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India needs to grow beyond its feudal past

Corruption, caste tradition and oppression threaten true democracy

India needs to grow beyond its feudal past

Voters in Bangalore, India go to the polls (Photo: WikiCommons)

Fr Myron Pereira, Mumbai

July 15, 2014

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Last week a news story detailed how Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi protested the resolutions of village councils in Chattisgarh state that banned non-Hindu religious activities in their areas. Archbishop Couto asked the government to intervene and reverse this decision.

While commending the stance of Archbishop Couto, who deserves all our support, we also may ask: by what authority does a petty local council dictate terms to the public on their faith and actions in a given territory?

All genuine citizens of a democratic republic have the right of freedom of expression, movement and association. It is a fundamental right, enshrined in the constitution. Nevertheless, many rights taken for granted are slowly but surely being encroached upon. Another such right is that of freedom of religion, impeded by the many illicit anti-conversion laws passed by state legislatures.

In other words, we're losing more and more of our democratic space.

What do we understand by democratic space? In this context, space is a metaphor, not just for physical movement, but for intellectual and spiritual movement, that is, of ideas and beliefs. Encroaching on democratic space is when someone is confined, quieted, arrested and imprisoned because one protests peacefully about perceived injustice, or because one expresses a contrary opinion. Sometimes it's the police who shut you up; here in India, it's often a group of goons.

"Democratic space" is the right to express oneself, to move around without fear. Historically, it is one of our first fundamental rights.

Democratic societies value fundamental rights, and grant them universally. Well, almost universally. Feudal, medieval societies don't. Large parts of India live in a feudal, medieval world of khap panchayat (village) rulings, of fatwas -- threats of excommunication or death.

In a feudal society, only the king speaks. Others remain silent, or learn how to flatter and survive. There is simply no democratic space, because democracy is not a value. Survival is.

Social scientists argue that Indian society is just a thin democratic crust upon a huge feudal mass that lives in a time warp of caste inequality, patriarchal oppression, communal suspicion and hegemonic posturing. It is true that the constitution supports this democratic crust, but the vast masses live according to their own rituals, traditions, shariats, and prejudices. Usually constitutional rights and laws are cunningly subverted to the ends of those in power.

Our challenge is to create a modern, secular, egalitarian and productive society out of the masses that are both inert and passive, as well as easily manipulated to riot and rampage.

Which makes one wonder: why are governments, the courts and the police so susceptible to groups who claim their "cultural or religious sensibilities are offended", that they willingly suspend their duty to be impartial and fair to all?

This is because the Indian state is a 'soft state'.

A soft state (the term comes from Gunnar Myrdal's classic, Asian Drama) is "where all the various types of social indiscipline manifest themselves: deficiencies in legislation, and in particular, law observance and enforcement; a wide-spread disobedience by public officials on various levels to the directives handed down to them; and their frequent collusion with powerful persons and groups whose very conduct they should regulate."

The soft state has a hard underbelly: the criminal side of politics. No surprise then that the nexus between politician and criminal has grown increasingly closer, and virtually taken over the organs of government. The Indian government does not regulate and control for the common good as expected by governments. Rather, it is controlled by the majoritarian polity of the upper-caste elite that plays the victim in its own country in order to wrest political, social and economic advantages for itself, the minority within that majority.

Whether it is tax concessions, allocations of licenses, siphoning of funds meant for the poor; whether it is the banning of scholarly books on Indian history and culture, or of popular films and cultural festivals; whether it is the labeling of certain groups as terrorists and the hounding of ordinary citizens using investigators, it is this minority of bigots, scammers and fundamentalists that claim to speak for the majority, as it struggles to present a sanitized version of India to the world.

It is this minority that eats up our democratic space.

What then must we do to keep ourselves from being hurled backwards into a medieval Hindustan, where caste oppression and political constraints are the norm?

The answer to this lies in building up a robust civil society -- that loose amalgam of diverse groups, brought together by urbanization, mass education, media culture and aspirations of prosperity. Medieval society may have caste and religion; it does not have anything like civil society.

Civil societies can be mobilized through using the social media. It is civil society, secular and egalitarian, and not religious communities that show the way. It is civil society that will expand our democratic space, and reclaim it from the caste-driven political parties, which have made the Indian state soft, partisan, and ultimately, dysfunctional.

Jesuit Fr Myron Pereira is a media consultant based in Mumbai



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