The View From Jantar Mantar

The View From Jantar Mantar

The contradictions of parliamentary democracy in India have been a constant source of struggle and rich debate.


On August 13, 1993, two days before India’s forty-sixth Independence Day, I was traveling by train from Kashmir to a high school near New Delhi. A few hours into the journey, as the maroon Shalimar Express entered the north Indian plains in Punjab, two Indian soldiers entered my compartment. Like me, the soldiers had made a twelve-hour journey through the high mountains of the Kashmir Valley to the railway station in the state’s southern province of Jammu. Ahead of us was a fourteen-hour train ride to New Delhi. The soldiers smiled and dropped their bags in the aisle. “Will you please make room for us?” one of them asked a middle-aged man reading a newsmagazine. “We are going home after a year in Kashmir and don’t have any reservations.” The man was unmoved. The soldier repeated his request, and as I squirmed in my seat another passenger pointed at the dirty aisle floor and said, “You may sit there.”

I was stunned. Unlike people in Kashmir, my north Indian co-passengers had no reason to be scared of the soldiers: they ordered them around and the soldiers obeyed. After a while the ticket examiner arrived. “What are you doing here?” he barked at the soldiers. “Sir, there is no room in other compartments. Sir! Please adjust us somewhere,” they pleaded. He asked the soldiers to leave the coach and began to walk away. They followed him. A few minutes later they returned and installed themselves on the floor. “How much did he charge you?” someone asked. “Fifty rupees each.” My co-passengers laughed and chatted about corruption. “This is India,” declared the man with the newsmagazine.

The India I had seen in Kashmir was different. It was not a shining example of the world’s largest democracy but instead the military arm of an occupying power whose rule we resented. Political discontent had been simmering in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir since the 1947 partition of British India and the birth of the nation-states of India and Pakistan, and more so in recent decades as India curtailed Kashmiri political rights and autonomy. A separatist rebellion against Indian rule broke out in 1989, and since then more than 70,000 people–mostly Kashmiri civilians and militants, but also Indian soldiers and Pakistani militants–have been killed. After 1990, gun battles, land mine blasts, identity checks, arrests, looting and torture became routine in Kashmir.

When, like thousands of other Kashmiri students escaping the war, I left Kashmir for my Indian school, I was well acquainted with power and fear. In the Shalimar Express, the look I saw on the soldiers’ faces suggested they were as well. Outside Kashmir, without the authority enjoyed by soldiers in “disturbed zones” (granted by India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958) to shoot anyone they deem suspicious; without their armored vehicles and machine guns; surrounded by fellow Indians from the lower and middle classes; confronted by the ticket examiner, a small-time representative of the law–facing all this, the soldiers seemed helpless. And so they made their voyage home sitting on the dirty floor. In that crowded coach, India seemed a more benign place. I ended up spending nearly a decade and a half outside the coach. Living in different Indian cities and towns as a student and a journalist, I came to know Indian democracy as a crowded collage of disparate and often violently clashing realities.

Living in India means enduring endless and often heated discussions about India. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argues that the richness of the tradition of argument is particularly relevant to the “development of democracy in India and the emergence of its secular priorities.” The tradition was thriving in 1946, when the members of India’s constituent assembly gathered in New Delhi to debate the drafts of the Constitution the new country was to adopt. The assembly, whose 300 members included socialists, Hindu nationalists, supporters of feudalism, upper-caste Brahmans, Muslims, women, untouchables and other lower castes, received public submissions ranging from demands to base the Constitution on “ancient Hindu works” to requests for “adequate representation” from members of the Central Jewish Board of Bombay. “These submissions testified to the baffling heterogeneity of India, but also to the precocious existence of a ‘rights culture’ among Indians,” writes historian and biographer Ramachandra Guha in India After Gandhi, a lucid and engaging summary of independent India.

Guha, a well-known public intellectual in India, has also written on environmental history, the social history of cricket and many aspects of India’s cultural and political history. The story told in India After Gandhi is not a revelation for South Asian readers, but it is certainly the first attempt by a historian to compress into a single book a story previously scattered in hundreds of books, newspapers, journals and other archival material. Guha was chosen by the remarkable former publisher of Picador UK turned literary agent, Peter Straus, to write this book. After reading an essay by Guha in the journal Past and Present, Straus tracked him down, visited his home in Bangalore and suggested that he write a history of independent India.

