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India is a Fifty-Fifty Democracy

The article talks about the inception and evolution of democracy in India. It highlights certain aspects which have shaped the very framework of this country, for better or worse.

“The Hindi-wallahs were ready to risk splitting the Assembly and the country in their unreasoning pursuit of uniformity.” Granville Austin observes. After the partition of India promoters of Hindi became more fanatical. Before the Hindu-Muslim tension grew in Northern India in the nineteenth century, two languages were co-existing peacefully: Hindi and Hindustani. Hindi, written in Devanagri script, relied heavily on Sanskrit. Urdu, written in a modified Arabic script drew on Persian and Arabic. Hindustani was a unique amalgamation of both these languages. As the tension grew, the languages grew further apart. One on the side there arose a firm movement to root Hindi more firmly in Sanskrit. On the other, to root Urdu more firmly into the classical languages from which it originated.

Like Nehru, Gandhi thought that Hindustani could unite both Hindus and Muslims. As he put it, “Urdu diction is used by Muslims in writing, Hindu diction is used by Sanskrit Pundits. Hindustani is the sweet mingling of the two.” In 1945 he engaged in an energetic exchange with Purshottamdas Tandon, a man who fought hard to rid Hindi of its “foreign” elements. Tandon was the vice-president of the All India Hindi Literature Conference, which argued that Hindi should solely be the national language of India. Gandhi was stunned by this jingoistic propaganda and thought that it may be time for him to resign his membership. Tandon tried to dissuade him but Gandhi had made up his mind. “How can I ride two horses? Who will understand me when I say that rashtrabhasha= Hindi and rashtrabhasha= Hindi+Urdu= Hindustani?” The partition demolished the case of Hindustani. The move to bolster Hindi as the national language gathered pace. After the partition, the promoters of Hindi became more fanatical.

This heated exchange did not go unnoticed amongst other Hindu fanatics. The provocation for assassinating the Mahatma was his principled unwillingness to give in to a hatred towards Muslims in the wake of a post-partition India. His refusal to agree to “The Hindus” a right to “settle score” with “the Muslims” was deeply despised by Hindu extremists. On January 12,1948, a day before his fast to bring peace and quiet, a disturbed Mahatma had observed at the evening prayer congregation. “I see the Muslims of Delhi being killed before my very eyes. This is done while my own Vallabhbhai is the Home Minister of the Government of India and is responsible for maintaining law and order in the Capital. Vallabhbhai has not only failed to give protection to the Muslims, he light-heartedly dismisses any complaint made on this count. I have no option but to use my last weapon, namely, to fast until the situation changes.”

His fast and the moral reprimand were deeply despised by the avant-garde Hindu Rashtra. Something was to be done about this “turbulent priest”, in the words of King Henry II. And, so, an assassination was ordered. A crime was committed in the name of the Hindu community. There, till date hasn’t been an answer to the question raised by Rajendra Prasad: “May I ask how Gandhiji’s assassination has saved Hindu religion or Hindu society?” More than his rejection of the Hindu Raj and even more than this passionate pursuit of a Hindu-Muslim union, it was his ideology of ahimsa (non-violence) as a political weapon that instigated the wrath of the Mahasabhites/RSS. For Gandhi’s opponents, violence was not only necessary but inevitable if “Hindu society” was to rediscover its “glorious” past. In the context of the violent 20th century, Gandhi’s greatest gift to society was to wean us away from the grip of fascism which was so greatly admired in Europe at that time. On the other hand, the Hindu Rashtra’s ideologies, has been argues, were derivative of the rampant success of German and Italian fascism.

It is this addiction to violence that refuses to fade away, despite more than six decades of constitutional order (more or less) in India. Today, majoritarian politics is being bolstered by an affliction towards violence in words and deeds. The “gau rakshak” crowd’s aggression, roughness, murderous impulses are explained as a much-needed expression of anger and animosities of a long desired “Hindu Swaraj”.

