The Mother of Democracy

As India reaches the ripe old age of 75 is it all that it was meant to be? Is it all that it could be?

The magnificent Red Fort at Agra, India. Built in 1526 by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, a Muslim, and widely hailed as the most tolerant ruler of his lineage.

On the night of 15th August 1947, at the stroke of midnight, India gained its independence. Jawaharlal Nehru said at the state’s first ever parliamentary meeting as a sovereign nation, that India had ‘a tryst with destiny,’ and so it was. India went on to become the world’s most populous democracy.

But the story is not a straight forward one, and has taken many unfortunate, often bloody turns, in its 75 year history and spawned more than its share of colourful, enigmatic icons along the way.

In the aftermath of World War II nations everywhere were clamouring for independence from their colonial masters. The European powers, overwhelmed with their domestic troubles and the financial burdens of rebuilding their own shattered continent, were struggling to keep a lid on the rising tide of resentment among their colonial subjects.

Independence was not so much calling, as shouting from the rooftops.

And India was shouting as loud as anywhere.

Leading the chorus on behalf of the Indians were a retinue of larger than life characters who, for good or bad, would become household names by the end of this saga. And the perils of India’s road to partition has left a bloody legacy of violence and recrimination which still, arguably, lives on in today’s India, 75 years after that fateful tryst at the midnight hour.

On that anniversary just a few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered his 8th consecutive independence day speech from the ramparts of the magnificent Red Fort.

It was time he said, for India to move in a new direction, with a new resolve. “Our nation has proved we have an inherent strength from our diversity and the common thread of patriotism makes India unshakable.

Hailing India as the ‘Mother of Democracy,’ the irony of much of this speech, as well as the location of its delivery, was perhaps lost on the Hindu majority, but would have been all too keenly felt by the 200 million Muslims who, as a religious minority in an increasingly hostile homeland, would see deep fissures in the substance of Modi’s words rather than the message of togetherness he was preaching.

The Red Fort, built almost 500 years ago by the Muslim Mughal Emporer Akbar who was known for his love of the arts and the religious tolerance of his rule, was a leader who broke the historical mould.

That Modi chooses this locale each year to deliver his words is, I’ve no doubt, a deliberate choice, one made to force home the reality, to make clear to India’s Muslim population who now has the power.

And who now, does not.

Speaking of the next 25 years, he said the nation needs to concentrate on 5 resolves to fulfil the Independence freedom fighters’ dreams for the country at India’s centenary in 2047.

These were a resolve to continue to develop India; to remove any trace of the colonial mindset; to take pride in the legacy of India; to find strength in unity and to fulfil the duties of being a citizen of India with honesty, and this should, he said, include the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers, as well as the citizenry themselves.

Visionary leader or bigoted tyrant? Narendra Modi; also known as the Tiger of Gujarat. Image from The Times.

In no part of our mind or heart should there be any ounce of slavery,” Modi said, elaborating on how India’s mindset should be completely cleansed of any mental or emotional relics of colonisation.

Then, in an apparent side-swipe at the Congress Party, he turned his ire onto the subject of political corruption, nepotism and dynasty.

Corruption is eating the country like termites and we have to fight it with full might. It is our endeavour that those who have looted the country have to return it,” said Modi, while also slamming efforts to “glorify” the thieves, an apparent reference to the opposition parties who had defended those accused of corruption.

This mindset is not going to end unless there is a feeling of nafrat (hatred) for corruption and the corrupt, and people are forced to look down upon them socially…

The disarray that characterises today’s Congress Party is only helping Modi’s agenda and, without naming anyone specifically, he said the evils of nepotism and dynasty in Indian politics must be ended, surely a direct reference to the descendants of Nehru, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, current leaders of the Congress Party.

It is my constitutional and democratic responsibility to fight these evils,” Modi said and asked for the people’s help in so doing. The pluralism that had always been the unifying message of Nehru’s Congress Party was under direct attack, and had been undermined from within by an ineffective and quarrelsome band of Congress politicians who over the decades since Nehru’s passing have diluted his message and done little to strengthen the institutions of India’s democracy when they had the chance.

In some respects, Modi’s message was true, but not in the way he delivered it. The legacy of India as Modi would have it, is little more than a continuation of the colonial policy of divide and rule, whereas the true legacy of India, I would argue, is one of collective togetherness, diversity and religious tolerance.

The British used divide and rule to weaken those who threatened its rule, whereas Modi has used it to active promote religious otherness. Far from creating unity this has created division, or what we would more commonly call today, polarisation.

“Divide et impera was an old Roman maxim, and it shall be ours.”

Lord Elphinstone, 1857.

Partition saw the largest human migration in history, with at least 14m people displaced and probably more than 1m losing their lives.

It’s possible to trace the origins of the rise of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, so evident in the words and actions of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party-Nahendra Modi’s party) in the widespread anti-Muslim protests and increasing numbers of lynchings (in the name of protecting sacred cows) across the sub-continent, all the way back to the murder of the man Nehru had called the architect of India’s freedom (1), the father of the nation; Mahatma Gandhi, and beyond.

When Modi came to power in May 2014 India was the world’s largest, most diverse and perhaps, most raucous and noisy, secular democracy. Since then Modi has pushed India towards a Hindu majoritarian state leaving India’s 200 million odd Muslims, the largest of the sub-continents minorities, fearful and worried for their future in the land of their birth.

Modi first came to prominence in 2002 during the Gujarat pograms. Appointed First Minister of the province in 2001, Modi’s populist instincts saw opportunity in what The Times described as the ‘political magic’ in scapegoating Muslims as the enemy within.

It has remained his election winning ticket ever since, and in the process has all but consolidated the previously disparate and fractious Hindu vote, effectively ironing out the long standing creases left by centuries of a socially prohibitive caste system.

Modi actively promoted the creation of voting banks initially along caste lines, bringing people from disparate regions together in ‘collective self-awareness and communication,’ then secondarily along religious lines effectively uniting all the different Hindu castes regardless of social status.

However, to achieve this feeling of religious togetherness there needed to be religious others; those who weren’t like ‘us,’ that held different belief systems, different ways of worshipping, and perhaps most pertinently, different cultures.

Hundreds of years of living cheek by jowl with Sikhs, Muslims and other minorities was pushed aside. No longer was inter-religious marriage acceptable; no longer would a Hindu child be able to befriend a Muslim child; no longer would the festivals and cultures of India’s largest religions be shared and enjoyed by all.

Now identity politics was being weaponised to name and shame the enemy within. Just as Trump has successfully divided America for political and financial gain by driving an ever-deepening wedge between Republicans and Democrats, Modi has used the same strategy to gain political currency by dividing Akbar and India’s true religious legacy of tolerance into one of us and them; into one of hatred and un-Godly otherness.

In both cases, Trump and Modi, the result is political and cultural polarisation. In both cases it is a legacy of hatred that has the potential to break both nations through the threat of internal conflict.

But Modi, like Trump, is an opportunist. Neither created the underlying tensions, they merely exploited them to their own advantage.

The Great Rebellion, 1857.

The real roots of Hindutva go back to the days of the British Raj when a policy of ‘divide et impera,’ or divide and conquer, set Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus against each other as a way to shore up British rule against the threat of any unified resistance.

It perhaps began in earnest with the troubles in 1857, with what I was taught in school was called the ‘Indian Mutiny,’ but to Indians was always ‘The Uprising’ or the ‘First War of Independence,’ and may well have been known to other non-partisan nations as the ‘Great Rebellion (2).’

Many of the grievances of the insurgents were long standing, and some for sure had a nationalist component, but lacked a pan-Indian dimension, which perhaps reflected the haphazard, patchy manner of British rule. This lack of nationwide cohesion kept a lid on many troubles, right up till the onset of the rebellion in 1857 (2).

