Back in the 1850s, Karl Marx wrote a series of essays on the results of British rule in India. These essays were marked by an ambivalence that was uncharacteristic as well as profound. On the one hand, Marx saw that the British had come to the sub-continent to dominate and exploit, objectives that were deeply repugnant to a radical socialist such as himself. On the other hand, the encounter with a progressive, modernizing society might be a wake-up call to a society frozen by feudalism. Thus, Marx argued that while the British had come to India with ‘the vilest of motives’, they yet might be remembered as the ‘unconscious tool of history’. With luck, colonial rule would force a backward, hierarchical society to take aboard such liberating modern values as equality and justice.
I read Marx’s essays years ago, while a student in Kolkata. But I was reminded of them in the aftermath of the denial, by the United States Government, of a visa to the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. For while the Americans were motivated by less than noble motives, it is just possible that their act might inspire a long overdue cleansing of Indian democracy.
I have no doubt that the decision to deny Mr Modi entry to the U. S. was inspired not by abstract ideals of justice but by hard-nosed reapolitik. For, outside their own borders, the Americans don’t really care for democracy at all. They have armed and supported a legion of dictators, from Ferdinand Marcos to Pervez Musharraf—and they have also wined them at the White House. Nor do they care, specifically, about the human rights of Muslims. In fact, their best friend in the world is the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who has the blood of many more Muslims on his hands than does Narendra Modi. But, deep into a damaging war in Iraq, they do care about their image in the region. It is this consideration that most likely lies behind the closing of the door to Mr Modi. By denying a known Muslim-baiter a visa, the Americans hope that they can somewhat redeem their reputation in the Middle East.
The hypocrisy of the Americans has prompted a wave of nationalistic outrage in the Indian press. The pack has been led by Sangh Parivar sympathizers, but some estimable liberal voices have been carried along. Thus, Vir Sanghvi of the Hindustan Times says that while he detests Mr Modi and his variety of communal politics, he was yet indignant that the Americans chose to deny him a visa. ‘Modi may be a mass murderer, but he’s our mass murderer’, writes Mr Sanghvi.
Mr Sanghvi also writes that ‘logic and patriotism don’t always go hand in hand’. I think he meant ‘nationalism’ rather than ‘patriotism’. For a patriot is one who loves his own country, whereas a nationalist is someone who scorns other people’s countries. A nationalist might wish to defend Mr Modi against arrogant Americans; a patriot shall find it impossible to defend him against the Constitution and the Republic of India.
My own hope is that the American rebuff to Mr Modi will make Indians recognize, and attempt to reverse, the continuing degradation of our democratic institutions. Once, the taunts of British colonialists and Christian missionaries stung Indian social reformers—from Ram Mohun Roy to Mahatma Gandhi—to work at emancipating our women and ending the discrimination of the lower castes. Now, the insults of the Americans should provoke us to bridge the gap between what the late Nani Palkhivala once called ‘a first class Constitution and a third class democracy’. For while India still retains the ‘hardware’ of democracy—a multi-party system, regular and reasonably fair elections, free speech and free movement of people—the ‘software’ of democracy has become badly corroded over the years, in four respects in particular.
First, the integrity of the All India Civil Services has been compromised. It was Mrs Indira Gandhi who introduced the idea of a ‘committed bureaucrat’; committed to the individual politician in power, rather than to the principles of the Constitution and the letter of the law. Since the 1970s, the politicization of the administration has proceeded apace. As P. S. Appu writes in a recent issue of the Economic and Political Weekly, officers of the IAS and the IPS have shown ‘a marked tendency to carry out the wishes of their political masters without pausing to consider if the contemplated action is in accordance with the law. Many of them have behaved like servile hatchet men, not as members of elite services owing unshakable allegiance to the Constitution, the laws of the land and the principles of democratic governance’.
The judiciary has been affected likewise. Especially in the lower courts, many judges are swayed by considerations other than those of the law; by the prospect of monetary gain, and by the pressures of politicians (the two often working together). In the High Courts and the Supreme Court, these pressures are attentuated but never wholly absent. In particular, the prospect of a plum post-retirement posting has been known to have made some judges unduly respectful of the wishes of the Government of the day.
Third, the Indian press too has lost some—perhaps much—of its once robust independence. The movie ‘Page Three’ is quite true-to-life here, in describing how the politician-industrialist complex is insidiously at work in spinning one kind of story and suppressing another. My own experience has been that while local papers kill stories for fear of losing government advertisements, national papers kill them for fear of losing corporate ads or because the editors or proprietors are seeking political preferment.
Fourth, politicians themselves have become completely amoral. When the first Non Co-operation movement turned violent, Mahatma Gandhi admitted to having committed a ‘Himalayan Blunder’. Jawaharlal Nehru acknowledged errors and made amends for them; as for instance when he created the linguistic states he had previously opposed. But from Mrs Indira Gandhi onwards, no Indian leader has admitted to having made a mistake. They are not accountable to the judicial process—thus no major politician has been convicted for corruption. But they are not accountable to their conscience either—indeed, few, recently, have shown signs of having one.
The degradation of Indian democracy began in 1970s, under the Congress regime of Mrs Indira Gandhi, but it reached its lowest point with the riots in Gujarat riots in 2002. The senior civil servants cravenly followed the politicians. As P. S. Appu writes, ‘Gordhan Zadaphia, a VHP activist functioning directly under Modi as minister of state in the home department, took charge of the Ahmedabad police commissioner’s control room’. The Gujarati press abdicated its role; some sections turning a blind eye to the violence, others justifying it. The local judiciary manipulated or disregarded evidence so as to free those accused of incitement to riot and murder. All this was supervised and rationalized by a Chief Minister who remains unrepentant about his very proactive role in the proceedings.
That the Gujarat riots took place at all; that they spread so far and so fast; that those who perpetrated the violence went scot free; that relief has been so tardy and inadequate; that the politicians who directed the riots remain in power—these are a consequence only of the frailties of the democratic process in India. In this sense, Narendra Modi is certainly ‘our mass murderer’; in that it was we, collectively, who created the conditions for the mass murder over which he presided. It is here that the denial of an American visa to him can prove salutary. Rather than direct our nationalist ire without, we should channel our patriotic energies within, towards the renewal and reform of our democratic institutions. Let us ensure that no foreign government shall in future make an Indian politician the target of their hyprocisies—by making certain that no Indian politician can in future so comprehensively violate the human rights of the people he has been chosen to represent and serve.