India at 61: here's looking at you, kid!

Antara Dev Sen
19 August 2008

"Even God will not be able to save this country!" fumed the supreme court of India days before the nation turned sixty-one on 15 August 2008. A sentiment that millions of Indians would spring to agree with. Like citizens of other healthy democracies, Indians have been persistently critical of the establishment, the rebels and everything in between. The rapid changes that the ancient culture has seen since the economic liberalisation of the 1990s have also exacerbated this urge to lament, even among the devoted who worship the new India, the emerging superpower.

Antara Dev Sen is founder editor of The Little Magazine, an independent publication on social concerns, cultural issues and South Asian literature published from Delhi. She is a columnist with The Week magazine, the newspapers Asian Age and DNA and the Bengali magazine Ek Din Live, among other publications. Sen has earlier worked as a senior editor with The Hindustan Times and The Indian Express. She lives in Delhi. Email: [email protected]

Also by Antara Dev Sen in openDemocracy:

"India's benign earthquake" (20 May 2004)

"The wrong America" (13 August 2004)

"India's tsunami" (13 January 2005)

Because as we pursue beautiful new goals with the enthusiasm of new love, our unsolved problems lie untended, festering in the corners they have been swept into, spilling into our picture-postcard new India. We sweep them back hastily, violently, offended by the sullying of our prettified world. And return to our new passions, grooming ourselves for new conquests, much like a tomcat before the prowl.

This contented calm is shattered when the emerging superpower is rocked by a string of terrorist attacks, like the recent bomb blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad (on 25-26 July) and Jaipur (on 13 May). Or when corruption becomes painfully visible, as when vast amounts of cash, apparently used to bribe MPs, were brandished in parliament during the trust vote. We are horrified, of course. But not because it's unimaginable. It's not the content of either message that appals us, but the form.

Indians know terrorism. But we are still shocked by the cold-blooded efficiency of the multi-city serial blasts culminating in an attack on a hospital, killing the injured as well as those tending to them. Specifically targeting doctors and nurses and the wounded in serial blasts marks a new low in planned mass murders even for India, which has seen three decades of terrorism.

Similarly, Indians know corruption. We take it for granted in every sphere, especially in politics. To get things done, to get your file to move, to claim your constitutional right, you very often need to grease palms. The system delivers. So while you bow respectfully to the honest politician, to get your work done you may wish to go to the dishonest one. No, the accusation of corruption is not shocking in itself. Of course there may have been MPs on either side of the motion of trust who were persuaded to switch by less than noble means. Wouldn't be the first time. But the spectacular flourish of currency notes pouring out of a big fat bag and being waved at the speaker by agitated members of parliament was undoubtedly a first. The event was instantly broadcast live to millions by practically every national television channel.

A recent report of Transparency International India reveals that India's poorest, those living below the poverty line, paid almost $215,000,000 in bribes over just three months to access basic public services like the police, healthcare, electricity and public distribution of affordable food grains. The fleecing of the most vulnerable does not horrify us. Like terrorism, we have learnt to live with corruption.

So when respectable politicians and other Indians start pontificating gravely about shame and disgrace and brand the cash-for-votes spectacle as the darkest day for Indian democracy, I am rather embarrassed. Yes, we were all mortified by what happened in parliament on 22 July 2008. But it was only a preposterously crude performance to highlight something we have known for ages: that there is corruption in politics. Even if the accusation was true (and we have no proof to that effect yet, leading many to believe that it was staged) it would not shock the nation. We are used to far worse.

The fear that kills

Like the way we use the threat of terrorism to trample on human rights. How we slide into paranoia, stifling democratic freedoms and celebrating brutal laws. After every terrorist attack, like the recent blasts in Ahmedabad, there are demands for new, repressive anti-terrorism laws. But what would these new laws do that our present bunch of pitiless laws cannot? The UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) or the Special Security Acts in individual states give the police and the army enormous powers to torture, confine and control any citizen in the name of security.Among openDemocracy's articles on Indian politics and democracy:

Rajeev Bhargava, "Words save lives: India, the BJP and the constitution" (2 October 2002)

Rajeev Bhargava, "The political psychology of Hindu nationalism" (5 November 2003)

Rajeev Bhargava, "India's model: faith, secularism and democracy" (3 November 2004)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "India's Dalits: between atrocity and protest" (9 January 2007)

Ajai Sahni, "India and its Maoists: failure and success" (20 March 2007)

Sumantra Bose, "Uttar Pradesh: India's democratic landslip" (29 May 2007)

