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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 27, New Delhi, June 20, 2020

Two Democracy’s | Badri Raina

Some Fundamental Differences Between the genius of the “Oldest” and “Largest” Democracies

Saturday 20 June 2020, by Badri Raina

Borrowing from the first famous sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, “it is a fact universally acknowledged” that most aspiring young Indians love and wish to be in America for the following clutch of reasons: the economic opportunities it offers; the strength of its Institutions that respect merit; its adherence to law and order; the cleanness of its habitats; its military might, and its innovative technological predilections. Never mind that most of these attributes remain largely limited to white Americans.

But, here is a question: how many love America for making it possible for a local police chief to say in an open interaction with the media that if the President has no worthwhile ideas, he should “shut his mouth” (https://indianexpress.com/article/trending/trending-globally/donald-trump-houston-police-chief-george-floyd-us-protest-6438746/).

Or, for the fact that, during the course of the current protests against the brutal killing in broad daylight of a black man, and for peace , justice, and equality, not one but many police personnel should be forthrightly endorsing the protests, parading with the protestors, kneeling and praying with them, condemning police brutali y, even as they make the point that violent agitators with ulterior motives should not be allowed to hijack the just cause of the protests,—all that without being slapped with charges of sedition? How many Indian police counterparts might be expected to do the same were peaceful demonstrations against excesses committed on Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims underway in India?

Or how many of these aspiring young Indians who love America might raise a voice for the incorporation of a First Amendment Right (to absolute freedom of expression so long as violence is not incited or committed) into the Constitution of the world’s “largest” democracy—a Right that makes possible what the Houston police chief has said?

Alas, the answer to that may not be encouraging.

Think back to the attitudes we witnessed among India’s America-loving elite during the course of the peaceful and popular protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the projected National Register of Citizens. The response from the elite was largely Trumpian, demanding dismantling of the protests, and the use of no-nonsense police actions against them. All that consistent with Trumpian calls to shoot the protestors raised by no less than elected scions of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, How many elite voices were raised against the slapping of draconian charges against our protestors, or against the summary arrests and incarceration of conscientious and democratic voices among our civil rights activists? Rather few.

Indeed, if tomorrow the Shaheen Bagh phenomenon were to reappear in India, protesting the discriminatory treatment meted out to Indian Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, is it to be thought that the current experience in America and world-wide would have made a palpable dent in the middle classes who may make an occasional snide against Trump but remain devoted to the governing dispensation at home?
That then is the great difference— that even law agencies in America recognize the right to peaceful protest against social evils like racism which they openly acknowledge to be a systemic feature of American life, and Indian state-apparatus that remains, with few exceptions, loyal to the ruling political voice. How many senior Indian police officers have we heard to acknowledge that caste discrimination is as systemic a feature of Indian life as racism is in America?

There has also been public recognition that racial discrimination did not end in the 1960s with path-breaking civil rights legislations but continues to be a fact of everyday life in America. Contrarily, one would be hard put to find a enior police officer in India who might publicly accept that law enforcement here is more often than not distorted by innate biases.

More crucially, what percentage of India’s America-loving elite might concede the view that endemic caste oppression in India requires both drastic institutional reform and sustained public outcry? Same about the barely concealed targeting of other minorities, both by social forces and official agencies? Not too many.

America was founded on the issue of religious freedom and individual liberty—codified in the American Constitution, however those principles may have been dealt with by various American regimes, the worst being the Trump Presidency.

It is important to recall that the roots of the American revolt against the British colonisers lay as much in material causes as they did in the radical philosophical challenges to ancient regimes mounted by the work of the French Enlightenment thinkers. And, at the heart of that composite revolt resided a new commitment to dissent, both in mattters of faith and in all other aspects of cognitive life. Indeed the first settlers in the new world wre called “Dissenters.” The First Amendment Right of the American constitution derived directly from that commitment to dissent, recalling Volltaire: “I may disagree with you, but I shall defend to the death your right to disagree with me.”

Nor is it widely known that the right under the Second Amendment of the American constitution to bear arms had its philosophical roots in the right of citizens to defend themselves against “tyrannical” governments—since then reduced to the notion of the right to defend personal property. One may quickly add the caveat that democratic states are best off without such a provision. One of the most derelict features of American social life continues to be the use of such private arms to often mow down innocent citizens in episodes of mass shootings.

In contrast, the Indian anti-colonial movement , although studded with individuals and organized social groups whose emancipatory ideals were neither in doubt nor dormant, ended up as a stifled compromise with retrograde archives of thought that looked upon the right to individual freedom and the right to dissent with given authority, both in the political and social spheres, as inimical to social unity, stability, and, at bottom, to the hegemony of feudal forms of dominance. The questioning of authority remained in the ruling Indian mind a potentially dangerous freedom, and one that needed to be curbed by contrary stipulations such as exist in Article 19(2) of the Indian constitution (see https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/Isnt-dissent-the-essence-of-democracy/article15598124.ece).

