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Democracy Is Unfinished Business in South Asia

by Ayesha Jalal, 26 September 2009

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The Times of India, 26 September 2009

The separation of religion from politics and crafting of an imaginative, if ultimately flawed, vision of an inclusionary nationalism in India has
made no attempt really to resolve the contradictions that flowed from the willingness to agree to partition. The Indian National Congress was wedded to two ideas: a united India and a fully independent India. On both scores, the Congress compromised. The unity of India was worth sacrificing in order to acquire control over British India’s unitary centre and also to achieve the means to gain control over 40 per cent of India which consisted of princely India. A strong centre was needed for it, so the Muslim areas could be sacrificed. The other issue is technical. Everyone assumes that India gained independence on August 15, 1947. India became a dominion within the British Commonwealth on that date. It was only in 1950 that India became a republic.

If India’s secular credentials are somewhat suspect, Pakistan’s Islamic claims seem to be inherently contradictory. According to Pakistan’s poetic visionary, Muhammad Iqbal, the only justification for an Islamic state was the need for an organisation that could help realise the spiritual in each individual as well as the collective in everyday temporal activity. While successive governments in the country have claimed to be committed to establishing an Islamic state, they have singularly failed to create the rudimentary infrastructure for the growth of a civil society, far less the spiritual democracy Muhammad Iqbal had in mind.

Democracy and development were two legitimising principles on offer when nations making singular claims of allegiance from their citizenry acquired state power in the subcontinent. For much of South Asia’s post-colonial history, India, with its mix of formal democracy and covert authoritarianism, fared better than Pakistan and Bangladesh which came under spells of overt authoritarianism. The recent convulsions and revulsions in Indian parliamentary politics, particularly the growing importance of regional parties as power brokers at the Centre, have only confirmed this trend of India doing relatively better. Having entered the era of coalition governments, India has a democracy which is showing signs of being able to take away some of the Centre’s initiatives.

Yet India’s formal democracy at the Centre has coexisted with instances of overt authoritarianism in certain regions, notably Kashmir, not to mention the better part of the north-east. India has had formal democracy for the most part with the exception of the Emergency of 1975, but in the region covert authoritarianism has been abandoned for overt authoritarianism where military police is utilised. So formal democracy does exist at times with covert and overt authoritarianism and what we do not get in the process is that substantive democracy which requires empowerment and strengthening.

Secularism as the antithesis of religious communalism may seem like vintage Congress ideology but without the regional basis of support to command a national majority in Delhi on its own, the Grand Old Party is arguably a shadow of its former self. I do not mean to be dismissive of the Congress as a political force but i am rather more sceptical of the Congress as an organisation that projects a coherent ideology.

The future course of democracy in Pakistan will depend on a series of necessary steps beginning with a concerted fight against extremism; a shift in civil-military relations which is not going to happen overnight but the step has to be taken in the interest of the country; and the strengthening of the parliament, to name only the most obvious ones. The prospect of democracy is far more hopeful in Bangladesh where elections aroused many expectations. However, it will be naive to think the recent transition in Bangladesh has locked out its armed forces from its political reckoning. Bangladesh’s army still remains a vital component of the state with clearly defined interests. With the history of military intervention in Bangladesh, it cannot be ignored without grave consequences.

Democratic India for all its unwillingness to talk about Kashmir offers a more promising prognosis, at least in principle, than military authoritarian Pakistan where the transition to democracy is still in incipient stages with far less scope of a reconstitution of centre-region relations. This is why an improvement of relations between the two congenital rivals in the region, India and Pakistan, could go a long way in restoring the balance between elected and non-elected institutions within Pakistan itself.

The more far-sighted among the leaders of freedom movement, men like Rabindranath Tagore or Muhammad Iqbal for instance, used to claim that India had to be freed not just for itself but also for the sake of humanity. The time has come, if it is not long past, for the nation states of South Asia to try and redeem this pledge through a bold and new political initiative at the regional and inter-regional level. Instead of fanning age-old animosities, New Delhi has small choice but to talk peace and more importantly walk that talk to peace. Pakistan also needs to abandon its policy of supporting non-state militias and concentrate on improving the abysmal quality of life of the citizenry.

The writer is a history professor at Tufts University, US. Courtesy: SAFMA.


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