Friday, 26 January 2018

Threats to Indian democracy

Seat of Power

                                          Means to reach seat of power

According to the (original) Preamble to the Indian Constitution, “We, the people of India,… solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign democratic republic.” During the dark days of the The Emergency, the then Prime Minister Mrs Gandhi, added two more terms, “socialist” and “secular”. She did so for political reasons, not out of ideological convictions.

Today, on January 26, 2018, we are celebrating the 69th Republic Day. In the morning, millions of Indians watched, directly or on TV channels, a magnificent show of our Democratic Republic’s military might, cultural diversity, women empowerment, some of Prime Minister Modi’s unprecedented bold initiatives and much more. The show on the Rajpath - the best so far - in the presence of Heads of 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), must have filled hearts of millions of people with pride of belonging to a great Democratic Republic.

The occasion comes once a year. In addition, every year on August 15 we celebrate the Independence Day and feel proud that ours is the largest democracy in the world.

However, in our day-to-day life we face the hard realities and quite often witness dangerous threats to our democracy. May be, when I say that there are dangerous threats to our democracy, many people would ask, “Is democracy in India really facing serious threats?” My counter question is, “In view of whatever has been happening, do we really deserve democracy?” I am not referring to the external threats from our neighbours. I am not even referring to the insurgency in Kashmir or naxal violence. I am referring to the threats to democracy from those who claim that they deserve special treatment or position in the society.

India is the world’s most diverse country. It is home to large number of religions. Though (according to the 2001 census) Hindus constitute 79.8% of the population, Muslims account for 14.2% and the remaining 6% follow other religions such as Christianity (the third largest religion in India), Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and various indigenous ethnically-bound faiths. The country has about 3000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes.

Despite more than 71 years of independence, there is widespread unemployment, social and economic inequality, starvation, malnutrition, lack of proper education and shortage of the basic facilities of life. The democratic freedom, large number of problems, the division of the society on the caste and communal lines and the gullibility of large number of people provide fertile ground for mushroom growth of caste and religious leaders. To become a religious or caste leader has become a matter of pride though it is reminiscent of the tribal societies in pre-historic days. The best way to become a caste or religious 'leader' is to incite the people belonging the leader's caste or community to demand something which may not be feasible  or even really beneficial but on the face of it looks attractive. 

For the caste and religious leaders of our country, democracy does not mean exercise of democratic rights in peaceful democratic manners. For them, democracy has come to mean freedom to abuse democratic rights. It has come to mean “end justifies means”. The “end” is political power. The “means” could be violent agitations in which human lives are lost and public and private properties worth several hundred crores of rupees are destroyed. The leaders who start the agitation remain safe and try to get political benefits. Today, we have more caste and religious leaders than  leaders who think of India. What a tragedy that some upper castes want to join the OBC (Other Backward Class) and some OBCs regard to go further down in the caste hierarchy!

The use of violent to force the government to bend is becoming quite common. When demands are ridiculous or impractical, leaders incite the people to indulge in violence. Agitations could be started on any excuse. It could be caste-based reservation in government jobs. It could be, as we are witnessing today, to protect and defend the so-called ‘caste-sentiments’ and their history. Not to forget, the Independent India has seen enumerable, small and big, communal riots and even caste riots.

Here I will mention five ugly agitations started by caste leaders since May 2008 and one ugly incident today, January 26, 2018.

The Gurjar agitation in Rajasthan for a higher scheduled tribe status, instead of the current OBC  class, and a 5% quota in government jobs, had started way back in May 2008. In the police firing, at least 15 people who were damaging railway lines and government properties were killed. When they became more aggressive and 15 more were killed in police firing, army had to be called. Seven years later, in May 2015, they again launched violent agitations in support of their demand. They blocked the Jaipur-Agra national highway and major rail tracks in the State. 4500 paramilitary personnel were deployed to handle the agitation that was called off after the State government promised to bring a legislation for providing 5% reservation. The law gave 5% reservation in government jobs to the Gujjars and four other communities under Special Backward Classes. The law neither satisfied the Gujjars – their share was only 1% – nor withstood the judicial scrutiny. The Rajasthan High Court struck down the law because it exceeded the 50% reservation ceiling and had not provided data to establish the backwardness of the five communities. Those presently lying low, Gujjars remain angry with the Rajasthan government.

