Democracy in Question: From Madhya Pradesh to France

TK Arun

A rose is a rose is a rose. That is not the case with riots. In some riots, the rioters and the police both accept, implicitly, if not explicitly, that there are limits to both the damage that can be wrought and to the force that can be deployed to quell the rioting.

Riots spread from a suburb of Paris to over 300 towns across France, after the police shot dead a teenager of North African descent, Nahel Marzouk, in a traffic stop that proved one too many for the alienated, unemployed, ill-educated youth of immigrant stock, subjected to routine racial profiling by the police. The police have had to arrest thousands of people, including minors before a semblance of calm returned to the land of liberty, equality and fraternity.

In Madhya Pradesh, after a video emerged of an upper caste man urinating on a tribal labourer, there was no revolt by tribal people or other subaltern groups. All we had was a revolting display of affected concern by political leaders, either to douse or to arouse a possible negative reaction in the Assembly polls due in the next few months.

Why juxtapose these two developments, seemingly so unrelated and in two places 7,000 odd km apart? Because these tell a story about the degree of democratic development in their respective lands, one of which saw multiple revolutions to overthrow feudal rule and monarchy to establish democracy, while the other could seemingly dispense with such convulsions because, according to its prime minister, it has democracy in its DNA.

Quelling Riots

A rose is a rose is a rose. That is not the case with riots. In some riots, the rioters and the police both accept, implicitly, if not explicitly, that there are limits to both the damage that can be wrought and to the force that can be deployed to quell the rioting. Expressions of disaffection can take forms that range from cultural subversion to acts of manifest violence. While violence is against the law, depending on its degree and its context, it might be viewed as a tolerable exception to the rule, rather than as a total rejection or overthrow of all rules. The rioting in France would appear to fall into this category.

In a culture that celebrates the rupture of normalcy by citizens asserting their rights, whether the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, the student uprising of 1968, or even the Gilet Jaunes protests against high fuel taxes in Emmanuel Macron’s first term as president, the State and the citizen both occupy a shared democratic space, whose boundaries are flexible enough to not rupture under some degree of stress and distortion.

Things are a little different in India. The modern State was built by the British to rule over subjects, not to enable citizens. Its innate ethos and culture have carried over to Independent India, after the transfer of power, complete with its legal and institutional infrastructure. If a riot continues for any extended period in India, it is only because the State is willing to let it continue. Otherwise, there are no limits to the force that can be used to suppress it.

Of course, we hold periodic elections, to choose our representatives. But we see our votes in transactional terms — as something that can be parlayed for money, booze or handouts from the State. Migrant workers were treated worse than cattle during the pandemic, driven to despair and long treks back home. Yet they voted, by and large, for the same party that forced that degradation on them — grateful for the free food and other goodies the State handed out later.

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Caste hierarchy

We do not fund our political parties. We let political parties fund themselves from the proceeds of corruption via loot of the exchequer, sale of patronage or plain extortion of tribute. Our system of political funding creates a binding relationship between industry and politics, whether that relationship is flaunted at Davos or not. We do not mind if our elected representatives change colours faster than a chameleon. We re-elect defectors, instead of treating them as creatures from an evolutionary rung below the development of the spinal chord.

But more fundamentally, we not just tolerate but positively thrive on institutionalised inequality, sustained more by indirect, than by overt, use of force. When Pravesh Shukla urinated on Dashmat Rawat, he was asserting his total superiority over, and the unquestionable subjugation of, the tribal man.

We delegitimised caste hierarchy in the Constitution, enacted laws to criminalise caste atrocities, and secured the acquiescence of a tiny elite among the subaltern castes by granting them quotas in government jobs and education, but maintain and effectively reinforce the massively unequal distribution of political, and social, economic and cultural power across different sections of society. As the level of education required to enter the upper echelons of society goes up, those whose educational attainments remain rudimentary recede in the social hierarchy.

All broad measures of human capacity, asset ownership, social progress and educational attainment show a similar picture: the plains tribals are placed at the bottom of the ranking, the scheduled castes above them, the minorities above the scheduled castes, the other backward castes above the minorities and upper caste Hindus on top.

To remove poverty and disease and ignorance and inequality of opportunity — thus did Jawaharlal Nehru identify the goals of a free India. We have made some progress in removing poverty and disease. But ignorance and inequality of opportunity have grown. Indian culture never encouraged critical thinking — it had and has the potential to subvert caste. Now, aided by social media and concerted propaganda, make-believe worlds stand in for knowledge and awareness.

Tokens of solicitude

The ongoing slow death of the public school system has worsened the inequality of opportunity. Those who can invest in tuition or private schools can hope to get some education. Others can go through the motions, emerge with a certificate and join the army of know-nothings who, if they are lucky, get on-the-job training or, if they are unlucky, join the low-earning informal workforce that keeps India a low-wage, low-productivity economy constrained by a level of demand for consumer goods that is a fraction of what a well-earning population would have generated.

After the video of empowered urination went public, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan washed the feet of the abused. It may be recalled that at the 2019 Kumbh Mela, Prime Minister Narendra Modi washed the feet of five Dalit men.

Such tokens of solicitude add to the morass of ideology that keeps the subaltern trapped in submission and hope of redemption by patrons and governments, or, thanks to their own passive acceptance of their fate, by being reborn into a superior caste, the next time around. Months after the prime minister washed the feet of five Valmikis, a Valmiki girl was abducted, raped and killed at Hathras. The long arm of the State, which the foot-washing exercise promised would help, intervened to burn the body of the girl without giving the family a chance to conduct a proper cremation or for any possible further examination for DNA evidence.

The short point is that India’s democracy is more an aspiration than an achieved reality. India needs a movement to build democracy, not empty rhetoric of having democracy in its DNA. We have segregation and oppression in our DNA, and we need drastic gene editing, not an indiscriminate glorification of our ancestors and antecedents.

This article was first published in The Federal as Outrage in France vs Charade in tribal MP: Hard-won democracy vs democracy in DNA on July 8, 2023.

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  • TK Arun

    TK Arun is a Senior Journalist and Columnist based in Delhi.

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