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This is the first in a series of three recaps of SAI’s Symposium, which took place on May 5 and 6, 2016.

By Priyasha Saksena, SJD Candidate, Harvard Law School; SAI Graduate Student Associate


From left: Veena Das, Hitesh Hathi, Menaka Guruswamy, Partha Chatterjee

On May 6, the South Asia Institute’s Annual Symposium, “Who Speaks for Democracy Across South Asia?” featured a panel facilitated by Veena Das, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University, which focused on two questions. The first question related to the manner in which religious differences are negotiated, mediated, and managed within South Asia and what this says about the nature of democracy in South Asia. The second question related to material conditions and how democracy had responded to the aspirations and needs of the poor.

Partha Chatterjee, Professor, Anthropology and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University, kicked off the discussion by pointing out that the current moment was a good one to take stock of democracy in South Asia since it was a rare moment when all countries in the region had democratically elected governments. He noted that it was deceptive to confine the discussion to formal institutions of democracy since practice was often very different from the ideals of constitutional law and design. He argued that numerous changes in South Asia had led to an enormous spatial mobility of labour as a result, of which local kinship and community ties had collapsed. This, he argued, resulted in new ideas of religion, caste and language, with the ideas of “majority” and “minority” becoming the result of active political construction. For the bulk of the population, he argued, democracy was about social mobility; this meant that electoral politics was largely about populism.

Chatterjee also pointed out that the democratic reach of political parties in South Asia was very high (with high proportions of the population being members of parties); however, political parties had no internal democracy. This led to the puzzle of democratic institutions being accompanied by a traditional idea of a fair and benevolent ruler, although he noted that Western democracies were not free of this phenomenon either. He concluded by noting that the overall aspiration of democracy in the region was strong, although the motivations were varied and the institutional foundations were fragile.

Menaka Guruswamy, Visiting Lecturer in Law and Peter and Patricia Gruber Fellow in Global Justice, Yale Law School, discussed what she termed the “undeniable linkages” among South Asian countries with respect to the ideas of constitutional democracy. Her first example was of 1947, when, she noted, the birth of India and Pakistan was accompanied by the arrest of Bishweshwar Koirala, who later became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Nepal. She also gave the example of Sir Ivor Jennings, who advised a series of South Asian countries on their constitutions, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan (although not India, where he was kept out by Jawaharlal Nehru). In addition to origins, she also discussed the silences – all constitutions were silent on the violence of Partition (and other forms of violence) and the aftermath. Her third example emphasized the key role played by the British East India Company in constitution making; its treaty with Nepal handed Terai to India, a region where protests against the new Nepali constitution were the strongest.

Using these examples, Guruswamy argued that there were common origins of the constitutional heritage of South Asian countries, and their contradictions and silences were revealing. She concluded by discussing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as the strongest challenge to the constitutional democratic fabric of India since independence. Denouncing the RSS tools of re-education, the silencing of opposition, the use of colonial statutes and the “desecration of thoughtful discourse,” Guruswamy made a passionate argument in favor of the construction of a new political narrative that would be compelling to the youth who had gravitated towards the narrow, unconstitutional narrative of the RSS and PM Modi.


Hitesh Hathi

Hitesh Hathi, Executive Producer, Radio Boston, WBUR, expanded on the idea of a political narrative by arguing that only those who spoke English had a voice at the table and spoke for democracy in India, in the sense of creating a political narrative. He argued that the rise of parties such as the BJP was linked to the hope of the bulk of the population of the end of the English raj, the English-speaking elite, who he claimed was a caste of people more powerful than the British.

Hathi illustrated his argument with anecdotes from Hindi cinema and social movements, noting that Hindi speakers were unable to get jobs in Hindi cinema, and Marathi-speaking Trupti Desai, who had been successful in obtaining temple entry for women, had been subject to condescension from English-speaking activists. Language, he argued, was important, since different languages brought different sets of issues to the table. He discussed the methods used by Mahatma Gandhi, arguing that he had used local idioms and vocabulary to challenge British rule, and concluded that there were different visions of the state by people who were not on the table, and an engagement with all had to be undertaken.


