India: Human InSecurity
Image Credit: Ram Mashru
India: Human InSecurity
Image Credit: Ram Mashru

India: Human InSecurity


Ram Mashru is author of the new book Human InSecurity: Fear, Deprivation and Abuse in India, which goes behind the news to consider the factors driving some of the stories of India’s social and political ills. The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda spoke with Mashru recently about his book and the potential ways India could improve its record on human security.

You begin your book by asking the question, famously posed by The New York Times: Does India’s democracy get more credit than it deserves? What is your answer to that question?

The distinction I draw is a basic one, between India as a formal democracy and India as a substantive democracy. The former – India’s election capabilities, the size of its electorate, high voter turnout, etc. – is certainly impressive, and institutions like the Electoral Commission bolster India’s reputation as an exemplary democracy, but in a limited sense. If we switch to India’s substantive democratic record we must ask questions about the country’s performance on human rights, development, minority rights, law and order, etc. On these issues there is a great deal to be critical about.

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Do I think India’s democracy gets more credit than it deserves? Only to the extent that an appraisal of India as “the world’s largest democracy” distracts attention away from a regrettable record on gender equality, tribal rights, corruption etc. Professor Varshney argues, in his latest book Battles Half Won, that India is an electoral wonder but that it performs poorly between elections. This is the view I encourage.

The tones used to discuss India have shifted significantly since The New York Times article, and I cite it as one of the first examples I came across of an attempt to challenge the dominant discourse. The article itself is tentative in its criticism and since then India’s performance as a democracy has, rightly, attracted more and more scrutiny. We can attribute this shift to a whole series of changes: a more trenchant press, more interest in India as it rises on the international stage, the investigations of human rights organizations and development professionals, and shocking cases such as the horrific Delhi gang rape. These changes have all chipped away at India’s dubious reputation as a shining post-colonial success story.

Of course, compared to Bangladesh, where the elections earlier this month were deadly and undemocratic, India is a shining regional example. But the argument that India is a relatively stable and successful democracy is compatible with the argument that it has a lamentable record on development and rights.

As I read your book, I recalled the somewhat caricatured debate now in India that one might call the two-state theory of India: that there is an “India” and there is a “Bharat.” Observers that buy into this schema would categorize the country’s booming middle-class with its increasing embrace of issue-based politics and modernity fall as “India,” and argue that the “chronic social and political ills” that you set out to investigate are the vestiges of “Bharat” and endure outside India’s runaway urban enclaves. Do you buy this characterization of India? Is it possible for India’s governors to engineer synchronicity between the demands of the urban elites and the downtrodden poor?

I don’t buy this distinction at all; it’s a fallacy. It’s a right-wing construction of India, which was invoked following the Delhi gang rape, for example, when nationalist ideologues sought to explain away violence against women. It’s an expedient dichotomy that can only be sustained ideologically. It is historically, geographically and empirically baseless.

The Bharat-India divide crudely fits the rural-urban one, and the entirety of the “Indian case” disproves the assumptions we may have about rural-urban divides, in modernization theory terms. A lot of the problems we associate with rural areas in developing countries exist in urban areas: poor sanitation in urban slums is a prime example. Equally, a lot of the benefits we associate with urban areas are also illusory: according to a recent report, 12 million people are set to “reverse migrate” back to rural areas to return to the agricultural sector by 2019 due to a shortage of industrial jobs in urban areas. Shocking levels of violence against women – best evidenced by figures on feticide and rape – are proof that “chronic social and political ills” persist in urban areas and are even exacerbated by them. The problems I explore – torture, displacement-induced deprivation and inter-ethnic violence – are not particular to urban or rural areas. In fact, the Hindu-Muslim riots in Uttar Pradesh spread from the town of Muzaffarnagar to the surrounding rural areas.

Indeed, with high levels of rural-urban migration, with urban poverty traps and with the decentralization of administrative power to the local, rural level through Panchayat Raj the boundaries between “rural” and “urban” India are fluid.

You astutely note that identity has been an important feature in Indian politics, with politicians striving to capture voting blocks by appealing to broad group identities. With the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in New Delhi, commentators have noted a shift, at least among urban elites, to issue-based politics. Do you think these commentators are correct, and if so, is the shift from identity to issue-based politics a sign of maturity in Indian democracy?

The politics of identity cannot be totally discounted; it is central to any representative democracy. Rather, what is clear is that AAP don’t claim to represent a particularly identity-based interest group and didn’t rely on one for their stunning success in the Delhi polls.

I’m not sure about maturity, I think India’s electoral system is highly sophisticated and has long been so, but there has been a transition and it is a strategic one.

In relation to identity- and issue-based politics, I think two complementary forces are at work. The first is a sharper focus on (populist) policies, and the second is the increased toxicity of “minority-ism.”

Firstly, the AAP’s focus on corruption and transparency capitalized successfully on widespread frustration with decades of venal Congress government. But we must acknowledge that this, on its own, wasn’t the golden ticket. The AAP is in office now because of (i) powerful anti-incumbency sentiments and (ii) alliance building. Further, I’m not convinced that, analytically, the AAP’s message is that distinct from Modi’s mantra of development. Modi deserves credit for setting the national debate. India’s shaky economic performance has helped him a great deal. The BJP are, compared to their competitors (with the AAP a new exception), the best strategists and I think the BJP can be said to have campaigned effectively on issues. Modi, I would argue, has dealt a double blow to the politics of old by (i) emphasizing the issue of development and (ii) by arguing that development trumps identities. He did this in Kashmir when promising to turn the state from a “separate” one into a “super” one, and when campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, the state with India’s largest Muslim minority population, where he urged people of all creeds to unite behind the development.

Secondly, being seen to pander to minority groups has become increasingly politically costly. Congress are vulnerable to the “pseudo-secularism” charge – of granting concessions to minority groups in the name of secularism – and Modi, by referring to Gandhi as “shehzade” (Urdu for prince) and by his rhetoric on the “burkha of secularism” has poisoned the issue of minority rights. Whether Modi’s characterization of Congress’s record is fair or not is irrelevant. I think there are powerful majoritarian undercurrents in India and the shift to populist issue-based electioneering, which has emphasized the universality of development and transparency, has further discredited policies that may be deemed “minority-ist.”

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