Where’s the Nation? – Barun Roy – Business Standard – 31 Jan 2008

Our vaunted democracy has failed to change hearts and minds, where all change must begin.

While we feel rightly disturbed by the death of democracy in Pakistan, as if it were alive except in the figment of President Bush’s imagination, we have some soul-searching to do ourselves and ask: Is it alive in India? Yes, we vote to elect our Parliament and assemblies; yes, we have courts and access to judicial redress; and yes, we are able to express our opinions freely and fearlessly, but are we democratic? Have we really ever been in our entire history as an independent nation and a republic?

Were we democratic when Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her own bodyguards? When Babri Masjid was razed? When Gujarat unleashed its pogrom against Muslims? And were we democratic when, only the other day, Christians were attacked and killed in Orissa and their churches, hearths, and homes pillaged and plundered?

We’ve come to believe our democracy is like God, always there, always will be, an eternal presence needing from us no other sacrifices than some sprinkling of holy water every now and then. As long as we don’t fail in that duty, proclaiming our faith from the rooftop and parading its glory on the streets, as we again did this January 26, we think we can commit any sins and still be honourable.

We fail to realise that the democracy we so worship and flaunt is pitifully flawed, that we as a people lack the very fundamental trait that makes a democracy democratic — tolerance of others’ views, beliefs, rights and freedoms. Democracy can’t exist where everybody thinks he or she is God’s chosen arbiter of good and bad, right and wrong, and insists everyone else must conform. It’s no democracy where fatwas decide public behaviour, force and violence are considered legitimate expressions of protest, and even killing is regarded as part of serving God’s will. How are we different from extremists and fundamentalists we so condemn?

We have denounced the atrocities on the Christian tribals of Kandhamal, Orissa, as we always do whenever atrocities occur. We have announced compensations to victims’ families, as is our custom in such cases. But the funny thing is such cases keep occurring and, funnier, they never prick our democratic conscience deep enough. After the statements have been made, the headlines have been written, and moneys have been doled out, we go on with our lives as if nothing has happened and nothing needs to change, not even our thinking.

Tolerance is not in our blood. Our debates are always acrimonious, our arguments always blind. We believe agreeing diminishes us intellectually, so we never agree with anything. Our thinking and identities are preset. So are our actions. Any deviation is considered sacrilegious and suspect. We will never give the other side a chance to explain. We shout to make our points, because not to do so is to appear weak. Opponents must oppose and defenders defend, as not to do so is to lose political ground. There’s no neutral ground in India where the two can come together even to shake hands.

If we don’t like a government, we want to bring it down before its term. We fight street battles, burn buses, vandalise shops, call bandhs, stop trains, wreck property, but won’t wait till its mandate, rightfully earned through democratic elections, runs out. If we catch someone stealing, we prefer to let loose a mob to beat him to death. Street justice makes us delirious as court justice is too slow for our liking. We swear by our Constitution, but won’t let anybody from the so-called lower classes to draw water from higher-caste wells. In Guwahati, not too long ago, we beat, burnt, and killed adivasis for the crime of marching in public to demand their rights. As cameras rolled and policemen watched, people took turns to flog victims strewn helplessly on the road.

We don’t think all Indians are born equal. If the poor remain poor, we blame it on their fate, not our failure to improve their lot. In Haryana, five dalits were lynched for allegedly skinning a cow. In Maharashtra, four members of a dalit family were sodomised, raped, paraded naked, then brutally murdered by their upper-caste neighbours simply because a daughter of that family, also raped and killed, had cleared secondary school.

Are we different from the Nazis? At least the Nazis were straight. We are a bunch of hypocrites. Peace is our motto, but violence is our creed. Just surf the blogs on the Internet to find out how much racial hate, suspicion, and anger is in the air and spreading like a cloud of noxious fumes. Where’s the Indianness? Where’s the nation? Our vaunted democracy is just a boastful speech delivered from the ramparts of the Red Fort. It has failed to change hearts and minds, where all change must begin.

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