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31 January, 2008

Whose democracy is it anyway?

All too often we come across self-appointed spokespersons of an imaginary mainstream who believe that democracy, freedom of speech, human rights etc. are goodies that they will give to those whom they approve of. The Constitution may talk of these as rights available to all citizens, but don't you dare to claim them.

To understand whose democracy it is and how it works, Indians may journey back in time to August 14, 1947. You were probably not even born then. If you were, you were still too young to understand what was going on. I was 15 and in college in distant Travancore, the southernmost state. I sat before the radio in my house at Kollam and listened to Jawaharlal Nehru's words: as the world is asleep India awakes to freedom. Years later I asked myself how many people in this wide country were actually awake at the time. Radio was a rarity in those days. Unless you were in Delhi, where there were midnight celebrations, or had access to a radio, there was little point in keeping awake at 12.

In Takazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s epic Malayalam novel Kayar, there is a young man who roams the countryside that night. He sees some activity only at the police station, where the cops were making arrangements to hoist the flag. That was closer to reality than the romantic notions generated by the thought of freedom at midnight. Indians slept through the transition to freedom.

Now kindly make one short forward movement. It is the morning of August 15, 1947. What changes can you notice? The British Indian army is now free India's army. British Indian officials are now free India's officials. British Indian judiciary is now free India's judiciary. Even the laws in force were those that were enacted under the British dispensation. The only visible sign of change: there was now the Tricolour where the Union Jack had flown. Of course, there was a new government under Nehru in Delhi. But then he was already heading the administration since September 1946. What was the stake of the ordinary people, whether in distant Travancore (where I was) or in nearby Uttar Pradesh in the new state?

Please don't jump to conclusions. I am not trotting out the Soviet theory of that period, propagated by undivided CPI, that transfer of power was a fraud, a conspiratorial arrangement worked out by Anglo-American imperialism and the Indian bourgeoisie. Nor am I trying to make you believe that nothing has changed.

With the promulgation of the Constitution we embarked upon our democratic experiment. All that I want you to note is that all limbs of the Indian state are extensions of the limbs of the colonial state. It is now more than 60 years since Independence, which means all those who are running the machinery now are people who were born and grew up in a free country. But the institutions they are running have feudal-colonial traditions that go back 200 years. The process of rebuilding them to meet the needs of a free, democratic nation is far from complete.

To make things worse, we have a society, which has an even longer tradition of 1,000 odd years of social exclusion. Incidentally, I don't subscribe to the view that this social exclusion was there in all of India's history of 5,000 odd years.
I don't want to hazard a guess on how long it will take to wipe out the vestiges of colonialism and feudalism and establish new, democratic traditions. The authors of the US Constitution wrote that "all men are created equal" but blacks did not qualify to be counted as men until two centuries later.

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