Freedom to argue about the constitutional character of an independent India came at a great price, as the bloody partition of the subcontinent killed and displaced millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs from both sides of the hastily drawn border between India and Pakistan. The border, known as the Radcliffe Line, was named after the British judge Cyril Radcliffe, who had finalized its jagged path. Radcliffe was a stranger to India. After arriving in New Delhi from London in early July 1947, he had just five weeks to complete his task. He knew his line would stir up strife. “There will be roughly 80 million people with a grievance looking for me. I do not want them to find me,” he wrote to his nephew soon after his arrival. The Radcliffe Line divided the north Indian province of Punjab into Indian Punjab and Pakistani Punjab, and in the east it divided Bengal into West Bengal and Eastern Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971. It was these two divided provinces that saw the worst violence after the partition. In the late ’90s, Intizar Hussain, the foremost short story writer of Pakistan, wrote in a collection of essays, Chiragoon Ka Dhoowan (The Flight of History), about traveling in a dark train coach from his hometown near Delhi to Lahore. He and his fellow Muslim passengers, paralyzed by the fear of an attack from a Sikh or Hindu mob outside, are quiet as the train rumbles toward the border. A flicker of light inside the coach startles them. It is only a young fellow traveler trying to light a cigarette. Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan have similar stories about the looming threat of fratricide.

One of the biggest administrative tasks confronting the new Indian government was to resettle millions of refugees. Guha evocatively describes the biggest refugee camp, erected in Kurukshetra, a town a few hours from Delhi, where around 300,000 Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan were housed in tents, provided rations and even shown screenings of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse cartoons. In stark contrast to today’s mostly inefficient, corrupt and indifferent Indian bureaucracy, Guha explains, social workers and unnamed officials, led by London School of Economics graduate Tarlok Singh, had made 250,000 allotments of land by November 1949. The refugees set about “digging new wells, building new houses, planting new crops. By 1950 a depopulated countryside was alive once again.”

The princely states that resisted joining the Indian Union, especially Hyderabad, Junagadh and, foremost, Kashmir, required a different kind of cultivation. Guha tells a gripping story of the taming of princes through a mixture of coercion and persuasion, orchestrated by the home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, a man who sought “practical proof” of loyalty from the millions of Indian Muslims who stayed in India instead of migrating to Pakistan. Patel, who believed that most of these Muslims had earlier supported the demand for an independent Pakistan, had his secretary direct the secretaries of all other departments to monitor Muslims working under them. Guha reproduces the chilling letter: “I would request you to prepare lists of Muslim employees in your Ministry and in the offices under your control, whose loyalty to the Dominion of India is suspected or who are likely to constitute a threat to security.” Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru disapproved of such witch-hunt tactics, and according to Guha, “Whereas the home minister demanded that the Muslims prove their loyalty, the prime minister placed the onus on the Indian state, which had a constitutional obligation to make all its citizens, especially the Muslims, feel secure.”

Patel’s death in 1950 created an opportunity for Nehru to fashion the government and the nation according to his vision of a secular modern democracy. He overcame the Indian National Congress Party leaders sympathetic to the Hindu extremists and prepared for India’s first general election in 1952. The Congress Party faced electoral opposition from the Socialists, the Hindu-right Jana Sangh, the Communists and even B.R. Ambedkar, the chief draftsman of the Indian Constitution and great leader of the untouchables, who felt that the Congress Party wasn’t doing much to benefit his constituency. Yet Nehru led his party to victory by campaigning on the strength of personal charisma, the idea of national unity and the principle of secularism, which he established as the civil religion of India. Nehruvian secularism aspired to equal treatment of all religions by the state and insisted on the separation of political office and religious institutions. Nehru was very critical of Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India, when Prasad presided over a reconstruction ceremony of Gujarat’s Somnath temple, which had been destroyed by a medieval Muslim chief, Mahmud of Ghazni, a native of Ghazni in what is now Afghanistan. For Guha, one measure of Nehru’s secular vision is the fact that the 1952 election was a successful civil engineering project: “Some 224,000 polling booths were constructed and equipped with 2 million steel ballot boxes, requiring 8,200 tons of steel. About 380,000 reams of paper were used for printing the rolls.”

Nehru led India until his death in 1964. His achievements included largely democratic government institutions and an economic model called Nehruvian Socialism, which relied on high tariffs and other measures to protect national industries and promote economic self-sufficiency. He also made India a strong backer of decolonization movements in Asia and Africa. Nehru’s succession by the veteran but uncharismatic Congress leader Lal Bahadur Shastri, and the emergence of Nehru’s difficult daughter, Indira Gandhi, as head of the Congress Party and, eventually, the nation’s prime minister, made many Western observers question the viability of Indian democracy. “There was a line of thinking, widely prevalent in the West, which held that only the personality and example of Jawaharlal Nehru had kept India united and democratic,” Guha writes. He is obsessed with tracking down advocates of this line in publications like The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times and the Times of London, and in the writings of various social scientists, almost vindictively digging out the most obscure comment and refuting its “doomsday” proclamations with evidence that Indian democracy had survived.