An extreme nationalism has been carved out of strained resentments. Almost every section of society has fallen prey to this gaudy notion of nationalism, as Ramchandra Guha’s India After Gandhi elucidates that violence always lingered beneath the surface. “The language of the mob was only the language of the public opinion cleansed of hypocrisy and restraint.” Says Hannah Ardent. Hindu extremism has been prevalent since the early 20th century. Gandhi’s ideals and visions merely added fuel to the existing fire. In the opinion of Guru Golwakar, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India was a Hindu nation. But the Hindus themselves were divided between caste, sect, region and language. His call to ban the slaughter of the “symbol of Mother Earth” stemmed from a much greater goal, that of uniting the Hindus. Ram Guha writes “Cows were found all over India. Hindus too were found all over India. And Hindus worshipped cows, whereas the Christians and Muslims preferred to butcher and eat it.” That was the logic on which RSS built its campaign. Fourteen years after Golwakar’s letter, a large crowd marched to Parliament to demand a nation-wide ban on cow slaughter. That was the highlight of the campaign. Its appeal steadily declined henceforth. Even at its highest its attraction was to Hindu extremists and RSS workers. In the 1980’s however a single holy spot in India was able to accomplish what an omnipresent animal could not. The campaign to erect a temple where a mosque was built in Ayodhya generated a nation-wide appeal. In 1984 the BJP, the successor of the Jana Sangh won a mere two seats in the eighth general elections. Five years later its seats were eight-six. One of the main reasons for this was the Ayodha involvement. Wanting to keep the Congress out of power, BJP lay its allegiance to VP Singh’s National Front without joining the government. However, a decision to implement the Mandal commission in 1990 threw the party into a frenzy. Some leaders thought this was a move to break up Hindu society. Others thought it was a necessary move to integrate the backward classes of India. Rather than take a stance on the given issue, the BJP decided to fall back on their agenda of the Mandir/masjid movement. The party announce a “yatra” from the ancient temple of Somnarth in Gujrat to Ayodhya. The march was held by L.K. Advani an austere man said to be more “hard lining’ than Atal Behari Vajpayee. The march’s imagery was “religious, allusive, militant, masculine and anti-Muslim.” The Kar Sevaks pushed their way through the police and BSF jawans. The battle between the armed forces lasted three whole days. With the lack of intervention from the UP government and the fact that a major part of the site had been destroyed, the Centre deployed close to 20000 troops to the site. “Mandir yahi banayenge” became their chant as the crowd grew more restive. One youngster climbed atop the dome. This was a signal of the oncoming surge. The police fled, allowing hundreds of kar sevaks access to the mosque. They charged with their tridents, rods and axes and began their demolition. At one dome collapsed, bringing down the men who destroyed it. “Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tor do!” screamed radical preacher Sadhvi Ritambara. An hour later the second then the third and the final dome was demolished.

The worse was yet to come. The demolition sparked riots throughout the country beginning from the vicinity itself. An influential priest had expressed that Ayodhya should become “the Vatican of the Hindus”. To cleanse the town of minorities was one step closer to the larger goal. The city worst hit was Bombay. On the morning of 7th December Hindu shops were raided and effigies of BJP leaders were burned on Mohammad Shal Ali road. A temple was also razed to the ground. When a group of constables showed up at the scene, the mob remained steadfast. They claimed that the police at Ayodhya just simply watched while the mosque was being brought down. Through the next a battle ensued between the mob and the police. At least sixty people had lost their lives. Meanwhile, a locality in North Bombay called Dharavi was suffering from an excess of “Hindu triumphalism”. A victory rally led by the BJP and Shiv Sena ended in attacks on Muslim homes and shops. In retaliation, Muslims stabbed a priest and set his temple on fire.

