Reflections on the Evolution of Democracy in India

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, a lot was  written about the deteriorating state of Indian democracy as yet another example of how apparently well-entrenched democracies are threatened by anti-democratic political movements.   I, too,  have been concerned about the threat to democracy from populist-inspired nationalism and its variations in the US, France and India, three countries with which I have personal connections.  I currently live in France, was born and lived in the States, but also lived for many of my formative years in India. Here I am inspired to share my reflections about my passion for India and how my impressions of this great country have evolved through the various occasions of my presence in that country. We all wring our hands in dismay over the sliding away from democratic values that we observe in India these days, and I hope that we’ll get past this somehow.

The Current Context

Note: I started writing this during the 75th anniversary celebrations in August of 2022 but set it aside. This is an updated version in January of 2023.

Undeniably, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party were duly elected in the national elections of 2014 – the first time that a single party had a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament since 1984 – and again in 2019. I lament the deterioration in the appeal of the Congress Party, but mostly I share the alarm and dismay that Modi and the BJP are fanning the flames of Hindu nationalism. It was the secularism of the Congress Party’s leadership that had distinguished it from the Moslem Brotherhood when independence from British colonialism was finally achieved in 1946.

Yes, partition of the subcontinent into a secular India and a Moslem Pakistan witnessed violence in both directions. And the undercurrent of Hindu nationalism was evident in India from the beginning – Mahatma Gandhi, after all, was assassinated by a right-wing Hindu fanatic. But the growth in Hindu nationalism is something that might have been contained rather than cultivated by the likes of Narendra Modi. His revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the embrace of discriminatory citizenship against Moslems in the Citizenship Amendment Act and provocative celebration of Hindu festivals are indicative of serious democratic backsliding.

But I want to focus here on my personal reflections of Indian democracy as I witnessed it over the years – in four distinct phases, actually. Each phase – early childhood years in the time of partition, teenage years in the time of Westernization, early adult years in a time of emerging turmoil and later adult years in a time of liberalization (but also what I call “Indianization”)  – has given me some valuable insights about the ups and downs of democracy in practice.

Living in India, Phase One – Early Childhood Recollections

My first time living in India started in 1946. It was a tumultuous post-war environment, and independence was looming for the Asian subcontinent. My dad had been released from his medical service in the US Army and jumped at the opportunity for a missionary posting with the Santal Mission in Bihar. My older sister was 9 and I was only 2 when we flew out from Minneapolis, requiring numerous stops along the way, including London and Cairo and Karachi.   From there, it was mostly by train that we travelled to Bihar, with at least one fairly long stop in Calcutta before continuing by train to Rampur Hat and then by car or bus to the isolated village of Benegaria in the Santal Parganas District of Bihar.

I may have no memories of this trip, but I know that I was there for the partition – the most dramatic migration in history of millions of people moving in two directions, in and out of what was slated to become India and Pakistan (both East and West.)  As I was growing up, I incorporated into my childhood memories the stories told by my parents and also by my older sister about those times.  They were tense, those times, and the stories were always prefaced with the observation that we were in the midst of this tension and yet were essentially isolated from it.

The isolated village of Benegaria was essentially far away from the chaos, but there was a time shortly after our arrival when the whole family travelled across the subcontinent and up into the Himalayas north/northeast of Delhi to one of the famous hill stations near the city of Dehradun.  This particular hill station consisted of the twin towns of Landour, where my father went to study Hindi, and Mussoorie, where my sister was enrolled in the British Cambridge curriculum of Woodstock School.  (Hill stations were popular with the British, as an escape from the heat of the plains, and it was common practice to send their children to boarding schools like Woodstock.)   Shortly after my father had returned to Benegaria while my mother stayed behind to prepare placing my sister in the boarding school,  the chaos of partition came to the area.

The nights in Mussoorie were filled with the noise of gunfire, and threatening groups of armed men were reportedly breaking into Hindu or Moslem homes nearby.  My mother was on her own but aware that their household was safely identified as occupied by Christians. Nonetheless, when the local baker failed to deliver the daily bread order, the bazaar was put on strict curfew, and the Moslem dhobi (laundryman) disappeared, she concluded that both she and my sister had to leave and get back to Benegaria.

