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!)