Some years ago, when the Government of India was asked to make a special presentation at the World Economic Forum at Davos, it showcased the country’s achievements under the title: ‘The World’s Fastest-Growing Democracy’. The words, carefully chosen, were aimed at Western liberals whose attractions to the world’s fastest-growing economy were tempered by reservations about its political system. This was not an isolated occurrence — for, as manifest most recently in the decision of our Ambassador in Norway to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Indian Establishment is not shy of claiming moral superiority over China on account of our democratic traditions.
This positioning of India as the Asian nice guy can backfire, as when those Western liberals (most famously, President Obama) chastise us for endorsing the military regime in Myanmar. The scolding has been dismissed as hypocritical, on the grounds that the United States has historically been very keen on supporting dictators against democrats in Asia (remember Suharto, Zia, Musharraf), Africa (Mobutu and many others) and Latin America (Pinochet, Somoza, sundry Brazilian generals). But, as we mark our 62nd Republic Day, it is harder to dismiss a criticism made by an increasing number of Indians — that there has been a sharp erosion of democratic values and processes within India itself.
This erosion is evident most strikingly in two spheres —the rule of law and the freedom of the Press. One of India’s most respected lawyers, Shanti Bhushan, claims that of the 16 chief justices of the Supreme Court he has appeared before, at least half were corrupt. Other senior lawyers confirm that the claim is credible. Levels of corruption in the lower courts may be even higher. That some judgements can be ‘fixed’ is widely believed — so much so that a powerful journalist is now known to have advised Niira Radia how to doctor a case in her client’s favour.
Apart from cash, violence and intimidation can also pervert the law or stop it from pursuing the true ends of justice. Even when manifestly guilty of looting the public exchequer, politicians do not spend extended time in prison. This is in part because judges and prosecutors worry about their own safety if the party of the accused were to return to power.
The frailties of the legal system are abundantly on display in India’s conflict zones — such as Kashmir, Manipur, and the Naxalite-affected areas of central and eastern India. Police officers and soldiers who commit human rights violations are rarely charged and never punished. In Dantewada, a district whose tragic recent history I have been closely following, tribals who have had their homes burnt or women raped by a vigilante group promoted by the state government, are simply too terrified to register a complaint. Even if they had the necessary legal support, local police stations will not accept FIR’s, and local courts will not entertain cases. Out of despair, a brave adivasi leader named Kartam Joga moved the Supreme Court. His reward was a spate of spurious cases filed by the state government, who then put him away in jail, in an act of vicious retribution.
The sufferings of the tribals are a product of the barbaric methods adopted both by the Maoists and by State-sponsored vigilantes. The Maoists are accountable to nobody, but it is a sign of the abdication of its Constitutional responsibilities that when the Supreme Court chastised the Chhattisgarh government for its failure to rehabilitate displaced tribals, it set up an enquiry committee composed of the same politicians — Raman Singh, Mahendra Karma, et al — who had energetically promoted the vigilantes. (By the same moral standards, A Raja should be appointed chairman of a committee enquiring into the 2G scandal.)
This callousness of a professedly democratic regime towards the human rights of its citizens provides ammunition to extremists who wish to secede from India or convert it into a one-party State. But our democratic claims are also undermined by increasing curbs on the freedom of the press. Sometimes, it is newspaper owners and managers who are at fault, as when they enter into private treaties with corporate houses to provide favourable coverage, or pass off party propaganda as impartial assessments (what is called ‘paid news’). At other times, it is individual journalists who are guilty, as when they act as spokesmen for particular businessmen or industrial houses.
A third threat to press freedom comes from government interference. Consider the curbs on setting up community radio stations, or the banning of news broadcasts from privately owned radio channels. These are a product of a general fear of free expression, but, speaking in more particular terms, states governments often withdraw departmental advertisements (a key source of revenue) from newspapers which have been critical of its policies. Sometimes, the intimidation is less subtle; as when politicians threaten independent-minded journalists, and even (as has happened in Dantewada) have them beaten up by hired goons.
That India, unlike China, has regular elections, and that Indians, unlike the Chinese, can live anywhere they want, are freedoms to cherish and be grateful for. Among other visible (and admirable) strengths of Indian democracy are the independence of institutions such as the Election Commission and the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the sturdily apolitical character of our armed forces. Set against these gains are the corruption and criminality of our political class, the corruption and corrosion of our legal system, and the increasingly self-serving nature of our Press. Rather than brag about how much more democratic we are than China, we should pay attention to how far Indian democracy, c. 2011, falls short of the ideals envisaged and the standards laid out by our own Constitution in 1950.
(Ramachandra Guha is the author of Makers of Modern India)
*The views expressed by the author are personal