Here is where my own memory of how my mother described what happened next clearly became distorted.  What I remember hearing is that we had a separate compartment on a train to Delhi, presumably from Dehradun, and my mother discovered a Muslim woman hiding under the banquette. The story goes that she begged my mother to let her stay hidden there, which my mother agreed to do. During the night, however, as we were sleeping, the Muslim woman evidently disappeared.

Only recently, I came across a very different account of this story, written by my mother in a chapter of a book authored by my father.  But the essence of the story is the same – an Indian mother and her children with Moslem names was accosted by a man with a knife who accused her of kidnapping her children. She avoided being taken off the train by claiming to the guards on the train that she was a Christian traveling under my mother’s protection. While I was too young to have any personal memories of partition, the fact that I was there in India when it happened did operate as a personally significant part of my childhood as I grew up.

I lived in Bihar with my family for six years after that, and I have lots of personal memories of the later portion of these years. I have intertwined them with my subsequent appreciation of post-independence India. Associated with the tragedy of partition, of course, is the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, but it was also the time when the Indian leadership’s commitment to democratic processes was being genuinely implemented. The first parliamentary elections in post-independence India were held in 1951 to 1952, with a huge turnout of voters all across the country. This was indeed the “tryst with destiny from raj to swaraj” that inspired us all to believe that Indian democracy was possible. And for those of us specifically who were there as friendly observers, it was also the “post-war” years of embracing a new appreciation of freedom and equality, a genuine breaking away from the pre-war colonial relationships that had even operated in the missionary world.  Those were, to be sure, the first of the pivotal years when the secular democracy of a multi-ethnic country flourished under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress Party.

To return, though, to the experience of partition, I certainly came to appreciate that the wounds of partition would be long-lasting. During my second and third encounters with the Indian subcontinent in the 1960s and 1970s, I met people in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) who had fled from Sindh during the partition, and I met people in Rawalpindi (and the neighboring new Pakistani capital of Islamabad) who had fled from Bombay (now called Mumbai), also during the partition. Obviously, there is no way to put the pieces back together. We even tolerate the non-democracies or see-sawing nature of democratic practices in Pakistan and Bangladesh these days, but it is a sad commentary as we recognize the 75th anniversary of all that happened then, that the anniversary has stimulated so much angst about the deterioration of democracy in India itself.

Living in India: Phase Two – Reflections of an Adolescent

When I returned to India in 1960, I was 15 years old. I was there for two years and left a year earlier than the rest of my family to start university in the States.

Politically, I remember this as a time of the height of Nehru’s influence. I guess it was also a time when his insistence on neutrality in global affairs but apparent alignment with the Soviet Union did cause some testiness in Indo-US relations. The non-aligned movement had its beginnings in 1961 with President Tito’s Yugoslav drew together the leaders of Ghana, Egypt, India and Indonesia. So yes, this was an awkward time in global affairs – a rising anti-Western, anti-colonial rhetoric amid the burgeoning independence movements in Asia and Africa.

For India, though, this was complicated by Pakistan’s close alignment with the United States, especially as it played itself out on issues like the status of Jammu and Kashmir. I do remember a family holiday to Kashmir where I was struck by the visibility of Indian troops maintaining the peace but also by the mostly Moslem population there. The impression we got from the Moslems who spoke with us (the proprietor of the houseboat where we stayed, the shop-owners selling us Kashmiri jewelry or carpets, the guides who took us riding on horseback) was that they would have preferred independence to affiliation with either Pakistan or India. But the province remained split, while the Indian part of it has now lost its special status.

Culturally, my memories are in contrast to this sense of anti-Westernization in India’s involvement with the non-aligned movement.  My experiences were a mix of attending a boarding school in southern India, spending time passing through the cities of Madras, New Delhi and Calcutta, and living for a few months of the long school holiday break in the Santal Mission compound in Mohulpahari. Mostly, I loved the time I spent in the cities – especially Calcutta; I loved the train rides and train stations; I loved the bazaars, the markets, the spices, the fabrics, the scent of jasmine flowers, the loudspeakers broadcasting popular Indian songs. And as a teenager there, I was very caught up in the idea of the “Westernness” of modern life in the cities, at least, if not in the villages. In Calcutta, the main attraction was afternoon tea parties at the “in” (i.e. Westernized) restaurants. I mingled with a group of young and cool locals, who were all dressed in Western clothes, even the girls, and all dancing to Western popular music.

