We The People

In perhaps the first public statement he made after the event of December 13,2001 when the Indian Parliament became the target of a terrorist attack, (although there are those who still speculate about who the real attackers might have been), the then Home Minister defined the occurence as an attack on “democracy.” This was good to hear for two reasons: one, as an expression of Advani’s commitment to the idea of democracy, (something that his infamous role in the vandalized demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 had put into serious question) and, second, for the potential that such characterisation of the attack bore for addressing the problem of terrorism. As we know, George W.Bush was to characterize the attack on the twin towers in very similar terms.

Insofar as terrorism tends to be seen as a regimented mind-set that views democracy as chief anathema, it invites us to revisit the idea of democracy, inorder that we may remind ourselves of its defining substance and strength— things that we tend to lose sight of until they are violently challenged.

Consider that of the many ways in which the movement of world history may be conceptualised, the most meaningful, perhaps, would be to see how through the millenia the legitimising ground of social and political power has shifted from the primitive man’s animal strength to the general will of “we the people.”

Defeating, through the ages, partial and irrational claims—physical male prowess, brahminical/papal fiat, the king’s so-called ‘divine right’, the privilege of birth or the colour of skin, or the notion of endorsed inequality based on caste , race, gender or class—the idea of democracy has, in large parts of the world, attained to the acceptance of citizenship and universal franchise. That such an achievement has often proceeded through bloody contest and struggle and against every entrenched odd testifies to the inherent force of the idea of democracy.

This is not to say that with the democracies that now obtain in the world, history has come to an end; for the simple reason that so long as these democracies remain partial and inequitous, the idea of democracy cannot be said to have exhausted itself. Indeed, many of the contentions the world is now witness to may be ascribed to the unfinished agenda of democracy. For instance, do we know that half of the world’s population—its women—still remain excluded from some 98% of ownership and political power, regional variations notwithstanding.

Clearly, though, history’s will towards the enlargement and enrichment of the idea of equity and freedom seems, to borrow from the American poet, Whitman, like the grass which is unstoppable, regardless how much we trample on it. This idea, however thwarted, now by the pampered bigot who bears proximity to the State, now by the full-blown terrorist, often indeed by the very people who derive legitimacy from it as they govern in sectarian, often brutal and self-righteous ways, must be inherently right as it aspires to a full human rationality. Clearly, if it has prevailed upto now, it cannot but prevail in the future as well, precisely as does the method we call science. That such ‘positivist’ faith flies in the face of ‘postmodernist’ dithering need not worry us too greatly here, since ‘postmodernism’ can be understood as only a new, enticing attempt to stop us in our tracks as we seek to assist the further march of the idea of democracy.

Like all other ideas, the rationality of the democratic idea expresses itself not mechanically but through the incessant enquiry and self-criticism of individuals and of whole groups, (since the time of Pericles’ Athens) in or out of political control, and through the collective struggles against those that constantly seek to stifle it. The regimented terrorist and bigot –who is only a terrorist-in-the- making, or as recent times show, ensconsced in the seat of preeminent power —is thus understandably most in fear of this march of reason and enquiry. It follows, therefore, that nothing would please the bigot or the terrorist as much as to see democracy cower, and doubt its power to confront and defeat the regimented mind of its adversary, or to compel democratic states to pay the ultimate compliment to terrorism by becoming terrorising states themselves.

If the soundness of that premise is conceded, it follows that governments the world-over that protest democratic pretensions must resist the temptation to make their own contribution to the attack on democracy. This will require that sentient distinction is made between civic discipline and whatever measures may be needed to encourage each citizens’ voluntary contribution to protecting democracy on the one hand, and, on the other, coercive laws which instead of reinforcing democracy add their bit to snuffing it out. For it must be recognized that however attractive such recourses seem in the short term, their long term fall out strengthens not democracy but terrorist impulse of one kind or the other.

After all, those well-known regimes in world history—especially of the first half of the last century—who sought to make terror the principle of governance were not defeated by counter-terror but by the power of democratic reason and resolve. (And when that resolve exceeded itself in the gratuitous use of the atom bomb in 1945, that excess left a poisonous residue which democratic struggles still contend with. Indeed, it is doubtful that the world has known a terrorist event worse than was visited on the innocent children, women, and men in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

This, above all, has been the outstanding reality of India’s collective, democratic, and nonviolent success against colonisation— a lesson never to be forgotten. Could then there be a more trenchant historical irony than that ,on the one hand, our freedom movement should have galvanized in the struggle against the draconian Rowlatt Act(1919), whereby the then colonial government, after all, sought to cancel the fundamental freedoms of free expression and association, and, on the other, that the National Democratic Alliance led by Vajpayee should have, when we are independent, imposed upon ourselves a law (Prevention of Terrorism Act—POTA,– now thankfully repealed) infinitely more sinister and suffocating? Or, that America’s ‘war on terror’ should have yielded a slew of executive measures, and many clandestine fiats that have threatened to nullify the high principles of constitutional democracy and the ideal of ‘freedom’ itself in the United States? Indeed a fine instance that, ignoring such ideals, we soon enough become mirror images of those we paint our adversary ‘others.’