Mubbashir Rizvi

Mubbashir Rizvi, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Georgetown University, spoke more broadly of connections in South Asia, and specifically on the parallels between India and Pakistan, which, he noted, were usually considered to be opposites when it came to democracy. For instance, he argued, both countries grappled with the issue of the vernacular and the proper role of language, and both struggled with political crises that usually led to the rise of anti-democratic political mobilizations (such as political Islam or Hindutva). He also noted some distinctions, pointing out that Indians had elected Hindutva parties, while Pakistan had not elected Islamist parties – it was a top-down, rather than a bottom-up project in Pakistan.

Turning specifically to social movements in Pakistan, Rizvi argued that they had ensured vibrant debates for some periods of time despite suppression and dictatorship. For instance, he noted the success of the military farms movement in central Punjab, where farmers had been successful against the army, and so argued that there was both a need to bring in regional dynamics, as well as to remain cautiously optimistic about the space for political agency and mobilization in the region.

Tunku Varadarajan, Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, focused mainly on India, arguing that he preferred to resist sweeping generalizations. Terming India a “jugaad democracy,” he noted that it had mastered elections and had chosen leaders with almost tedious regularity, but lacked institutions and checks and balances that constrained leaders on what they could do once elected. On the issue of managing religious differences, he noted that Pakistan’s approach was to place the onus of accommodation on religious minorities (since all minorities were treated as different), while India’s approach was to more inclusive and based in secularism (since everyone was considered to be different, although he admitted that this idea was under strain on account of the Hindutva discourse), with Bangladesh being caught in the middle of the two approaches.

Tunku Varadarajan, left

Tunku Varadarajan, left

On the question of material conditions, Varadarajan argued that there was a need for governance, which had failed in all countries; this failure led to a series of barriers to education, healthcare, choice, capital, information, justice, self-determination etc. For India, he pointed both to the positive (free private sector, greater international connections, more economic and political heft at the international stage) as well the negative (poor government and opposition, apex judiciary, military and police leaders, press and the worst period of cultural intolerance ever) – despite what appeared to be a very long list of “worsts,” he argued that Indian democracy was a potent force to fight against what he termed to be a list of “aberrations.”

In the open discussion following the remarks, the panelists discussed whether nationalism could be taken out of the equation to help improve South Asian relations. Vardarajan argued that nationalism was a barrier but could not be pushed away; the question was whether it could be channelled in good ways. Rizvi argued that many of the barriers rose in colonial times, although he also mentioned that it was important not to romanticize the pre-colonial past. Chatterjee reminded the audience that it was impossible for the region to break out of its inherited history, and instead left it as a question of negotiation of borders and boundaries.

On a separate question of the collapse of borders due to globalization, Rizvi argued that although some borders had collapsed, new borders had sprung up that limited economic and social mobility. Hathi linked limited social mobility to the rise of nationalist parties such as the BJP, which he argued had come to power on account of the failure of previous governments to provide basic necessities to its citizens. On the issue of economic difficulties, Rizvi conceded that it was difficult to guess whether the Pakistani military, which was heavily engaged in commercial activities, would respond by engaging in negotiations or by becoming more obdurate, but contended that electoral governance and the possibility of further democratic transitions remained a cause for optimism. In the Indian context, Chatterjee noted the recent rise of alliances between Dalit, minority, and radical leftist movements, and Guruswamy pointed out Mayawati’s remarkable ability to build caste coalitions for governance as well as the non-English dominant regional parties as noteworthy factors to be considered on the issue of subaltern identities.

In the increasingly difficult and often oppressive atmosphere of South Asian politics, there are evidently a range of opinions on the operation and the future of democracy in South Asia. Some panelists were more optimistic (at least for parts of the area), while others expressed their concerns about the future of the fabric of constitutional democracy in the region. On the whole, the panelists raised a number of interesting and provocative ideas on issues of language, nationalism, inclusiveness, and identity in South Asia.

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