It was quite the life – and an exciting future of togetherness to boot. This was, after all, the time when Air India had plastered billboards across the city with a smiling blond female saying “I was a DumDum blond until I flew to New York!” (The airport for Calcutta was known then as DumDum Airport and was only renamed Netanji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in 1995.) The West, to be sure, was also discovering the exotic appeal of India in those days.  It was only a few years later, in 1966, that the link between Ravi Shankar and George Harrison opened up the Western music world to the rhythms and sounds of the sitar. The close relationship between the two even transformed the Beatles into a newer psychedelic style, while Ravi Shankar himself acquired a global following.  I myself was inspired by the Gandhian influence of satyagraha on the American civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King’s admonition at my Oberlin College commencement not to sleep through the revolution!  Clearly, this was a time when Indian and Western cultures were intermingling.

For me, the ebb and flow of enthusiasm for Western civilization, eventually resonated to the words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi himself when he was asked what he thought of it (Western civilization, that is) – that yes, he said, “it would be a good idea.”  Not that it was a good idea – just that it would be a good idea if only it worked! Not quite there, alas – even today – or perhaps, even more than ever so today. But also back in the 1960s. Linking freedom and democracy with Western civilization proved to be highly questionable. The day of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 is remembered by everyone who was alive then, but it was the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and then of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, along with the horrors of the Vietnam War and domestic resistance to civil rights that made me wonder where freedom lay.

In a sense this was a turning point period in India, too, since Nehru died in 1964, war with Pakistan broke out once again over Kashmir in 1965, and various protest movements were erupting among the literati in Calcutta and nearby among the Naxalites. These latter, however, were mostly protest movements driven by ideological links to the Marxist left.  It was only in later years that the extremism of groups like the one associated with Gandhi’s assassin would pick up steam. But I will always remember how “Western” we all wanted to be, wherever in the world we happened to be – and certainly where my youthful generation wanted to be – in those days.

Phase Three in 1974 – A Time of Transition

On my third visit to India, I had moved beyond this conundrum of mixed-up Western values in my own mind and welcomed the opportunity to see my “second home” once again. This was in 1974. It was actually a Fulbright-sponsored academic program for college professors to study urban and rural development in Pakistan, not India, that brought me to the region. But I was able to maneuver clearance to travel into India during the mid-course break of the program. The latest Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 still had lingering tensions – there were no direct flights between Karachi or Lahore and Delhi or Bombay – and certainly none all the way to Calcutta. But the land-based border near Lahore and across into Amritsar was open for pedestrian traffic – the only official border crossing that was open in those days.

I was taken by the US consulate’s limo from Lahore close to the border.  A Pakistani coolie carried my luggage to the border crossing, where I first met with the Pakistani border police and then with the Indian border police. An Indian coolie carried my luggage to a bus that took me into Amritsar. I spent the day in Amritsar, visiting the Golden Temple, before taking an overnight train to Delhi. I spent another day in Delhi before catching a flight to Calcutta.  All the while, I felt I was home at last. Regrettably, this was as far into India as I could go since there had just been a long railroad strike, and no trains were available for me to go further into Bihar. It seems that all was not well politically – even as my personal impressions of getting around had missed the turmoil.

The contrast between Pakistan and India was immediately vivid to my eyes and ears. People were free in India, especially the women. No one was covered up as they were in Pakistan. The chatter was free-flowing, and I even felt that I could breathe more freely.  I was appreciative of the circumstances of our hosts in Pakistan and sympathized with their vision for development, but I also felt the difference and quickly immersed myself into the India that I remembered. The family that happened to travel with me on the train from Amritsar to Delhi shared their meal with me; later, a Marwari couple who befriended me on my flight to Calcutta invited me to their home overlooking the Hooghly River for a vegetarian meal.

It was idyllic, and I came home laden with gifts – including a most elegant sari from the rich Marwari couple.  I would note here that I was quite intrigued to observe that I saw almost no women in Western dress, even in the urban areas. What I did see, in contrast, was almost all women attired in saris, from the most elegant with wide silken borders to the most simple in a basic white cotton with a basic border in red or blue.

Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister at the time, but her main opposition had come from a movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan – including protests led by him in the state of Bihar itself!  Without getting caught up in the sequence of events that followed, one can only note that disgruntlement over the corruption and political maneuvering of Indira Gandhi and her supporters were precursors to a draconian declaration of emergency rule in 1975 that lasted until 1977. She then lost an election to a loosely organized coalition of left and right factions (including, for the first time, one of those right-wing Hindu groups), spearheaded by Narayan even though he himself was not a right-winger, but it fell apart for lack of a coherent strategy.   Mrs. Gandhi was back in power once more in 1980, but she was assassinated in 1984 following her violent repression of a Sikh protest at the very Golden Temple in Amritsar that I had visited in 1974.

The politics of that 1977 coalition, in retrospect, set the stage for the increasing appeal of “Hindutva” populism in the 1980s and 1990s – and ultimately the emergence of the BJP (the Bharata Janata Party) and Narendra Modi in 2014.  It was, after all, the first time that a coalition opposing the Congress Party included the BJP, even if the coalition did not last for lack of a consensus on priorities.

Phase Four in 2000 – Appreciating the Distinctiveness of the Indian Political Culture

My fourth encounter with India was the official ILO visit in December 2000. I was, at the time, a Deputy Director-General at the International Labor Organization (ILO), and I had been invited to keynote a conference on “social dialogue. I delivered this address in Chandigarh, a delightfully modern city that has a strong Sikh presence. But I was able to combine this with a number of side visits regarding the tea industry, both in southern India and in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata).  I also visited my old haunts with the Santal Mission. Although the Santal Mission itself had once been in the tea industry, the main attraction for a train ride from Calcutta (Kolkata) to Bihar (Jharkhand) was actually an official meeting with the newly appointed Labour Minister of this new province.

It had been over 25 years since my 1974 visit, and a lot of changes were evident in my travels.  As I had noted then and was further reinforced this time around, there were almost no Indian women in Western attire. The urban elite and “modern” business world might still have incorporated Western style attire for the men (although that, too, was more likely to be an Indian variation of business attire), but emphatically the driving fashion style for women was the sari.

On the other hand, a lot had not changed, either.  Just as I had felt in previous visits, I immediately felt that I was back in my second home, no matter the specific and varied settings.  I recognized the wide open expanses around Parliament House in New Delhi, such a contrast in itself; but I also resonated with the enclosed spaces and the entrepreneurial bustle of Calcutta’s New Market; and again, down south, I visited the ancient Hindu temples of Madurai in the heat of the night in my bare feet and bundled up for cooler weather as I took the Ghat Road to my old boarding school in Kodaikanal. And I rode the train once again from Calcutta to Rampur Hat and feasted my eyes on the rice fields and bullock carts whizzing by my window, and I even occasionally smelled the jasmine wafting up if I closed my eyes. But things were different, too.

In the 1990s, the Indian government (initially a Congress Party coalition and later a BJP coalition) had moved away from the Nehru-style socialism of previous decades to embrace the “neo-liberalism” that prevailed in the international financial institutions of the day. In 2000, it was still a BJP coalition that had developed good relations with the United States. President Bill Clinton visited the country earlier in the year, and the warmth of relations was evident when I attended a major holiday reception hosted by US Ambassador Richard Celeste in December. The openness of the Indian economy to foreign investment was also evident in the upscale shopping areas of New Delhi. Everywhere I visited (Calcutta, Chandigarh, Madurai, even Rampur Hat) business was booming.  A lot of it, at least in smaller towns like Rampur Hat, was still the familiar kinds of open-air shops specializing in textiles or kitchenware or spices or a recently slaughtered lamb hanging upside down.  But all of it was impressive.

Of course, in the more rural areas, such as Santal Parganas away from the bustling town of Rampur Hat, the economic signs were more primitive. When I visited Mohulpahari, for example, the most striking observation was that the gated compound was clearly a well-manicured oasis of Christian Santals in the midst of the dusty non-Christian life outside. As I remembered from before, this was quite a contrast. And as we drove through the countryside, there were visible signs of Hindu, Moslem and even, for the first time in my memory, Santal-specific religious structures.  I was struck by this last phenomenon – typically the statue of a Santal warrior god nestled in a small grove off from the main road.

Another striking change was on the drive to the village of Benegaria – on a road that was so full of potholes that we had to take it at a crawl as we dipped up and down from one pothole to another. My guide explained that this was because of a major rock quarry outside of Benegaria and the heavy trucks that were being used to transport the rocks out onto the main road. Later, along the main road back to Rampur Hat, I saw frequent clusters of men with pickaxes breaking up the large rocks into smaller pieces and other clusters of women carrying baskets of these smaller rocks up some steps to tip the smaller rocks over onto a noisy conveyor belt with a crushing machine that spewed out the ground-up rocks below. I don’t remember any of this from my childhood days. Even here, then, the region seemed to be supplementing the farming economy with lots of non-agricultural jobs, albeit very low skilled and physically demanding ones.

One final point about this visit has to do with a number of socio-economic changes. First, I would suggest that one important change that I noticed anecdotally was the “Indianization” of the business world. My anecdote has to do with a visit to a major tea industry association’s headquarters in southern India, where I surveyed a large meeting room of portraits of the association’s presidents over the years – vividly all Englishmen until well into the 1960s and then clearly taken over by Indian leaders. It took that long?  (But no women, of course.) Whatever remnants of Western (i.e. mostly British) dominance in key Indian industries had taken awhile to disappear, but the chat I had with the association’s managing director confirmed the significance of this long drawn out transition.

Second, though, and in contrast to this is another anecdote. On the train to Rampur Hat, I befriended a young couple travelling to Dumka, which happens where the headquarters of the Santal Mission is located. Yes, said the young man, I know about the Santal Mission; my father is their legal counsel! “I am,” he said, “going home to introduce my new wife to my family!” His wife, I learned, was from Hyderabad, and they had met while working in computing-related jobs in Dubai! They were both Hindus, to be sure, but I was surprised that theirs could not have been the typically arranged marriage that I still thought was common practice in India. Furthermore, they intended to return to their jobs in Dubai. This was a striking illustration of the globalization of Indian economic opportunities.

Finally, though, I have to say something about the caste system in India. This is again illustrated by another anecdote. No matter how fuzzy the system of castes and subcastes operate at a national level, it does seem to be entrenched in Indian culture. My anecdote is from a conversation I had with another American living and working in New Delhi who lamented the absence of generosity among the Indian elite. Not only had she experienced a noticeable reluctance to share their wealth but even a hostility to doing anything for the lower classes (or castes, as it were). My interest in this has led me to read more widely about the caste system since my visit, but I just leave it here. The striking impression I garnered from my 2000 visit was that of a distinctly Indian culture and political system.

Where Are We Today?

This was a time politically, in 2000, when the BJP was part of a governing coalition, although hemmed in by a variety of other parties that prevented them from aggressively pursuing the kinds of Hindutva strategies that have taken hold under Narendra Modi since the 2014 election – and especially since 2019.  In 2000, however, the coalition with the BJP had only recently come to power and did opt to continue the liberalization of the economy that had been started in the early 1990s under pressure from the IMF.  It is ironic, I suppose, that this liberalization had been spearheaded in the earlier 1990s by a Congress Party government, but the liberalism versus socialism divide had ceased to be as prominent in the 1990s as it had been in the past. Even when the Congress Party came back into power a few years later, the old-style socialism of the party had been effectively neutralized.

As for the continuing influence of caste in India, I note that the BJP leadership has even co-opted a Santal woman, Droupadi Murmu, to serve as India’s President – elected in July 2022. She is the first tribal leader (a member of a Scheduled Caste) to serve as president. Originally from Odisha, she was most recently the governor of Jharkhand from 2016 to 2020.  This personal connection to my own experiences with Santal Parganas – but also with India at large – has especially stirred my senses.

Obviously, this specific development is praiseworthy as an elevation of someone who used to be called an outcaste in Hindu society, but it is a manipulation of tribal and regional politics for a distorted Hindu Indian identity as opposed to the multi-ethnic, secular and democratic society that I thought was such an inspiration for me as a child in India. I worry about the future of India under leadership that manipulates divisiveness, just as I worry about this same kind of manipulation in the US and also here in France.  But I also know that each of these societies has had underpinnings of divisiveness that have to be addressed and not repressed if multi-stakeholder democracy is to prove its worth.


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