The subject of the nature of democracy in India is important and we will continue to record our thoughts and ideas here to improve our understanding and hopefully to converge to a better sense of the phenomenon.
In this post, we reproduce some ideas from Dr. Bettina Robotka, a historian at Humboldt University in Berlin. Dr. Robotka had commented on one of our earlier posts (How Modern is Modern?) and impressed by her arguments we obtained her essay “Democracy in India – A Historical Perspective” which is a chapter in a 2000 book (The Cultural Construction of Politics in Asia) edited by Hans Antlov and Tak-Wing Ngo.
Dr. Robotka characterizes the form of governance in India as a “colonial democracy” (the word colonial has no pejorative connotation in the context; it refers to the historical origins of the present system) in which a centralized state replaced the “loosely woven web of suzerainty of pre-colonial Indian empires and their practice of political compromise and power-sharing.” Her objective is to explore how the modern Western concept of parliamentary democracy connects with the Indian political traditions of decentralized rule, regional autonomy and power-sharing.
Dr. Robotka notes that the pre-colonial structure of a “loose federation of states implicated that socially, racially and culturally diverse regions could retain a large amount of autonomy and even parts of their traditional jurisdiction” by owing nominal allegiance to an overlord.
The issue of finding a representative form of governance during colonial rule emerged only after the uprising of 1857 that “convinced the British government that they needed a broader base of allies for the continuation of their rule.” It was then that elective elements from the British political system of representation began to seep into the Indian polity.
Almost immediately, the British model grated against the Indian reality:
Another problem arose with the introduction of the elective element into the councils of British India. In Britain the constituencies for election were based on the territorial principle, i.e., all people living in a certain area together elect their representatives. In India, however, under the circumstances – illiteracy, missing communicational links and political awareness, it was to be feared that traditional social linking like caste and community would dominate voting behaviour of the uneducated masses. Especially by the representatives of the minority community of Indian Muslims the selection of representatives by majority vote was regarded as a danger.
So religious affiliation was turned into a decisive distinction. Dr. Robotka quotes the conclusion of the Indian Statutory Commission in 1930:
So long as people had no part in the conduct of their government, there was little for members of one community to fear from the predominance of the other. The gradual introduction of constitutional reforms, however, had greatly stimulated communal tension as it aroused anxieties and ambitions among many communities by the prospect of their place in India’s future political set-up.
Thus “while the goal of achieving independence from British rule was never a point of disagreement, the distribution of political power between the Hindu and the Muslim communities in a future, free India became a continuous ‘apple of disord’.”
The British “solved” this incompatibility between principle and practice in 1906 by opting for the system of communal rather than territorial representation. The cure was worse than the disease: Dr. Robotka quotes the conclusion of the Indian historian K.N. Pannikar that “the introduction of the principle of elected representation in public institutions actively promoted the rising of communalism in India.”
Dr. Robotka elaborates on this mismatch between the idea and the reality and its historical antecedents: “Unlike in Great Britain, the process of secularization in the society did not take place in India or was at least limited to an extremely small number of English-educated intellectuals. Therefore, religion played a decisive part in the daily life of the people – it influenced their identity basically.”
The project of setting up a secular all-Indian identity standing above religious affiliation, though eminently sensible to a sliver of the leadership, clashed with the underlying reality of the population and left no room for finding a solution to minority demands. Thus the partition of India can be cited as prime evidence of the failure of a system of governance out of tune with the social realities on the ground. And, it was no insignificant failure – never before in the history of India had such viciousness been witnessed or so many people lost their lives and homes. Both the viciousness and the surprise that people who had lived for decades as neighbors could do such things to each other are captured in Khushwant Singh’s classic portrayal of the tragedy “Train to Pakistan.”
The systemic mismatch continued to yield pain as witnessed in the subsequent partition of Pakistan. The India that remained after the carnage has fortunately survived as a democratic entity. The reasons for this outcome we shall explore in a subsequent post. Meanwhile, we highly recommend Dr. Robotka’s essay (which advocates a decolonization of the Indian democratic system) to readers interested in these issues. We have quoted selectively from what is a very valuable resource. We hope the author would be able to provide a link to a more accessible version.