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The attack on Parliament: The truth about our democracy

While some of our institutions might well be worth respecting, we, as a people, often fail to take enough pride in the one thing that every Indian has good reason to celebrate — our democracy. The brazen attack on Parliament on December 13 ought to make us realise that despite not having a spotless democratic political system, it is, nevertheless, our greatest achievement that works. TABISH KHAIR writes.


Terror Thursday ... attacking the "heart" of India.

THE shocking and criminal attack on Parliament on December 13 should not just lead to legal steps to counter terrorism and a call for unity across religious, political and other differences. Neither should we simply confine ourselves to expressions of sorrow at the innocent lives lost on that day. The crime should, above all, induce us to consider what was under attack.

As a people, we Indians (like people everywhere) take pride in a lot of things: our respective religions, our languages, our cultures, our nuclear capacity, our traditions, our textiles, our cuisine, our natural beauty, our wildlife, our resources, even at times our railways. Some of these might well be worth taking pride in, but we often fail to take enough pride in the one thing that every Indian has good reason to celebrate: our democracy. And that, at least symbolically, is what was under attack by the terrorists.

How often have I heard in educated circles, from the mouths of people who should know better, words like these: "Oh, I do not care for politics." And harsher words dismissing politics as the activity of ruffians and rogues. There may sometimes be good reasons for disliking some politicians. Politicians, like all of us, are no angels, and in a country with vast economic differences they probably have even more compulsions to shed the possibilities of wing and halo. This, of course, applies to the United States as much as to India. But to dismiss politics or politicians en masse — and this is what often happens in our polite circles — is to dismiss the greatest achievement of the Indian people: a working (though by no means perfect) democratic political system.

Think of it: how many nation-states instituted universal franchise at the moment of their birth? In most countries (even in the West, which so often claims to have a monopoly on democracy and everything else that is "modern"), women and marginalised groups had to fight for decades before they received the right to vote. In India, independence dawned with the sun of universal adult franchise shining on all, at least in theory. And note how great the odds were against us. A country of vast economic differences, much poverty, mind-boggling illiteracy, huge "ethnic" variety, all compounded by decades of authoritarian and largely exploitative colonisation: these were just some of the odds. And still India started out as a democracy and has managed to remain democratic.

Not only that, we have managed to have a broad representation even at the highest levels of our democratically elected governments. Our prime ministers and presidents have included individuals who were also women, Muslims, Sikhs, dalits. As against this, how many coloured presidents or women presidents can the "greatest democracy in the world", the U.S., boast?

Moreover, while it is true that money is involved in our elections, one does not effectively need to be a millionaire in order to stand for the highest posts at the State and national levels. As against this, try counting the number of American presidents and governors who are not from the richest class. And when I compare the platforms of our major political parties to the platforms of major parties in countries like Denmark, I actually see more variety of opinions and agendas — even more actual debate, at times — in India than in countries like Denmark. If, in the process, we have a few "unsavoury characters" in Parliament, surely that reflects our own shortcomings as individuals and as a society. Instead of comfortably bemoaning the "criminalisation of politics", we would do well to fight the criminalisation of society in general, which is often the direct consequence of immense socio-economic differences between people and groups. And we should focus on the fact that even politicians we consider "unsavoury" largely conform to the broad outlines of a democratic system. That is an achievement in itself, though it also imposes on us a constant need for vigilance.

No, we have reason to be proud of having established and sustained a democratic political system — and that too in the Third World where everything, not least the international movements of supposedly "free" Capital, orchestrates against popular participation in the government. We do not have reason to be complacent about it, for democracy is not an heirloom. It is an activity and a constant challenge. It depends not only on having the courage to stand up for one's rights but, even more, on having the courage to stand up — and sometimes sit down — for other people's rights. That, finally, is the difference between a democratic leader and a demagogue: a demagogue uses the aspirations of a group as the final argument while a democrat believes in the open and peaceful adjustment of the different aspirations of different groups. No doubt, India — like the U.S. or Denmark — has its demagogues, but the general spirit of India is democratic.

It is this democracy that the terrorists attacked. A democracy that, like politicians, like human beings, is not perfect. A democracy that, like politicians, like human beings, has to keep striving to improve itself. But, nevertheless, a democracy that all Indians should be proud of.

The writer is Assistant Professor of English, University of Copenhagen.

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