The soul of modern India is its liberal democracy. Are we in danger of losing it? Communal posturings are getting ever more blatant. Caste leaders are defying the law openly. Intolerance is flaunted as a badge of honour. The government is a bystander, its inaction amounting to abetment.
We won’t be alone if we turn democracy into a mockery. Sukarno, the hero of Indonesia’s freedom struggle, became a demagogue when he got power and proclaimed what he called “guided democracy”—guided by himself. His successor Suharto installed a military dictatorship but called it “pancasila democracy”. In Malaysia, it was “controlled democracy”. In Pakistan, Zulfikar Bhutto announced “Islamic democracy”, whatever that meant.
India was a proud exception with a Constitution drawn up by some of the greatest minds of the 20th century. But in his reply to the debate in the Constituent Assembly in November 1949, B R Ambedkar was full of forebodings. He said, a good constitution was no good in the hands of bad people. He warned specifically that if “political parties placed creed above country, our independence would be put in jeopardy and probably be lost for ever”.
Six short decades later, those words ring more ominous than ever. All our parties put their creeds and their leaders’ private agendas above the country. What was the point of Mayawati asking for Ashis Nandy’s arrest? Firstly, Nandy did not denigrate Dalits. A contextual reading of his remarks convinced Dalit messiah Kancha Ilaiah that Nandy’s point was good though his language was bad. In her long years of absolutism in UP, Mayawati did not even try to stop atrocities against Dalit women, often by her own partymen. She is a profiteer in the name of Dalits. By contrast, Nandy’s record is honest.
Worse than caste manipulations are the new twists in religious fanaticism. There are fundamentalists/terrorists among not only Muslims but also Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and others. The state encourages them all by shutting its eyes to their depredations. It allowed the Shiv Sena to progress from one fascist excess to another. The Bajrang Dal runs amok in the Mangalore area even today, but the Karnataka government has no time to rein them in.
Fringe groups like this Sena and that Dal do not represent the great tradition of Sanatana Dharma. Nor do the fire-breathing Islamists represent the majority of Muslims in India. But they gain the most attention because they wear their fanaticism on their sleeves. The Owaisis of Hyderabad have gained immensely by waving their Islamism, yet they switch to threatening mode when a new land allotment or some other favour is not immediately granted. A few partisans raise slogans and West Bengal prohibits Salman Rushdie from visiting Kolkata. Has an impression grown in the communal camp that threatening violence is the easy way to achieve undue advantages in India?
Kamal Haasan is merely the newest victim. His record is one of balance and humanism. He is no more anti-minority than Nandy is anti-Dalit. But, as always, someone somewhere has an agenda and Haasan becomes a means to push that agenda.
Thuppaki, another recently released Tamil film, was also attacked by Muslim fringe groups on flimsy religious grounds. But the worst of all cases is that of the Tamil writer, Manushyaputhiran. He is being threatened by a Muslim group for condemning the beheading of a Sri Lankan maid in Saudi Arabia. What makes a bunch of Tamil Muslims don battle dress on behalf of Saudi Arabia?
There could be a great deal in that question. Saudi Arabia is known to be financing a worldwide movement to radicalise Muslims along the lines of Wahabism, an ultraconservative ideology committed to converting the world to its line of thinking. Strong warnings against the threat posed by Saudi Arabia’s covert and violence-prone evangelism have been aired in the US, the Saudi establishment’s primary support base. But Washington is loathe to take action. The way things are going, we may not have too much time to decide which will work—Ambedkar’s Constitution or his warnings about us losing our independence.