And as Keay (2) points out, trying to put a precise date on the origins of nationalist sentiments in India is impossible because of the disparate nature of the country. In fact long after the Rebellion there remained many localised nationalist movements, just as there were many long before.

“The great watershed of British-India relations…proves to be a broad plateau where the run of the is rivulets often contradictory (2).”

That said, the rebellion did steer many of those rivulets, particularly in the North of the sub-continent, into a gushing torrent for a time.

The rebellion began within the (East India) Company’s Bengal Regiment, and was in many ways similar to a much smaller fracas that had occurred a century before within the same regiment.

In both cases British insensitivity to the religious morals and practices of their subjects was wholly to blame. In the earlier case Indian Sepoy’s had refused to obey orders after being told to don a cap with a leather badge, and were horribly massacred for their principles.

In 1857, the Bengal Sepoy’s were issued with a new rifle which had new cartridges that had to be bitten off, then rammed down the barrel before discharge. But they soon discovered the cartridges were greased with a tallow that probably contained both pig and cow fat making this very act abhorrent to both Muslims and Hindus alike.

The British quickly withdrew the offending cartridges but the damage had been done. Whilst the initial Bengali uprising was put down, the news spread quickly, and the anger multiplied and magnified across the nation (2). The rebellion rumbled across the sub-continent with immense loss of life on all sides, but by 1860 the dying embers of the insurgency had been doused and the British once more held an uneasy advantage.

Disturbed and horrified at having seen Hindus and Muslims fighting side by side during the rebellion a policy of divide and conquer was introduced to foment a separation of consciousness among the different religious communities, and particularly between Hindus and Muslims.

The separation policy was given legalised status when the British government passed the Indian Councils Act (1909) which introduced separate voting and electoral constituencies for Muslims.

Through the introduction of communal representation in Indian politics, a policy of differential treatment for the different religious communities had begun. This legalised religious partitioning was taken to its ultimate, and tragic destination in 1947 with the communal and national partition of the sub-continent along religious lines.

Midnight’s great grand-children…

Bangladesh, the most densely populated nation on earth, is beset with the manifold dangers of climate change; inundation, salination, upstream de-forestation, & seasonal desiccation, serve only to weaken institutions, undermine progress, and all the while the lives & stories of the individuals disappear without trace, lost in an annual tsunami of human destitution & loss.

“Although history, ‘the essence of innumerable biographies,’ according to Thomas Carlyle, ought to be about people, it mostly isn’t. Rather few individuals, many of them monsters, make the historians’ cut, leaving countless other lives, often well if obscurely lived, to be swept up like dust by the winds of policy and the gusts of war. Amid all the tallying of events and the telling of dramas the living get lost; humanity eludes one of the traditional humanities (2).”

It’s almost impossible to talk in any depth about India without at some point mentioning its’ long shared history, once conjoined cultural legacy and, what are often today, fraught, tension-filled relations with its’ sub-continental neighbours.

Seventy-five years on, the three South Asian successor states, India, Pakistan and the newest of them, Bangladesh, struggle with the very different legacies of their post-colonial history.

Bangladesh is perhaps tragically, best known today for the endless climatic disasters that befall this low-lying, deltaic people. Often said to be the one of the most ‘climate change vulnerable’ nations in the world, subject to increasingly numerous, hostile and extreme weather patterns and events, more than 50% of its’ 170 million people live in regions that are classified ‘high risk for climate exposure,’ with sea-level rise alone expected to displace up to 20 million people by 2050.

Now, with a civil war brewing in neighbouring Myanmar, and hundreds of thousands of stricken, bloodied Rohingya refugees spilling across porous borders, and the ever present threat of climatic disaster, any political and economic progress in Muslim majority Bangladesh is hard won, and often faltering.

Taliban forces in Kabul, September 2021. Picture from Foreign Affairs.

