India: Human InSecurity

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India: Human InSecurity

An interview with author Ram Mashru on human security issues in India.

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

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.

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.”

Of course, the question of communal harmony is a separate one. It is an issue that has forced its way onto the national agenda and is a factor that will play in the minds of voters at the ballot box.

India’s marginalized and subaltern groups have paid the highest price for India’s industrialization and development – was B.R. Ambedkar right when he said that economics will always triumph over ethics when the two clash? Can India simultaneously pursue its development goals while safeguarding human security?

Firstly, human security and development are not in conflict. In fact they are complementary. Mahboob ul-Haq listed economic growth as one of the seven priorities of Human Security, on that basis the benefits of growth “trickle down.” We only need to look at India’s Maoist insurgency, in part a backlash stemming from underdevelopment, to see that growth, human security and national security are interlinked. Indeed poverty reduction was one of Nehru’s initial priorities for similar reasons, with the aim that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Professor Varshney put forward the idea of “elite politics” to explain how the Rao administration were able to implement the landmark 1991 economic reforms. The idea that India’s has a dual-track political system, with some policies aimed at India’s moneyed elites and others that cater to the poor and dispossessed, is true beyond the economic sphere. Dam construction is a prime example of this. There are a number of alternatives to the program of large-scale development construction: water-load irrigation and building smaller dams, for example. And yet, what India’s policy elite has chosen to do is build enormous headline-grabbing schemes that displace millions without rehabilitating them, all to service the country’s commercial and industrial needs.

According to data from India’s Planning Commission, income inequality in India across several states is at its highest since 1973 – a divergence that has coincided with a period of meteoric economic growth. When talking about the conflict between economics and ethics, Ambedkar was referring to the Indian case and its data like the recent Planning Commission findings that vindicate his observation.

Can you describe the phenomenon of “middle-class environmentalism” in India? Why is it problematic?

Middle-class environmentalism is the co-opting of environmental activism by wealthy, urban interest groups. It is characterized by calls for urban renewal and pollution reduction, policies that entail the displacement of the homeless, the destruction of slums and the seizure of land for green urban spaces.

“Middle-class environmentalism” is linked to liberalization, and the increasing assertiveness of India’s wealthy, urban class. It’s wrapped up in the politics of control (monopolizing urban and green spaces), the re-ordering of urban areas and the regulation of urban population.

The problem is the asymmetry: middle-class environmentalists are a broad church, they tend to be better organized, more vocal and have better access to the ears of influence. The urban poor aren’t as effective at mobilizing to resist these campaigns of displacement and exclusion.

You describe the troubling prevalence of police inflicted torture in India’s prison. What policies can abate the prevalence of this trend?

India’s collective conscience was tested after the horrific Delhi gang rape and, as well as grief and shock we saw huge amounts of anger, a lot of which was expressed through calls for the accused (as they then were) to be sodomized, castrated and electrocuted. The popular support for state-sanctioned violence was startling and this attitude, that torture is justifiable, even if only in extreme cases, poses the greatest challenge to prohibiting it.

There are a number of obvious and urgent remedial steps: punishing officials guilty of torture, ensuring violence and deaths in custody are recorded, establishing an external regulator to provide training and enforce standards, access to justice for victims etc. But these steps are preventative, not curative, and we can’t expect these sorts of changes to eliminate torture when so many in India, citizens and people in positions of authority alike, approve of it.

If states are the greatest threat to human security, should non-state actors fill the gap? What can NGOs do for human security in India?

I argue in the book that the Indian state has threatened human security in five ways. First, by silencing the activists and organizations campaigning for change; second, by failing to ensure the law is enforced; third, through the use of coercion; fourth, by disregarding international standards; and fifth, by failing to adopt a comprehensive approach to ensuring individual well-being.

NGOs can’t correct these alone. Of course NGOs have an important role to play, but their contribution, though necessary, is insufficient. When scholars like Ayoob argue that states pose the greatest threats to human security they do so, firstly, to identify the source of the threat and, secondly, to focus efforts to eliminate the threat.

Identifying the state as a threat leads us to correcting harmful government practices. The most effective method, and its one that ul-Haq envisages, is co-operation between the state and NGOs. A great, recent example of co-operation delivering results is India’s very successful polio-vaccination program. Though the disease may reappear, India is celebrating the fact that it has not recorded a new case of polio in three years. This came about through collaboration between the World Health Organization, INGOs such as Rotary International, state governments and members of civil society. The “polio model” of sustained, multi-layered state and non-state co-operation is the way forward, particularly in the context of scarce state resources. The major obstacle to this multi-pronged service delivery however is India’s assault on non-state groups. As I explain in the book, India’s government has debilitated human-rights organizations and until this ends, the role played by NGOs will be negligible.

Finally, it’s an election year in India and things don’t look great for the Indian National Congress. Should the BJP win, can Indians expect the human security situation to improve or are the solutions to these issues outside of the realm of state and government? How concerned are you by Narendra Modi’s record with communal violence?

On Modi’s record on communal harmony, he has tried very hard to cast himself as a moderate figure. Only time will tell if this is sincere or if it is an electoral strategy to win votes. There is also the argument that Modi will operate under more constraints as Prime Minister than he had to as Chief Minister of Gujarat, so the strictures of office will prevent the nightmare of communal breakdown that many fear from materializing. Having said that, even though he has not been found guilty in a court of law, his failure to do more to prevent the 2002 pogrom, the continued subordination of Muslims in Gujarat and Modi’s equivocation since the massacre are all cause for concern.

Realizing individual security is a complex endeavor and would require policymakers to do a lot more on several levels. If Modi delivers on his promise of development, he would be doing a lot to improve individual wellbeing. But this is only one facet of the problem. In the book, I include a conservative list of India’s human security concerns: water scarcity, environmental stress, food security, malnutrition, poor health services, displacement, human trafficking slavery, chronic youth unemployment and gender justice.” (p22). Modi has played his policy cards very close to his chest so it is difficult to know what, if anything, he intends to do about these concerns.