Misleading Reportage: India Remains a Miracle and Robust Democracy
Amb Rajiv Sikri

A few days ago, a relative who lives in the US brought to my attention an article by Ramachandra Guha in The Washington Post of 14th August titled “India was a Miracle Democracy. But it’s Time to Downgrade its Credentials.” I wrote the reply below with the idea of giving friends and relatives living abroad a more balanced and less alarmist perspective on what’s happening in India. The reply is appended in the following part.

Thank you for sending me the article by Ramachandra Guha. I don’t know him, but do know of him. He is one of those self-styled ‘public intellectuals’ who believe that when they write or speak on any issue they are ipso facto credible and should be read or listened to with respect, if not awe. In India, this group of people is viscerally anti-Modi. This may be due to a genuine difference of opinion, but equally it is because Modi is now ignoring such people, who dominated the intellectual debate in India for decades. They are often called the “Lutyens Delhi” or “Khan Market” crowd. They long for a return to Nehruvian India, where a cozy elite dominated politics, industry, the media and academia. There is little doubt that India under Modi has changed. Most people think it’s for the better, otherwise Modi would not have been re-elected with an even larger majority, but naysayers like Guha refuse to see the writing on the wall.

Let me now turn to some of the things that Guha has mentioned in his article. He talks about “government’s persecution of my Kashmiri fellow citizens.” I didn’t hear his voice when hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits, who have been living in the Kashmir Valley for centuries, were driven out by Islamists in 1990. Kashmiri Muslim politicians, under the cover of Article 370, indulged in electoral gerrymandering to ensure that they would always dominate the politics of J&K, at the expense of Jammu and Ladakh which were ignored when it came to development. Well, the Kashmiri politicians didn’t even spare the Kashmiri people. All the money that J&K got from New Delhi, which in per capita terms was much more than New Delhi gives to other states, was spent on perpetuating the opulent and extravagant lifestyle of the politicians, who used various stratagems, including taking money out of the Jammu and Kashmir Bank (with no thought or intention of ever returning it) to benefit family and friends.

Unlike in the rest of India, in J&K there was no reservation for the Dalits and the tribals, and people were denied the benefits of progressive legislation that forbids child marriage and the guarantees the right to education. These are just a few examples of the iniquities in J&K under the cover of Articles 370 and 35A (which was introduced by subterfuge). When Partition took place in 1947, refugees who streamed into J&K from neighbouring regions (now part of Pakistan) were not given State citizenship rights, which meant no access to land, education, or right to vote in local elections. Kashmiri women who married outside J&K lost their inheritance rights; this was corrected only a few years ago, but despite this their children were denied rights as citizens of J&K. Who was doing the persecution? Not the Central Government, but the corrupt and selfish leaders of J&K.

Unfortunately, over the years – and various, mostly Congress, Governments in Delhi have to share much of the blame – a sense of entitlement and unaccountability got ingrained among the Muslims of the Kashmir Valley. This could not have been allowed to carry on indefinitely, particularly as there were signs of growing and dangerous radicalism. If people behave in an anti-national manner, like unfurling Pakistani flags and desecrating Indian flags, should the State just stand back and do nothing? If the Islamic State talks about creating an Islamic Caliphate in Kashmir, should the Indian State not worry about it? Isn’t it the duty of the Indian state to preserve India’s territorial integrity? Americans should not forget that they fought a long civil war to keep the country united. Is stone-throwing at security forces acceptable? Can any inhabitant of the US do so and get away with it?

Guha also talks about the “rise and consolidation of an aggressive Hindu majoritarianism.” I don’t understand this disdain for “majoritarianism.” Democracy is all about rule by the majority! How would you describe the USA, where a President can get elected even though he gets fewer votes than his opponent? It is, however, true that in recent decades Hindus have become more conscious of their rights. One needs to understand why. A lot of people were deeply offended when former PM Manmohan Singh said that the minorities had the first claim on the nation’s resources! Why? Please remember that India was divided because the Muslim leaders led by Jinnah felt that they could not coexist with Hindus in an India where Hindus would be in a majority.

