Democracy in South Asia at 70  

Pulapre Balakrishnan

In India thugs assault dalits and muslims of the cattle trade in the name of hindu dharma, a writer is hounded out of two Bengals for saying that minorities have been ill treated in Bangladesh, priests attack Rohingyas in Myanmar for no other reason than that they are muslim, in Sri Lanka racists suppress a Tamil minority on grounds of difference, in Pakistan a destitute Christian sweeper is persecuted upon accusations of blaspheming islam and in Nepal people of the hill country disempower those of its plains through constitutional manoeuvre. Even in Afghanistan, which tends to be seen mainly as the victim of big-power rivalry, has its share of home-grown domination to acknowledge in the condition of the Hazara, a people with a history of living there for at least as long as anyone else. In all these countries an entrenched patriarchy ensures that women are subordinated. Thus, in parts of India it is considered normal for widows to be forced by tradition to board a one-way train to Mathura. And, amidst the beauty of Pakistan’s Swat Valley, a girl child is shot and mutilated for seeking the right to go to school. It would be difficult to name another region of the world that produces so much hate as South Asia. Is there a common thread to these ghastly incidents? Yes there is. These acts are the outcome of identity politics that enforce behaviour based on sectarian values derived from religion. Of significance is that the overwhelming majority of South Asian states are formally democracies. These incidents take place while everywhere in the state mostly stands by watching. While in some instances the state is an active agent of identity politics in others it has been captured by its custodians. Across the region the state in South Asia is culpable of empowering the mob against the weak.

            As August 15, 1947 is a defining moment for most of the countries of the sub-continent, or at least for the largest number of its people, on this seventieth anniversary of their independence we may want to reflect on what has been gained since. It is apparent that identity politics is ripping apart the social fabric in all the countries of South Asia except of tiny Bhutan. But what is less well recognised is that it may have had a role in these countries not moving forward in eliminating socio-economic deprivation, leaving it as one of the most backward regions of the world. South Asia as a region lags behind the rest of the world in human development. When the state responds to identity politics by allowing the mob to dictate its goals it has the potential of holding back economic and social progress. While class is a significant part of the explanation of why human development has progressed so slowly here identity politics embraced by the state camouflages its abject failure to advance it. This is true everywhere but it is perhaps in Pakistan that the people have suffered most from state-sponsored identity politics.

            The economist Mahbub-ul-Haq was to point to how, on their fiftieth anniversary, while Pakistan’s per capita income was 35 percent greater than India’s it had significantly lower levels of literacy, school enrolment and access to safe drinking water. This when by international standards India itself had low levels of these indicators and was not the best performer even in South Asia. It is not clear how much Pakistan’s position has changed by now but it is notable that fifty years into independence it was not able to provide the most basic of goods to its population. When the state is able to claim legitimacy by resort to identity politics, in this case that of religion, it escapes scrutiny of its record on matters secular. Haq also pointed to the dazzling statistic that during in a certain phase in their history India and Pakistan together spent more in the global arms bazaar than Saudi Arabia, a country with per capita income 25 times theirs. This draws our attention to the economic burden of defence expenditure in South Asia. However it perhaps inadvertently assumes a certain  symmetry between India and Pakistan. The territory that was delineated as Pakistan is not disputed. This is not the case with India. Pakistan’s military expenditure is directly related to the reason of its state.      

          The situation In India is more complex given its diversity. Its early political leadership successfully de-legitimised identity politics. There had been agitation for the formation of linguistic states of course but it had mostly taken the form of uniting people rather than dividing them. From the 1980s this was to change, however. By now for close to three decades Uttar Pradesh, a region the size of France and Germany combined, has been ruled by three different political formations all purveying some form of identity politics though the exact marker may have varied. It remains the most backward among India’s states in terms of human development. Surely a relationship between identity politics and development is evident in the regional variation in India. Once confined to the states identity politics has since come to occupy a place at the level of the central government. Between the cynically conceived Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act of 1986 and the cunningly crafted Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment Rules of 2017 governance has been communalised to secure the position of political parties.

            In the countries of South Asia with their diverse populations, identity politics destroy social cohesion and stand in the way of economic progress. Interestingly, this is equally true for countries with a large minority population, those with an overwhelming majority and those that are near homogenous. Thus, it is quite obvious India cannot hope to enjoy peace if its substantial religious minorities are not treated fairly. For the first time Indian democracy is under the scanner abroad. Even after a military victory over the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka may have lost some international support not to mention its relative prosperity in South Asia. And Pakistan, which though true to its name has been cleansed of the other, finds itself engulfed by islamic fundamentalism. Pakistan’s deep state is right to say that the country is a victim of terrorism but it is there for all to see that the terrorism emanating from there, targeting sites both in India and within, is of its own creation. Ironically given the intentions of the masterminds of 26/11, Muslims died disproportionately at the Chathrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai. The pursuit of identity as some pre-ordained, undefinable and immeasurable essence exclusive to one’s imagined community is a slippery slope to tread. Peace in South Asia can be assured only by secular democracy. Identity politics delays our achieving it.  

          Plato had thought peace can be assured only if rulers were philosophers and a philosopher was the king. In the infancy of the Indian republic its people came close to experiencing this ideal. One of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s observations was that in times of strife it is to poets that we turn. Thus, as war clouds gathered in Europe in the late 1930s W.H. Auden wrote: In the nightmare of the dark/ all the dogs of Europe bark/And the living nations wait/ each sequestered in its hate.”There is a certain resemblance between the moment captured by these lines and our collective condition in South Asia today. A difference though is that unlike in Europe then hate here is not aimed outside our countries but within them. However, we cannot escape the consequence of hate even when it is not aimed at us. South Asians can flourish only when hate is quelled. The poet would have said, “Tolerate the mob and lose your country”.