Talk

Democracy belongs to the weak

Omair Ahmad | Updated on March 12, 2021

Lie low: Commentator after commentator has suggested that those against the Centre’s farm laws should not be allowed to agitate   -  PTI/ MANVENDER VASHIST

It may not survive tyrants if left to intellectuals

* Too often we assume that only the literate, the sophisticated and those with a broader vision are the guardian angels of democracy

* Charles Dickens was known for his humanism; yet it was the same Dickens who, during the 1857 Uprising in India, ranted about how he would slaughter any “native”

* We make our own decisions, so that there is no repeat of episodes such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre

****

Who does democracy matter to?

We have been hearing, yet again, the old argument that democracy is a disservice to India, that it is not “suitable”, and if only we modified it a little — by accepting a little more “discipline” — then we would all be better off. A hundred years ago, a writer once stated, “There should be an eleventh commandment in India, ‘Thou shalt not agitate’. All the cultivator and factory worker want is just and clear laws applicable to all alike. He does not know why his passions are roused and whether he is being misled.”

These words should sound familiar. We have heard commentator after commentator suggest that people protesting against the farm laws should not be allowed to agitate; that strict laws are needed to fix the demonstrators, and that farmers are being misled by troublemakers.

The writer mentioned at the beginning of the piece was Reginald Dyer, the British officer responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. Those words were part of Dyer’s column — titled India’s Path to Suicide — published in The Globe. In it, he railed against the demand for “self-rule”, much less independence and democracy.

Was Dyer a terrible man? It is hard to say. His actions were horrific, but research doesn’t show him as a tyrant bent on murder. More of a terrified, insecure person, empowered by an empire to commit crimes.

Author Charles Dickens, a man before Dyer’s time, was known for his humanism. He was the man who put a human face to the poverty stricken in 19th-century England. And yet it was the same Dickens who, during the 1857 Uprising in India, ranted about how he would slaughter any “native” before him. His predecessor in literature, the acclaimed Jane Austen, performed a wittily scathing commentary on English social life — a social life going through rare upheaval as the East India Company looted and pillaged its way across India and China. Yet Austen never even mentioned these realities. John Stuart Mill, who came somewhere in between the Austen and Dickens in time, is considered a profound philosopher on liberalism, advocating equality of gender and the abolition of slavery. He, too, looked benevolently on colonialism.

Unlike Dyer, these people were considered to be more morally upright. The woman who tore into a social fabric that favoured the rich didn’t care a whit for where that wealth came from. The humanist author Dickens had a son in the army fighting Indians in 1857, and Mill was an employee of the East India Company. On the rights of Indians they either did not care, or were opposed, or even thought they should be sacrificed at the altar of the empire.

Too often we assume that only the literate, the sophisticated and those with a broader vision are the guardian angels of democracy. But that’s not the case. The whole point of democracy is that it allows a voice to the people who are ruled, who want a say in how they are governed. To the powerful, democracy can be ignored or dismissed. The “why” of democracy makes little sense to them. Why should they listen to the weak or powerless, why must they pay attention to the “little people”, the people they rule? It is the people who wish to be treated with dignity, who are being ruled without their consent, that clamour for democracy.

Gandhi had a maxim, a talisman by which he said policies should be measured. We must assess how the policy will impact the most vulnerable individual. The only way to figure that out is by asking and by listening. The only way we further the freedom of the weakest members of our country is by making sure that they can take part in our democracy.

The idea behind our demand for democracy, our Independence struggle, was to not live by decisions that were imposed on the country by outsiders. At some level of course the fight was also about governance, about economics and other things, but the core issue was simple: We make our own decisions, so that there is no repeat of episodes such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (the 1919 gathering was in protest of the Rowlatt Act passed by the British). The tragedy occurred because people were not consulted or given a chance to speak; they couldn’t even do anything to prevent such government action. A Dyer was necessary for it to become so brutal, but a Dickens, or an Austen or a Mill, would not — in essence — do much to stop it.

For democracy to work, it is the poor and the beleaguered who must become its caretakers. Left with only the intellectuals, we have no defence against a Dyer.

Omair Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

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

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

Published on March 11, 2021

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor