T K Arun
Not just domestic zealots but India’s external enemies wait to feed religious bigotry and radicalism on the part of the majority and the minority. They also serve who stand and harm — if only by negative example. The swift victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan has salutary lessons for us in India, and not just about the possibility of Afghan-trained, Pak-armed and -inspired terrorists running amok in Kashmir. Some of these lessons are on democracy and liberty.
The societal norms upheld by the Taliban stink, whether modes of punishment such as stoning to death and amputation of limbs, or the enshrouding of women in multiple layers of unfreedom. These are repugnant not so much to modern sensibilities of justice and gender equality as to democracy.
Democracy Over Faith
The Taliban justify their medieval norms on the basis of their understanding of Islam. Whether their interpretation of Islam is valid or not should concern those who want to live by the norms of Islam, but that is immaterial to these norms’ absolute incompatibility with, and enmity to, democracy.
Now, there is no such thing as perfect liberty, except for a Robinson Crusoe. When people live together as a community, one person’s liberty is constrained by another’s. Democracy is the best form of arriving at an equitable compromise on how much of one individual’s liberty can be constrained so as to expand the others’.
The Taliban norms – they call it the Sharia norms – are incompatible with democracy, and these have to be rejected, whether they accord with Islamic norms or not. Certain sections of India’s Muslims seek to implement the Sharia. They undermine democracy, and the whole gamut of minority rights that are part and parcel of democracy. Self-styled secularists, who indulge such Sharia love in the name of defending the minorities from majoritarianism, harm democracy and substantive minority rights.
There is a strand of secular/leftist thinking that conflates American retreat from Afghanistan with the rise of the Taliban, and feels constrained to celebrate the superpower’s setback and Afghans’ reclaiming of sovereignty without condemning the Taliban. They make the mistake, in converse, that Indian Communists made when they declared, for a brief period, India’s Independence to be spurious, because of the persistence of landlordism and caste oppression in Briton-free India. They swiftly corrected themselves, separated the battle against colonialism from the battle for realised democracy, joined the people in celebrating victory in the first battle and sought to rally their support in the second one. Why they lost their way thereafter is a separate story.
People who are well-informed on such matters say that the Quran asks Muslims to see its dictates in context, rather than follow them literally. It is for the pious to sort out how to work out congruence between faith and democracy. What there should be absolute clarity on, however, is that when religious dictum conflicts with democracy, democracy should prevail — just as Manu’s laws on the caste system and women’s subordinate status have no place in a democracy or the Indian Constitution.
Corruption as Enemy
It is not just the threat that the Taliban pose to democracy in Afghanistan that counts. The Taliban’s triumph has been fuel for Islamophobia in India. This poses a double threat to democracy.
Majoritarian assault on the minority’s right to live with dignity is a direct attack on democracy. This has been gaining ground in India, with lynch mobs feeling they have licence. When the State’s institutions fail to rein in such attacks, there is the danger of the victims losing faith in democracy and resorting to extra constitutional forms of resistance, setting off a vicious cycle of State repression and violent response.
Not just domestic zealots but India’s external enemies wait to feed religious bigotry and radicalism on the part of the majority and the minority. Amidst conflict, laws such as the UAPA that suspend some constitutional rights become easier to deploy, to everyone’s loss.
It is in this context that terror sponsored by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and enabled by jihadi elements in Afghanistan would further erode democracy in India, apart from threatening life and peace of mind.
There is yet another democratic lesson to be learnt from the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Except for their special commando units, the Afghan national defence forces put up no fight against the Taliban. Nor was there any popular uprising, any militia taking up arms, against the Taliban. Few felt the Ashraf Ghani regime to be worth fighting for. Corruption and cronyism had hollowed out the Afghan State.
Corruption is not just something that diverts funds from public purpose to private gain. It is something that corrodes democracy, eats into popular faith in the institutions of the State and makes it easy for the undemocratic to take over, in the name of fighting corruption.
Democracy anywhere in the world is a work in progress. India’s is all the more rudimentary, easy to hollow out while retaining the shell. Strengthening democracy means learning from the Taliban’s negative example, as well.
This article first appeared in The Economic Times: The Taliban offer multiple, vital lessons in democracy, if only by negative example on 31 August 2021.
About the Author
T K Arun, is a ET consulting editor.