Making Democracy Meaningless

Originally published on Satyam Online, 27 January 2000.

 

If one thinks back about the hype manufactured around the golden jubilee of Independence in 1997 — hype which nonetheless failed to create more than a flutter and a grumble in the public heart — it is surprising that Republic Day this year passed with little more than the standard commemoration.

In the history of modern constitutional democracies, the fiftieth anniversary of the Indian Republic is an occasion equal to, if not more important than, the attainment of Independence from British rule. But every year, we are treated to the pompous display of newer and more sophisticated weaponry, the silly self-congratulation, decorating of heroes in an ongoing war against our largest neighbour and against sizeable portions of our own population in the name of “national security”. All of these questionable and disgusting rituals have little to do with the actual meaning of the Republic.

Writing two hundred years ago, about another newly independent country experimenting with the radical idea of equality, Alexis de Tocqueville formulated his well-known idea of the democratic revolution. Democracy for him was not something that could be institutionalised in elections, ballot boxes, or grand declarations of liberty. Rather, democracy was for him a concrete process, revolutionising every aspect of our lives through the simple, but powerful, principle of equality. And when the democratic revolution starts, when its principle comes to be applied to all realms of modern life, it is impossible to arrest it.

In that way, democracy is ineluctable, permanent, because once the idea of equality percolates to every sphere of society — culture, politics, economics — it necessarily questions and shatters the hierarchies of wealth, race, caste, culture, even appearance.

What it leaves in its wake is a different, and perhaps less inspiring story. In more recent times the successes of the democratic revolution, the mass energies it has unleashed in world-wide struggles for equality — everything from anti-colonial struggles and anti-caste movements to civil liberties and socialism — has resulted in equally ferocious backlashes.

Defending or Destroying Democracy?

This Republic Day, rather than staying at home and watching the parading of empty national pride and machismo, I attended a dharna in the mill areas of central Mumbai. Called to commemorate Republic Day and led by the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, the speakers drew attention to the real meaning of democracy, and the historic role that Bombay’s labourers had played in the building of our new society by fighting for the rights to equal work and livelihood.

Those protesting textile workers, once at the forefront of the Indian labour and trade union movements, the struggle for Independence and for a united Maharashtra, are now being crushed by mill owners who subcontract textile production to the unorganised powerloom sector. In these sweatshops, none of the constitutional guarantees of equality of work and employment apply. Their mills are being closed down and the land sold to corporate barons, all in the name of greater wealth and liberalisation. In this they are supported by a Government that openly espouses the authoritarian idea of Hindutva, a philosophy concocted in reaction to the anti-hierarchical upsurges unleashed by the Mandal Commission, the enfranchisement of previously unequal sections of Indian society.

Tocqueville’s reflections on the American Revolution ring ironic today. The U.S.A., one of the first countries to embrace the democratic revolution, has now become the most oppressive global power today — while still speaking in the name of human rights and liberty. There is an important lesson for India here. While the rhetoric of democracy has increased so much in the past several years, it has now been trivialised beyond meaning. The most recent example of this was during General Musharraf’s coup, when our mainstream press became hysterical about the death of democracy in Pakistan, crowing wildly about India’s liberalism and tolerance, and Pakistan’s medievalism. Why then, on this important national holiday, do we commemorate the golden jubilee of the “world’s largest democracy” by a display of all the violent machinery meant to repress and extinguish the hopes of the democratic revolution?