The courts took time in reaching a decision and no compromise could be reached either. Meanwhile the Vishwa Hindu Parishad held tours of Ayodhya all over the country. They also held religious ceremonies in anticipation of the building of the temple. One such yagna, held in the last week of February 2002 was attended by hundreds of volunteers from Gujrat. On their way back, they got into a fight with Muslim vendors at the Godhra railway Station. The vendors were asked to chant slogans which payed respects to Lord Ram. Upon refusal their beards were pulled. Young Muslims of the neighboured quickly clambered into the scene. And while the Kar sevaks scattered into the trains, they were met with stone-pelting. However, the train stopped at the outskirts of the station when a fire broke out in the train killing 58 people. The VHP claimed it was the handiwork of the Muslim mob. But it was not. Forensic reports suggested that it was a gas leak that took place inside one of the coaches from a gas cylinder which caused the fire. But word spread quickly that 58 kar sevaks had perished in a fire in a town that was famous for its communal riots. The violence that ensued was brutal and devastating. Muslim shops, offices, and mosques were set ablaze. Muslim men were killed, and bonfires were made with their bodies. Muslim women were raped and burnt alive. In an incident that came to light in 2007, Suresh Dedawala was caught on camera in a Tehelka sting operation talking to Bajrangi Dal about slitting open the abdomen of pregnant Muslim Kausar Banu, removing her fetus and killing it with a sword. The then Chief Minister of Gujrat in 2002 was Narendra Modi, a hard-line Hindu ideologue who was brought up in the harsh school of the RSS. He justified the atrocities caused to Muslims by simply saying that if the train had not been burned then the massacre would never have happened. In truth, the reaction was many times greater than that of the original action (which has absolved the Muslims of any interference).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘pogrom’ as “an organized massacre of a specific ethnic group”. By this definition, although there have been hundreds of inter-religious riots, there have only been two pogroms: that directed at Muslims in Godhra in 2002 and that directed at the Sikhs in 1984 under the government of Indira Gandhi.

Irrespective of any party, authoritarianism has been a part of India’s politics for decades (although our current saffron nationalists have caused far worse damage than anyone else has). One such example is the rise of Indira Gandhi, the first and to date the only female Prime Minister of India. Mrs. Gandhi was in no doubt a powerful politician, sometimes referred to as too powerful because she almost always relied heavily on the centralization of power. Between 1967 and 1971 Indira Gandhi obtained almost all control over the government as well as a huge majority in Parliament. This was achieved by concentrating the central government’s power within the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, rather than the Cabinet. This was done because she found the elected representatives of the Cabinet as threats and hence, distrusted them. Within the Congress, she outplayed her rivals, forcing the party to split in 1969- into the Congress (O) and her Congress (R). In the Congress (R) members very quickly realized that their progress and their well-being in the party stemmed solely on the loyalty displayed towards her and her family. By the 1971 general elections, the masses rallied behind her popular slogan of “Garibi Hatao!” to award her a huge majority of 352 seats out of 518. Ramchandra Guha later wrote that Congress (R) came to be known as the “real congress”. “Requiring no qualifying suffix”. She went ahead and defeated Pakistan in 1971 which led to the inception of Bangladesh for which she was awarded the Bharat Ratna the following month. She tried securing a firm grip on the judiciary by increasing government control over the body. In the 1967 Golaknath Case, the Supreme Court made it noticeably clear that the Constitution could not be amended by the Parliament when it comes to basic issues like fundamental rights. Her gradual ascent into the centralization of government did not go unnoticed within Parliament. The Emergency had come hot on the heels of the Supreme Court order from forbidding her to vote in Parliament. Her reasoning was that “forces of disintegration” and “communal passions” were threatening the unity of India.

People across India were being picked up and put into jails. These included leaders, activists, legislators, student activists, trade unionists, and indeed, anyone with the thinnest connection to the Jana Sangh, the Congress (O), the Socialists, or other groups who opposed the ruling party. Eminent figures such as Jayaprakash Narayana and Moraji Desai were placed in government rest houses while the majority were thrown into jails. Thousands were arrested under MISA- the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. Political opponents of Mrs. Gandhi were jailed under dubious acts. In the first few months of the emergency, the Prime Minister gave in to a slurry of interviews. All of which made her seem defensive. “The emergency was declared to save the country from disruption and collapse.” She told the Saturday review of New York. She went on to say, “It is not an abrogation of democracy but an effort to safeguard it.” Although this point is heavily disputed especially in today’s day and age. Mainly because of what ensued right after the declaration of emergency. Prominent leaders and unionists were picked up and thrown into jails. Indira Gandhi subsequently controlled all forms of media. Any news published against the government was to be strictly banned. Anti-government propaganda was heavily condemned. Any individual partaking in such activities was to be jailed. An estimate of 26,000 individuals was put into jails throughout the country during the period of emergency.

