In the second week of February, while Egyptians were protesting in Tahrir Square against the despotic rule of Hosni Mubarak, a decades-old separatist group was having a tryst with democracy in India.
The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a separatist group that’s been waging a violent struggle against the Indian state for an independent Assam, came to the negotiating table to talk peace and become a part of the democratic narrative.
This isn’t the first time insurgent groups have been co-opted by democracy in India—the Mizo Accord, signed in 1986, put an end to a bloody conflict in the North-eastern state of Mizoram. The leaders of the insurgency, who once challenged the democratic system, ended up becoming a part it. Indeed, underground leader of the Mizo movement, Pu Laldenga, eventually competed in leadership elections and became an elected chief minister of the state.
In addition, there was the Naga movement—the longest separatist movement in India’s history. But its leaders, too, eventually signed a ceasefire agreement with the government and came to the negotiating table. Since 1997, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland or NSCN (IM) has been holding discussions with the central government on how to reconcile separatist demands with the democratic aspirations of the whole country.
The belief in the dynamism of democracy and its inbuilt capacity to effect change in their everyday lives has been a constant source of strength for those involved in these disputes. In fact it’s this belief that has allowed Mayawati, a politician hailing from the lowest caste and with no political background, to become the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India.
There are many stories like hers—people who are using the platform of democracy to overcome historical limitations and become stakeholders in the nation’s future governance. This is why few here in India are concerned about the implications of the Jasmine revolution. Still, the ongoing public concern over corruption means that the debate over what the Arab world uprisings could mean for India is set to continue.
In his book, Troubled Periphery: Crisis of India's North East, veteran journalist Subir Bhaumik argues that democracy was the single largest factor in the troubled creation of states like Bangladesh and East Timor. He asserts that the space that democracy provides helped accommodate contrasting voices in the regions, thereby nullifying the edge of insurgencies.
This is one of the reasons why, despite significant public anger at the way the state is being governed, the people of Jammu and Kashmir weren’t able to spark a revolution like those seen in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya. After all, there’s a democratically-elected government in the state, one that’s there not through rigged elections, but through fair voting.
But this is no reason for complacency. India’s 60-year-old democracy must now show greater maturity in handling the major issues in Jammu and Kashmir—there needs to be greater cooption of the political and personal aspirations of the people of Kashmir. For example, some level of autonomy within the larger federal structure would give the people the sense that they have more freedom to fine-tune their own destiny.
Similarly, the tactic of dividing an insurgent group and bringing one faction in for talks won’t work for long. In the case of NSCN (IM), the central government is simply tiring of the whole movement and waiting for the old leadership to fade away in the hope that the whole Naga movement peters out. But this isn’t an honest handling of the situation and of those who have put their trust in the democratic wisdom of India’s leadership.
If bureaucracy is one of the bulwarks of democracy, it’s also a major bottleneck. Bureaucratic inefficiency and a lack of empathy have led to significant disgruntlement among all sections of Indian society. The problems in northeast India, and of the Maoist rebellion, have been exacerbated by administrative inefficiency and corruption. This leads ultimately to alienation—and eventually rebellion.
India might be immune to the Jasmine revolution wave, but it can’t remain indifferent to it. When a system starts taking its own people for granted, it might as well start digging its own grave. Tunisia knows that and so do Egypt and Libya. India's leadership, too, should therefore remember that it still has something to learn from watching the present turmoil in the Arab world.