One of the greatest urges of mankind has been to tame natural resources to its advantage. In the process, the human race has experimented with myriad forms of governance based on the genius and worldly outlook of a localized population in any part of the world. So, while China adhered to Sinocentrism for a long time to propel its ambitions and chase destiny, countries like England and France ventured into sea and far off lands to establish a colonial empire based on unique ideological precepts,notions of cultural superiority and several economic determinants.
The world witnessed a transformation like never before as trade, commerce and cultural exchange were redefined. Old monarchies and kingdoms started dying a slow death all over these colonies even as rebellion and civil revolutions marked a significant departure in ideas and values. Individual enterprise, freedom of speech, ideals of liberty and the concept of privacy came to the forefront as leading political catchwords. French revolutionaries storming the Bastille and Russian revolutionaries rejecting the rule of the Tsar symbolised the disintegration of the old order and the dawn of free thought and new governance models.
What is evident in these historical events and ripples caused is that something new had caught the imagination of the world – perhaps what we now know as democracy? The term is derived from the Greek, dēmokratiā, which was coined from dēmos (people) and kratos (rule) in the middle of the 5th century BCE, to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens.
Though the Russian Revolution was not typically oriented towards democracy as we understand it today but nonetheless, it signified a change of times wherein absolute monarchy was supposed to give way to the rule by the proletariate. This historical experience brings us to review the ‘idea of democracy’ and to understand whether it is a modern day parable which simplifies the life of people affected by it or is a rabble rouser where people are constantly on a warpath demanding effective implementation of its tenets.
In 1215, the Magna Carta gave primacy to rule of law over rule of king through its text. Non-violence and tolerance, values which are the lifeblood of democracy were held in high esteem even by the Emperor Ashoka, as it is clear in the reading of his edicts. Wanton violence came to be controlled by the modern state over a period of time and in formation of the modern state, an unspoken discreet pact between people and the government took shape.
Under this arrangement, people pay taxes and in return government ensures the integrity and peace of life and estate of its citizens. This subtle understanding became conspicuous with the theorisation of democratic theory by thinkers like Locke and Rousseau.
Two world wars compelled mankind to rethink the relevance of war and violence. The United Nations, as a world body, was established with the objective of preserving peace. Various theories have competed with one another over a thousand years or so but ultimately, mankind posed trust in the strength of democracy. Communism, which rationalised a common sharing of resources, underwent various experimentation in countries like Russia, China and Vietnam. Dictatorship proliferated in countries like Germany and Italy and overawed the world with its supremacist and totalitarian philosophy.
Today, the scenario is such that democracies are competing with one another to remain relevant. According to a Pew Research Centre study, democracy as a political creed has expanded in last four decades but dissatisfaction is growing in many countries. One major reason for this dissatisfaction as highlighted by Pew Research Centre is that frustration with politicians is breeding dissatisfaction with democracy.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 in Article 21(3) states that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” This directive has inspired constitution making around the world and has contributed towards a global acceptance of democratic values and principles. Democracy, in turn, provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights.
Attainment of liberty from the colonial yoke was central to the Indian freedom struggle. Quite understandably, the Indian Constitution acknowledges that citizens have some inalienable rights which it recognizes through its provisions and more specifically through fundamental rights provisions.
For a nation to persevere, it must integrate the divergent shades of its socio-political order in a united whole. This is not a simple expectation. When we chose to adopt democratic principles to govern our policies, we also agreed to undertake the gargantuan exercise to make democracy a living reality. Nationhood, to my mind, is not automatically bestowed by adoption of a document, namely the Constitution.
Yes, for the sake of governance, a skeletal outline is etched. But the flesh and blood still has to be added. Nationhood, to my mind, can only be realized through rigorous political activity, flourishing meadows of public opinion and presence of economic sense of security in the humblest of homes. India desires to achieve nationhood. It shall prosper in due time. The road to nationhood is long and winding. The survival and continuance of our polity rests on the promise of delivery of social justice. On the eve of the passing of the Constitution in Constituent Assembly, Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar had uttered these immortal words:
“On 26 January, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man, one vote and one vote, one value. In our social and economic life we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man, one value. How long shall we continue to life this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?’’
The Indian democratic journey has been bedeviled by scourges of communal hatred, caste conflict and brazen populist measures with short-sighted vision. Stifling free speech and invading the privacy of citizens by the state is a newly emerging concern which India shall have to address with alarm.
It is in fact, quite surprising that it required the apex court of the nation to drive home the point that privacy is an intrinsic part of Right to Life. This understanding should have rather permeated the body politic of the nation by now. Justice Chandruchud, in the case of Justice K.S.Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Another v. Union of India (Writ Petition (Civil) No. 494 of 2012) observed that “Privacy is a constitutionally protected right which emerges primarily from the guarantee of life and personal liberty in Article 21 of the Constitution.” Further, he observed that, “Life and personal liberty are not creations of the Constitution. These rights are recognized by the Constitution as inhering in each individual as an intrinsic and inseparable part of the human element which dwells within.”
This only makes it apparent that the Indian democratic experiment has undergone a virtual trial by fire to uphold and preserve the quality of democracy.
In this long journey since independence and adoption of the Constitution, some of the high points have been time bound elections, regular economic plans to steer the economy and by and large establishment of welfare oriented state order aimed to ameliorate the suffering of people and to fulfill sustenance needs. But, a disconnect with people and non-implementation of promises leads to popular discontent. Thus, it can be seen that the professedly democratic ideal has not necessarily transformed India into a truly participative democracy.
It took us decades to enact a law aimed to ensure free flow of information from government institutions to citizens. The transparency in governance has been achieved piecemeal as a result of the passage of Right to Information Act, 2005 and concerns remain over the new amendments. It took us several decades to pass legislations aimed to ensure justice for children and the Dalit community.
Judicial interventions have helped time and again to rescue distraught and hapless citizens but meaningful justice still remains out of the reach of common man as per popular perception. The common man is still caught in a legal labyrinth where pendency of cases and a biased police machinery ensure that justice remains at bay.
Freedom of speech and expression is one of the cardinal features of a successful democracy. On this front also, the record of India has not been very encouraging. Laws of sedition are often invoked to silence voices of dissent. It may be observed here that dissent has been unquestionably accepted by scholars as basic to the dialogic tradition. There remains a burning need to revive the great dialogic tradition of India where different streams of thoughts have merged into a common whole.
It is relevant to recall that saints like Kabir, Ravidas and Nanak questioned ritualistic traditions, gave practical teachings and took religion to the masses. Artistes and poets have sung paeans in honour and praise of the glorious syncretic culture of India. These strands populate the weltanschauung (a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint, called worldview in English) of the democratic ideal of India.
The idea of democracy is built on the superstructure of the judiciary, legislature and executive apparatus. An ever dynamic public opinion informs these democratic institutions and gives much credence to media which has emerged as a game changer in an era of one-upmanship ridden politics. The citizen is at the centre of governance within a democracy.
What is interesting in the case of Indian democratic experiment is that lot of change still takes place through revolutionary mode or civil protest mode. Though, the nature of civil protests varies in India from one region to another. It took a a massive public uprising to usher in criminal law amendments for a stricter law on sexual offences being committed against women with impunity.
It took a massive public protest led by likes of Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi to bring the issue of corruption in public life to the centre stage of Indian politics. It is another matter that leaders of this anti-corruption movement have now carved their own political careers under different party banners.
Democracy in India offers a strange mix of politics, hate crime and caste mobilisation. Somewhere down the line, it also promotes though, in a limited way, an honest zeal to reform the society and perform by delivering on poll promises. Mob violence and thug politics is a bane of modern era and may sound the death-knell of democracy if not checked by timely intervention of civil society and a vigilant judiciary.
Access to justice should be the leitmotif of citizen-centric governance. A democracy can survive only if the citizenry and the political and social leaders continually draw inspiration from the wellspring of knowledge and cultural wealth. This year’s International Day of Democracy stresses on the participative aspect of democracy. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in his message says, “As we mark Democracy Day, I urge all governments to respect the right to active, substantive and meaningful participation; and I salute all of you who serve tirelessly to make this happen.”
It can be said that democracy may truly come to life in India and elsewhere when an atmosphere is achieved where poets and writers do not have to fear for their life. Democracy will really throb in the heart of the common people on the day when they gain confidence that the legal system will not fail them. It will earn continued relevance upon the arrival of a dawn where a victim of caste atrocity is not repeatedly harassed but met with dignity.
Democracy shall live on when people young and old will count on its essence at any time of their life to recover from minor setbacks. It shall prosper in an environment where people are not shy to rebuild their lives and contribute in nation building exercises. Democracy in a real sense will gain glory on that day when the citizen will go about their business without a dime to worry. It will resonate with vibrancy when women will feel safe on roads at any time of the day and senior citizens will find solitude and peace in retirement with a lesson or two for the following generations.