Letter from America: Indian Dream or Delirium?
Last week while driving between Erie in Pennsylvania and Cleveland in Ohio, I called Ravindran - an old friend, originally from Madras in India, who studied with me at both the University of California and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
We have known each other since 1980 and maintained our friendship in spite of the fact that I have settled in the Philadelphia area in the east coast for almost a quarter century, and he still tied up in post-doctoral research work at the prestigious USC.
Amongst other things we discussed politics. Raj strongly believes that all the south Asian countries that once belonged to the British Raj should be united under a single federation. He believes that the partition of India was a grave mistake and that none of the countries in the region outside India has what it takes to become a vibrant democracy. With all the street politics oozing out their ugliness, surely, it seems that Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal are not ready for democracy.
Bangladesh achieved its independence from Pakistan on 16 December, 1971 after a bloody civil war that lasted for nearly nine months. The secular constitution, adopted within a year, proclaims a parliamentary form of democracy, and yet after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – revered as the father of the nation (more like what Gandhi was to India) – on 15 August, 1975, in a CIA inspired military coup, military or quasi-military regimes prevailed for the next 15 years.
Since the fall of military dictator Hossain M. Ershad in 1990 the position of the prime minister has rotated between two female leaders that run the two major political parties – the Awami League and the BNP. To many outsiders, the economic miracles of Bangladesh in the last few years which have put the country amongst the Next 11 countries (that have the potential to becoming major economies) owe their success to her smart, hard-working, rapidly growing entrepreneurs and that if these two leaders had stopped their political bickering for power – the ‘nasty’ rivalry, the tit-for-tat vindictive politics, Bangladesh’s economy would have seen a much higher growth rate than demonstrated hitherto.
Truly, for the last two decades, the parliament has failed to become the house for debating national issues, and instead, the streets in towns and cities have become the venues to show opposition to government policies.
On any given day, tens of millions of hours are lost by Bangladeshi commuters, and add to this worsening menace the strikes and protests called by opposition parties, often violent ones, which disrupt all the means of transportation and virtually paralyze the country. With election due within a year, there is no shortage of such dastardly behaviors of a failing democracy in which the destruction of public and private properties goes in parallel.
Last week Bangladesh war-crimes tribunal has sentenced a senior leader of a religious party – Jamat-e-Islami (JI) - to life in prison, the second verdict in trials that have reopened old wounds about the country's independence war and sparked violent riots. Activists of the JI clashed with police in which dozens got injured. In the ancient port city of Chittagong, a police officer - Pradip Kumar Das – was seen shooting a protester to death, which can only be described as a religiously-motivated execution-style murder. Reports from Chittagong suggest that Das had abused his position in the law enforcing agency to deliberately murder and injure unarmed protesters, affiliated with an organization (JI) that he personally distastes. It is not clear whether he will face any disciplinary action or be tried for committing such unprovoked and deliberate acts of crime, which are no less criminal than those committed by the alleged individuals currently being tried for war crimes in 1971.
Begum Khaleda Zia, the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's arch rival and leader of the BNP, has called the tribunal a "farce". Some outside observers also see the war crimes trial as politically motivated and as a charade to liquidate opposition, especially the JI, which was founded by (late) Mowlana Moududi in the British era. It is worth mentioning here that Jamat, which had earlier opposed the partition of India along the religious lines – much in contrast to secular Muslim leaders of British India (who had opted for Pakistan), also opposed the breaking of Pakistan, and is therefore widely blamed as a collaborator for the Pakistani forces during the liberation war of Bangladesh.
According to a rights group, as of December 31, 2012, at least 775 people were killed and 58,251 injured in political violence across Bangladesh in the last four years. These numbers point to what is wrong with the health of democracy in this nation of 150 million people. They highlight how violent politics has become in the absence of mutual trust and meaningful dialogue between rival political organizations – the necessary elements for a viable democracy. Politics in Bangladesh has also come to be equated with permits, crimes and corruption, let alone influence pandering. Western democracies have also criticized Bangladesh for the absence of democracy within the major two political parties, let alone their neo-fascistic leanings when in power. This is not the Bangladesh that Bangabandhu envisioned, the martyrs shed their bloods for and the freedom fighters fought for!
In spite of such serious flaws with the illiberal democracy in Bangladesh, hardly anyone inside Bangladesh, or for that matter in South Asia minus India, sees India as a model to copy. Nepotism, crime and corruption are also very common in India. Like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the Indian politics has been dynastic since the British days. Shortly after partition, India witnessed the assassination of her non-violent leader MK Gandhi by a fanatic Hindu who was affiliated with the Hindu ultra-nationalist parties – the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabah. Those parties, along with their political arm BJP, have epitomized bigotry and are an anathema to Indian secularism. They played a major role in the demolition of the historic Babri Masjid in 1992. In its report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the RSS had plotted to uproot the Muslim population in India, and that during the 2002 Gujarat violence "the RSS circulated computerized lists of Muslim homes and businesses to be targeted by the mobs in advance". Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat and a BJP leader, is widely believed to have played a major role in the anti-Muslim riots of 2002 in Gujarat that saw the death of more than a thousand people, most of whom were Muslims. Notwithstanding such a tainted past, Modi remains very popular in his home state.