While Pakistan, now a nuclear power like their much bigger, more populous neighbour India, has a GDP per capita not too far behind India’s, it remains a nation rife with extremism, burdened by debt, led by weak and often corrupt civilian politicians, and dominated by an army that dictates affairs of state, often from behind the scenes, in a bullying, dictatorial manner despite having lost every war it has ever fought.

As I write, and amid catastrophic floods and loss of life, the usual political chaos in Pakistan still dominates the airwaves. Imran Khan, the last elected Pakistani leader, who was ousted in April this year following a parliamentary vote of no confidence, has continued to agitate holding large rallies for his many supporters where he has openly criticised and castigated the new government of Shehbaz Sharif for its’ failures to get a grip on rampant inflation, among other issues.

Following the arrest, and alleged torture of his Chief of Staff whilst in police custody at the beginning of August this year, Khan is alleged to have threatened top police officials and a judge at a recent rally, and was subsequently charged under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism law.

This current political disruption is just the latest in a seemingly endless saga of bad news political headlines that always seem to outweigh the good news. Pakistan’s violent and tumultuous political history is pock-marked with the assassinations of a long, bloody list of past leaders who have given their lives for a country that arose after partition as what Jinnah had called, “…the only solution (for) India’s constitutional problem’s... (1)” and for the sub-continents millions of Muslims in 1947.

At that time, and after much tortured negotiation, back-stabbing, and to and fro’s, initial agreements on a united Dominion of India following the British departure, were broken, and Jinnah called for the establishment of a separate Muslim nation.

The last viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, after having broken the heart of Gandhi, who had walked out on him after hearing the word ‘partition,’ finally told Jinnah that, “Your Pakistan is a reality.”

Jinnah, whose first speech to new the Pakistani legislation could not be broadcast for fears of religious reprisals, had said in that speech (finally published many years later) that, “…any idea of a united India could never have worked, and in my judgement would have led us to terrific disaster (1).”

Having initially been in favour of a united India as a young man, Jinnah had slowly changed his mind, becoming convinced in the end that the two religious communities (Hindus and Muslims) were so different in their beliefs, dress and food habits, that they constituted two separate peoples, that only two separate nations could service.

Given the direction that Modi has taken India in of late, there is much to suggest that Jinnah’s fears are now being realised. Midnight’s great grand children are perhaps living the nightmare in Modi’s India.

Some have even suggested that partition remains a lingering, malingering wound that festers still in both India and Pakistan with the reprisals of partition being revisited in both countries with legal and political impunity.

In Pakistan though continued poor governance, the heavy, overbearing hand of the military and an unhealthy obsession with India have served to undermine both Pakistani politics and foreign policy alike, shackling one leader after another to unworkable policies designed only to denigrate or cause harm to India, rather than working for the more achievable goal of a better Pakistan.

To a large extent this obsession itself is a legacy of partition, with vast the Punjabi majority in both the civilian and military arenas always effectively deciding the fate of the political rulers. But of late, it has been the double-dealing of one Pakistani government after another with respect to the troubles in Afghanistan and the Afghani Taliban, and the possible threat, real or imagined, of increased Indian influence in Afghanistan, that have muddled and confused Pakistani allies and foreign policy alike.

Support among the Pakistani Pashtun minority, which shares many of the same pro-Taliban attitudes as their Afghani Pashtun neighbours (who make up the largest ethnic grouping in the Taliban), often exert a political and ideological influence in excess of their numbers largely because, outside of Islam, Pakistan has little else to keep the country together.

One time American support has been abused and shunned. Any chance of American support had been, perhaps, resting on a more moderate, democratic governmental transition. But this was trampled beneath a growing tide of extremism across the nation, with its continued support for the Taliban, both when out of power, and now, in their return to power in Afghanistan, that ultimately has served only to destabilise Pakistan from within.

