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The Death of Democracy in India (by Dr. Gurnam Singh, Coventry University, UK)

March 5, 2013 | By

– Dr Gurnam Singh,
(Coventry University, UK)

Honorable Members of Parliament and friends from different communities let me begin with the traditional Sikh greeting:

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh

It seems to me that the only time the political system of India attracts any kind of scrutiny by the Western media is during a general election campaign. Every 4 years or so India becomes billed as the world’s largest democracy and India is presented as a beacon of freedom and human suffrage. A beacon of Western secular democracy in the Orient.

Whilst there is no such thing as a perfect democracy, I think we desperately need to reassess this popular but wholly inaccurate view of India as the worlds largest democracy; not least because the failure to do so, has I believe fermented Western apathy towards gross human rights abuses committed by the India union, of which the case of Balwant Singh Rajoana is but a tip of the ice berg.

Yes, there can be no doubt that India has experienced something of an economic boom during the past 15 years or so, but accompanying this has been and even more dramatic growth in political corruption. Astonishingly today, almost a third of the MP’s in the current parliament have criminal charges against them! And therefore it is not surprising that much of new found wealth trickles into the pockets of the political criminal fraternity rather than ordinary Indians, the small farmers, the rural poor, the labourers and the millions of artisans. According to the World Bank, the situation for the poor in India has actually worsened, 450 million out of a population 1.2 billion live below the international poverty line – measured on earnings of less than £1 per day – Half of India’s children are malnourished and many thousands die from diarrhoea every day. So whilst the free Indian democratic state may be transforming the lifestyles of a few powerful individuals with dubious credentials, life is pretty grim.

Today India is analogous to a runaway train that if not checked is headed for a very horrific disaster the likes of which, given the size and scale of the problem, the world has never seen. Today, as pointed out recently by the India intellectual and human rights activist Arundhati Roy far from being a democratic state, for Non-Hindus i.e. religious minorities and Dalits, India is effectively a colonial state.

“The Indian State from the moment it became a sovereign nation, from the moment it shook of the shackles of colonialism it became a colonial state. And it has waged war since 1947 in Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Telagana, Panjab, Goa, Hyderabad; if you look at it it’s like a state that has been perpetually at war and a military war, deploying the army against its ‘own’ people… And if you look at who are these people that the state chose to fight, in all the North Eastern states they were tribal people, in Kashmir it was the Muslims, in Telagana it was the tribal people, in Hyderabad it was the Muslims, in Goa the Christians, in Panjab it’s the Sikhs. So you see this upper caste Hindu state is perpetually at war” ( 7th July 2012)

In what appears from Western perspective to be a post colonial world is far from the case for the many oppressed minorities in the former colonies such as India where as Arundati Roy so powerfully suggests, all we have seen is the displacement of one form of autocratic rule by another, albeit masquerading as an independent ‘democratic state’. But let us now interrogate the so-called ‘world’s largest democracy’ to see if deserves the label it so proudly claims.

Hanna Arendt the Harvard political theorist and holocaust survivor identifies 5 key features of a democracy, each of which I contend is in serious peril in India today.

1) Transparency in Government – According to ‘Transparency International’s’ Corruption Perceptions Index for 2012 India was ranked 94th out of 176 countries, being tied with the likes of Benin, Colombia, Djibouti, Mongolia, and Senegal.

“Today in India, politicians are so powerful; they are looting the country.” Now, these are not my words but those of Santosh Hegde, a former Supreme Court justice of India (NY Times 15th Sept 2012)

2) Freedom of Speech and of the Media – While this right is enshrined in Indian law, the India penal code section 153 allows for a large set of exceptions, which are often used by corrupt politicians to silence any public dissent. Moreover, increasing ownership and patronage of the media by powerful individuals and politicians along with deep levels of corruption in the issuing of broadcasting licenses has further compromised freedom of expression and an independent media. As reported by on 2nd Feb 2012, the 2008 sale of telecom licenses is ‘seen as the biggest corruption scandal India has ever faced – ‘one that rattled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government.’

3) Freedom of Religion and belief – Whilst Indian regularly stakes a claim for being a model multicultural society built on the principles of secularism, the reality is that across India ethnic cleansing of religious minorities, most notably Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Dalits along with landless peasants and slum dwellers, at the hands of various right wing ‘Hindutva’ inspired fascist groups (e.g. Arya Samaj, RSS, BJP, VHP and Shiv Sena), is a regular feature. Again, you don’t have to take my word for this, in a recent debate in the Indian parliament, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal accused BJP opposition of adopting fascist tactics.

But tragically, the once staunchly secular Indian National Congress Party, as the Nanavati inquiry into the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in Nov 1984 uncovered has itself succumbed to sectarianism. The report incriminated scores of ordinary congress party employees, as well as four senior Congress leaders from New Delhi at the time of the killings, namely, the late L. K. Bhagat; Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and Kamal Nath, each of whom, far from being prosecuted rose up the ranks of the party and up to cabinet level.

4) Impartial Courts/Judiciary – Putting aside numerous reports from Asia watch, Amnesty, the Former chief justice of India V.N. KHARE in a recent interview said that corruption in the lower criminal courts was rampant, that it was very difficult for the common man because there are huge time gaps between hearings and years are spent to get an order from the lower courts.

5) An honest and transparent voting process – today elections are secured not through free and fair elections but by bribing electorates through the distribution of alcohol, drugs and cash handouts or threats to lay bare whole villages. When the present Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, assumed office Sikhs welcomes him with an open heart and mind; we all had high hopes that he would introduce fundamental reforms and facilitate justice for Sikhs and others. Sadly, this did not transpire. Whilst India has developed on the economic front, because entrenched interests have become even more powerful, tragically this has failed to benefit ordinary people. Today, the levels of corruption and patronage are so endemic in India that the system of governance is anything but democratic and the most powerful evidence of this is that even the countries Prime Minister seems either incapable or unable to do anything about this.

So, on this World Human Rights Day I say today there can be no more important cause for Western governments than to prevent the death of democracy in India. Failure to do so could make the Middle East look like a tea party in comparison. Today the rampant corruption has rendered the Indian government mute in relation to gross violations of human rights of religious minorities, the poor and the Dalits. Today the so-called worlds largest democracy is anything but and in this mother of all democracies I would appeal to all those who believe in peace, justice and freedom to pressurize the India Government that if is wants to be taken seriously as a modern democratic nation, to secure a permanent seat in the UN General assembly, then is must change its ways, and that means abolishing the death penalty, and it means the immediate release of ALL political prisoners, an open invitation to independent scrutiny of human rights.

“Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh”

(This article is based on a presentation given at a meeting in the UK Parliament on 10th Dec 2012, organised by Kesari Lehar, a grassroots movement that is campaigning against human rights abuses in India – Dr Gurnam Singh).

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