Yet such stern judgments are absent whenever Guha writes about how Nehru failed democracy, such as when he imprisoned the prime minister of Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, who was also Nehru’s personal friend, in 1953, after Sheikh Abdullah talked about the possibility of Kashmiri independence. Had Sheikh Abdullah not been arrested by Nehru, had Nehru and his Congress not promoted dubious puppet regimes in Kashmir and eroded its autonomy, we might not have lived to see the emergence of a regional conflict that nearly brought India and Pakistan to the brink of a nuclear war in 2002, a conflict that continues to brutalize millions of people in Kashmir and has given the region, controlled by half a million Indian soldiers, the distinction of being the most militarized area of the globe.

Strangely enough, in his telling of the reconstruction of Kashmir after its rebellion against Indian rule in 1989, Guha chooses not to cite Kashmiri accounts, not even the archives of the much-respected English-language newspaper the Kashmir Times–something that Indian scholar Sumantra Bose, who teaches at the London School of Economics, does very well in his two astute and non-nationalistic books, The Challenge in Kashmir (1997) and Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace (2003). Indian writer Pankaj Mishra’s essays on Kashmir, reproduced in his latest book, Temptations of the West (2006), are another important example of critical thinking and moral courage on the subject. Guha’s narrative skills are also subdued when he describes the pro-independence protests in Kashmir that first occurred throughout 1990, when millions marched with memorandums to the UN offices and prayers to Sufi shrines. Instead, he offers a few newspaper headlines and discusses the separatist rebellion sparked by the denial of fair electoral democracy in terms of jihad. Similarly, while writing about the infamous massacre of thirty-five Sikhs in Kashmir on the eve of President Clinton’s visit in March 2000, Guha again prefers the standard Delhi view and loses a chance to raise some important questions. The Indian government claimed to have arrested a “Pakistani militant” involved in the massacre. Why has there been no news of a trial, conviction or sentence? In a country where few calamities don’t prompt a judicial inquiry, why was there no inquiry into the massacre of the Sikhs?

Yet Guha is passionate about the successes and failures of parliamentary democracy when he describes the spell of authoritarianism that Indira Gandhi engineered in 1975. Political opponents of Indira, led by veteran Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narayan, had mobilized the disenchanted population and cornered her government with demonstrations and sit-ins. Indira was further annoyed by an adverse judgment in a technically weak case against her own membership of the Parliament, which if upheld in the Supreme Court could have forced her to resign. She responded by declaring a state of emergency and ruling by decree. Her policies included press censorship, the jailing of political opponents, forced vasectomies under the guise of family planning and the demolition of slums and poor neighborhoods in the name of progress and development. Most of the Indian intellectual and media elite are passionate about that time, maybe because it was the only time the might of the state threatened their comfortable existence. To sum up his account of the era, Guha quotes an anonymous obituary in the Times of India, announcing “the death of D.E.M. O’Cracy, mourned by his wife T. Ruth, his son, L.I. Bertie, and his daughters Faith, Hope, and Justice.”

Democracy’s Indian daughters have continued to mourn him, or at least worry about his health, throughout the three decades since Indira’s Emergency. When it is not the season of colorful electoral bunting, outlandish posters and stump speeches from candidates ranging from imprisoned mafia dons to New Age gurus to eunuchs, the battle for social and political rights rages on almost every day in small and big protests, often unnoticed. A few hundred yards from the Parliament in New Delhi, on the sidewalk near the medieval observatory Jantar Mantar, one sees groups of petitioners and protesters hoping to be heard by indifferent politicians or the fickle media. The Indian government recently celebrated the United Nations’ adoption of Gandhi’s birthday as the International Day of Non-Violence, but India’s new Gandhis mostly go unheard, their voices often drowned out by the roaring engines of luxury cars speeding past and the sirens of police cruisers.

On a hot afternoon in April 2006, India’s beautiful people were busy attending India Fashion Week at a five-star hotel in south Delhi, while across town at Jantar Mantar, activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Struggle to Save the Narmada) were staging a Gandhian sit-in and hunger strike against a major dam project on the Narmada River in central and western India. Since the mid-1980s, led by the much-respected activist Medha Patkar, the residents of the Narmada Valley have peacefully fought for the government to halt construction on dams along the course of the Narmada, whose swelling waters have submerged hundreds of villages and displaced thousands of people.

Nehru once called the dams “the temples of modern India.” In 1954, as Guha reminds us, when Nehru inaugurated Bhakra Nangal, one of the first major dams in India, “he flicked on the switch of the powerhouse” as “Dakotas of the Indian air force dipped their wings overhead. Next he opened the sluice gates of the dam. Seeing the water coming toward them, the villagers downstream set off hundreds of home-made firecrackers.” Nehru’s temples of modern India, like those of ancient Hindu goddesses, now require human sacrifice. On the eighth day of the hunger strike at Jantar Mantar, hundreds of policemen attacked Patkar and the protesters, their batons drawing blood.

