It isn’t enough to boast that India is the world’s biggest democracy. That is a tragic, and obsolete, conceit. We also need to be a good democracy, an effective democracy, an accountable, 360-degree democracy that looks beyond institutionalized waving of flags as broad spectrum antibiotic. Only that can bring freedom from troubled midnights. Photo: AFP
It isn’t enough to boast that India is the world’s biggest democracy. That is a tragic, and obsolete, conceit. We also need to be a good democracy, an effective democracy, an accountable, 360-degree democracy that looks beyond institutionalized waving of flags as broad spectrum antibiotic. Only that can bring freedom from troubled midnights. Photo: AFP

Beyond the waving of flags

The 15th of August is naturally a time of great pride, both officially mandated, and spontaneous. It is also a reminder of prejudice.

As at numerous government buildings, schools and homes across the country, India’s national flag flies today at New Delhi’s Red Fort. At this symbol of esmpires and grand conceits, India’s new Prime Minister today celebrates freedom from colonial domination as other prime ministers of free India have done.

With his speech he places official imprimatur on the transition of India (or, at any rate, lands east of the Indus) from an empire of the Mughals, to that of the British, and to what is at present the Republic of India.

The 15th of August is naturally a time of great pride, both officially mandated, and spontaneous. It is also a reminder of prejudice. And it should certainly be a matter for introspection in this country deliberately wounded by self-affliction.

India’s flag will not be raised today in numerous villages away from urban imprint, and in numerous homes in urban areas away from even a smidgen of prosperity and aspiration. What use do the poor have for it, except to flag their deprivation and destitution? To sell tiny replicas of independence at urban Indian street corners to wealthier fellow citizens in the hope of earning a rupee-a-flag at best; at worst, a curse.

And, perhaps, to protest the drawing of a poverty line that a committee headed by former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, C. Rangarajan, in mid-2014 recommended to the government should be 32 a day in rural areas; and 47 a day in urban ones. That marks the poor at nearly 30% of India’s population. Half, if those a little above such a disturbing line are counted; all aliens in their own land.

India’s flag won’t be raised in vast stretches of central and eastern India that continue to be impacted by the Maoist rebellion. The rebellion may be under pressure, but that has not diluted what the rebellion mirrors: socio-economic inequity; massive, institutionalized corruption; and devastating miscarriage of governance.

The flags raised in such parts will be red or black.

Indeed, some flags were raised a day earlier, like that of a united or greater Nagaland. Rebels declared independence from India on 14 August, a day before India declared independence from the British empire. If this is India’s 67th anniversary of independence, so it is for the fight for a Nagaland independent from India. The government of India has done little thus far to fully conclude this conflict.

On 13 August, six major rebel groups of Manipur, flying the banner of what they call the Coordination Committee, or CorCom, addressed the “oppressed people of Manipur". In a message carried by all major newspapers and electronic media in that state, CorCom praised those who had died fighting “Indian colonialism". It hardly seems to matter that 13 August marks the day in 1891 when the British hanged Manipuri rebel leaders after the Anglo-Manipuri war. Today’s agitprop commemoration of anti-Britain angst has transferred seamlessly to anti-India angst.

And Kashmir? It certainly is well past the sell-by date to pin the mess only on Pakistan, to disclaim responsibility for what has since the 1950s deliberately weakened empathy towards India, far earlier than Pakistan government’s diktat in 1989 to spread dissent and terror beyond Kashmir valley. Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto actually owned up to it at the inaugural Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in 2003. But that application of state-led terror by Pakistan would not have been able to survive without firm underpinnings of state-led alienation by India.

There are more such enclaves of seething dissent across India. Moreover, there are several other issues of vulnerability, ranging from a growing population and consequent resource pressures, to the general unemployability of the great demographic bulge of India’s youth. The situation is further beset by continuing pressures of migration from rural to urban spaces.

Whatever we like to think about the growing foreign policy prowess of India, it is—and will be—governed by India’s internal health, its security from myriad insecurities. To be seated at the high table of global politics by ignoring this reality will at best be a comic turn, a mesmeric joke on us.

It isn’t enough to boast that India is the world’s biggest democracy. That is a tragic, and obsolete, conceit. We also need to be a good democracy, an effective democracy, an accountable, 360-degree democracy that looks beyond institutionalized waving of flags as broad spectrum antibiotic. Only that can bring freedom from troubled midnights.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear-Hold-Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This
column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia
that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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