises, even “Afghanistan (in 1987), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (in 1996) and China (in 1988) have all acceded to or ratified the UNCT, giving its provisions domestic legal force”.
“Despite signing up to the convention in 1997, India’s government has failed to incorporate it. As long as the UNCT remains un-ratified, India cannot be held accountable for violating its provisions,” he adds.
No surprise, then, to find that India does have a corrupt and criminal political class that continues to flout the human rights of its citizens – but it does so outside the accountability of important steps made by the United Nations.
India, Mashru states, has an “authoritarian democracy”; though this perhaps is a little too far.
One thing I would have liked to have seen more of in this volume is discussions on the links between debt and human slavery in India.
Despite having been made illegal since 1976, debt slavery is still very much prevalent in the country.
Due to the nature of the practice, numbers are hard to come by but through various reports by the International Labor Office it is known that bounded labour, interlinking exploitation of credit agreements and slavery, is still a severe problem, particularly in rural areas where farmers have limited access to trustworthy credit sources.
In an interview with CNN in 2011, the academic Siddharth Kara said that:
“The system persists due to poverty, absence of alternative credit sources, a lack of justice and rule of law, and social acceptance of the exploitation of minority castes and ethnicities that has been prevalent in South Asia since Vedic times.”
No surprise to find out that four out of every ten adults in India go without a mainstream bank account. Indeed, there is only one bank branch for every 12,000 inhabitants in the country. Only five per cent of villagers have a bank account and 73 per cent of farmers’ households have access to formal credit. Many villagers have to travel up to 40km to access a bank.
What Mashru has succeeded in doing is to tell a story that fails to be told today, at a time when the only narrative available on India is that it is a young democracy with teething problems. There is much more to it than that.
The fact that Mashru offers only little by way of policy recommendations at the end demonstrates the feeling of hopelessness and anxiety about the future. After all reform has been on the cards for years; how many more empty promises?
But it is his concluding realisation that policy makers have neglected to see the interconnectedness of human security in India and the other facets that make up a blossoming democracy where we find something at least to work towards.
Calls for closer work between government and NGOs, who do have an eye towards security and sustainable development, is the progression campaigners for justice need to advocate for today. Mashru has successfully shown the battlefield before us.
Human Insecurity: Fear, Deprivation and Abuse in India is available to buy here
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