Tuesday, April 11, 2006


It might seem a bit odd to say this, but increasingly I'm beginning to feel that one of the biggest threats to Indian democracy comes from. . . India's independent judiciary.

More specifically, from the fact that over the last several years, the Delhi branch of this judiciary (not to mention the Supreme Court) has amply demonstrated that the interests it is most exercised about are ones that pertain to the urban middle- and upper-classes. Monuments need to be beautified? No problem: "squatters" and even partition-era refugees and their descendants can just clear off (as has happened to the former around the Nila Gumbad opposite Humayun's tomb, and as eems likely to happen soon to the latter at Masjid Moth and at Firozabad). While certainly Delhi's government bears responsibility for demolishing settlements without making adequate alternative provisions (no-one can fail to be impressed by the state government's-- and the NDA tourism ministry's-- drive to restore many of the city's monuments to former glory, most notably in the case of Humayun's tomb, but the callous indifference to the fate of the people dispossessed is galling), surely it has been helped in its efforts by the knowledge that the judiciary either will approve of the measures proposed, or will in fact on its own volition order the government to undertake such measures to begin with.

Don't believe me? Then check out the fate of Nangla Machi. Or better yet, be moved to outrage by the fate of Nangla Machi (the very fate that haunts millions of Indians).

Would that the Nangla demolition was an aberration; rather, it is the norm that reveals the ugly face of-- and the judiciary's accord with-- urban upwardly mobile India's indifference to those whom it shares the polity with (but would rather not): think the Narmada dam (during which shining moment the Supreme Court accepted the government's contention that the those displaced by increasing the dam's height would be re-settled, even though the governments of the very states where the dispossessed were supposed to be re-settled had already made clear that they just did not have enough land to re-settle all but a fraction of those dispossessed, and certainly not on land approximating the quality of the original holdings of these refugees of (from?) modernity); think the closure of polluting units in Delhi nearly a decade ago (by judicial fiat. Just. Like. That.)

And once you're done thinking, don't be so surprised at the success of "lower caste" parties in UP and Bihar, and increasingly elsewhere in India. Because in those states, those who inhabit (in Mehmood Farooqui's memorable words) the margins of our sympathy know they are not excluded from the polity's public image, from its self-image, from-- increasingly these days-- its very language. The UP/Bihar "model" is no panacaea; its shortcomings are well known (most tragically the utter indifference of so many to even rudimentary governance), but its strengths are often glossed over. Simply put: the Dalit basti of Katchipura still stands behind the Taj Mahal. The cruelty we saw at Nangla Machi is certainly not impossible in UP and Bihar, but implementing such cruelty and violence in the name of good governance, in the name of a purely technocratic solution to what remains above all a political act, is far more difficult. In the contemporary climate, that is no mean feat.

UPDATE April 12, 2006: But even the courts can get something right (though this does not undermine the thesis that the Delhi judiciary is among the worst offenders). I salute the Bombay High Court's resistance to the shameless attempts by many in the Bombay political class to pick on one of urban India's relatively "marginalized" classes of workers. Even more heartening was the outpouring of support by so many Bombayites from all walks of life in the wake of the Congress-NCP government's ban (while I am typically the first to criticize political formations like the BJP and the Shiv Sena, I note that even the saffron coalition never undertook to criminalize dance bars), including in the blogverse (many thanks for writing these pieces Sonia!)


zhivago said...

hi qalandar...your blog is a pretty refreshing compared to countless other only pro-India/Hindu blogs which overlook or completely ignore any misdeeds of their society/history.

question for you, having read your opinion about the indian judiciary, can one really claim India to be democratic? I'm sure we can speak relatively and find one nation that has a worse record in political pracitces/development however, india works hard to gain recogniztion for being the largest democracy in the world, in its case i think justification for such a title should not only be completely factual but a requirement.

by the way, i have bugged a few indian bloggers about issues that you discuss very eloquently, i hope they will have a chance to read/comment on issues that i have read about thus far on here.

Qalandar said...

Re: "can one really claim India to be democratic?"

I think the paragraph beginning "And once you're done thinking..." might contain the seeds of an answer to this question.

In general, my view is that democracy -- wherever in the world we are talking about, is not about "being" but "becoming", not about an "is" but an "ought to be". That is, be it Belgium, India or the United States, a polity is only as democratic as it continues to try to be. Turning to India, that is one of the things I find most hopeful and most heartening about the society/polity: that there is very little of the smug "we are a democracy so things are good enough" that one often comes across in Western democracies (i.e. all too often there is a confusion between the fact that one is an advanced economy with one's commitment to democracy). In India, and especially over the last two-three decades, the number of different groups. communities, what-have-you who have served notice on this sort of complacency, is eye-popping. It follows from my view that complacency --about Indian democracy, or any other kind of democracy -- is incompatible with the democratic spirit, so I don't bring this up to say "wah wah" and then we can all stop thinking about the problems. I bring it up so that we not lapse prematurely into the trap of defeatism and cynicism -- just as much as authoritarianism, these are also democracy's enemies...

Zhivago said...

yah i see where your optimism may be rooted. however my question is rather not abuut the few instances or indviduals that have the strenth to encourge some insignificant temporary change but rather about those main political heads which cover their behinds constantly internatinoally with the facade of india as a fucntioning democratic state.

i agree with the western lazy acceptance of its current so called democratic approach, specifically internationally, however the west has independent organization nationally, private as well which have complete freedom to speak against their adminstration. this doesnt seem to be the case in india. where victims of 84/2002 still await justice and are afraid to peacefully protest.

i do believe that change is always a phenomenon that is erected from within, however the social/cultural/religious factors are too dense in india for any solid unifying factor to be found, there is always captilism/education but the current reaction to reservations shows the complete inpathy towards the historical tragedy of the lower cates/ untouchables by the upper castes. further, with genocides of 84, 2002 provide many unanswered questions and injustices.

overall there has to be some liberatarian, even religious movement from within, which is willing to gothru all means to bring india's darker side to justice. i dont see no such commitment in india.

criticism is often mistaken for cynicism, espeically by individuals/agencies colored with blind patriotism or groundless optimism.

Qalandar said...

Re: "i dont see no such commitment in india."

I, on the other hand, do.

zhivago said...

im sure you naturally expected me ask "what are they"?

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