It would be a silly argument that the Americans have sorted out their racial bugbear whereas we are still saddled with our casteism an communalism. But it would not be a silly argument that whereas dissent as a deep-rooted principle continues to flourish there as an absolute value, our democracy, fundamental rights notwithstanding, makes it easy for a dispensation so inclined (like the present one) to obliterate dissent out of existence.

Thus, the police chief of Houston is not an exception. Imagine that the on-job Secretary of Defense in Trump’s Executive Branch should organize a press briefing to express his dissent with the President on the latter’s intention to call out the army on active duty within American cities by invoking the “Insurrection Act.” Not to speak of the previous incumbent, General James Matttis, who has lambasted the President for asking the army to do the unthinkable, namely violate their oath to uphold the American constitution by being potentially asked to deny American citizens their constitutional right to peaceful protest. Or former army Generals like George Allen and Colin Powell who have openly expressed the apprehension that the Trump Presidency may be veering towards a dictatorship.

If such forthright critiques by Indian police or rmilitary personnel are unthinkable, it is not because such feelings do not exist among some, but that the lack of a First Amendment Right and a stern separation of powers and instruments of constitutionally mandated checks and balances do not feature in Indian political- constitutional life.
Speaking of upholding constitutional rights in India, enshrined for example not only in the Preamble but in several emancipatory legislations bearing on caste discrimination, here is a vignette from an authority most charged with upholding constitutional rights:

Only two decades ago a judge of a high court had the entire court premises “purified” with Ganga Jal (waters from the holy Ganges river) because the previous occupant had been a Dalit (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Dalit-judge-moves-SC-over-courtroom-purification/articleshow/1637926210.cms#:~:text=new%20delhi%3A%20a%20scheduled%20caste,his%20%60upper’%20caste%20successor.). Isn’t it unlikely that such a thing would have been tolerated in the “oldest” democracy, even if some racist red-necks felt that black Americans should not be elevated to high offices?

Is it conceivable that the example of the protests in America and of their many police chiefs, like the one in Houston, will bring a new inspiration to both our elites and to our institutions in the event that peaceful mass protests are mounted for advancing the ideals of our constitution? If the experience of our migrant labour is anything to go by, the world’s “largest” democracy is aeons away from such an eventuality. It is noticeable that whereas protests in support of the rights of black Americans, and against racial discrimination in their own countries , have been mounted in many world Capitals, the virus notwithstanding, the Indian psyche remains unperturbed by what is happening to America, and unwilling to connect all that to the facts of life in India. Indeed, were civil rights activists here to attempt any such supportive demonstrations, the powers-that-be would quickly stamp out any such presumption. Think that the head of Amnesty International here, Aakar Patel, has already had a case filed against him for merely speculationg the desirability of such protests in India. Besides, who knows that such demonstration might someday encourage some Americans to demonstrate against the stifling of democratic rights in India.

Nor is it to be thought that our law enforcement agencies and their employers would take any lessons from the fact that not one live bullet has been fired during the course of the on-going protests in America, notwithstanding Trump’s historically charged threat that if there is looting there will be shooting.

Think also that many members of Trump’s party have expressed open disfavour of Trump’s declaration that he is the President of “law and order,” in so far as that reveals a response to citizen’s rightful protests wholly contrary to constitutional stipulations and traditions of dissent. Contrast that with what we are told everyday by scions of the ruling establishment—that every social or political issue in India is a law and order problem, requiring a law and order rectification, Kashmir being the prime example.
And, yet, Trump’s handling of the protests has led to a more than significant drop in his ratings, even among his devoted Evangelical base, and yielded the electoral defeat of a certified bigot, Steve King, after nine terms in the American Congress.

Although, therefore, the two democracies , in terms of economic realities, remain anything but democracies, the one percent owning more than seventy percent of national wealth in each country,— (as hunger mounts in America, food stamps become a hotly sought recourse https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/06/us/politics/coronavirus-hunger-food-stamps.html)--- politically and ideologically democracy has roots there that it still does not have in India, elections notwithstanding . Whereas the most bigoted American would not in principle contest the right of all Americans to freedom and equality, our endowed classes, at bottom, have still not imbibed those constructs as fundamental to democracy. Indeed, in many elite Indian minds, the fallout of karm supercedes the constitutional right to equality, the indifference to the travails of the migrant labour being a prime instance.

The protests in America have obliged the police chief in Minneapolis to say to the media that in his view all four police officers who were involved in the George Floyd killing, although only one sat on his neck, are complicit. News now comes that not only have the charges against the murderer of George Floyd been elevated to second degree murder, but the three others have also been charged for aiding and abetting the murder, and arrested. And several Mayors of cities there have said that the people have the right to continue their peaceful protests even after such actions have been taken, given that the issue of systemic racism is deserving of continued protest. We may well wonder how many civic or police authorities here would opine similarly
Meanwhile, we salute the Houston police chief for speaking truth to the highest power in his land. And we salute the American Secretary of Defense for his principled and open refusal of the President’s agenda. And we salute the army Generals for sounding open warning about where the Presidency is going. They make the all-important point that the military is answerable to their constitution, not to the Presidency.

And we hope that Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi lives who encompass the large bulk of oppressed classes, will come to matter here as black lives strive to matter in America.

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