The Partition of India, which was completely unnatural, has left a deep gash not only on the geography, but also the psyche of the Indian people. Many people in India believe that the Muslim elite, which had ruled over India for many centuries, could not reconcile itself to the loss of its power, and had come to regard Hindus as people whom they could, and should, dominate. That’s why you see Pakistan’s quest for parity with India, and their absurd notion that one Muslim soldier is equal to ten Hindu soldiers. There is no real ‘minority’ problem in India. The only religious minority that talks of this is the Muslim minority, but even here this is not a problem among Muslims in India in general; it is only the elite Muslims, not the masses, of UP and Bihar, who led the movement for Pakistan who think along such lines.

I think the Ayodhya dispute has played a role in the rise of Hindu awareness about their rights. The so-called leaders of the Muslim community who are questioning the demand of the Hindus to build a Ram temple there are being shortsighted. To confront Hindus on a matter involving faith is not wise politics. The important thing is not whether the disputed site is actually the birthplace of Lord Ram, but that hundreds of millions of Hindus believe it to be so. Some analogies are not out of place. What would happen if a non-Christian were to question the belief that a virgin gave birth to Jesus Christ? Or if someone were to question that it is the hair of another human being and not the Prophet that was allegedly stolen from Hazratbal Shrine in Kashmir about 25 years ago? Or that the tooth of the Buddha in Kandy is not really his?

Global factors have also played their part. These include the role of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states in actively spreading Wahabi ideology; the conflation of Islam with terrorism; and the reluctance of Muslims to speak out against terrorist attacks and atrocities (how many Muslims have written or spoken to condemn the numerous attacks by Islamist terrorists in Europe, US, India and elsewhere?). Some people say that there are very few Muslims in Parliament and none from the BJP. Well, India does not believe in communal electorates. When someone is elected to Parliament, he/she represents all the people, not just those of his community. Moreover, in order to get elected, a candidate must reach out to all sections of the electorate. If Muslims continue to have a narrow agenda, obviously they won’t be elected. But leave that aside. Whatever development work is being done – roads, water supply, gas connections, housing, toilets, education, health etc. – is not targeted towards any particular community.

Guha believes that “many rightfully worry about India’s future as a multicultural democracy.” I think Guha and the rest of the world should not worry on this count. In fact, India’s record of managing its diversities is much better than that of many other countries, including the US. We give constitutional and legal protection, and affirmative action, to the weaker sections of society like the Dalits, the tribals, and the backward castes. Why, two seats in Parliament are reserved for the minuscule community of Anglo-Indians! India has many religious minorities like the Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, who are doing quite well economically and have preserved their traditions and cultures. If India were intolerant, why would Bangladeshis, Sri Lankan Tamils, Afghans, Tibetans and Rohingyas have sought shelter in India? Why do millions of Nepalis live and work in India? Unlike the US, which wiped out the native Red Indian tribes, India has taken special steps to preserve tribal cultures and traditions. Nor does it have a leader who is openly racist and has been credibly accused of sexual abuse. India is a remarkable success story of managing a dazzling diversity of 1.3 billion people in its polity and society, when much smaller countries like the UK are struggling to deal with separatism. Look at the hatred and killings in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, despite having been one country for seven decades. Or the mutual animosities among the countries that have emerged from the former Soviet Union?

Guha suffers from amnesia when he says that there was “little religious conflict till Nehru was alive,” and that it is the rise of the BJP that has triggered riots. On the first point, what about the bloody and widespread riots and killing at the time of Partition? On the second point, even a cursory search on Google or Wikipedia would show you that nearly all religious riots took place when the Congress Party was in power. In fact, during the last five years of the Modi Government, there have been no communal riots.

I don’t know what Guha means when he says that India could become a “Hindu Pakistan.” India is a country where all religions not only survive but thrive. Whereas in Pakistan (and Bangladesh) the percentage of Hindus has come down drastically, in India the percentage of Muslims has steadily increased from less than 10% in 1947 to about 15% today. Unlike in Pakistan, where abductions and forced conversions of Hindu girls is common, Muslims suffer no such disability in India. Mosques and madrasas are mushrooming everywhere, Muslim festivals are widely celebrated, and Muslims have their own personal law, including till recently the triple Talaq practice which has now been made illegal and punishable. In India, everyone is required to take an oath on the Constitution, whereas interestingly in the US the President takes his oath on the Bible. Going by such logic, I suppose, one should call the US a “Christian” country! The same would apply to Britain, where the monarch is the head of the Church of England!

