New Internationalist 322 April 2000
Some months ago I laughed at a friend of mine who said: ‘Oh, you Indians have become so used to democracy that you are complacent about it.’
At the time I thought she didn’t really know what she was talking about. Now I’m not so sure. Looking back over the last several years, we’ve seen a slow but sure erosion of democracy in India. But we haven’t really noticed it because it’s happened in small, careful ways. Recently, a military court summoned two journalists for questioning – they were said to have been ‘unpatriotic’ in their reporting of the war with Pakistan in October 1999.
A military court? Summoning journalists? In a democracy? And yet, no-one protested. Ten years ago the army would not have dared to do something like this and protesters would have been out in droves.
Yet this is no isolated incident. Earlier, a small group of right-wing political activists had disrupted shows of a film called Fire which was about a lesbian relationship. It was bad, they said, for ‘our morals’. They’d also dug up cricket pitches in Delhi and Bombay to prevent the Pakistani team from playing cricket and their leader had demanded that a Muslim film star ‘prove’ his patriotism to India by returning an award given to him by Pakistan. And once again, there was little protest – for the most part people dismissed these extremists as the lunatic fringe.
But lunatics they’re not. Nor are they any longer merely the fringe. As the century turns a new corner we in India are faced with a serious situation. The right wing is firmly in power (and likely to stay there for five years at least) and many people now hesitate to speak of ‘Rights’, as if the word itself were suspect!
In September 1999 Indians went to the polls to elect a new government, just after the country had fought a war with Pakistan. Nationalist hysteria and patriotic fervour were at an all-time high with the party in power taking full advantage of it to fight the elections. Into this situation a handful of women’s groups inserted a note of caution: they put an advertisement in the newspapers which quoted various right-wing leaders (some of them female) making blatant anti-woman statements.
Should you believe them, they asked the reader, when they say they are for women? Ought you to vote for them? The response was immediate and drastic. How, asked political leaders, could anyone dare to question them? Particularly when they were the Government! More, how could women dare to do this?
Women’s groups are not the only ones who have had to face this kind of repression and violence. Shortly after taking power the first time, the Government’s Human Resource Minister announced that he would overhaul the entire educational system and make new textbooks which were more in accordance with ‘Indian culture’. In order to do this he planned to remove the right of minorities to run their own educational institutions and to take away the rights and responsibilities of panchayats (village councils) and municipalities in primary and secondary education. Both of these rights are built into the Indian Constitution and it was pure luck that, on a legal point, these policy changes did not go through.
It is fair to say that in public discourse now in Indian society there is a rapidly growing sense of ‘us’ (Hindus) and ‘them’ (Muslims, Christians and others). It’s worrying how much acceptance this has acquired.
When Australian Graham Staines and his two sons were murdered by a Hindu fanatic in Orissa State it was amazing to see the number of people who refused to condemn the murder. Staines had been working with leprosy patients but the killer said the reason he was murdered was because he was ‘converting’ people to Christianity.
These are some of the visible things. There are others that happen more quietly and that pass unnoticed. In Gujarat, for example, the Bajrang Da, a right-wing militant outfit, is now offering ‘free investigations’ into potential inter-religious marriages. Make sure, they advise, that you are not being offered marriage by a Muslim as a ploy for conversion. If in doubt, let us investigate for you – for free. Investigations, of course, are another way of identifying and targeting those who are now known as ‘foreigners’.
When some five decades ago India drew up its Constitution, we thought we had built in any number of safeguards to protect democracy. What we didn’t reckon on was that there could be this slow, insidious, scattered erosion of the values of which we were so proud. Nor did we think about what we would do if this happened.
In itself it doesn’t seem so drastic that, say, a number of women’s groups have had legal charges slapped on them for something they have said. But it’s when you start adding up these little things that you realize that they are actually the early danger signals of something much more serious. For what they are attacking and eroding is the bedrock of democracy – the right of a citizen to choose a way of living, a religion to practise, a political ideology to live by or the right to dissent and to question.
The tragedy is that we’ve hardly noticed these attacks or registered them as attacks. Unless we do, the face of what we are proud to call the world’s largest democracy will begin to change – and there’ll be nothing beautiful about the new one.
Urvashi Butalia is a writer and publisher who lives in Delhi.
Her next column will appear in July. In May we publish the first quarterly column from Uruguay’s Eduardo Galeano, and in June from Ghana’s Ama Ata Aidoo.
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