When did democracy come to mean swimming with the tide?

Can Democracy be reduced to Governance and defined as rule by the majority and for the majority? Can politics be democratic in a society which loves status quo and longs to look back, not ahead?

NH Illustration
NH Illustration

Sohail Hashmi

There are at least three questions that we need to address if we wish to understand Democracy. Does Democracy mean a system of eliciting the opinion of the people every five or six years about who should rule over them? Should Democracy be defined as an expression of the will of the majority? Is Democracy another system of governance like Monarchy and Dictatorship?

The answer to all the three questions is yes, but none of the ayes give a complete answer.  Democracy is not merely a mechanism that provides people the opportunity periodically to elect those who will represent and rule them. If achieving just this much was enough for a country or society to qualify as a democracy then Nazi Germany too would have qualified as a democracy as would many other puppet or militarist regimes that maintain a façade of regular elections and call themselves a democracy.

Does rule of majority define a democracy? Rule of the Majority is once again only a partial definition because, for a rather long period of time the Third Reich led by Hitler and his National Democrats enjoyed majority support and no one, except for die hard acolytes of Hitler and Neo-Nazis would describe that regime as democratic.

There is another problem with the majority is right argument. The majority is not always right, as a matter of fact there are countless instances where majority is wrong.

What about a referendum?

What would be the outcome, one might wonder if one were to hold a referendum on three questions through a secret ballot, namely:

  • Should young people have a right to choose their life partners, even if their parents were against the match?
  • Should marriages be solemnised without matching horoscopes and caste of the groom and bride?
  • Should marriages, where dowry has been demanded and/or offered, be declared illegal?

All of us know that given the hold exercised by feudal, antediluvian, regressive, irrational and patently unscientific ideas on a majority of our people, including the ostensibly educated, the answer to all the three questions posed above will be a resounding ‘no’.

And if laws were to be framed on the legality of marriages based on majority opinion, what kind of laws will these be? Obviously grossly undemocratic, misogynistic, horribly casteist and patriarchal. Rejecting the idea of letting the youth make their choices in life is essentially undemocratic and yet, if laws were to be framed on the basis of what the majority thinks to be right, we will end up making laws pertaining to matrimonial alliances, that would be absolutely undemocratic and what is more, such draconian laws will enjoy widespread support.

One could site scores, actually hundreds of examples of how the majority may become the bulwark that shores up anti-democratic and anti-social laws and practices.

Two examples would suffice to illustrate the point. The one issue on which there is unanimous agreement among jurists is the maxim “an accused is innocent till proved guilty” and the corollary of this adage is the right, constitutionally enjoyed by each accused, regardless of the nature of the alleged crime, to legal defence, to the right to engage a lawyer and if unable to do so, the right to defence through a court appointed lawyer.

Kasab, the accused in the Bombay terror attack, was defended by two lawyers Abbas Kazmi and KP Pawar, both appointed by the court, since Kasab could not afford a lawyer on his own and Pakistan government had not responded to his pleas to be represented by Pakistani lawyers. Both lawyers were ostracised, suffered loss of practice and were vilified for defending a terrorist. The first lawyer Anjali Waghmare appointed by the court had to withdraw because of clash of interest, because she was representing one of the survivors, but even before she had decided to recuse herself, the Shiv Sena raised Cain, demanding that no lawyer defend a terrorist. Not surprisingly, the Shiv Sena did not raise the same concerns in the case of the accused in the Bombay riots.

Even before the case came up for hearing, there was an orchestrated media trial and everyone was baying for Kasab’s blood. The other example is the demand for lynching the accused in the horrible acts perpetrated by the accused in the 2012 Delhi Rape case. Thousands were demanding public hangings, lynchings, castration or worse and summary hanging for all rapists.

Regardless of the strong public sentiments and the large numbers involved in demanding such action, demands being raised by these mobs cannot be described as democratic demands, even if the entire country supported such punishment without opportunities for proper legal defence of the accused and a fair trial.

These two extreme cases have been cited to underscore the fact that lynch mobs cannot be permitted to serve their version of just deserts, to those that

they have decided to mark as perpetrators of a crime. Any society that pushes for such short circuiting of the judicial process cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called a democratic society.
So, on one hand we have this pandering to backward sentiments, by the so called educated and enlightened vigilantes, many of them masquerading as keepers of the national conscience on what passes for news channels and on the other is the steadfast resistance to mob justice that a forward looking minority has put-up, always standing up for the common good, despite strong resistance from those entrenched in the power structure and in control of it.

Popular mood is not always right

When in the mid-1860s Anant Shastri Dongre, a Chitpawan Brahmin, began to teach Sanskrit texts to his son Srinivas, he also taught the same texts to his wife Laxmibai and daughter Ramabai. This was enough for the other Brahmins of his village to hound him and his family out of the village and he was eventually driven to go live in the forest.
When his daughter, Ramabai, honoured with the titles of Pandita and Saraswati at Calcutta after she had demonstrated her command of the language and of the Vedic Texts, decided to marry a Kayasth lawyer from Bengal, she was ostracised and when she opened an ashram for Brahmin widows, to educate them and to make them economically independent, she was attacked, ridiculed and publicly abused by one of the tallest political leaders of late nineteenth century Pune.
These are just a few examples from a society, hard wired to defend the miniscule minority controlling all power and privileges, using essentially anti people religious, ritualistic practices to mobilise the majority against any basic reform in society.
If those belonging to a privileged background had to face this kind of resistance from among their own, so called enlightened community, when they dared stand up against the fossilised customs of their times, one can only imagine the struggle that the so called “low born” like Jyoti Rao Phule and Savitri Bai Phule, born almost a quarter of a century before Pandita Ramabai, must have faced, just because they wanted education for their children, the right to draw water from the village well, and refused to leave the village path and cower in a corner to ensure that even their shadow did not taint a passing Brahmin.
All this was a daily occurrence in the 1830s. Within a decade it would be 200 years from the time Jyotirao Phule was born, things have not changed much if we recall the daily atrocities on women, dalits, tribals, minorities, and all the marginalised.
And it is this that brings us to the question of a system of electoral democracy being practiced in a society where the majority follows beliefs, customs, practices and rituals that are exclusionist, divisive, discriminatory and therefore primarily and fundamentally undemocratic.
It is this contradiction that we need to resolve and we need to resolve this contradiction in the very near future. A democratic system of electing our representatives is all fine and we have seen how the people have on occasion used this power to overthrow governments, time and again. But what we are seeing today is the assertion by the upholders of some of the most backward and reactionary ideologies, mobilising vigilante groups, extra constitutional centres of power and cynically using most decadent and regressive ideas to scuttle and destroy the very foundation of Democracy. They are able to do this because they have been able to emasculate the people, striking at the very root of Democracy.
Dictatorship and Monarchy function as a system of Governance regardless of what the people want, but Democracy cannot be Democracy without widespread and far reaching democratisation of society and if a society continues to operate, from the confines of a family to the largest social, administrative, judicial and political formations, without opening itself to democratic ideas and attitudes, the façade of electoral democracy will not last too long and there are too many examples in our neighbourhood, to show, how much of a farce, Democracy can become.
We need to sit up and take stock, unless we wish to become like those who we love to revile all the time.
The author is a writer, filmmaker and history buff

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