On Negotiating Democracy in 21st Century India
We were taught in school that we are an independent democratic republic; that this is a great leap forward from the days of old when kings ruled at whim and subjected the poor to misery and starvation; that our country with the mighty Himalayas crowning its beautiful form was almost a continent – a self-contained, ancient, and bountiful land of diverse people and languages. This was the prescribed content in History, Civics and Geography, and we believed it.
During and after my post-graduate research on the historic Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, I read of the weekly durbars for the poor in the court of Shah Jahan - arguably one of the richest rulers of the medieval world, and ostensibly a self-indulgent aesthete. The poorest inhabitants of Shahjahanabad and the Mughal Empire could walk in right to the courtyard of the Diwan-i-Am-o-Khass within ‘The Most Magnificent Palace in the East’, for audience with their Emperor and seek redressal of their woes. This was in feudal times.
In present-day India, such concern seems surprising, especially since we value foreign relations more than the lives of our people. When the Prime Minister of India claims that the country does not have the wherewithal to distribute excess food to its starving millions - that there is no option but to let it rot - yet finds the resources to give huge sums of money to bail out other countries from economic collapse, it is not easy to make sense of the truths of history and geography and democracy.
In the name of the new god of democratic progress, the poor must acquiesce unquestioningly as their forests, fields and waters are poisoned to make way for factories, power-plants or cities. They must rejoice if they find their names in the list of the compensated few resettled miles away from their own lands; celebrate if they get a job as a factory-hand or a labourer. And resign themselves in any case to sermons, excuses, insults and beatings. For those of us who have been spared such a fate in this birth, there are smaller everyday indignities, which belie our childhood myths of a free, glorious and independent society.
Democracy and freedom in India today is essentially for some powerful people, by some powerful people, and of some powerful people. Free to bestow all the money of the country in the banks of other countries; to morph India into a giant urban fiasco; to dispense justice and reform – or not. With such unmitigated freedom, there is little time and certainly no space to set aside for ordinary citizens, not even in the capital city of independent India. The one little stretch of road, named after the Jantar Mantar – the Observatory established on the initiative of another of our feudal ancestors in pre-democratic times – designated as a token site of protest, is also not available if too many people have the temerity to gather there.
Most politicians and political analysts say such peaceful protests by civil society constitute a threat to the democratic process, even if it is for a purpose that no one can fault – to demand punishment for the corrupt and justice for the wronged; that these are tantamount to holding our legislators, politicians and administrators to ransom; that they disrupt traffic and our economy. So what is ‘civil society’ to do? Continue to put its trust in elected representatives who have repeatedly failed to live up to their promises? Hope that self-realization will come to the mighty? Miracles do happen and most of us still believe in miracles or we would not survive our gross governance. Wait with the proverbial patience of the meek and the underprivileged? But then, three generations is already a pretty long wait.
Now that even the tradition of non-violent protest propagated most famously by the Father of the Nation, is unacceptable in our democracy, does it mean that it encourages its people to do the opposite? To take to violent protest? It would seem not. That would make such protestors enemies of the state, even if they are Indians. And enemies of the state must be exterminated, as our ministers declare. No wonder that for so long the Indian public has been accused of being uncaring beyond their immediate selves and families.
So is there another way to participate in governance, besides being one of those elected representatives who are above the law? How can we negotiate democracy in the 21st century? As some Indians with integrity and will have shown us, it is by making the powers-that-be realize that they cannot fool “all the people all the time”. That they will not be allowed to utterly efface, mine, dam, and level all the mountains and rivers sacred in memory and tradition; and to continue to shelter the corrupt. That democracy is about majority opinion.
As yet another 15th August approaches, as Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal among many others unite in expressing our determination for a free and fair country, it is time to tell our new rulers that we, the people of India, are the majority and we have an opinion. They would do well to open their eyes to this reality – and to read the cautionary words of an illustrious Indian whose 150th birth anniversary we officially celebrate with such fanfare this year:
‘Politicians calculate upon the number of mailed hands that are kept on the sword hilts: they do not possess the third eye to see the great invisible hand that clasps in silence the hand of the helpless and waits its time.’
 ‘The Modern Age’, p.541, The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Volume Two; Edited by Sisir Kumar Das, Sahitya Akademi, 1996; This Edition 2008