The End of Indian Exceptionalism

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For many years, the discourse on democracy worldwide looked at India as an oddity, an exception. Conventional political theory suggested that a country was democratic if it was reasonably prosperous. There was no reason to assume that economic development was a pre-condition for democratic form of government, but there was sufficient evidence, through correlation, which showed that most wealthy countries were democratic and most poor countries were not.
India proved to be that exception – upon independence India chose universal suffrage, and it regularly held elections, defying political theorists’ prognosis which foretold democracy in India to be a doomed experiment. There was internal strife, there were wars with China and Pakistan, but India’s political leadership’s commitment and its citizens’ enthusiasm for democracy did not waver. True, in 1975 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared an internal emergency and jailed major opposition leaders and tens of thousands of their supporters, postponed elections, imposed pre-censorship, and forced news agencies to merge. But within 19 months she called fresh elections, which she lost, and when she lost, she left. She returned to power in January 1980 only after winning the elections in December 1979.
India was unique being a democracy in the developing world, and so its aberrations – the discrimination against minorities and dalits, the cases of violence against women, the restrictive laws on freedom of speech, the misuse of criminal laws to make it harder for civil society organisations to operate – were tolerated by many. With all its flaws, India’s democratic processes, including an independent judiciary, ensured that justice usually prevailed.
But much of that changed in 1989, as the Soviet Empire began to crumble and first in Eastern Europe, then in Latin America and by now in Africa, more and more countries began to hold elections, where the judiciary began to hold their leaders to account, where public protests by the civil society often led to change, and where the military did not intervene. In comparison with many of the newer democracies, India’s polity often looked jaded; its flaws – in the form of riots or human rights abuses – seemed more glaring, and the idea of Indian Exceptionalism suffered.
The focus on India these days is economic. It is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and partly because of the fall in the value of the pound, it has overtaken the United Kingdom, becoming the fifth-largest economy in the world. But as it pursues economic progress, its architecture of civil liberties is under stress. India still retains many laws from the colonial era – the sedition law, laws against personal freedoms (such as those that criminalise same-sex relationships), and other laws that restrict freedom of expression. To be sure, whenever the government has tried to ban books or restrict writers, the courts have often stepped in and supported freedom of speech. The Tamil writer PerumalMurugan, who was forced to withdraw his books from circulation after a group of activists in his town protested against his writing and government officials acquiesced with the bullying, is now writing again – earlier in 2016 a court ruled in his favour, criticising the state for not doing enough to protect his freedom. Likewise, a book that the Gujarat state banned during the years NarendraModi was the state’s chief minister, are available again, after a court ruled against the ban. But increasingly, the threat to freedom of expression comes not from the state; it comes from private groups which may be aligned to political movements. In recent years, three rationalists have been murdered – NarendraDabholkar, an atheist who campaigned against blind faith; GobindPansare, who was a leftist leader; and M MKalburgi, a scholar critical of Hindu fundamentalism. When more than 60 writers across the country, including NayantaraSahgal, KekiDaruwala, Rahman Abbas, Ashok Vajpeyi, and K Satchidanandan protested, with some of them returning the awards they had received from the state literary academy, supporters of the government condemned them. In a bizarre irony, AnupamKher, a pro-government actor, led a march in Delhi complaining how dare these writers call India intolerant! Writers or intellectuals who speak in favour of closer relations between India and Pakistan, or within India between Hindus and Muslims, are vilified. Bollywood stars are forced to pay what in effect amounts to protection money to powerful political parties in the western state of Maharashtra, because they have cast actors from Pakistan in their films. The state is either silent or it facilitates such bullying.
Where the state does act, it has been quite effective. It has used various laws civil society to target groups fighting for human rights – one that champions the victims of the riots in Gujarat in 2002, another that fights for communal harmony, and another that represents Dalits – and these groups have been stopped from receiving financial contributions from abroad, crippling their ability to operate with autonomy. Journalists working in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh have been threatened forced to leave the state. Academics who have highlighted police atrocities find themselves mired in lawsuits alleging they have instigated violence.
These are not signs of a liberal democracy; these actions further erode India’s uniqueness. To be sure, that uniqueness hasn’t disappeared. Many Indians would be unable to name the country’s army chief, since military officers play no role in politics. Elections continue to be held regularly, and electoral malpractices have declined considerably. But the spirit of tolerance is flickering; the promise of inclusiveness on shaky ground; and the idea that Indians could disagree with one another and yet live together in the same country, is being challenged loudly. India needs to rediscover the ethos of Gandhi, which aimed to liberate the individual and respect her dignity, and the ideal of Tagore, who saw nationalism as an evil force that divided people. India has to regain its argumentative culture which enabled it to perform the daily miracle, of being united in spite of its multi-everything diversity, where the nation found its balance between extremes because it was the only sensible way.

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