Soon after the Gujjar agitation was called off (in May 2015), in the neighbouring Gujarat, in July 2015, Patidar leaders launched an agitation (Patidar reservation agitation) in support of their demand for OBC status. The Patidars (mostly with surname Patel) have been traditionally engaged in agriculture and business and are quite well off. Moreover, Gujarat has the lowest rate of unemployment in the country and one of the lowest rates of suicide by farmers. Probably, the Patidar youth are more interested in urban life and government job. Inspired by the Gujjar’s agitation, Patidar community leaders emerged to encourage them. Between July and December 2015 there were about 127 demonstrations some of which turned violent when violent mobs indulged in destruction of public properties. Properties and vehicles worth crores were destroyed. On several occasions paramilitary forces had to be called and curfew had to be imposed. Thousands of agitators were arrested. In August 2015, 12 persons were killed in police firing that gave further impetus to the movement. The Congress party was quick to extend support to the demand. In September 2015, in addition to subsidies and scholarships for the Patel students, the government agreed to provide 10% quota. However, the Gujarat High Court quashed the reservation.

The Patidar youth might not have got anything more than subsidies and scholarships but  Hardik Patel became the real beneficiary. Waiting  for an opportune moment, Hardik, a below average student who was more interested in student politics, jumped in the movement. He and his supporters formed the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti with Hardik as its convenor.  He was arrested more than once and established himself as a prominent youth leader whom Rahul Gandhi embraced during Gujarat Assembly election, though being below 25 years of age, he himself could not contest.

Within a few months of the end of the Patidar agitation in Gujarat, on January, 31, 2016, the Kapu community, constituting about 27% of the population of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, launched a violent agitation for inclusion in the ‘backward castes’ list. Within minutes of the call of the Kapu leader, Aikya Garjana, massive crowds blocked the highways disrupting traffic, torched railway coaches and attacked Railway Protection Force personnel. Garjana and his wife started indefinite fast and one person committed suicide. The Andhra Pradesh Rapid Action Force restored peace  but the matter remains unsettled.

The Jat reservation agitation that started in Haryana in February 2016 for inclusion of the Jats (presently treated as upper caste) for inclusion in the OBC to gain the benefits of reservations  paralysed the State for 10 days. Soon it spread to the neighbouring states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Initially, the agitation that started on February 12, was peaceful. Without indulging in violence, Jats blocked railway lines and roads. The trouble started when on February 18 a group of non-Jats clashed violently with a group of lawyers who were protesting against sedition charges levelled against the JNU students under the mistaken impression that they (lawyers) were Jats. They (non-Jats)  also clashed with some Jat students. On the same day, the police lathi-charged some Jat students of Rohtak. These clashes led to inter-caste violence across Haryana. By February 22, the violent protests had caused loss of ₹ 340 billion in northern India. The railways alone suffered loss of ₹ 55.9 crore on account of damage to property and cancellation of tickets. By February 26, around 30 people had been killed. To pacify the agitating Jats, Haryana government enacted Haryana Backward Classes (Reservation in Services and Admission in Educational Institutions) Law which was notified on May 13, 2016. The law categorised the Jats of HinduSikh and Muslim faiths, BishnoisTyagis, and Rors as Backward Classes (C) category that made them eligible for 10% reservation in class III and IV and 6% reservation in class I and II government jobs. However, within 13 days, the Punjab and Haryana High Court declared the law null and void. Presently, the Jats are lying low but the matter is far from settled.

For the last few months, the Shri Rajput Karni Sena  of Rajasthan has been agitating for ban on film Padmavati on the pretext that it distorted ‘history’, portrayed Rani Padmavati in bad taste and her husband as a weak person and glorified Alauddin Khilji who had an evil eye for the Rani.

The Karni Sena was formed in September 2006 to demand reservations for the Rajputs in government jobs and more share of Rajput legislators in the government. The Sena split in 2010. Today, there are three different factions including the one led by the ambitious Lokendra Singh Kalvi who had joined the Congress party in 2010. (I do not know whether he is still in the Congress.) The film Padmavati gave him an opportunity to launch an agitation to mobilise his caste members and broaden his political base.