The exercise of democratic reason and resolve, thus, crucially depends on the quality of credibility that governments are able to command. Uncritical and opportunist calls for national unity in times of crisis based on a sectarian and disingenuous appropriation of patriotism, even as we divide the nation and the world on exclusionist social and religious premises of the time can hardly be trusted to draw unqualified allegiance.

Likewise, the selective application of laws already in place where social, religious, or political prejudice is made the determinant of action cannot but yield resentment and disunity. A bigoted deriding of dissent on the unviable ground that the government of the day alone is the trustworthy custodian of national honour and well-being weakens the idea of democracy and engenders crippling residues for the future.

Finally, beyond reworking the mechanisms of the state-apparatus, beyond reformulating the laws of the land, beyond playing the blame game, beyond seeking outside approval, the answers to domestic or international discontent must be sought selflessly in the wrongs that may have been perpetrated at home and abroad. History helps us most when we face its lessons with honest willingness. And if we do not, its retributions can indeed be relentless.

Is it perhaps not the case that having demanded and won freedom and democracy from our colonisers, we in India kept the true substance of freedom and democracy confined to but a privileged few? The sort of question that remains alive in the great democracy of America as well when something like the Katrina episode cruelly exposes the narrow confines of its convictions and operations.

Do we strengthen democracy when we allow the organised gangster or professional shister close to the corridors of power to rob sections of the demos of the right to vote come election time? Or connive at polluting our electoral rules–that basic sacred text of democracy? Or when we seek to do a Florida in Mexico?

Do we strengthen democracy when we protect those who go about with impunity claiming absolute status for their particular version of truth, and who exercise brute terror to enforce that perception in contemptuous disregard for the Constitution that “we the people” give to ourselves as the agreed testament upon which to base our democratic practices and laws? Or those who oppress and deny whole peoples and countries inorder to favour others who do their bidding or serve their narrow interests? Until, with further twists and turns of cupidity, the latter come to be seen as the new adversaries? Do we strengthen democracy when our policy and governance blatantly favour those who already have several times more than they need while “we the people” struggle against all odds to make two ends meet? Do we strengthen democracy when we restrict education to those who have the wealth to pay, consigning millions to the darkness and the drudgery of the struggle for existence? Or when we turn our faces on the millions of destitute children whom the mere accident of birth robs of the joys of childhood? Or when we slash taxes for the rich while increasing the burden on ‘we the people,’ even as we fight our causes in their name?

Do we strengthen democracy when we hoard our godowns or allow forward trading in food grains but, upon some esoteric economic principle, will not feed those who suffer starvation and malnutrition, and who then commit suicide by the thousands because they cannot pay their measly debts while the fatcats merrily refuse to pay back the millions they owe? And all because such considerations do not enter into our definition of democracy.

Do we strengthen democracy when we displace people from hearth and home because large dams and other ecological disasters have to be built inorder to meet the requirements of some self-evidently transcendant economic doctrine– even if, as a result, we further annihilate the core idea of democracy, namely, equity?

Do we strengthen democracy when we view such questions with suspicion and disdain while we ask that our people waive the flag and sing hymns to our national honour?

The question, therefore, must be asked: is it only the terrorist who aims shafts at our democracy, or are we, after all, the principal guilty party? Indeed, rather than be shelved for some leisurely, future time, the current crises of the world community require that we honestly confront and answer that question.

Should we do so with collective resolve, and with a will to embrace democracy in its full demand, we may yet stave off catastrophes that lie in wait; should we fail to do so, thinking that mere fatuous and self-regarding cunning, disingenuous rationalizations, or high-sounding accusations hurled at the other party will save us the day, or mount patently illegal and beastly wars upon the most innocent and the most helpless, we live in fool’s paradise. Eventually, such failure will only make us the witting or unwitting accomplices of the terrorist, and no security arrangement, no stringent anti-terrorist legislation, no ‘international opinion’, and no divine dispensation will help us meet the wrath of democracy deflected from its true purpose and essence. If the demons of destruction then visit their wrath upon us, we will have only ourselves to thank for the eventuality.

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