Lessons from India
Lessons from India
• KNOWLEDGE & POWER
Of course, India is not a perfect democracy, as no democracy is, according to one of the top living political scientists in the world Robert Dahl, because democracy is an ideal. India, nevertheless, has more problems than other established Western democracies such as rampant abuses by state agencies in “trouble” areas, occasional violent conflicts and so on; but Phillipe Schmitter points out that democracies in the developing world should not be compared with the same criteria as established Western democracies that evolved over a much longer period and faced many problems during their evolution.
With regard to India, one can make a plausible argument that its democracy has matured because even big shocks such as conflicts in Kashmir and the northeast and occasional Hindu-Muslim riots have not destabilised it. India, unfortunately, also has a high level of inequality, among and within regions, and inequality is not desirable; but sustenance of democracy despite that, however, suggests the strength of Indian democracy.
India did face a state of emergency in 1975-77, but it was brief. India, however, has not faced repeated military and other forms of authoritarian regimes like in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. The internal Indian conflicts have been very costly to the victims, but if one were to compare conflict victims per capita, it is much less in India than in other countries like Sri Lanka. Indian democracy’s resilience, thus, is amazing — it is one of the few poor and diverse countries in the world that has maintained democracy after independence. Other poor and diverse countries attempted democracy, but fell down one after another or faced protracted violent conflicts that led to restrictions on political rights and destabilisation of the polities. When the ruling elite tried to retain disproportionate control over resources or maintain ethnic domination, the poor and excluded groups mobilised; and the resulting conflict destabilised the fledgling democracies.
As one of the few countries that has managed democracy over a long period, India has attracted a lot of attention globally from democratisation scholars. They are interested in finding out what India did differently than others so that the lessons could be learned by other poor and diverse countries attempting democratisation. Nepal, in fact, can learn a lot more than other countries from the Indian democratic experience because it is much similar culturally and economically to India than other countries, and hence Indian lessons can be more applicable to it.
Ultra-nationalists and lazy analysts in Nepal, however, criticise Indian democracy by pointing out only the problems and fail to take note of the rare achievement India has attained that becomes clear with a global survey of democratic experiences in poor and diverse societies. Nepalis might aspire for a well functioning democracy right away, but they are unlikely to get it — as all democracies that have consolidated, the road will probably be long and not smooth. If Nepal, like India, can overcome autocratic rule in the future, that itself would be a major achievement.
What did India do that most other poor and diverse countries in the world failed to do? One lesson Nepal could learn from India is in managing diversity. Scholars studying India have argued that political institutions have accommodated diverse caste, ethnic/national, linguistic, indigenous and religious groups, managed conflict and helped to consolidate democracy. For instance, linguistic, religious and ethnic federalism accommodated diverse groups in India. India has recognised 22 “official” languages, and has adopted policies supporting three languages in many of its regions.
Even though a Hindu majority, India adopted state secularism to promote equality among religious groups. The recognition of Muslim family law has provided them with a degree of autonomy. Reservations or quotas have ensured representation of Dalits (untouchables), tribal and other backward groups in the administration, legislature and educational institutions. Of course, reservation has faced backlashes from upper caste Hindus; but would Indian democracy have survived a revolt, which was avoided through Dalit cooptation, that was bound to come after the Dalits became mobilised, especially if the Dalits were continued to be excluded?
In the ongoing debate about federalism in Nepal, the Indian experience is further instructive. In spite of the Indian National Congress’ commitment to the creation of linguistic provinces in free India as early as 1917 in order to mobilise the masses efficiently against colonial rule and formed linguistic-based party organisations and Gandhi’s desire to reorganise India along linguistic provinces in place of the colonial administrative zones, modernist Nehru began to work against it after Gandhi’s death. He, along with Vallabhbhai Patel, considered language as “fissiparous forces”.
Two committees formed to study the question rejected the demands. Similar to what is heard in Nepal among the political and social elite, the second committee, which was formed after linguistic activists objected to the finding of the first one, headed by Nehru stated that “primary consideration must be the security, unity and economic prosperity of India… every separatist and disruptive tendency should be rigorously discouraged”. However, the massive movement for linguistic provinces, including the death of Gandhian Potti Sriramulu after a 58-day fast, forced Nehru to reluctantly reorganise the provinces along linguistic lines.
In the subsequent decades, India formed religious (Punjab in addition to Jammu and Kashmir) and ethnic (northeast) based provinces. Today, there is consensus among democratisation scholars that the reorganisation of the provinces along religious, linguistic and ethnic lines consolidated the unity of India. They operated as a constructive channel for provincial identities and pride. The ethnic, linguistic and religious autonomy also contributed to the subsidence of separatist movements in provinces like Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Mizoram. If a common person can be proud of his/her identity and hold his/her held high within a polity, why is there a need to seek a separate state?
Contrasting India’s experience with similarly poor and diverse countries shows an opposite outcome. Failure to recognise identities equally has led to rising assertion of identities in Nepal while Sri Lanka endured a three-decade-long violent conflict. The Indian experience, in addition to the global experience, shows that recognition of identities diffuses mobilisation along identities while denial and repression fuels mobilisation along them. For the Nepali people, the lessons are there to be learned from India and other diverse countries in managing its diversity. However, to learn lessons, the first condition is that one’s eyes and mind have to be open to see things that exist. Are Nepali minds and eyes open to learn useful lessons from India?
(Professor Lawoti is the author of Federal State-building: Challenges in Framing the Nepali Constitution, Bhrikuti Academic Publications, 2009)
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