In spite of her much touted secular claims, India, sadly, has remained a country of communal and caste violence, and continues to reward her Hindutvadi forces that are chauvinist and divisive. Even the ruling Congress Party is guilty of following dubious policies and of playing politics with minority votes. Hardly a day passes in India without such violent outbursts where the weak are attacked, killed and injured. Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer lamented recently in the Secular Perspective, “India’s legacy of communalism and communal violence is here to stay, if one goes by activities of rightwing Hindutva forces and government’s total inaction, nay, paralysis. Communalism in India is taking long strides and the lull after Gujarat riots in communal violence has been broken and now communal riots are more frequent. Assam riots had shaken the country like Gujarat did and series of riots have been taking place, one after the other or what M.J.Akbar called, during eighties riot after riot.”
In recent years, New Delhi has earned the title of “rape capital” of India, with more than 560 cases of rape reported in the city, but violence against Indian women is widespread and has deep roots. Studies suggest that more than 7,200 children, including infants, are raped every year in India, although citing experts the HRW believes that many more cases go unreported. It has been reported that every 20 minutes an adult woman is raped in India.
The Reuters TrustLaw group named India one of the worst countries in the world for women this year, in part because domestic violence there is often seen as deserved. A 2012 report by UNICEF found that 57 percent of Indian boys and 53 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 think wife-beating is justified. A recent national family-health survey also reported that a sizable percentage of women blame themselves for beatings by their husbands. The Times of India reported that rapists have discovered a new way to assault their victims without the public seeing: behind the tinted windows of cars.
Indian judicial system is also broken. The country has about 15 judges for every 1 million people, while China has 159. A Delhi high court judge once estimated that it would take 466 years to get through the backlog in the capital alone. As recently noted in a Washington Post article by Olga Khazan and Rama Lakshmi, India’s conviction rate is no more than 26 percent. There is also no law on the books covering routine daily sexual harassment, which is euphemistically called “eve-teasing.” The passing of a proposed new sexual assault law has been delayed for seven years. India has one of the lowest female-to-male population ratios in the world because of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide. Throughout their lives, sons are fed better than their sisters and are more likely to be sent to school and have brighter career prospects.
But more problematic than India’s internal problems is her external relationship with all her neighbors. It is simply patronizing, irritating and unwelcome! Such demeaning attitudes have cooled down the warm feelings that many Bangladeshis felt shortly about India after their independence. The liberating Indian forces are remembered more for their looting and stealing of heavy industrial equipment (esp. the jute mills) from the newly liberated Bangladesh than their sacrifice in the liberation war. The Indian government is despised for the enormous harm it has caused Bangladesh through the construction of the killer dams like the Farakka Barrage. And now the Tipaimukh Dam is designed to add to that list of suffering.
Notwithstanding the serious objections from Bangladesh, India has proposed a series of dams within the Teesta river system to produce some 50,000 MW of electricity within the next 10 years. There are genuine concerns that the building of these dams may lead to river-induced seismicity. Despite such worries the construction of the dams had started. In his report to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerji in December, hydrologist Kalyan Rudra recommended that “in the interest of keeping the Teesta alive, it is important to maintain the normal flow of the river towards Bangladesh.” Rudra has reportedly observed that the Teesta river should be allowed to flow ‘as normally as possible’ into Bangladesh – or else it will dry up if too much of its waters are withdrawn upstream.
India has not also honored the Mujib-Indira Pact about the enclaves. In 2011, the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) was signed by Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina. However, the Indian government has not ratified the LBA yet, in spite of the fact that once the Indo-Bangladesh border gets demarcated according to the LBA, India would receive more lands (2,777.038 acres) from Bangladesh than what she will transfer (2267.682 acres) back.
Hardly a week passes by when Bangladeshis are not killed by Border Security Forces of India. Such provocations are enough to permanently sour bilateral relationship. The Indian aspiration of federation is not even a beautiful dream for others! It is more like a delirium.
Before Indians dream of a federation with its neighbors, they may like to reread the history of partition from the opposing viewpoints, and not from the half-truths fed in their schools. The Indian government and its biased scholars have shamelessly turned history into hagiography; but facts rather than mythmaking should be the basis of history. If they amend, they will find that it was their chauvinist attitude, their take-it-all arrogance and sickening racism and bigotry that made its minorities feel threatened in a Hindu-majority India, which had too many of those forces of division and hatred – the likes of K.B. Hedgewar, Ballav Bhai Patel and Syama Prasad Mookerjee. They will find that Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was the most staunchly secular person in India, who believed in and worked for Indian unity before being pushed to the cause of Pakistan. Jaswant Singh’s book – Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence – can be a good starting point in that journey. As Jaswant Singh says in his book, "Facts are humbling. They prevent you from jumping to conclusions."
- Asian Tribune -