In the words of Ramachandra Guha, “India is a fifty-fifty democracy”. This statement holds a noticeable amount of truth. In some respects, India is still a fifty-fifty democracy-in respect to the free and fair elections (which is questionable), free movement of the people, etc. In these aspects, we are as democratic as any other country in the world. But where we noticeably lag is in our freedom of expression, the casual abrogation of fundamental rights. Both Congress and BJP have curbed freedom of expression. Both parties gradually became what they swore to destroy. Although some parties had made their agendas clear from the beginning. Parties would do anything to earn their votes. This meant that people they had long overlooked would now get “special” attention in the façade of equal opportunities and standard of living. These people mostly belonged backward classes or people from lower castes.

In India, different political parties represent interests of different caste groups. For example, the upper and merchant castes such as Brahmin, Rajput, Kayastha, and rich Muslims tend to lean towards the Congress. And the upper caste Jats tend to vote for Congress’ competing parties. In the 1990’s many parties such as Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), The Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal started claiming that they were representing the backward castes. This happened after the protests in lieu of the Mandal Commission. Many such parties started relying solely on the votes of these backward classes and derived their support from mainly Dalits and Muslims. Thus, giving rise to other parties that followed the same logic. Simultaneously many Dalit intellectuals and leaders started figuring out that the main Dalit oppressors were the Other Backward Classes themselves, and started forming their own parties, such as the Indian Justice Party. Parties such as Congress (I) relied heavily on votes of the Dalits in Maharashtra. The BJP also showcased Dalit OBC leaders to prove that it Is not an upper-caste party. In Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party rose to prominence for their representation of all castes in all important sects of society. But this too has been politicized. People belonging to the same caste often vote for parties with leaders belonging to the same castes. For Example, Karmas who are the wealthiest and most educated people in Andhra Pradesh vote for leaders who belong to the same caste, the Reddy’s vote for the Reddy’s. And there is a strict caste hierarchy that follows. For example, in Uttar Pradesh the caste chain is as follows: Yadavs>Kushwaha & kurmi> Thakur (In central Uttar Pradesh) and in Western Uttar Pradesh the hierarchy is Jats> Gujjars. What the movement initially sought out to achieve was equal representation of everyone but this, in turn, has only manifested into a deep polarisation of these classes. The rich and privileged remain in power whereas, the poor and backward classes remain oppressed and helpless.

Such is the case with Kashmir. Parties continually pledge their allegiance to the betterment of Kashmir but have only ended in polarising the citizens of the state and the country further. Ramachandra Guha wrote, “The reform of personal laws was one test of Indian secularism. Another and greater test were with regard to the future of Kashmir. Could a Muslim majority state exist, without undue fuss or friction, in a Hindu dominated but ostensibly ‘secular’ India?” By 1949 Sheikh Abdullah was in firm control over Jammu & Kashmir. But the status of the sate was still under conflict. In February 1950, the UN had asked both Pakistan and India to withdraw their armies from the state. Both stalled but by 1950 India was ready to hold their end of the bargain. When the Indian constitution came into effect in 1950, article 370 came into which stated that Kashmir would be treated as a part of the Indian Union but would still be granted autonomy. It also stated that the president would consult the state government regarding subjects other than defense, foreign affairs, and communications. In 1950 after redrawing the map of India, the government claimed the entire territory of Jammu and Kashmir to be a part of India. This claim rested on the fact that Maharaja Hari Singh had signed a document acceding to India. But, its claim to be a part of the country rested in the hands of Sheikh Abdullah, who was Anti-Pakistan but not Pro-India either. He was looking for an independent Kashmir. In an interview with the then US Ambassador Loy Henderson on 29th September 1950, he mentioned that the culture of the Kashmiris was vastly different from the cultures of that of India and Pakistan. The Hindus, he said shared a different culture in Kashmir than in India and the Muslims in Kashmir shared a different culture from those in Pakistan. And, hence, thought it wise to be a separate state. The Sheikh’s constant talk of a separate Kashmir did not go well with the Hindus of the Jammu region because they were keen to merge the state with India. In 1949 a People’s Party was formed to back the sentiments of the Jammu Hindus. It was led by Prem Nath Dogra. The Sheikh rejected the idea of merging with Pakistan and having independence as impractical. He agreed to join India but on his own conditions. Some of them being the retention of the state flags and the designation of the head of government as the Prime Minister. Neither went well with the Praja Parishad and they began protesting.

