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Illiberal democracy: A government against the people

  • Published at 07:58 pm March 5th, 2020
CAA India Muslim March Tamil Nadu
Reuters

The decoupling of liberalism and democracy isn’t unique to India

When chaotic mob violence exploded across New Delhi, Premkant Baghel noticed his Muslim neighbour’s house was engulfed by flames. 

The 29-year-old dived into the inferno, quickly rescued five members of the resident family, then lingered to extract the elderly matriarch, in which time he was severely burned across his face and hands. He spent the night in excruciating pain, until ambulance service was resumed in the locality.

That resumption of medical intervention resulted in an alert petition to the Delhi High Court by Suroor Mander (on behalf of a citizen’s group led by her activist father Harsh Mander), which was accepted on an emergency basis at 12:30am by Justice Muralidhar. Along with Justice Bhambani, this two-judge bench ordered the Delhi Police to remove their barricades to ensure safe passage of all victims of the violence.

Muralidhar said: “We can’t let another 1984 scenario happen in this city [referring to the vicious pogrom when thousands of Sikhs were massacred]; not under the watch of this court.” He then moved to file hate speech charges against the politicians -- all associated with the ruling party -- whose speeches had encouraged and abetted the conflagration. 

Within hours, he was removed from his seat, and transferred (the move was already in the works, but there’s no doubt he had become an inconvenient roadblock to the ruling party’s agenda). 

In India -- and across most of South Asia -- the conceptual boundary walls between various religions tend to be low, and in many cases and places, entirely non-existent. Here, where ostensibly separate traditions blur peacefully into each other, just think of the famous Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb

Still, it’s undeniable that Justice Muralidhar, the Manders, and Premkant Baghel can all be identified as Hindus. Their examples perfectly illustrate why the ugly, grievous political situation in India is mischaracterized as Hindu versus Muslim, on communal lines. 

The readily evident facts demonstrate that it’s actually almost the citizens -- of every possible background -- arrayed together against the reactionary, regressive extremist fringe, which has managed to achieve virtually unchecked power over the apparatus of state. 

Back in 1997, when many people still thought of him as a future US secretary of state (that career track was eventually derailed by poor personal choices), Fareed Zakaria wrote an influential essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, entitled “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” in which he noted, “Democratic elected regimes, often ones that have been re-elected … are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power, and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms.”

With great precision, Zakaria pointed out that “for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy -- a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. 

“In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms -- what might be termed constitutional liberalism -- is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.”

The steady 21st century decoupling of liberalism and democracy isn’t unique to any country. Similar processes are underway in Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, even Trump’s America and Boris Johnson’s UK. 

But as the writer Omaid Ahmad put it on Twitter earlier this week: “India is one-sixth of the world’s population. The failure of democracy here will be a catastrophe for the world. Nobody and nothing will be left untouched. There will be no safe haven. Please pay attention. Please don’t give up.”

This isn’t just another plaint falling on deaf ears, but the rallying cry ringing through many precincts. Many historians (accurately) point to worrying similarities to the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe, but the crucial difference in India is an immensely impressive resistance against many of the Modi-Shah combine’s more extreme machinations. 

Recently, the BJP’s crucial partner in Bihar, the ruling Janata Dal-United led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, voted against implementing the controversial National Register of Citizens, thus joining Rajasthan, West Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh.

More hopeful still are the innumerable individual and collective acts of conscience by ordinary citizens: The Sikh father and son ferrying dozens of frightened Muslim neighbours to safety, several separate Dalit communities standing vigil to reassure the Muslims amongst them that no harm would occur, the Christian churches opened to all victims of violence. 

On those horrific days when the violence raged, some of the most incendiary and shocking images were of mosques under attack, with their minarets being scaled by vandals who placed saffron flags on them. 

But earlier this week, the US-based legal scholar (and expert on Islamophobia) Khaled Beydoun tweeted an affecting video of the quiet ascent of someone with another agenda in mind altogether. He wrote: “A young Hindu man removes the Hindu Nationalist flag from the top of a Delhi mosque. A beautiful gesture! #India.” 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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