The officialdom’s worry over the peaceful farmer’s march during the Republic Day parade was not entirely unfounded. A terror strike or some violence triggered by agent provocateurs sponsored by hostile foreign elements could never be ruled out.
But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. Much as the tableaus from different states during the official Republic Day parade showcase the plurality of India and reinforces the cement and glue that holds together the world’s most diverse ancient civilization-state, the farmer’s march was an unambiguous display of democracy.
Cut back to 1989, to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Chinese army tanks rolling over protesting students and youths – the contrast could not be starker. This R-Day farmers’ march and the one scheduled to the parliament on the Budget Day only underlines the strength of Indian democracy, boosting both the optics and the substance that holds together an apparent chaotic political-administrative process.
My foreign students in Calcutta’s Satyajit Ray Film Institute appeared worried over the 2019 NRC-CAA demonstrations until I told them that India is a vibrant democracy, of which peaceful and occasionally not-so-peaceful protest are a part and parcel. They finally mustered the courage to film the protests and some said ‘ hope my country was like this’.
The gap between China’s and India’s economic performance has widened sharply in the last thirty years since Tiananmen – but so has the levels of freedom to protest.
This, despite the right-wing ascendancy in India that has rattled its religious minorities, despite occasional Western comparisons between China’s treatment of Uighurs in Sinkiang and India’s treatment of Kashmiris both before and after the reorganization of the violence-scarred province.
During an academic seminar in 2019, I screened on my laptop the Hindi film “Haider” for three of my Chinese friends, all top academics attached to leading think-tanks. I asked them whether something like this film so critical of Indian handling of Kashmir could be done by a Chinese director on the Uighurs or Tibetans. ‘Forget it’ said one, ‘not possible’ said the two others.
The answers reminded me of the utter surprise that my Chinese ‘elder sister’, a professor with a Beijing Institute, expressed in 1989. We were contemporaries at Oxford, Indian students were divided over the Bofors scam and even a serving IAS officer from Bihar on a programme at the Queen Elizabeth House would openly attack Rajiv Gandhi and his family for allegedly accepting kickbacks.
My Chinese friend could not believe it – ‘brother, how can you people say such things about your Prime Minister’. “We elect the Prime Minister and he is answerable to us,” came the unhesitant reply from an Indian scholar from Hyderabad.
1989 brought out the sharp contrast between the Dragon and the Elephant. In India, a young Prime Minister who had led his party to a huge victory five years ago was standing down after losing the polls in a peaceful transition of power, while in China, the communist gerontocracy, which had ordered tanks to roll over the protesting students, hung on to power despite being reduced to a global pariah for a while.
Rajiv’s successor, V P Singh also faced the fierce Mandal protests marked by the unfortunate self-immolations, but no tanks rolled over the protestors. When the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh combination unleashed the economic reforms, India did show promise of catching with China’s speedy growth and though that has not quite happened, India’s economic success story cannot be wished away.
A country that can grow economically without being authoritarian is India’s message to the world, its answer to votaries of China-inspired Asian growth models based on ‘limited democracy’ that’s a euphemism for a one-party state.
Some hyper-nationalist Chinese and military-loving Pakistanis have tended to see India’s democracy as its greatest weakness. A retired Bangladesh military intelligence officer once warned me in 2008 of ISI attempts to motivate some Northeastern militants covertly based in Bangladesh into conducting serial bombings in Assam. I asked him why Assam! Pat came to the reply – “Your PM (Manmohan Singh) is elected from Assam and that is where India and Bangladesh Special Forces are planning a joint exercise in Jorhat.” He insisted he knew the Pakistani army better than I did – he had served in it for three years before joining the Bengali rebellion in March 1971.
“They (Pakistan army) see your democracy as your weakness,” said the retired Bangladesh major. The Assam police overlooked my warnings of ‘Operation Saraighat’, the serial bombings happened and led to more than 80 deaths, the Special Forces exercise fell through as anti-Bangladesh sentiments swelled in Assam and only when Sheikh Hasina came to power a year later were these rebels chased out of Bangladesh.
But India’s democracy and its secular polity, though under some belated strain, is its greatest asset. MQM’s Altaf Hussain, who I interviewed in the UK for my book on South Asia’s Proxy Wars (“Insurgent Crossfire”), insisted that in India, ‘rebels can become chief ministers after fighting India for 20 years, but in my country, it is victory or death’. (He was referring to MNF leader Laldenga).
30 June, 1986, the day the Mizo Accord was signed, should therefore be observed as Reconciliation Day to underscore the process of peaceful settlement of violent insurgencies that independent India has been able to achieve often. Despite 23 years of tortuous negotiations with the Naga rebel leadership, a final settlement has not been achieved but the good thing is that the negotiations continue.
Will China ever negotiate with Uighurs or even Dalai Lama who wants a Tibetan solution within China? A question one should put to leaders of rebel groups in India’s Northeast.
On this Republic Day, the march of the Bangladesh military contingent was as significant as the farmers march – on the year that Bangladesh celebrates the Golden Jubilee of its independence, the march brought back nostalgic memories of 1971, of a victory, achieved together against a brutal army perpetrating one of the worst genocides of modern history.
No wonder, Sheikh Hasina asks UN to recognize the 1971 genocide and the Pakistanis to formally apologize for it. It also leaves a lesson for Kashmiris which some of its leaders seeking Chinese intervention may ponder over — if the Bengalis Muslim, a clear majority in Pakistan, did not get justice and had to break off, if the Pashtun , the Sindhi and the Baloch still fight against the jackboots, what hope does Pakistan hold out for the Kashmiris !
China’s military subjugation of Tibet and Pakistan’s failed effort to subjugate the Bengalis of East Pakistan stands out in stark contrast to the faith Indian -and then Bangladeshi- leaders have reposed in negotiated settlements with recalcitrant ethnic minorities.
Mizoram 1986 and Chittagong Hill Tracts 1997 settlements are cases in point. Pakistanis stood shocked when BJP’s Atal Behari Vajpayee led national delegations as Opposition leader because, in their country, Opposition leaders only end up in jail.
An aspirational young India has so much to be proud of, though it has some worries to deal with. Our threat from within comes from elements who argue that we should be like China to achieve what China has achieved. Beware of them.