Sunday, January 11, 2004

Understanding India -Ishtiaq Ahmed

We need to see India as a great ongoing experiment in social, economic and political transformation. If nothing is done to create greater economic and social democracy the whole project can run aground. The battle for democracy in India is not yet won.

Understanding India is important if we are to have normal, friendly relations with our bigger neighbour on the eastern border. Ignorance is bliss only for fools and my essay does not address them. As a political scientist I find India a most intriguing social science puzzle: a caste-ridden, poverty-afflicted, ethnically and racially heterogeneous, religiously diverse and linguistically fragmented mosaic of over one billion human beings has managed to stabilise as a democracy, destined to emerge as a major economic power in the earlier part of the 21st century. How is this possible?

Let me begin by discarding the vulgar conspiracy explanation. Indian democracy is not a rule of clever Brahmins who have fooled the Indian population and the whole world. India has held free and periodic elections on a multi-party basis and that cannot be sustained through racism and casteism; rather despite two-thousand-and-more years of racism and casteism built into Brahmanic theology, the Indian system has evolved perhaps the most sophisticated system of inclusion and accommodation of races, ethnies, castes and nationalities in the political process.

Apart from secessionist attempts which were and are being clamped down forcibly, other legitimate demands for regional autonomy have sooner or later won acceptance with the result that the Indian federation today consists of many more states or provinces than at the time of independence. Even Hindu nationalist parties seem to have accepted the hegemony of the democratic process, although extremists among them carried out the carnage of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and similar crimes against Christians.

Democracy brings stability; it provides ventilation of grievances and also freedom of expression for not only creative thought and enquiry but also artistic and aesthetical fantasy. All these qualities are important for creating a strong middle class and an economic environment conducive to economic growth and investment. India is therefore attractive to international investors. Thus a connection if not a direct causal relationship between political democracy and the market economy can easily be established.

All this would not have been possible without an enlightened and dedicated leadership. The main architects of the Indian Constitution, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the chairperson of the Constitution Committee, the Dalit leader Dr Ambedkar, nurtured a vision that would take India forward into the 21st century rather than back to some imaginary, fictitious golden age. They received a helping hand from Mahatma Gandhi who despite his formal symbolism of Ram Raj, in practice incorporated progressive ideas about equal rights of all citizens in his notion of the polity. The Indian constitution therefore unequivocally rejected the Manusmriti and other orthodox Hindu texts as the source of law and legislation. Consequently practising untouchability was declared a penal offence in 1955 and the constitution reserves seats in the legislative assemblies and government employment for the various untouchable castes and tribal peoples from among the religions deriving from Hinduism. Considerable resentment exists among the upper castes against the reservation policy, but there is a consensus that it should be maintained. In fact the percentage of reservation has gone up from the original 22 per cent and there are calls to expand it to include Dalits from Muslim and Christian backgrounds.

Today, a growing body of Dalit intellectuals and professionals are able to articulate the grievances of their people and demand justice forcefully. Under a purely Hindu dispensation it would be unthinkable for Dalits to get an education and climb up the social ladder. The problem is the traditional Hindu culture which still dominates in the villages; everyday Dalits are subjected to humiliation and violence and they no doubt constitute the bulk of the Indian poor.

Women have also been the beneficiaries of Indian democracy. Hindu marriage laws have been reformed in a democratic and equalitarian direction. Hindu women are in an infinitely better position today than they would be under the Laws of Manu. As soon as one crosses the border between Pakistan and India, one notices that urban women in India enjoy greater freedom. They ride bicycles and motor-bicycles, travel in mixed buses where they sit next to men, many of them work and are increasingly taking up professional careers. With regard to the Muslim community of India, we need to remember that mainstream Deobandi ulema supported the Indian National Congress's idea of a united India. In return they were given assurances by Nehru and other Congress leaders that the government would not interfere with the internal matters of the Muslim community, but it was hoped that in due course Muslims would voluntarily integrate into mainstream political life, partaking in the democratic nation-building project.

Consequently, when Nehru initiated a number of reforms to modernise and democratise Hindu marriage and inheritance laws (also applicable to Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains) the Muslim community was exempted. Marriage and inheritance have continued to be based on dogmatic Sharia. Many educated Muslims have been demanding that uniform laws should apply to all Indian citizens but the ulema continue to block the integration of the Muslim community into the mainstream. Although the richest man of India is reportedly a Muslim, Azim Premji, on the whole, the Muslim community lags behind the other communities. Partly the roots of this can be traced back to the partition which continues to produce prejudices against Muslims, but the absence of an educated leadership and the baneful influence of the ulema compound the difficulties of the Muslim community.

However, the Indian film industry should be congratulated for its high standards of meritocracy. The highest awards for the best actor have gone to Dilip Kumar (Yusaf Khan) and Shahrukh Khan is second on that list. The late Mohammad Rafi enjoys the status of a god among true connoisseurs of music. Urdu or Hindustani remains the primary language of Indian films and song and dialogue writers of Muslim origin have always been the most sought after.

Thus we need to see India as a great ongoing experiment in social, economic and political transformation. One cannot deny that police brutality, widespread corruption, minority-bashing and caste-based oppression abound. And if nothing is done to create greater economic and social democracy the whole project can run aground. The battle for democracy in India is therefore not yet won.

The author is an associate professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is

Source: Daily Times, January 11, 2004


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