The argument by Guha that “one of the reasons why the Indian state has shown a harsh hand in Kashmir is that the majority of Kashmiris are Muslim,” is dangerously provocative and inflammatory. Has not the Indian state firmly dealt with large-scale disorder, violence, terrorism and separatism, no matter where it occurred? Look at what was done in Punjab to tackle Sikh separatism in the 1980s, under the leadership of a Sikh (KPS Gill)! Unfortunately, some Western countries like Canada and the UK continue to blithely turn a blind eye to the activities of Sikh separatist groups, though I’m sure they would strongly object to India harbouring and encouraging Quebec or Irish separatists. India has also had to deal with serious insurgencies in the Northeast of India, where there is no Muslim majority.

What does Guha mean by “election-only democracy?” In a democracy, elections are a vital element; they are the instrument that legitimizes the authority of the party that comes to power. Of course, democracy is not perfect, as everyone living in democratic regimes around the world, including the US, will agree. But the rulers are not unaccountable, as Guha would have us believe. They have to periodically go back to the people and get a revalidation, else they are thrown out. In the case of Modi, he went back to the people after five years and came back with a bigger majority. What is legitimate – Modi’s victory or Guha’s personal rants?

There is something in what he says about Parliament’s functioning. However, he conveniently misses pointing out that more often than not it has been the Opposition parties that disrupt Parliament sessions, and that the first session of the newly elected Parliament has been the most productive in more than two decades. Guha bemoans the lack of any sort of credible opposition to the BJP. That’s because the opposition parties offer nothing to enthuse the people. It’s not the job of any ruling party to create a “credible opposition,” neither in India nor in the US or any other democracy. The media outlets that he quotes are either ideologically far-left, or have been charged with tax evasion and money laundering. Under the Congress regime, the media was in collusion with the ruling party. Now that they don’t wield the same power, obviously they are frustrated. By the way, Guha and his ilk can, and do, freely express themselves in India in the media and on public platforms.

Guha makes a point about India not preserving nature. Yes, our cities are filthy and polluted, but this is not a recent problem. The difference is that while earlier governments did nothing about it, now Modi is trying to do something about it – having the courage to talk about toilets and cleanliness from the ramparts of Red Fort, trying to make people more environmentally conscious by asking people to use less chemical fertilizers, eschew single-use plastic bags, move to electric vehicles and non-conventional energy sources. Guha fails to mention that even though India has a very low, below world average, carbon footprint, it has reiterated its commitment to the Paris agreement on climate change, which Trump has trashed. Many of India’s problems are also related to global warming, for which developed regions like the US and Europe bear most of the blame. What about the enormous quantities of food that go waste in the US every day? Or why do Americans overcool their homes in summer and overheat them in winter? Or is that part of American ‘exceptionalism’ for which the rest of the world has to suffer?

Yes, India is a flawed democracy. Whether it is 50:50 or 40:60 or 30:70, as Guha puts it, can be debated. But which democracy isn’t flawed? Is the US a perfect democracy? Can anyone without deep pockets stand for election as the US President? Yet in India we have many ordinary Indians who have made it to the top – whether it is Modi as Prime Minister, or women like Mayawati (a Dalit), Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee as Chief Ministers? India has had universal suffrage since 1950, while in the US the blacks got such rights only in the 1960s. Yes, there is political corruption in India, as there is in the US. Yes, there is violence in India. Isn’t the US too wracked by senseless violence on innocent school children? But the overall balance sheet of democracies is still positive.

I’m afraid Guha has made too many sweeping statements, not backed by evidence. Certainly, they do not represent the views of the majority of the Indian people. It is a pity that many in the West just go by what appears in so-called reputed newspapers. People like Guha are doing a great disservice to India. Please disregard his prejudiced views. Come to India and see for yourself how India is changing – for the better. Some of us may not benefit from the changes, but the vast majority of Indians like the changes being ushered in. That is democracy, which we must respect, even when it doesn’t suit us personally.”

(Ambassador Rajiv Sikri is a former top diplomat and a well known analyst)

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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