Democracy: A Western Religion


On November 21, a Mumbai political goon, Bal Thackeray, died. His party, or gang, is so formidable that the state has, for decades, bent its rule to accommodate its members. If they want the city closed, the police take the lead in closing it, to avoid violence. If you challenge the gang, the police put you under “protective custody.” For decades his gang has extracted protection money. You cannot speak his name without showing the highest possible respect, unless you want to get beaten up, sometimes very ruthlessly.

When Thackeray died, his gang instructed the city to be closed. Everyone who was someone in Mumbai — actors, sportsmen, businessmen, politicians (even of the opposing parties) — had to go to his funeral to pay his condolences. If any had not, he would have had to explain to the gang or leave Mumbai and see his career destroyed.

One girl posted this message on her Facebook page and another “liked” it:

With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. Just due to one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. When was the last time, did anyone showed some respect or even a two-minute silence for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we are free-living Indians? Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.

The two Facebook girls were arrested, their faces covered by the police, and the court asked them to be imprisoned. Unless they want to be raped and then beaten up, they are unlikely to return to Mumbai. Even their extended families might have to leave Mumbai now. Not easily given to tears, I had some. These girls deserved the respect of society. For me they are heroes despite the fact that they erroneously believed they were “free-living Indians.”

These were two cute, educated, middle-class girls, so their case came out in public. In rural India, however, events like these are non-events. There the normal guy lives in utter fear of the police and the local strongman and must grovel. He talks with folded hands and bent head. He has no sense of his rights. He accepts what he can get away with. He concedes what the local strongman wants.

Those Westerners who visit only Mumbai and who can never stop comparing India’s democracy (with some mystical favorable connotations) to Chinese dictatorship (with only evil connotations) should have seen that India is not a country of the rule of law, unless you employ million-dollar lawyers.

Really we see what we want to see, what fits in with our pre-conceived notions. Given that Western people fanatically believe in their religion of democracy, they will rationalize the Mumbai incident as a case of India’s “aggressive” democracy. There are hundreds of recorded protests in China every year. The same people who have very romantic opinions about India call protests in China a sign of the fragile nature of its “dictatorship.” Then they proceed to contradict themselves by saying that there is no freedom of speech in China. They find reasons why China’s economic progress is not real or why China is not a free country, as it would be, were it a democracy.

Recently in China, a very well-known, successful businessman, who was taking me around rural places, told me why he did not want his country to become a democracy. He said that if local democracy were encouraged in China, it would very rapidly make China a place run by strongmen. He described how this would void whatever “rule of law,” predictability, and stability now exists. China is not a perfect country, and I do recognize that my guide wants dictatorship to continue for his personal interests, but I couldn’t agree with him more.

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Thank you for opening my eyes a little wider.

Jon Harrison

What a pleasure to see Bhandari posting here again. But I don't share his somewhat benign view of China. It's an authoritarian country at least as corrupt and oppresive as India -- just in different ways. The Chinese twist is to allow a modicum of protest as a safety-valve, lest the pressure of popular discontent build to the boiling point. But make no mistake, the Chinese governing elite is a Mafia, and will silence critics with death if necessary in order to preserve itself. Indeed, would the Chinese allow the extent of protest we see in India over the rape and murder of the girl on the bus? They would not.

But I return to Bhandari the writer. He should frequent this space, not just drop in periodically.

Jayant Bhandari

Thank you for your kind words. I agree it is difficult to make a like-to-like comparison between two different societies. Following however is my view:

Chinese government is extremely scared for high inflation and high unemployment. It has kept deregulating its economy because they are scared of troubles. On the other hand, despite very high inflation and very high unemployment, demonstrations have been very limited in India.

The rape case you mention is very interesting. The police did its job by arresting the alleged rapists. So, who are these protestors fighting against? There is no identifiable sub-group involved.

My view is that, Indian government in general wants to strictly control demonstrations. The demonstrations after this rape have two factors… One is that the State WANTS such demonstration. The demonstrators are asking for death penalty for rapists and increased police surveillance. Which State does not want increased powers? (A relative of mine, ironically a girl, was recently detained by the police and had to pay a bribe because the glasses in her car were tinted, which is now against regulations.) The second aspect of the demonstrations is that I think the Indian State is so rotten and the police so undisciplined that they are simply incapable for controlling crowds like this.