John Elkington, "India's third liberation" (21 August 2007)

Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure" (11 July 2008)

Ajai Sahni, "India after Ahmedabad's bombs" (29 July 2008)

These laws are used to smother dissent and critical dialogue, or to terrify groups and communities. Many human-rights defenders are being held under the fiercely repressive UAPA. Meanwhile, in the insurgency-affected northeast and Kashmir, the AFSPA allows the army to act with impunity. Atrocities and murders in this region have shocked the nation. And in the name of security from terrorism, the very police force that routinely fails to protect citizens and enthusiastically attacks human rights is given almost unlimited powers. Apart from being amazingly corrupt, the Indian police system is also past its use by date - it has not been upgraded for a democracy and still operates largely under archaic British rules, when the police were not really serving the Indian people but repressing unruly natives prone to rebellion against the Raj. To top it all, the Indian justice system takes forever to deliver.

Meanwhile, new repressive laws are being thought up. Such targeting of civilians, especially human-rights activists, only fuels extremism as saner voices are drowned out by desperate ones that skip dialogue and take to the gun to reclaim control over their lives and regain lost dignity. Anti-terrorism laws are notoriously counterproductive. They do not reduce insurgency but aggravate political alienation. We certainly don't need more disgraceful tools of state repression.

Especially because laws are slaves to our passions and biases. In times of terror, any form of "otherness" - whether community or intellectual differences - is seen as a threat. Fear kills our tolerance for diversity. When we believe we are under attack, we allow assaults on democratic principles that we would never tolerate in times of peace and reason. And fundamentalists play on that fear.

For example, the Jaipur bomb blasts saw a bloodthirsty attempt to punish Bengali Muslims - they were all Bangladeshi terrorists, screamed the Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Earlier, after the horrific massacre of Muslims in the sectarian violence of Gujarat in 2002, BJP chief minister Narendra Modi used the Prevention Of Terrorism Act (POTA) to clap hundreds of Muslims in jail. This was indefinite captivity without bail or democratic rights. When the POTA was repealed by the Congress-led coalition government in 2004, several of its repressive clauses were incorporated in the UAPA. But for many, the brutal UAPA is still not enough, they want the truly dreadful POTA back.

These are ineffective, evasive and unjust reactions to a real problem. India has been, after Iraq, the country worst hit by terrorism, with the highest number of civilian deaths and terror attacks after Iraq. Already this year, terrorism has killed about 2,400 people in India. We have faced terrorist violence for almost thirty years. Yet we don't have a proper counter-terrorism agency or network. There is no sharing of information between states and the centre (law and order is a state subject). And we are still waiting for police reforms.

Instead, we have vicious counter-terrorism laws which do not address the socio-political roots of terrorism but merely disallow dissent, cast aside civil rights and make us a ruthless, repressive nation. More than a coarse dramatic gesture about corruption in parliament, it is the persistence of these dehumanising laws that have plunged us into the darkest days of Indian democracy.

Because democracy is not just about votes, it is about one's ability to be heard and recognised as a part of the process that determines one's future. It is about dialogue, dissent, public reasoning, tolerance and the acceptance of differences - physical, communal or intellectual. And it is about social opportunity, justice and access to public services.

Darker than dramatics

While we focus squarely on the sparkling economic giant, the cultural superstar and regional superpower, in the dark margins of our spectacular new India, our problems continue to fester and spill over. We ignore the millions of fellow citizens who cannot access basic healthcare as we fawn over international health tourists. We overlook the hundreds of thousands of farmers trapped in debt and poverty who kill themselves, and brag that India has the world's fourth largest and Asia's top billionaire population. (India has 53 billionaires - four of them among the world's top ten - with $335 billion between them.) As we celebrated India's emergence as an economic superpower last year, hunger and economic desperation forced 25,000 farmers to kill themselves.

And we celebrate woman power by touting a woman president while we do nothing about the enormous socially sanctioned violence against women. Every day, some woman is killed for marrying someone she loves, for being low caste, for being poor, or merely as currency of power in family feuds. And 500,000 Indian girls are killed in the mother's womb each year. This is a country where even sixty years after independence, ruled for years by a woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, women continue to get less food, less healthcare, less education, less opportunity and less of a life.

These are dark moments in our democracy, darker moments than the crude dramatics in parliament.

There are many reasons to be proud of India, both new and old. But unless we look beyond the spotlight and clean up the mess on the unlit margins, we can't really be as proud of India, the world's largest democracy, as we should be.

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