August 07, 2020
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The D Words

Democracy threatens to become our morphine, dulling our sensitivity to the world around us. Add to that another catch-word: “Development” - the one being used for framing the current debate over Maoism.

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The D Words

Indians are very proud of democracy. It remains the nation’s political horizon, so ingrained, a mere three-and-a-half decades after Indira Gandhi essentially outlawed it, that all political persuasions – Left, Right, “regional”, religious minority, caste grouping – cannot imagine life without it. The politicking of India’s democracy is essential, not only to this or that party, but even to all manner of social groups, be they Gujjars, Muslims, Patels or Reddys – not to mention all manner of groups to come, as new identities are formed, or old ones acquire a new political valence. In India, it seems, democracy is almost natural.

Almost. For one does not feel the need to celebrate that which is natural; we do not say it is good to breathe, because we expect to do so. The self-congratulation that accompanies the words “Indian Democracy” thus points to a certain anxiety. That, perhaps, democracy is an unlikely characteristic in a country like India; that democracy is periodically threatened in the country (the Emergency being the most naked, but certainly not the last, instance); that democracy puts India at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the imagined efficiencies of more authoritarian dispensations. And, if we are completely honest with ourselves, we would admit that democracy has also become our complacency, our smugness, imparting a badge of moral superiority, vis-à-vis certain sub-continental neighbours, for instance; or perhaps China, that might enjoy higher growth rates, but lacks democracy. The “D”-word, it seems, has become a bit like Deewar’s maa: Shashi Kapoor has her, and it is an unanswerable argument.

Some of these anxieties have (or ought to have) a bad conscience: for instance, the notion that the survival of democracy in a country “like” India is some kind of miracle (a notion implicit not only in the celebratory stance of Indians, but in the condescending praise of far too many “outsiders” as well) suggests that democracy is somehow incompatible with poverty and/or great social variety, that democracy is simply a stage in a society’s inevitable progress through the various stages of “development,” until it reaches the perfection of Holland; implicitly, it is not democracy that is deemed desirable in such formulations, but wealth. That democracy has flowered amidst India’s poverty thus highlights India’s exceptional nature, even as it confirms that we are “advanced” enough to gain entry to any club that holds out democracy as a prerequisite for entry. (It is no coincidence that just about the first thing President Pratibha Patil said about Indo-British relations to the BBC reporter interviewing her on her recent trip to the United Kingdom, was that “both the countries are committed to democracy, rule of law, and pluralism.”) In short, some of what we celebrate when we celebrate democracy has little or nothing to do with democracy.

At the same time, democracy threatens to become our morphine, dulling our sensitivity to the world around us. Or, even more bluntly: every time we celebrate democracy, we kill a little of it. Every time we offer democracy as a solution to all political problems, as ending all debate on legitimacy (whether we are, like Home Minister P. Chidambaram, calling on Naxalites to join a system that continually out-votes “tribals”/Adivasis, and even votes at their expense, while failing to adequately address the wider structural issues that perpetrate injustice against so many of them; or we insist on a referendum as the only correct solution to the Kashmir issue), we kill a little bit of democracy. Every time we deflect criticism on the grounds that we are a democracy, we kill a little bit of it. 

The question is more than merely academic. A conflation of one particular form – representative democracy on the Westminster model – with the thing itself – democracy, understood as the ceaseless quest for greater political justice, for all, within a horizon where “the people” are participants, and not merely subjects, bedevils contemporary political discourse in India. The current debate over the various “Maoist” insurgencies is a good case in point. Far too many in government and the media are content to frame the issue as one of “development” – i.e., were the areas in question “developed”, the thinking seems to be, the “tribals”/Adivasis too would be thrilled to be part of the “democracy” bandwagon. The assumption is that “democracy” and “development” are both self-evident categories. The reality is anything but: if by “development” is meant the dispossession of Adivasi populations in order to extract the minerals, build the dams, and sustain the lifestyles that the rest of us require to fuel our attempt to equal the post-industrial West’s consumption patterns (themselves wholly unsustainable as an ecological matter), and if democracy is used to place the imprimatur of legitimacy on this arrangement, then who can blame those shunted to the margins for not wanting to be part of this arrangement? 

Stated differently, a solution to the problem cannot simply focus on incorporating the people the insurgents claim to speak for into the status quo – it is precisely the status quo that is atrocious. Any solution must change the contours of the system. Because, as we would do well to remember in this season, when counter-insurgency operations are in the air and angry ministers insist that all “right-thinking” people line up behind “democracy and development”, or risk being labelled a Maoist sympathizer, democracy is incompatible with complacency. Democracy is not a thing to hold in one’s hand, a possession to be proud of, a point on a chart, or a characteristic. Democracy – of which electioneering is no more than a part, and the parliamentary form merely a contingent manifestation – needs to be an urgency, a spur to action, and a permanent political restlessness in the interests of ever-increasing political fairness. Perhaps once “we” begin to appreciate that, we will be better positioned to invite the Maoists to lay down their arms and talk.

Umair Ahmed Muhajir, 31, is a lawyer based in New York City. He blogs at

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