The prospect of India as an authoritarian state makes the 73rd anniversary of its independence one of the most macabre in terms of memory.
Anniversaries, especially around Independence Day, hugely convey a warm feeling of achievement. In India, we paraded a huge icon of leaders, from Gandhi to Nehru to Gaffar Khan, and sensed the eloquence of the national movement. But today, as you think back about it, a shadow hangs over the regime. The Covid virus and the crisis it has created, has forced us to think more fundamentally. The predictable celebration of India as the world’s biggest democracy carries little resonance. Ironically, our majoritarian democracy has emptied out the spirit of democracy as we proceed to slow authoritarianism, when the crisis now looks deeper and calls for more fundamental analysis.
We have to begin with the paradox. Our national movement was plural. It was a move to rescue to the West as much as an effort to overthrow the British. The pluralism of the national movement faded before the nation state. Ironically, the nation state emerged from two of the greatest genocides in history - the Bengal Famine which claimed 3.5 million people, and the Partition which claimed over a million lives. The State that emerged became a national security State over seven decades, merging internal and external security. India has over one million troops for internal order and control, apart from having one of the largest armies of the world.
The tragedy of India begins when the idea of the nation state, replete with concepts and uniform, swallows up the pluralism and confusion of democracy. When democracy as an electoral system became a majoritarian, authoritarianism acquired a new legitimacy. Patriotism was inventing majoritarian rhetoric, and the minorities and margins became perpetually suspect. Dissent, which once marked Indian democracy is now read as an insult to patriotism. The national security State has erased a vibrancy of civil society, which was one of the hallmarks of democracy. What India did was to impoverish democracy to a formal electoral system, ignoring its cultural roots in pluralism and diversity.
The first major casualty at the level of living concepts was the idea of citizenship. Citizenship, which once signaled hospitality, a sense of homecoming, a ritual of everydayness which women and children in particular valued, has been emasculated. It was amputated layer by layer.
Firstly, the Citizenship Amendment Act, an attempt to panopticise Assam, constricted the idea of the refugee. After Bangladesh, the refugee had a home in India. Today, the officialdom wants citizenship as a certified act of residence. The even greater tragedy began when the Covid crisis revealed this regime’s indifference to the informal economy and the migrant. Eighty percent of India obtains its livelihood from this sector, but people in it are still waiting to be regularised. Beyond being voting fodder, they have little sense of dignity.
The millions of migrants who ran the cities of India cloaked in an urban visibility, suddenly hit the headlines. The migrant was seen by the regime as an embarrassment. He was unwelcome at home, and liminal at the point of destination. The State’s indifference to the migrant was one of the great emasculations of democracy. We objectified him, sprayed him with chemicals, and demanded he return to his old invisibility, where he could be exploited again by the construction and hotel industry. As the liminal creature, he had no right to welfare or the entitlements of unionism. One must admit civil society too was caught in ambush by the migrant problem, as it was unable to organize in an elective way.
The majoritarian ideology combined with a mechanical enforcement of developmentalist model treated the tribal as obsolescent and dispensable community. One has to face the fact that India has more refugees from damp displacements, roughly 60 million, than from all the wars we have fought. Development has created more casualties as a continuation of war by other needs.
The tribal has become an object of erasure. As Covid unfolds, what one sees as the loosening of the environmental laws, the forest is now more subject to the corporation than home for the tribals. Between the destruction of the forests and the coastline, we are witnessing an ecocide of Indian democracy.
Unfortunately, India has little memory of these events. Newspapers erase such events, incidences, easily. But more critically, what we have to face is that violence today has become a mode of consumption. The video recording has become a particular device for erasing the alleged faults of history. You kill a lower caste person or a Muslim, and pretend you are avenging ancestors like Rana Pratap or Padmini. History has become surreal to sustain the new forms of violence.
There is a need to reinvent democracy beyond electoralism and rights. India needs a new language of livelihood, non-violence, dissent, pluralism, otherwise it faces a creeping authoritarianism. The prospect of China and India as authoritarian States makes this anniversary one of the most macabre in terms of memory.
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