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For South Asia, democracy is farther away than ever

Reflections on the UN International Day of Democracy, September 15

  • John Dayal, India
  • Asia
  • September 13, 2013
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As we mark the UN International Day of Democracy on September 15, the good news is that South Asia’s colonial past is fast dimming as a memory. More than 80 percent of the population was born after the British pulled out of India in 1947.  

The bad news is that feudalism, hunger and increasing marginalization of poor, ethnic and indigenous groups, along with the targeting of religious groups, has blurred the vision of democracy that was shared by the eight nations who constitute the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC): Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the recently admitted Afghanistan.

In this first quarter of the 21st century, SAARC nations scrape the bottom of almost every human development index, keeping company with the least fortunate of Africa and Oceania.

Many things go to make a wholesome democracy and the West is not always a good example. Race is still an issue in the US, while migrants and a growing Islamic population rouse undemocratic passions in the UK, France, Germany and Norway.

Democracy is normally judged by the quality of freedom of belief, regular elections and political stability. Other important indicators are civil control over the military and the police, a free and vigorous press and judiciary, and a genuine devolution of power and resources to the most remote areas and people.

Each of the South Asian nations has taken its own highly disparate path to democracy in these 65 years or so. The smaller ones have had the most turbulent history. But the big ones have not been without their own travails.

Afghanistan perhaps presents the worst case scenario, with daily deaths at the hands of the Taliban, tribal chieftains engaged in multiple civil wars, subjugation of women’s rights and sustained violence against religious minorities. Not that other small countries such as the Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka can lay claim to vibrant democracies and happy people.

The people of the Maldives endure dictatorships and coups. Nepal, a former monarchy, has not yet learnt the rudiments of democracy.

Sri Lanka’s government, egged on by the Buddhist hierarchy, gloats over the vanquished Tamils and practices brutal intolerance of civil society and human rights defenders. Bhutan terrorizes ethnic and religious minorities behind an official policy of preserving the tiny nation’s culture.

But it is in the three large countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India that one sees how democracy gets perverted.

Of course, the three were partitioned from British India in a most bloody, two-step process.  The first partition of the subcontinent in 1947 saw the massacre of an estimated 500,000 Hindus in what is now Pakistan, and an equal number of Muslims in North India. Ten million fled their homes.

Then in 1971, Bangladesh separated from a militarized Pakistan in an equally macabre manner.

Memories of their traumatic births continue to haunt the destiny of these nations and mar the nature of their democracies.

Though it just marked its first ever democratically elected government completing its full five-year term in office, Pakistan is never more than a trigger away from military rule. The military remains the real ruler, even when the president and prime minister are elected civilians. Its political fragility and nuclear arsenal pose a threat to regional and perhaps even world security and peace.

In Bangladesh, the party and government of Sheikh Hasina remain somewhat democratic. But it needs be remembered that the two other contending political entities bank heavily on an alliance between the military and Islamic groups. Christians, Hindus and Buddhist minorities cower in fear, with almost daily reports of coercion, abduction and murder.

India, on one level, is a democracy success story. Elections have been regular, there have been no coups and the military is kept firmly under control. Over the years, some sort of a security net has been created for the poor through cash transfers, partial employment guarantees and the recently enacted Right to Food. The press is free, even if some do complain that television and print media champion the cause of the corporate sector which owns them, rather than the poor. 

But there are serious systemic aberrations. In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed an internal emergency after she lost a court case against her election to parliament. Lasting 22 months, it was a grim reminder that democracies remain fragile  and have to be nurtured. The current thrust for power by the Bharatiya Janata Party has roused fears of massive erosion in democratic values once again, impacting on Muslims, Christians and tribals if its leader, Narendra Modi, becomes prime minister.

Many would, however, argue that Mr. Modi can hardly add to the plethora of laws and governance practices that have impacted on freedom of faith and the situation of minorities.

Religion remains a major fault line in India. In the past year, there have been over 100 acts of violence by Hindu groups against Muslims in Uttar Pradesh alone. Over the last 60 years, there have been more than 20,000 such acts of violence against Muslims. Violence against Christians by Hindu nationalists has been going on for about 20 years now, with the police often passive spectators.

The anti-Christian violence in many areas is almost directly traced to the existence of  anti-conversion laws, and a belief even in the police that evangelization is illegal.

For the Muslims, the crisis is their microscopic presence in police, bureaucracy, judiciary and legislatures despite an almost 15 percent presence in the population.

The feeling among these communities is one of being targeted, of being denied participation in governance, of not being real beneficiaries of the fruits of development. It poses serious questions to a country that boasts of being a socialist and secular democracy.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

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