Democracy in India – 1

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.

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  • Suvradip Dasgupta
    Posted at 15:01h, 20 July Reply

    please publish something dealing with the recent most situations in indian polity vis-a-vis the often idealised concept of indian democracy

    thank you

    suvradip dasgupta

  • Suvradip Dasgupta
    Posted at 09:32h, 22 July Reply

    i am extremely thankful to you that you responded to my query in such a generous manner… yes i have been recomending your site to some of my friends and acquaintances who may appreciate its worth…
    here’s one suggestion…cannot we have some good write up regarding the peculiar trend of family loyalty in politics, be it in the south asian region or the UK or the US… whats the psychological factor that drives this peculiar and often detrimental (to the concerned state and society’s interest) behaviour?

    will be eagerly awaiting your response

    and one more thing…sir, i have a blog – where i try to capture some of my reflections on the recent happenings in India…my knowledge and experience are too limited and i cannot demand that those blog posts are ‘so and so’…still, your valuable inputs there would help me immensely…

    thank you.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 15:31h, 07 April Reply

    I cant say that I am convinced by this analysis. Dr. Robotka claims that ‘secularization’ had taken place in England before democracy took root. The origins of democracy trace their root to early medieval England when it was certainly not ‘secularized’. And in any case, England simply never had the kind of religious and linguistic variation that India did.

    I would infact say that democracy is a necessity for the development of a secular national identity in a nation like India. There is not much evidence that the masses of India have voted with narrow visions of caste and religion, yes the BJP is Hindu-nationalist, but even at its peak it garnered little more than a quarter of the vote. And as I have mentioned earlier it has been severely weakened in many states.

    And dont forget the aspects of democracy such as free speech, equal rights which are crucial in the development of a secular nationalism, especially in a country like India.

  • Dr. Bettina Robotka
    Posted at 08:42h, 08 April Reply

    Dear Vikram,
    sometimes we use the same terms for different things. ‘secularism’ in the European context meaning the separation between church and state has a historical and and a philosophical root. Philosophically it can be traced to Greek ideas of God and his relationship with the world. Aristotles ‘unmoved mover’ the way I see it has already the seeds of a dichtomy between God and the world (or gods, as you will remember they had a whole pantheon of gods, one for every occasion). This philosophical understanding of God and the world entered Christianity when it came up on the European soil and claiming ownership of the Greek intellectual heritage. It later helped to make the division between church (with the pope as the infallible representative of God on earth)/God and the world/state intellectually possible. Historically the unsuccessful reformation of Luther and the religious wars which brought Europe and Europea civilization to the brink of physical collapse and ended in the formal ‘secularization (separation of church from state and state affairs). Interestingly, that promoted another development which was ‘secularization’ meaning first relegating religion into the private sphere and then making belief in God unnecessary. You may have noticed that in the Western understanding there is a contradiction between ‘knowing’ and ‘believing’ You either know something- then you don’t have to belive it, because believing is not knowing for sure. The church refused to acknowledge reason and the facts of nature (Galileo Galilei) and people who wanted to know, the scholars had to make a choice between believing and knowing. They chose knowing and stopped believing (this is of course a very short version, there is much more to it.) So, to come back to democracy, it had different forms before it reached the one we have today. From Greek democracy through the constitutional monarchy of England till the representative democracy which we have today and which is a child of enlighten ment and the French revolution.
    Now, the idea of democracy and that it has to be secular came to India during colonial rule. But it did not fit Indian society because the process of secularization meaning relegating religion to the private sphere and making it irrelevant in the public sphere and therefore, in politics, had not taken place. That was why it was a right conclusion that for the time being if majority voting system is implemented it was quite right to suppose that Indians would vote within their respective communities and loyalities be it ethic or religious depending on the situation. That was why Sir Syed in his speech 1887 called it ‘ a game of dice with one player having four dice and the other only one” based on the hindu=Muslim ratio as established in the 1881 census.
    As I undertsand the idea of secularism in India today it is based more on an alternative understanding of the term ‘secularism’ meaning acceptance of all religions as equally good or relevant. This idea as far as know was mainly deveoped in the writings of Maulana Abul kalam Azad who was one of the leading ideologists of the INC. He called his idea ‘composite nationalism’ meaning that all Indians whatsoever their other identities can be Indians without losing their ethical, caste or religious belonging. I think that is a much better and may be the only workable solution for a country like India or a subcontinent like South Asia. Unity in diversity is the motto. But it is rarely understood and practiced neither in India where BJP tries to tell that only a Hindu is a real and good Indian nor in Pakistan where even ethnic identities are seen to stand in the way of being a ‘good Pakistani’.
    The confusion comes when we call both things ‘secularism’. European secularism is in a way ‘ladiniyat’ while the Indian one is not.

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