Democracy/Governance / 26.05.2010

By Anjum Altaf My post in support of Arundhati Roy’s position on the rights of Adivasis had drawn an analogy with the movement for civil rights of African-Americans in the US. The point I made was that in the latter case the political spectrum offered a range of options from the very extreme to the very moderate and that this facilitated convergence on an alternative in the middle of the spectrum. With this in mind I asked why the spectrum was so sparse in India with Roy almost being a lone voice easy to dismiss by the mainstream as extreme and unrealistic. We still don’t have an answer to the question but the comments on the post made me go back and look at some of the source documents pertaining to the civil rights movement in the US. The most relevant for our purposes is Martin Luther...

Democracy/Governance / 22.05.2010

By Anjum Altaf Like Vijay Vikram, I too am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I wish, however, to take this discussion beyond her role as a public intellectual and focus instead on her work as a political activist, which has opened a space for us to leverage, provided we broaden our understanding of the political process. It is our failure to see the political process in its entirety that leads many to dismiss Roy as an extremist divorced from reality, and in our aversion from her “shrill” voice and alleged “extremism,” we overlook the vital systemic issues she demands we consider in our capacity as concerned citizens. Roy’s essential point is that there is a deep structural flaw in Indian governance, which has left the majority of its citizens poor and a significant minority actually oppressed. In a democracy charged with protecting and enhancing the equal rights of...

Democracy/Governance / 01.05.2010

A recent interview with Tony Judt is of great relevance to the extended debate triggered by Vijay Vikram’s post on Arundhati Roy. It touches on our conceptions of the state, democracy, religion and politics. It also reiterates the importance of conversations across ideological divides as a means to improving our understanding of the issues that are critical in our times. In this post we reproduce key excerpts and provide a link to the complete interview at the end. You still have faith that the liberal state can be restored to health. But is there a reason that there has to be a liberal state? The "liberal state" itself is a historically specific creation, isn't it?
Democracy/Governance / 19.04.2010

By Anjum Altaf   Editor’s Note: With reference to the discussion sparked by Vijay Vikram’s post (Arundhati Roy) we are reproducing an old article that is relevant to the issue. I don’t believe in the corn flake theory of governance. The corn flake theory equates systems of governance with brands of cereal. It presumes that just as one can go into a supermarket and pick any brand of cereal off the shelf, one can go into the supermarket of governance systems and select the system of one’s choice. It could be democratic, autocratic, monarchic or ecclesiastic — whatever suits one’s needs or fancy. It’s a pretty flaky theory and therefore I remain sceptical of the belief that no matter what the situation, one can effect a regime change, organise an election and engineer a democracy that would be a model for the world to behold. I am an old-fashioned type who...

Democracy/Governance / 14.04.2010

By Vijay Vikram I am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I say this because we desperately require a coherent structural critique of Indian democracy. Naysayers might argue that her critique is far from coherent but that is of little concern here. I am happy that at least somebody is willing to question the nature of Indian democracy, even if that person stares across from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. There seems to be an unthinking; publicly articulated commitment to democratic politics all across intelligent conversation in India. It has become the holiest of our holy cows. The Indian variant of democracy is sustained by a wide variety of adulatory literature, scholarly and journalistic. Perhaps most perversely, in a strange case of the post-colonial disease, Western approval for India's choice of government leads to much puffing of chests in the Indian middle classes. We are told that it...

Democracy/Governance / 15.12.2009

The controversy in India over the proposed separation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh as a new state brought two thoughts to mind: the irony of history and the tyranny of fashion. There is little argument that many states in India are very large in area and population – much larger than many countries – and that there is a good case that smaller units can lead to more effective and participatory governance. Thus the call for decentralization is credible and consistent with the fashion of the day. But think back now to 1947: At Independence India had about a dozen provinces governed directly by the British and over 500 princely states governed by treaty with hereditary local rulers who accepted British sovereignty in return for local autonomy. Could you have more decentralization than 500 states that had a coherence imparted by the legitimacy of tradition?
Democracy/Governance / 15.12.2009

The controversy in India over the proposed separation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh as a new state brought two thoughts to mind: the irony of history and the tyranny of fashion. There is little argument that many states in India are very large in area and population – much larger than many countries – and that there is a good case that smaller units can lead to more effective and participatory governance. Thus the call for decentralization is credible and consistent with the fashion of the day. But think back now to 1947: At Independence India had about a dozen provinces governed directly by the British and over 500 princely states governed by treaty with hereditary local rulers who accepted British sovereignty in return for local autonomy. Could you have more decentralization than 500 states that had a coherence imparted by the legitimacy of tradition?
Democracy/Governance / 08.09.2009

Well, there has been an election in Afghanistan and (surprise, surprise) tensions have risen about large-scale fraud. We have just been through an exercise in Iran whose repercussions are still being visited on the dissidents locked up in jails. And last year there was an election in Kenya in which thousands of people were made homeless in inter-tribal warfare. Kenya? Really? Yes, and already forgotten. Time to move on to the next election. What’s going on folks? Is there really no need to figure out what happened in Kenya? What happened in Iran? No need to pay heed to the mud flying in Pakistan where tattletales are spilling the beans that virtually every election has been fixed (as if people did not know already)? Not only that; political parties have been manufactured and thieves bought and paid off to populate them. Should any of this cause someone to think that something might not be quite right in the Cuckooland of governance?
Democracy/Governance, India, Pakistan, South Asia / 26.06.2009

There was a music program in Washington, DC recently in which the three performers on stage were of South Asian origin – the vocalist from Bangladesh, the tabla player from Pakistan and the harmonium player from India. All three were young and together they created a beautiful music. The Indians in the audience asked for Faiz, the Pakistanis for Nazrulgeeti, and the vocalist herself sang the verses of poets from India. The program was a huge success lasting over five hours. It was an occasion that was symbolic of what was possible in terms of coexistence. Is that an unrealistic dream for South Asia? The election primary in the U.S. this year is a ready reminder of the transformations that are indeed possible. A mere fifty years after the Civil Rights Act when black Americans were second-class citizens afraid of being lynched and cities were burning with...

Democracy/Governance / 22.06.2009

The only significance of the events in Iran is the proof that when it comes to politics even Ayatollah’s cheat. Otherwise, everything remains the same. But the proof is of immense significance because it demolishes some strongly held beliefs about religion and democracy. Think about it. If those whose vocation it is to tell the truth, who insist they represent God’s will on earth, who claim they will have to answer to God for their doings in this world, if even they have been forced to cheat, something very compelling must be going on. But whatever it is, it is not new. Let us begin from the beginning.