In January 1952 shortly before the Sheikh was supposed to speak in Jammu, Hindu students protested the National Conference flag being flown alongside the national flag. They were arrested and expelled from college This sparked a wave of sympathy protests. The Delhi government was fearful of a Hindu backlash and urged the Sheikh to release the prisoners. He agreed. On the 10th of April, he made a speech saying that they would accept the Indian Constitution after they were satisfied that the grave wave of communalism had come to an end. But it had not. The dispute between Jammu and Kashmir grew. And Dr. Shyam Prasad Mookherjee took it on himself to make the struggle of the Dogras as his own. None of the sides came to a consensus. Eventually, S.P. Mookherjee died of an illness and the Sheikh was taken into detention. Communal tensions grew. The Sheikh was handed his dismissal papers and Bakshi Gulam Mohammad was to take his place. But his reign brought the little piece to the Valley. Communal tensions kept festering and ultimately till the end of Congress’s reign never reached a consensus till their successors, the BJP abrogated Article 370 in 2019. This meant that from that day onwards Kashmir had become a part of India.

The reorganization of states was carried out on linguistic lines. When independence finally arrived, Gandhi thought the new nation should be defined based on language. Nehru was appreciative of this thought because he felt that India was a culturally rich and diverse country and that it should be showcased. But this was Nehru’s view in 1937. It all changed in 1947 when India was partitioned into two countries: India and Pakistan. He feared that dividing the country further on linguistic lines could spark more tension. Gandhi had urged to stop the re-organization till a calmer time. On January 25, 1948, Gandhi returned to the subject of linguistic states. He thought that if states were to linguistic states and under the control of the government then there should not exactly be a problem. But he was scared that states shouldn’t erupt and demand independence. He wanted everyone to live in harmony. But Gandhi was dead in a week. But the reorganization could not stop.

But the fires soon started again. There was the campaign for Samyukta Karnataka, aiming to unite Kannada speakers across the states of Mysore, Madras, Bombay and Hyderabad. Simultaneously was the drive for Samyukta Maharashtra which sought to bring Marathi speakers as one political unit. The Malayalis wanted a state of their own. In a class of its own was the struggle for a Sikh state in Punjab. This was because it brought together claims of language and religion. The Sikhs were the main sufferers of the Partition. The division by religion did not perfectly fit in with the division by language. Where all Sikhs had Punjabi as their first language, so did many Hindus.

But, without question, the most vigorous movement for linguistic autonomy was that of the Telugu speakers of the Andhra country. At that time Telugu was spoken by more people in India than any other language besides Hindi. After independence Telugu speakers asked Congress to implement the re-organization of states based on linguistic lines. The Telugu-speaking legislators in the Madras Assembly urged the immediate creation of a state to be named Andhra Pradesh. After universal suffrage finally on C. Rajagopalachari attended the inauguration of the new state of Andhra Pradesh at Kurnool on the 1st of October 1953.

But India was a democracy after all. It had to listen to the wants and pleas of its citizens. It did come at a cost. The years after independence were some of the toughest years free India had to face. India could still have been called a democracy at that point in time. It had its problems too, even at that time. The State suppressed independent thought in the First Amendment of the Constitution. This amendment allowed to ban periodicals or books that threatened “the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order”. But with time it slowly metastasized into authoritarianism under the garb of democracy. Indira Gandhi proved it and so did and still does, the BJP. India indeed is a fifty-fifty democracy. Probably the only reason why India is still called democracy is that we still have free elections and citizens are freely allowed to roam places. Otherwise, each political party is inherently against the concept of freedom of expression. Every political party is driven to carry out their propaganda regardless of what its citizens think and feel. Any moves made to stall their agenda only ends in brutality. That is the sad reality of our democracy.

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