Democracy is essentially the philosophy that people should be enabled to exercise real and effective control over their governments and their own lives. It encompasses notions of the fundamental equality of all people, and of fraternity and freedom. Embedded in it are also visions of pluralism of identity and thought, of protection of minorities, of diversity and mutual respect, and of debate and dissent.
India’s epic experiment with the idea and practice of democracy in the past century — both before and after Independence — has been colourful, raucous and energetic, but also continuously contested and blemished. That democracy is flawed in India is not surprising: in varied ways and differing degrees, democracy is imperfect in every country of the world. But that it survives at all in India is astonishing to many observers: for a country of teeming millions, with the uneven spread of modern education and communication, and more diversity of faith and ethnicity than any other in the world, the endurance of democracy is an undoubted achievement.
At the same time, the great problem with the idea of democracy in India is that it has struggled to strike roots in the hard rocky soil of one of the most unequal societies of the world. In modern India, ancient Indian ideas of caste have merged seamlessly both with colonial British ideas of class and neo-liberal ideas of the moral acceptability of highly unequal wealth as a vehicle of growth and progress. This creates a formidable normative framework to justify the persistence and growth of huge economic, social and political inequalities, which are profoundly undemocratic.
Modern India’s first major exposure to a very limited form of political democracy was in colonial India, in which suffrage was initially restricted only to men, and that too to those of significant wealth and landed property. But still the scheme of democracy in free India grew vividly in the imagination of the Congress — but in strikingly diverse ways. For Nehru, democracy was inseparable from social and economic equality, and Ambedkar worried about how the long-suppressed political voice and influence of the oppressed castes could find expression in democratic India.
Gandhi was more anarchic: suspicious of a centralised redistributive state, he saw Indian democracy as an egalitarian federation of village republics. Marxists dreamed of class equality and worker-peasant solidarities. On the other hand, alternative theocratic ideologies of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League were fundamentally anti-democratic. After Independence, there was an early and wide consensus to extend universal suffrage equally to all women and men, people of all faiths and castes, of wealth and poverty, and with formal education and without it.
Amartya Sen has famously credited the functioning of democracy — in particular, an alert political opposition, people’s organisations and a free press — with preventing large-scale famines in independent India. It is democracy, he believes, which has prevented the recurrence of the catastrophic tragedy of large-scale deaths caused by hunger, the last of which was the Great Bengal Famine of 1943.
But this same democracy has been remarkably unsuccessful in preventing endemic hunger and malnourishment. It is estimated that 2 million people die of preventable causes every year in India, that 230 million people sleep hungry and that every second child is malnourished. Even so, political parties, the media, even civic engagement, have not created pressure for change, and instead a measure such as the recently passed food law is met with middle-class rage.
India has the fifth largest number of dollar billionaires among the countries of the world. Yet, every third malnourished child on earth and every third person who sleeps hungry or lives in poverty are also Indian. India’s great growth model is founded on further deepening inequalities, in which one segment of India enjoys living standards comparable to the best in the world, while a majority of 600 million to 700 million continues to endure hunger, unsanitary water, deficient health services, inferior schooling, sub-human housing and uncertain, unprotected work.
Ancient forms of social discrimination and violence based on caste and gender and colonial constructs of religious divisions persist in new India, mocking its formal democracy. A long tradition of criminal impunity prevails in which persons charged with communal, caste and gender violence are rarely punished. Tribal people in the millions are displaced from their forest homelands by mines and factories. India’s classrooms are among the most unequal in the world: Dalit children are seated separately to study and eat in a third to half of India’s rural schools, disabled children are rarely admitted, and teaching is rudimentary in many government schools. Children labour in roadside eateries, factories, waste-heaps, brick-kilns and middle-class homes instead of in schools. Nine out of ten workers still have no wage-protection, pensions or social security. Ambedkar was prescient when in 1950 he said, “We are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.”
Political and administrative power after Independence retained its colonial trappings, such as sprawling bungalows and armies of minions, despite their incongruity in a democracy. These combine with new power symbols of red-beacon convoys and conspicuous armed security to create unbridgeable distances between the rulers and the citizens they are expected to serve. Power is exercised with arrogance, in ways that are often corrupt, opaque and arbitrary.
This culture penetrates corporate performance as well. India’s democracy has been hollowed out by the erstwhile crony feudalism of rural India, which subverted land reforms, and by the runaway corruption of crony capitalism in new India. Political power and business wealth are, in practice, both substantially still hereditary, and the accident of one’s birth continues to determine one’s life-chances, the chance to enter school and college, and the quality of education one can access, which, in turn, limit the possibilities of social mobility. Further, tall barriers are placed by one’s gender, caste, religion and geography. If democracy means equality of political, economic and social opportunity, India’s democracy is still besieged.
There are many troubled regions in India where democracy has been substantially suspended for many decades. The Kashmir valley is among the most militarised in the world. Here, as in India’s restive and ethnically fractured North-East, army personnel are protected by special laws from the consequences of crimes against local people. Terror laws again suspend basic human right protections in vast areas smouldering with militant left-extremist rebellion, and in operations against religious fundamentalism. The consequence of such anti-democratic laws are the targeting, profiling, long incarcerations without trial and extra-judicial killings of people of indigenous, ethnic, religious and caste minorities.
And yet, despite all of this, if we still have reason to celebrate India’s flawed but nonetheless vibrant democracy, it is because its ordinary people have long used its partial freedoms to assert and dissent against injustice and oppression, forcing the state to respond and change. Laws and policies for labour protection and gender justice, for ending inhuman practices such as manual scavenging and bonded labour, for the right to information and transparent governance, for just and humane project displacement, and for the rights to education, work and food, have all resulted from creative and brave non-violent people’s movements. A large array of humanitarian interventions has demonstrated that love can also be crafted into forms of resistance.
These same ordinary people have peacefully punished corrupt regimes, and rewarded those it believes have worked better for people’s interests. The fear voiced by sceptics that ordinary Indian people would not rise to the demands of responsible republican citizenship has proved completely unfounded: election after election, the longest lines at polling booths are always of India’s vast and varied underclass — women, disadvantaged castes and minorities, and people deprived of formal education — who are found mostly to make wise, astute and sophisticated political choices.
If democracy thrives in India, it is because of its ordinary people who claim and reclaim it in myriad ways, in their hope that maybe one day democracy will change their lives. This is one of most conspicuous achievements of Indian democracy, but it also its most cruel dilemma — that the democratically elected political establishment, whatever its hue, most consistently betrays those who sustain the most robust faith in India’s political democracy. India’s democracy is truly by the people.
Harsh Mander is the director of the Centre for Equity Studies. He is the author of, among other works, Fractured Freedom: Chronicles from India’s Margins, and Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger