During my high school and university days, in the late fifties and early sixties, a popular debating issue was: Which one of the two, democracy and dictatorship, was a better form of government for the emerging India. Having come out of a colonial, autocratic domination recently mainly on the back of a mass movement, it was difficult to fathom that there could be any support for a dictatorial form of government, but there was. On the other hand, there were many staunch supporters of the democratic system who would not be willing to part from their hard won democratic rights for anything.
Major strides were made soon after the independence, which impacted strongly on the lives of people improving it significantly. The most meaningful ones of them obviously were: The freedom of speech so that such issues could be openly discussed and debated; and the restoration of dignity, e.g., the Indians were now free to walk on the Mall Road in Meerut city and to ride in the first class compartments in the trains. I mention a few others on the practical side which made a major impact on my childhood surroundings. Abolition of the feudal landlord system bestowed not only the land but also dignity upon the peasants. The opening of many new schools even without the buildings transformed the whole environment by directing the society towards literacy and education. The elementary school in my own village was opened during that time, which had only one teacher and no building. We used the yards of farmers’ houses for the “building” until an old lady with no heir donated the ruins of her house to the school. We leveled the ground to make a dirt floor and there was a tree for the roof. We took jute sacks to cover the ground where we sat. However, this school produced a number of students who went on to make significant contributions in various ways later in life. On the other hand, the norms in politics, bureaucracy and about everything else were rapidly shifting towards mediocrity and worse. About every regular person was bothered by it. There was general consensus that this slide should be stopped; evils inherited from the British period should be removed; and the benefits like the ones mentioned above to all should be maximized. The debate was about how to go about it, which was taking place on the following background.
Comrades during the independence movement were parting their ways and new political parties were springing out like weeds in a garden. Wrangling was consuming the political discourse and alliances were shifting “by the hour.” Priority for the politicians was to preserve their positions and for the aspiring politicians, it was to worm their way in the political arena so that they too could work to preserve their acquired positions. In spite of the suggestions of some, e.g., the first president Dr. Rajendra Prasad, that there should be some qualifications for the candidates contesting elections particularly for the legislatures and parliament, none were instituted. Many who had no qualifications to do anything found an arena where they could compete and succeed. There was no training for the elected representatives to provide them some information about the constitution and educate them with respect to their powers and responsibilities. As a result, many new politicians who got elected had a distorted view of their powers and responsibilities compared to what was intended in the constitution. At times this resulted in bizarre decisions particularly at the gram panchayat level, although not implemented for there was always a government appointed secretary to modulate them. Corruption was rampant at all levels. Even the pradhans of gram panchayatas who did not know what kind of decisions they were empowered to make, were quite adept at exploiting the system, e.g., requesting and receiving a grant to dig a pond to collect the rain water for use of the villagers, and a year or so later to fill the pond for it was breeding mosquitoes. No pond was ever dug or filled of course. A common saying made its appearance: In the past, bandits used to hide in khaadar (wooded wilderness by the banks of rivers); now they hide in khaddar (khadi, common hand spun clothing material inducted by Mahatma Gandhi commonly used by the politicians those days).
Socrates had said that a society functions best if everyone does what one does best, although I believe that it did not need a Socrates to see this. In this context, some argued that one of the major problems of India was that a professor was sitting in a clerk’s chair and a clerk was teaching in the classroom, for example. The reason was that an IAS position was the Holy Grail for a large section of the academically brilliant students who had the ability to make major contributions in the academic arena including generating new knowledge through research. The allure of the administrative positions was power and potential for illicit money, and consequent status in the society, which was indicative of the mindset of the society itself. Bribing everyone from the top official to peon was a routine matter. The notice urging the clientele to report to a particular official if someone asked for bribe stared from the wall behind the official taking the bribe. Corruption could be and was employed at times to bypass the standard requirements for the selection for any position including the IAS. However, there was another section among the aspiring intellectuals, which I will return to after the following story.
Galileo had made some observations and developed some theories in physics, which contradicted the views of church. The church declared them heresy, blasphemous, and ordered Galileo to recant and repent; otherwise, he was to be burned at stake alive. Galileo recanted and repented. One of his disciples parted from Galileo in anger over his compromise and never saw him until Galileo was on his deathbed when he did visit. The disciple apologized admitting that he had acted improperly for if Galileo had not repented, many contributions that he made could not have been made. Galileo also had changed his mind and told the disciple that his repentance to save his life proved only that “we are a race of inventive dwarfs, who can be bought for anything.”
To this another section, opting for the administrative services was to “sell oneself for anything;” it was to subvert one’s creative urges and reduce oneself to a clerk; even worse, it was to implement politicians’ decisions remaining muzzled in a subservient position, while their place was to indulge freely in pursuit of knowledge and raise the intellectual content of the human race, particularly of their immediate society. In the context of politics and governance, they considered their proper indulgence to be in devising better political system and better ways of governance including administration. They had their inspirational figures from the period of the independence movement when some well-known personalities refused to serve the British masters in an administrative capacity that would reduce them to something like the house slaves during the slavery days in America. However, the situations in the academic world were not all that much better either. There was little in the name of the facilities and support, but worse was the fact that the initiative was derided and suppressed. To some it was quite comfortable state of affairs as they had no major ambitions in spite of having done quite well in their studies; in fact, they were not “academics” by choice and longed to secure an administrative position sometime along the way. Others were very uncomfortable restless but rather helpless. Thus, the “brilliant” brains ended up being parts of a sluggish, corrupt and rude bureaucracy and a defunct academic system.
Police was not trusted by the people and therefore they avoided it impacting adversely upon the law and order situation. Corruption was omnipresent of course, but also the brutal, illegal ways were the part of normal functioning of the police. Many of the attitudes in bureaucracy and police as well as elsewhere were inherited from the British period and in spite of the new laws banning some practices, the old ways continued, e.g., strapping in the elementary schools.
As indicated above, there is a wide spectrum of people in all walks of life, and the pockets of excellence were also found everywhere. There were dedicated politicians, bureaucrats, academics and others, but few and their efforts were mostly frustrated due to the activities and pressures from their peers and various other components in the system. Some were assimilated in the system or rendered ineffective one way or the other. Most of the methods were quite overt, which could be and were countered with the associated penalty; but some were too devious to escape. Allow me to narrate one of my own experiences to illustrate.
I had just started my first job as a university teacher in a college in India. One of the days during the exams, I was assigned the invigilation duty outside the examination halls. The president of the students’ union came out “to use the washroom,” but headed straight to the road by the college where his friends were waiting with plenty of cheating material, which they passed on to him; then he headed back. I tried to stop him but he just ignored me and passed by. Principal of the college happened to be taking a round at that time. He noticed this and headed back to his office. While I was talking to the invigilator inside the hall informing him of the event and trying to find some way to keep the examinee from cheating, a colleague came and informed me that I was no longer supposed to invigilate in that area; instead, I was assigned an alternative duty inside an examination hall in another area. This event had a profound impact on me. Before this event, I was completely dedicated to my pertaining responsibilities. Therefore, whenever I caught someone cheating, I did what the regulations required, which resulted in the student’s debarment for some years. After this experience, I reasoned that if a student in a position to stir trouble could get away with cheating at will to the extent determined by the cheater with support of the authorities in the system, then by my adherence to the rules, I was penalizing the gentler, weaker cheating students who usually cheated very little, which appeared to be unjust to me. After that, I would just take the cheating material if I found someone cheating but did nothing else. As for the president of the students’ union, the fellow was regularly contesting elections and although never won, he would extract quite a bit of money from the two opposing front runners by telling each one that he was siphoning votes from the other. Not sure what happened to that fellow, but the tradition he was a link in continued and some of its “progenies” did succeed very well in politics at all levels. As time would have it, I had an encounter with one such fellow some decades later, which I will return to later.
I have described the situations in a few areas to provide a glimpse of the state of affairs, but it was about the same everywhere. This provided major stimulus to the minds that were disturbed by this to engage in debates to devise ways to correct the situations and yes, there were some among them who did indulge in their activities with honest dedication even if there were penalties to pay, which they paid with pleasure. To them, the struggle was still continuing. To recall, Mahatma Gandhi himself had alerted people to be vigilant against a home grown alien government, which in my view, is even more dangerous for being subtle in the guise of self-rule.
Concerning the debate, the arguments against democracy were the familiar ones: “In democracy, one hundred one fools rule over one hundred wise men. Wrangling of the politicians coupled with their selfish motives was slowing down the pace of progress. Democratically made decisions reminded one of a saying, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee,” in this case, a parliament or the like.” These debaters argued that we have come out of a foreign domination; first we should clear the mess and then implement the democratic system. For that, they argued that autocracy was the answer. Iron fist of Patel was cited as an example, which unified India and managed to get some other tough jobs done expeditiously benefitting the country and people. Supporters of the democratic system argued that in dictatorship, the decisions are made without consulting the people. Therefore, those who want dictatorship have it just by not participating in the democratic process.
Those who want democracy have their way also by participating. Thus, democracy provides to each what one wants. Also, people get the kind of government they deserve, want, which is even more so in the democratic system. For the supporters of democracy, liberty was the Holy Grail and eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, as Jefferson has pointed out; if people are vigilant, they can eliminate the flaws attributed to democracy. They pointed out that if we throw out the democratic system, which we are lucky to have, then even if we succeed in installing a benevolent dictator, which is a big if, what the dictator grants is not exactly liberty; and vigilance requires that in a democracy dictatorial powers not be vested in anybody for this too compromises liberty, a view further elaborated in one of my poems Quest for Liberty. Also, that there is no guarantee that even a benevolent dictator will remain so for “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In such a situation or otherwise, if we get an undesirable dictator, how would we get rid of its clutches? In the proverbial cat and mice story, the cat was attacking and devouring the mice. Mice decided to bell the cat. Each young mouse was shouting with bravado: “I will hold the tail of cat; I will hold the leg; I will hold the ear; I will ...; I will ...” Then an old wise mouse spoke: “Who will hold the mouth of cat?” So, if we end up with a cat for a dictator, then who would defang it? How would one or all of us tame the dictator? How would we bring back democracy?
Fast forwarding to the present times, the decadence that started when I was growing up in my village has surpassed all that could be imagined in those days of euphoria and utopian thinking. A nation that was forged by Patel by abolishing the princely states has disintegrated in fiefdoms controlled by the feudal lords transferred to the next crown prince in about the same manner as were the princely states. These fiefdoms are defined more by the casts and other voting groups than by the territory, although some of these defining groups do have some territorial concentrations. The lords protect their turfs with the same zeal as the feudal lords did to protect their territories, even with more viciousness, totally dedicated to the philosophy that everything is fair in “war and love;” more so in politics.
The history of the empire at the center that was the first fiefdom to get started is no different from the other empires, e.g., the Mughal Empire in India with some Bairam Khan taking care of the empire and the prince until he grows up. All of the fiefdoms and lords operate in the same mode. Elected representatives are even using the terms like “raja” and “praja,” and telling the IAS officers what they want them to be: Babus, completely subservient to the “raja.” If any of them veers off this directive, that officer deserves to be reprimanded as the children are “beaten” by their parents and teachers. Some are even extolling and encouraging the “virtues” of ignorance and apathy in youth. MPs are defining themselves to be the Supreme Institution of Parliament. Their insistence that they should not be criticized by the people reminds one of the Shah of Iran who had barred the media from criticizing him on the grounds that a monarch cannot be criticized. They have decreed that they should not even be questioned, e.g., excluding themselves from the ambit of RTI act. They have started telling people, “You elected us; now be quiet until the next election time,” which is against a fundamental principle of democracy that requires eternal vigilance by the people. Even worse is their objection to an implementation of the court’s decision designed to reduce the criminal element from the elected representatives on the ground that it has a potential to violate one’s individual rights, while the laws routinely require such sacrifices of individual rights in favor of a greater collective good, e.g., in the selection criteria for the police and bureaucratic positions.
A major example of this nature is an amendment to the constitution by the government of then PM Indira Gandhi enabling her to stop the privy purses and thus confiscate private property for public good. Bureaucracy itself has decayed at about the same rate and people can be “bought for anything,” from liquor to computers to bicycles to food grains and with people’s money at that.
I should point out however, that human spirit cannot be completely subverted as evidenced by human history through the ages. Thus, no matter to what extent decadence engulfs a society, excellence keeps raising its head. There are many examples. I narrate one of my observations on a recent visit to India after many years, which places excellence and decadence beside each other.
One day a young man, in his mid-thirties, suddenly collapsed and died by a busy highway passing through a small town. The cause of death was determined to be the brain hemorrhage. His estranged wife had filed several charges over the years against his parental family citing dowry related mistreatment, which was a false allegation. The law that was enacted to correct an abhorrent condition has been abused frequently as noticed by the judiciary also. Soon after the death, the wife of the diseased filed yet another charge accusing his mother of murdering him by poisoning. An investigation followed as a matter of course. The investigating police officer conducted a thorough investigation and concluded that there was not even a shred of evidence to doubt a foul play. Subsequently, he recommended that the case be dismissed and that the accuser be charged with willful misuse of the government machinery. The mother asked the officer how much she should pay him. The officer sympathized with the mother for losing her son and then facing this “preposterous accusation,” and told her that what he did was his duty and no charge was associated with it; which is almost unthinkable in the current climate in India. The lady placed an envelope containing Rs. 5K on the table of the officer and left.
The accuser got a reinvestigation ordered by the court. The second investigating officer conducted an equally thorough investigation and came up with the same conclusions. This officer called the mother and asked her how much the first one had charged her to file his report. The mother told him the true story and gave this officer the phone number of the first one so that he could verify her story. The first officer had been transferred some time back. However, this officer demanded Rs. 30K before he would file his report, which the mother refused to pay. While the wrangling was going on, her another son’s wedding day was nearing. Well, the officer was a good investigator. He phoned the mother in the morning of the wedding day and told her to pay up or be ready for public embarrassment for otherwise he would visit her place “to conduct further investigation” at a time when it would be most embarrassing and disruptive to her family. The mother went to the police station; negotiated him down to Rs. 15K; paid up and left.
During my visit, I was busy preparing my Ghazal collection, “aa gaye vapus vahin fir (Returned to the same place again; back to square one; déjà vu),” to send to the publisher, which I managed to do in time. Just as I was breathing a sigh of relief, a friend of mine from my High School days visited me and requested me to write a muktak, rubai, to insert in his speech, which he was invited to deliver to welcome a successful elected politician, praising him and wishing him well in his future endeavors. He provided me the necessary information and I came up with something that he was satisfied with. The same day I learned more about that politician by coincidence. Lo behold! He was a “progeny” of the tradition of which the president of the students’ union I had an encounter with several decades back was a “progeny;” he had even gotten his training in the same college. Déjà vu! Ironically, I ended up praising and wishing him well but I have an excuse that it was inadvertent.
As for my elementary school, now it has a building including a kitchen, and there are two teachers. There is another large modern school in the village but this one is still operative. There I noticed that the students were sitting on the ground covered with jute floor covering and staring in space like zombies except for two of them who were reading their books. I asked the teacher, “Why aren’t these students studying?” The teacher replied casually: “Oh, well-off people send their children to private schools; these are from poor families; they do not come here to learn; they come to get free meals.” Out of all of what I saw during my visit, I confess, this one had the most crushing impact on me.
It has been said that give a starving man meal for the day and he will be hungry again the next day but give him the means to earn his meal for the day and he will never be hungry again. Here the issue is not even the food for life; it is much more serious: This is a terrible waste of the young brains and cultivating ignorance, while pretending to educate them by handing out morsels of food. I am sure, the politicians understand this all too well; they want people to remain “hungry” and ignorant for all their lives so that they can be “bought for anything.” Politicians appear to have mastered the Divide and Rule policy used so effectively by the British. These politicians are exploiting this policy with meticulous dedication, albeit with a twist necessitated by the situations. Divisions are maintained; even created, enhanced and fostered, on the basis of cast and the like, and the divided communities are pitched against each other, each led by some feudal warlord.
Images of all those hard working students from all strata of the society huddled together in that school that went on to be quite productive members of the society, floated in front of my eyes; so did the title of my Ghazal collection: We are back to square one. Even worse; we have dictatorships within dictatorships; and the question stared back at me:
How to bring democracy?
Just bring, not bring back, for we really never have had a democratic system in place yet.
The teacher joked: See, their staring is contagious; even you are imitating them within minutes. I laughed a nervous laugh. Then I headed to visit my dalit friend from my days in that school.