The goons of the Karni Sena created so much fear in the minds of the rulers of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana that even after the Supreme Court refused to ban the film, they went for review of the court order, only to be snubbed. Not ready to honour the Supreme Court order, the goons, led and encouraged by Kalvi, turned violent on January 24, a day before the film's release, not just in the four states mentioned above, but also in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh (though on a small scale) and, surprisingly, in different parts of Bihar. In addition to taking out threatening rallies, violent mobs blocked roads, torched public and private vehicles, pelted stones on buses, private vehicles, buildings, shops and cinema halls and physically assaulted large number of people, irrespective of whether they were for or against the film. Some women of Chittorgarh (in Rajasthan where Rani Padmavati and16,000 women are believed to have committed "jauhar" i.e. mass immolation to save their honour from Khilji), claimed that about 1900 would commit "jauhar" if the film were released (though nothing like that happened). To avoid identification, several goons had covered their faces. The agitation subsided only when the state governments started arresting the troublemakers and the people enthusiastically went to movie halls to watch the film being screened under police protection. Many of those who watched the movie openly said that all the allegations levelled by Kalvi and his supporters were absolutely baseless.

Though the agitations for the ban on the film have subsided, the Rajputs, particularly Kalvi and his supporters, must have the last laugh. The stations brought the Rajputs of rival parties on a common platform to fight for the common interest.

The next move of such mischievous leaders needs to be closely watched. They are unlikely to sit idle for long.

The sixth ugly incident that I would like to mention took place in the afternoon of the Republic Day, January 26, 2018. In Kasganj, a district town of Uttar Pradesh, around 36 volunteers of Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad decided to take out a rally on motorbikes with national flags as a mark of their participation in the Republic Day celebration. When they were passing through a particular locality, there were verbal altercations between two religious communities (there are different versions of how it all started). Soon the altercation took communal colour and turned violent. An angry mob damaged more than 12 vehicles and properties. In the clashes and firings, a 20 year old boy was killed and about a dozen persons sustained injuries. In the evening, the authorities claimed that the situation was under control. (Communal violence in Kasganj: stone pelting on VHP ... -

Let us hope and pray, it remains a local incident. In our country often a small incident triggers large-scale violence.  We should ask ourselves a very serious questionis, “Is the centuries old Hindu Muslim relationship in India so fragile that even minor altercation can lead to violent communal clashes?” Both the communities have to live together peacefully in their own interest.

The modern democratic system with all its institutions is the result of thousands of years of progress of civilisation. There is a famous saying that ‘democracy is the worst form of the government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ (Though attributed to Sir Winston Churchill in the House of Commons on November 11, 1947, the real author of the sentence was someone else.)

By its very nature, democracy is a quite civilised system. It can work successfully only in a civilised environment. Like a gentleman, it finds it difficult to deal with goons and thugs. As a gentleman needs the state to protect him from the antisocial elements, the democratic system needs a strong government to work as its protector, to stand as a shield. When the state machinery becomes weak, the anti-social elements try to weaken the democratic institutions. We saw this during the current violence let loose by the Karni Sena and its supporters. The strong Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh took firm preventive measures. The goons of the Sena could not do much there. On the contrary, the weak Chief Ministers of Bihar, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat could not provide timely shield. As a result, the criminals became bold enough to destroy public and private properties and attacked innocent persons not just on roads but also staying inside their houses. They did not spare even small children going in a school bus near Gurgaon in Haryana.

There are three important lessons of these developments in the name of backward castes, dalits, emotions of certain castes, etc.

One,  threats to democracy are also attached to economic development. When political agitations have upper hand, economic developments get less attention. When goons get upper hand, public and private assets created after years of heard work are destroyed in minutes. It is like two steps forward and one step backward.

Two, India is getting polarised. During the protest days, the communal minded leaders propagated “two nation” theory that led to the partition of the country. In the present day India, there is danger of fragmentation of the society on communal, caste and sub- caste lines which will damaged the social and democratic fabric of India and India’s image as One Nation.

Three and the most important, democracy can survive only when a strong government and alert people protect it from criminals, firmly and decisively. Effective medicines are needed to cure a serious disease that is not self-limiting. It is unfortunate that most of our political leaders do not have guts to oppose the criminals. Large number of politicians themselves have criminal record or support criminals in the hope of political gain in future.

The next general election to elect the next democratic government at the Centre will be held in less than 18 months. That will be a crucial test whether democracy is going to become stronger or weaker. The defeat of Narendra Modi is bound to result in fractured mandate and weak coalition government, not only at the Centre but also in several states. This will make the anti-democratic forces stronger and more ambitious. If Modi loses, it will be due to the weak chief ministers of his party and coalition partners. The real enemy is often within.

Devendra Narain

January 26, 2018

As apprehended, the violence in Kasganj has not ended. The anti-social elements do not want restoration of peace. Yogi Adityanath has to prove that he is a ‘no-nonsense’ Chief Minister even in the times of communal violence.

January 28, 2018