Just to add… I shudder to think that Indians are asking for increased police surveillance. This is utmost naivety, at best. It will give police an easy hand to harass innocent men, for they now have a cultural acceptance to act harshly on men alleged to have raped. Law should never presuppose that women are innocent. They are not. And this is not going to ease relationships between men and women.

If the Indians had really awakened and if they had felt a real outrage, they would have asked for improving overall governance in what is an extremely corrupt country. Alas, virtually every Indian I know would happily pay a bribe to earn an illegitimate advantage over others.

Jon Harrison

Well, I have to say that I don't know enough about Indian conditions to speak wisely on this. Do you maintain that the media reports about widespread rapes reported but not prosecuted are largely cases of "she was asking for it", or just exaggerations or misreporting by the media?

You ask: Who are the protestors fighting against? If the reports of widespread rape ignored by the authorities are true, then it seems only human that people will be pushed over the edge by this latest outrage, and will take to the streets. I can certainly agree with you that Indian society is corrupt through and through (that's my take based on some knowledge and research), but I would say that the protests are a manifestation of health in a sick body.

IF rape in India is as widespread and unpunished as the media is telling us, I find your attitude expressed above rather shocking, even horrific. Maybe it's just because I have a daughter, but I don't think so.

Are the reports of widespread and unpunished rape in India true, or not? Or are many Indian girls just "asking for it"?

Jayant Bhandari

When I say that the law should NOT PRESUPPOSE that a man is guilty does not mean I am saying that women who get raped are asking for it. LACK of due process of law has deep roots in India. Police would normally beat a few innocent people to pulp and extract confessions from them. Or better still they would just kill them and then claim to have killed criminals (Encounter Killings). Indeed there is a law in India that presuppose guilt of a man in case his wife reports about his asking for dowry. This law is known to be very widely abused.

If one is really outraged, one would want proper laws and procedures, not façades.

To respond to your other question…

Of course most rape cases do not get reported. Her case got reported mostly because she ended up in the hospital. The rare ones that end up in the courts take years before they get anywhere. The court system is completely corrupt. Every decision is based on bribes. But that is the case with not just rape cases, but with absolutely everything.

Virtually every female friend of mine from outside India has faced some kind of sexual harassment while traveling alone in India. There is hardly ever any outrage about such cases, for Indians don’t think it affects them. Moreover, Indians would not want such cases to be publicized as they make India look bad and discourages tourism.

Human trafficking is very common in India. Hundreds of thousands of girls are forced into prostitution. Thousands of people die of hunger. You don’t have to go to small cities to see orphans being abused by the police. You can see that happening at the Delhi train-station. Girls in orphanages are used by those in the authority. Police and the army run Kashmir and all of north-eastern provinces with an iron-hand and with impunity. Properties of poor people are confiscated for the so-called larger good for a pittance. There is hardly ever any outrage, for all these are poor people. In fact, most “educated” people wholeheartedly support what the police do in such cases.

Despite the above, I do hope that the demonstrations that happened against this rape case were, as you say, a sign of improving health.

Jon Harrison

I'm glad to see your latest comment. The statement, "Law should never presuppose women are innocent. They are not." while technically valid, seems very harsh in light of what amounts (if media reports are to be believed) to a rape culture in India, and particularly after the bus incident in which a woman was not only gang raped, but killed.

Jayant Bhandari

Encounter Killings =

Jon Harrison

Encounter killings are, as you know better than most, just another aspect of the corruption that oozes from the Indian state. But I don't see the relevance to the issue of widespread, unpunished rape in India. Should I or any other man not commit rape solely out of fear of being caught, prosecuted, and punished? The responsibilty of the indiviual only grows when the state fails to enforce the rules of civilization.

I do sympathize with your anger and despair over the mess that your homeland has become. The Indians were quite foolish to throw out the Raj. Despite occasional enormities such as Amritsar, they were better off under British rule than at any time since the death of Ashoka (ca. 227 B.C.).

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