The unrest follows the recent successes of the Afghani Taliban has bolstered and galvanised the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a militant group also known as the Pakistani Taliban or the TTP, and has led to almost 130 terrorist attacks in Pakistan since the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The decision of the Pakistani government to back the Taliban is now coming back to haunt them, and making them appear politically naive and misguided. Increased tensions at the borders, and the international communities refusal to recognise the Taliban have left Pakistan as their sole champion and supporter at a time when the home economy is in very bad shape and the political situation remains far from stable.

It is possible that, had she not been assassinated and had won back power — big ‘if’s’ I grant you — that Benazir Bhutto may have been that moderating, conciliatory voice within Pakistan politics. She had recognised the battles between democracy and dictatorship, and extremism and moderation, were the ‘new forces of the millennium (3)’ and would perhaps have been attractive to both Pakistani’s and Westerners alike.

Her loss to Pakistan cannot be quantified, as her loss to the potential for peace and progress in the region can also not be quantified. It might all have been very different had she survived…

I digress…

In India, “democracy dies in prime time…”

The very essence of colonialism: Shah Alam conveying the Diwani to Lord Clive of India — a statue of whom still stands outside the British Foreign Office in London — a private British citizen in the employ of the East India Company, August 1765. This was basically tax collecting rights being granted to Clive for the three richest provinces in not just India, but the whole planet at that time; Bengal, Diwar & Orissa. By Benjamin West, 1818.

Indian democracy, borne of a need to preserve the nascent nations fragile unity and satisfy the people’s need for political freedom in 1947, masks a fundamental flaw. Whilst it works well during elections, between elections it is much less robust.

“It is commonplace to observe that democracy is not just about voting, and it is in this respect that modern India is coming up short.The Indian democratic project is held back, in short, by ineffectual governance and a patchy record on civil liberties.”

Madhav Khosla & Milan Vaishnav

Weak institutions that remain heavy on paperwork and low in services provided are a ‘direct inheritance of empire.’ Minimal staffing, under funding, excessive red tape and bureaucracy still characterise Indian governance today.

The under-resourced judiciary, for example, has more than 40 million outstanding cases, undermining whatever trust there is left in the system.

“Once known for its activism and independence, the higher judiciary now mostly works in lock step with the government, and Supreme Court judges fawn over Mr. Modi. India’s press, which once played a key role in protecting democracy, is pressured to serve his regime.”

Debasish Chowdhury, NYT Op-Ed.

Legislators too are often ill-equipped for the rigours of law-making; they are weak, corrupt and openly taking the part (and money?) of top businesses against the interests of the people, as seen in the agricultural laws that stirred the massive farmers protests last year.

Whilst the ease of doing business is improving in India, the over-excessive bureaucracy still leaves the system open to corruption with bureaucrats and politicians able to trade favours in exchange for campaign ‘contributions’ or outright bribery.

Problems have also been created by Modi’s heavy-handedness in addressing issues of national importance, such as agriculture, health policy, taxes and welfare, where policy is usually decided nationally, but on a federal basis and implemented jointly with central oversight.

Modi however, has tended to introduce policy unilaterally with the result that it founders in federal districts where a lack of unity and trust in the centralised policies mean they are often implemented poorly. This then created a negative feedback loop, with the government perceiving a lack of local effectiveness and trust in their policies, leading to even less consultation and agreement between the central and federal administrations thereafter.

Furthermore, after more than a decade of economic stagnation, following the boom years of the ‘noughties,’ the 2008–9 crisis and then, a decade later, by Covid-19, have resulted in the lowest levels female participation in the workplace since 1948, which together with faltering levels of manufacturing, a drop in health standards, have caused falling levels of investment that has shaken confidence in the ability of India to bounce back.

Whilst Modi’s government has made significant investment in some sectors, such as the digital and electrical infrastructures, and has launched initiatives aimed at luring international investment away from an increasingly competitive China, it remains uncertain whether these schemes will work, with particular initiatives, such as the championing of certain companies over and above others, may cause the rise of an oligarchic economy that in turn would stifle innovation and growth.

