Being human in a democracy

Omair Ahmad | Updated on September 06, 2019 Published on September 06, 2019

Unless we put people and their right to be treated as equals above anything else, democracy will be relegated to the pages of history

Democracy is dying, with the consent of large sections of the country’s population. The Indian Parliament has been reduced to the status of a “bulletin board”, where decisions are advertised and not debated. The media has largely abandoned the job of speaking truth to power. The Preamble of the Constitution begins with the words, “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India...” Now the State is determining who qualifies to be the “people”. From the detention camps and stripping of citizenship in the US, to the closing off of whole provinces in China, India is emulating the great powers she once aspired to compete with, but not in a good way.

It is tempting at this point to give up on everything; to say that democracy is too difficult, too flawed a concept for a country as diverse and unequal as ours. But this is a lie, a double lie. It is not the poor or the uneducated that are promoting these undemocratic practices in TV studios. To suggest that India is unfit for democracy — or vice versa — is to echo the thinking of the very people doing their best to undermine it. It is to echo the opinions of people like the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was of the opinion that India would prove inept at handling freedom from colonial rule.

In a twist of fate, Britain seems to be undoing its democracy — led by a coterie of the privileged. To replicate this talk is to blame the wrong people, to follow the advice of those who never believed in Indian democracy in the first place. To accept that democracy is dying is not the same accepting the arguments of those who are stifling it.

Last week, a senior military officer leaving for Kashmir called a Kashmiri friend. She wanted to send medical supplies to Srinagar, and the officer had offered to take them along and also check on her family. The phone chat made them realise that visiting the family in Kashmir might be problematic for the officer, and the people he met. They decided to put the plan on hold.

After the call, the Kashmiri friend said she found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that some of her associates — people who are guided by principles and ethics — were being deployed to enforce controversial policies. Though she wishes them well, it is hard for her to accept their role in implementing the diktat of the State.

I cite this small anecdote for a simple reason. We lump people as good or bad due to their outlook, identity, even jobs. They may have different ideological stands, but they can still care for each other as humans, as friends. Sometimes, however, political acts make the expression of that care impossible. They rob us of the ability of being human to each other, of being fellow citizens.

This is also why democracy is important, why “We, the people” is crucial to the idea of the republic. There is no other way of reviving our democracy than by seeing each other as someone we need to stand with, not against.

If democracy is dying, we must understand that it is not the job of political parties, however small or big, to breathe life into it. Their job, too often, is to use one set of differences against another so that they can get the support of the bigger part. This divides the society into many small camps, where we see diversity as a threat. I look for hope in small initiatives. One such example is the draft for a Bill of Equality that the Bengaluru-based Centre for Law and Policy Research is working on. If made into a law, it will put every citizen and the right to dignity back at the centre of our parliamentary democracy.

I remain unsure of what constitutes equality in India, but the Bill seeks to define how unequal treatment can be recognised, and what structures are needed to ensure that people are not punished for being who they are. This is too short a piece to be able to discuss this at length, because prejudices can be based on anything — family background to gender to ethnicity. Nevertheless, these conversations are happening, based on Constitutional principles, on ideas of citizenship. If we are not to lose hope in the current climate, we have to look for such initiatives that revive the idea of equal rights. That’s something worth waiting for.

Omair Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas; Twitter @OmairTAhmad

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Published on September 06, 2019
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