Among those also drawn to Jantar Mantar are the former untouchables who call themselves the Dalit, or Broken People. Dalits fashioned themselves into a potent force in Indian politics by forming their own political parties, tactically joining coalition governments. But the Broken People continue to be pounded upon–people like Bant Singh, a folk singer from Punjab who was maimed more than a year and a half ago for campaigning against the upper-caste men who raped his teenage daughter; or a journalist friend who was humiliated by the family of his Brahman girlfriend, despite his education and professional accomplishments, because he is a Dalit. Throughout his mammoth book Guha rightly laments the utter lack of biographies of various “provincial” political leaders, such as Kashmir’s Sheikh Abdullah, Dalit leader Kanshi Ram and Sikh leader Master Tara Singh, who have affected the course of independent India. India might understand itself better if biographies of people like Bant Singh were available as well.

“They do not move to Chicago, they move to South Side; they do not move to New York, they move to Harlem,” James Baldwin wrote in “Fifth Avenue, Uptown” of the final destinations of blacks migrating to New York City from the Deep South. When Muslims leave India’s small towns and villages for New Delhi, they move to Okhla. New Delhi’s largest Muslim ghetto, Okhla lies half an hour from Jantar Mantar, past shopping malls, international chain boutiques, banks, advertising offices and television studios. Life in Okhla is precarious, but after the destruction of the medieval Babri mosque by an extremist Hindu mob in December 1992 and the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in the western Indian state of Gujarat, it’s one of the few places in New Delhi where Muslims feel safe.

In The Clash Within, a passionate look at the crisis of democracy and religious violence in India, Martha Nussbaum provides a detailed reconstruction of the genocide she says occurred in Gujarat. She shows that the violence had been planned well in advance, and she chronicles the failures of the state to prosecute the accused Hindu-right activists or their mentors in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which continues to control Gujarat under the rule of chief minister Narendra Modi. Religious tensions and the riots between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority are a sad, old story in India. But the mass murder of Sikhs in New Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the Gujarat genocide are among the starkest examples of organized violence against any minority in India, events that have also been supported by politicians in the ruling parties.

Nussbaum says the main purpose of her book is to inform European and American readers about a “complex and chilling case of religious violence that does not fit some common stereotypes about the sources of religious violence in today’s world.” She does that well. She describes the Hindu right’s admiration of Nazism and Fascism, noting the insertion in high school textbooks in Gujarat of passages like “Hitler lent dignity and prestige to the German government within a short time, establishing a strong administrative set-up.” Apart from the lack of critical thinking in schools, she also sees “the lack of political organization along class and economic lines,” the “effective grassroots organization throughout the state by the Hindu right,” the sense that Gujarat’s relatively better-off Muslims were “seen to take positions that Hindus might otherwise hold” as factors behind the violence. Nussbaum does take care to differentiate the Hindu right from Hinduism; she writes that “it was violence done by people who have hijacked a noble tradition for their own political and cultural ends.” Such attention to context and Nussbaum’s knowledge of Indian history and culture protects her account of religious violence in Gujarat from a “clash of civilizations” alarmism.

Nussbaum argues that for all its sectarian qualities, the violence of the Hindu right has some secular roots. Nehru’s disdain of religion in public life backfired, she claims, and inadvertently helped the Hindu nationalists consolidate their power: “Nehru’s feeling that religion was an embarrassment led him to devote too little attention to molding the aspects of human life that he associated with religion–emotion, rhetoric, the imaginative undergirding of a pluralistic civic culture–in such a way that civic culture could become a grassroots force for pluralism and respect rather than for fear and hatred.”

Nussbaum, like many other commentators, sees hope in the resounding defeat of the right-wing BJP in the 2004 elections, a verdict she describes as “repudiation of Hindu homogeneity.” In fact, she admits that the foremost reason for the BJP’s defeat was economics. BJP’s pre-election proclamation of economic optimism–“India Shining”–had angered the rural and urban poor, and they voted the BJP out. But despite the BJP’s replacement by an officially secular Congress Party, economic discontent continues to simmer, especially in the large parts of central and western India where Maoist guerrillas have found support from landless peasants, and also in the information-technology hub of Andhra Pradesh, where thousands of farmers have committed suicide after failing to pay their debts. Fault lines created by caste and development endure, and the troubling questions of Kashmir and India’s northeastern states continue to affect millions of lives every day.

It is these troubles, some signs of which are often visible at Jantar Mantar, that make Guha temper his final verdict on Indian democracy. “Is India a proper or a sham democracy?” he asks. For an answer he borrows the response that the Bollywood comedian Johnny Walker offers again and again to many reel-life questions: Phipty-phipty. Yes, fifty-fifty.

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