The 4 angry, snarling 21 foot high lions that sit atop the new parliament building, are representative of the combativeness of Modi’s aggressive Hindu nationalism. This revered symbol of India’s independence & strength has the lions normally depicted as regal & restrained, not overbearing & threatening.

But by far the biggest drain on India’s democratic status has been its aggressive assertion of Hinudtva and the roughshod methods it has employed to further its aims in spite of, and despite, the much revered Indian Constitution.

“In his eight years in power, Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government has profaned Indian democracy,” wrote Debasish Chowdhury, in the NYT, “…/…espousing an intolerant Hindu supremacist majoritarianism over the ideals of secularism, pluralism, religious tolerance and equal citizenship upon which the country was founded after gaining independence on Aug. 15, 1947.”

Indeed, Mr Chowdhury goes as far as to suggest that the front line of the battle between liberalism and tyranny is actually India, and not as many might feel, the U.S.

And what’s more, that battle is being is being lost!

India’s once vibrant free press, for example, has been co-opted and coerced, adopting the hate speech of Hindutva as a matter of generality, bringing about, what Barkha Dutt called in a recent WaPo Op-Ed, the death of India’s democracy “in prime time.”

“The country’s TV networks,” she wrote, “are presiding over the death of journalism. Their carefully constructed prime-time narratives line up perfectly with the Hindutva politics of the right wing; in fact, their coarseness often goes several steps further.”

With news content often constructed around manufactured Muslim dissent, bolshie anchors invite angry guests to produce a steady stream of
noisy confrontations and shouting,
very much in the mould of Fox News.

More widely, with civil liberties, particularly of the Muslim minority, under almost constant attack; and by fanning the flames of divisiveness through the use of mass intimidation, political violence and nationalist fervour, Modi has yet to be called out many Western powers for the dehumanising strategies he has employed.

In fact far from it; Western governments, desperate to keep such a potentially large market on side, have often celebrated Modi’s achievements even as he hangs the chains of destruction about the necks of the world’s third large Muslim population.

India’s Constitution, a few years younger than the nation for which it was written, has been the very backbone of support for India’s under-fire Muslims who have embraced the blessings of liberal democracy enshrined in the document as a way to protect their civil and human rights.

Similar oppressive circumstances elsewhere have been sufficient to push minorities into radicalisation, but India’s Muslims have avoided the call for jihad, instead more likely to opt for peaceful protests or sit-ins, holding up banners espousing a message of togetherness; “We stand for peace, harmony and fraternity,” whilst brandishing images of the Hindu leaders who had led India’s independence movements and helped write the Constitution.

Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee; the 5 foot fireball!

And it is India’s Muslim women who are banging the drum loudest for their legal rights under the Constitution, leading calls for a new vision of Indian democracy that would uphold the dignity and rights of all Indians, including Muslims.

And that hope for a new democratic vision of India is perhaps being given popular voice in the person of Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, who calls for inclusivity and accuses Modi’s BJP of trying to divide Indians along sectarian lines.

A voice of moderation, she is fast becoming the face of secular, liberal leaning Indians who see her as the best hope to end Modi’s authoritarian rule. At only 5 feet tall, she is fiery character, not afraid to challenge authority, and has often been known to taunt Modi.

“Mr. busy prime minister, what do you want? What do you want, to finish me? Can you do it? Never!” she exclaimed in a May 31 news conference, clips from which went viral in India.

I, for one, hopes she succeeds.

Thanks for reading.

  1. On Leaders and Icons: From Jinnah to Modi; Kuldip Nayar, 2018.
  2. India. A history: From the earliest civilisations to the boom of the twenty-first century; John Keay, 2010.
  3. Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West; Benazir Bhutto, 2008.

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Peter Winn-Brown

Peter Winn-Brown

68 Followers

Sports nut with a penchant for international politics & affairs, history and the West's turbulent relationship with Islam.