Freedom in Indian democracy

The sort of democracy we see practiced today in India has some disturbing infirmities probably rooted in the history and the cultural diversity that it spawned. The most troublesome aspect among the apparent maladies is the flexible interpretation of ‘freedom’ within our democracy by various stakeholders depending on their convenience and need to acquire access to and exercise significant influence on the powers of the state and usurp the privileges associated with it. Intimately related to this is what we understand in India by secularism.


Our democratic experience is, comparatively speaking, shallow. We have been introduced to democracy rather late, around the middle of the last century, our political structure based on a borrowed template and formally modeled more or less on the British practice. India was not a democratic country before the colonial take over by the British or even during the major part of their rule, if one leaves out the last twenty odd years. During this latter period some rudimentary democratic institutions came into being as ad hoc response from the rulers to meet the increasing self-rule demand from the articulate educated Indians belonging to some strands of the nationalist movement. These were by no means expressions of mass democracy.


Anti-British movement led by Gandhi and others in Indian National Congress was primarily a political agitation by the Indian masses geared principally to remove the colonial yoke and aimed at major changes in the political superstructure characterizing the country (or the major parts of the country). To the participants of the freedom movement and the people at large the facile assumption was proffered by the leaders that the ‘freedom’ from the colonial rule will necessarily mean democracy, especially as it was being sought to be safeguarded by a meticulously worked document like the ‘Constitution’ (some very erudite, brilliant and humane Indians of the time having authored it). And with the first countrywide general election based on universal suffrage a significant measure of democratic practice was also demonstrated on the ground.


Despite many apparent failures and limitations of and attempts at subversion on our democracy it has to be ungrudgingly accepted, however, that this aspect of our democratic freedom – the ability of the Indians across the length and the breadth of the country to more or less freely exercise their electoral choices at periodic intervals – has remained sacrosanct for all these sixty five years. Being able to throw out of office through a largely non-violent election process the particularly hated dispensation of Emergency introduced by the Congress party during mid-1970s, or the unusually long (for about 34 years) self-perpetuating mis-governance by the left front in West Bengal that almost appeared as a fait accompli bear testimony to the strength of the functioning though flawed democracy in India. In view of what had happened in terms of the shrinkage of the democratic space in many countries in India’s neighborhood and elsewhere, countries that won freedom from the colonial rule around the same time as India this is rightly considered by many as a significant achievement.

Within this basic and broad democratic framework our polity through its varied and evolving strands (roughly represented by various political parties and groups) has managed to develop its programmes projected to benefit the majority of the people and organize corresponding actions so as to best serve the cause laid down by these programmes. The latter could be addressing planning and executing economic development projects, scientific management of the natural resources, managing country’s finances, creating and organizing infrastructure for health and education for the burgeoning population, engineering social upliftment and promoting social mobility, maintaining peace and harmony among a large and widely heterogeneous population characterized by diverse ethnicity, religion, caste, language, economic conditions, etc.


It is in this context that quite early in our experiment with democracy in the post-independence India (in about twenty years or so), the congress party which by virtue of the momentum it carried from leading the freedom movement had taken over the governance of almost whole of India, lost the absolute monopoly in deciding the form, the content and the priorities of these programmes and who the beneficiaries of these would be. Partly because of conceptual inadequacy in understanding and mediating democratic reforms in a poor, underdeveloped, predominantly agricultural country with effectively feudal land relations and partly out of plain incompetence, arrogance of power, greed and corruption, the ruling party quickly lost the moral hegemony to lord over such a vast and diverse land. Soon there were other claimants to the mantle. First they came flaunting contrasting ideological worldviews. But gradually the challengers put up the flagstaff of diverse identities – of castes, religions, regional and tribal aspirations for ‘self-determination’ – appearing to shoot their arms and articulate newfound voices through the imposed veil of suzerainty of a central government with an overarching national ethos and perspective.


Since then it has become an open season for competition for occupying the preeminent place within the political space among all manner of opportunistic coalitions of groups openly and avowedly promoting their sectional interests and agendas that could sometimes appear almost irreconcilable to each other, quite apart from working against the demands of a modern nation in the 21st century world. An important aspect of freedom interpreted within democratic India is thus an almost infinite tolerance of the articulation of a restricted, sectional identity even if that works at cross purposes with the interest of ‘others’ (beyond the given group or section) and the ‘nation’ as a whole, if that matters any more to the promoters of identity politics in India.


This incidentally seems to be consistent with the common interpretation of how secularism was defined in our constitution. Within the scope of this interpretation, the Indian state (governments both at the center and in the states) can not just be neutral about all religions, they will have to actually bend over backwards to publicly support disparate agendas of followers of each religion, which effectively translates to supporting the religious organizations, parties and those ambitious elites leading them. Religion in India is not something of a cultural value system or worldview practiced by individual followers in private, without demonstrably occupying public space or grabbing public attention or demanding expenditure of public money (or the state’s indulgence or munificence in any way).

That is why shifting or demolishing (even under court order) temples or mosques whether these are of older or recent origins on busy public roads causing clear inconvenience to the flow of traffic in a modern Indian city can be an emotive and law and order issue. In the same vein the financial support by the government for the Haj pilgrimage is expected to be a time honored and therefore compulsory gesture that no decent government hoping not to antagonize a religious group can withdraw. Nor can the government afford to show itself to be fatally insensitive by proposing to control the noise levels in the residential areas and townships in modern cities and towns contributed by the quotidian calls to the faithful and blaring of religious sermons and functions over loudspeakers. And to speak of being wary of regimentation and proliferation of very archaic, ultraconservative ideas and mores among the co-believers in such congregations will be construed as sacrilegious.


That is why a literary work like fiction, essay or a poem or a work of art like painting, a cartoon or a film or play in contemporary India can and does routinely run afoul with the sensitivities of the one or the other among the myriad affiliates of religious allegiances. And the secular government respecting the fundamental rights (to preach and practice a religion) of the aggrieved, enshrined under constitution, is expected to assuage the hurt feelings (due to a perceived affront) by promptly stopping a painting exhibition, live performance or a theatre show, denying censorship certificate to a movie and banning the publication and sale of a book. In addition, most often by an unwritten convention, the state has to remain a passive spectator of the active vandalism and destruction of properties by the mortified activists exercising their freedom in dispensing vigilante justice on the perceived infringement of ‘their’ fundamental rights. Curiously, though, the minor matter about protecting the freedom of expression of the artists and writers and filmmakers under the same article of the constitution never arrests the attention of the government.  


It is true that religion happens to be a common enough trigger for backlash on the freedom of expression. However, freedom to preach and practice rabid regionalism, ethno-linguistic chauvinism, to promote caste-based reservation in jobs and promotion, to demand self-determination for a dwindling tribal identity are all very sacrosanct in India. And every Indian worth his salt should clearly know that his freedom to express any rational view on any of these matters is naturally secondary to the primary freedom of a host of other Indians of sensing a hurt in their identity and ideology.

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