Democracy in Danger

Justice Rajinder Sachar and His Idea of India

Kumar Rana

[Talk given at the International "Seminar on Media, Minority & Rights: Justice Rajinder Sachar - A Retrospective" organised by the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Aliah University, on 14 August 2014

I am very grateful to the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Aliah University, for inviting me to this great meeting in memory of Justice Rajinder Sachar. I feel honoured to be here as an ordinary member of the public, whose participation found a central place in Justice Sachar's core values on the formation and practice of democracy. For him democracy had no alternative—it was the mean as well as the end. Seeing the question of democracy in that light—both as mean and end—one cannot but stretch the boundaries of democracy to such extent that ensures human freedom—freedom from injustice, oppression, unequal treatment—which are called negative freedoms—on the one hand and freedom to taking part in the deliberations concerning the functioning of the society—named as positive freedoms. Law is one—very central—part of the practice of democracy; electoral exercises are another part of the whole; free speech, free assembly are the equally important constituents of that practice. To borrow the political philosopher John Rawls' words: "Liberal constitutional democracy is supposed to ensure that each citizen is free and equal and protected by basic rights and liberties." This very much includes the sense that "citizens can have their own grounding in their comprehensive doctrines, whatever they happen to be."

Justice Sachar's understanding of this dialectical core of democracy, individual freedom vis a vis larger social existence—individual being individual, and also being part of the society—developed in him to see things in a larger perspective where owing to particular social segmentation some sections of the people are made to inherit historically, particular political, social and economic disadvantages. In his realisation, "In any country, the faith and confidence of the minorities in the functioning of the State in an impartial manner is an acid test of its being a just State." For a country to flourish, it cannot but ensure fuller opportunity for every citizen to flourish—opportunity to enhance human capability.

To paraphrase Amartya Sen, democracy is not only important in itself, but is also compatible with human capability-based expansion. For example, in India it was the democratic base of the country that has successfully kept the frequently occurred famines during colonial days at bay. Despite that success India is still struggling with widespread hunger, illiteracy, ill health; the struggle is at two levels: to eradicate the actual menace of human unfreedom—poverty, hunger, ignorance, ailments, and so on, and to abolish the social divisions that cause the unfreedoms. Justice Sachar saw the case of minorities from this point of view: as citizen any member of the society has some basic rights, and it is an imperative for the state to protect those rights.

The India that Justice Sachar belonged to drew on the rich Indian traditions of plurality, mutual respect, and pursuing of individual beliefs and faiths on one hand; and the obscurantist social divisiveness based on gender, caste, religion, on the other. The India that has successfully prevented famine, kept the constitutional institutions more or less intact, has miserably failed to prevent the atrocities upon the women—the very survival of the girl children in large parts of India being uncertain. Take the case of Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhyapradesh, Rajasthan. The areas have a terribly low female-male ratio in the population in general and among the children under six in particular. The obscurantist social institution, namely, caste has had a huge infliction on the chance of survival of girl children: the higher the population segment is in the social ladder the lower the chance of the girl children to survive. Again, these are the areas where women's opportunity to education is awfully throttled. Again, these are the areas where children belonging to the poorer classes, i.e, belonging to the lower social order—low caste, Musalmans, etc are vulnerable to severe under nutrition.

It was the basis of Justice Sachar's view of democracy that guided him seeing all these aspects comprehensively; his taking side of the religious minorities has not only come from the respect for plurality but he has also come from his hugely drawing from the fundamental idea of human being's basic capability to be something by doing something. Alas, India's practice of democracy did not quite follow the line of practice of democracy, based upon universal value of justice. And, people are paying the price now.

The obscurantist India that has not ensured the rights of her girl children to survive is now on the road to physically eliminate the religious minorities, especially Musalmans, Dalits and Adivasis with fragile economic background. Let us take a look at the recent Gau-tandav. One cannot miss the connection of the victims' vulnerability and their being easy prey. It is not hard to derive from the descriptions of the incidences that the victims—both Musalmans and Dalits—are forced to come out to streets, which they know for sure to be unsafe for them, in order to pursue their livelihood. This is particularly true for the migrant labourers (Mohammad Afrazul and Saker Ali of Malda in Rajasthan in 2017 among several others), dairy farmers (Pehlu Khan of Alwar is just one example), cattle traders (Sheikh Naim, Sheikh Sajju, Sheikh Siraj, of Jharkhand among several cases in Jharkhand, Bihar, UP, Karnataka, and West Bengal), poor dalits (the latest victim being Mukesh Vaniya of Rajkot, Gujarat), whose livelihood security is contingent to their taking the risk of exposing themselves to violent attacks—they have to be on the street, away from their home, community, safe neighbourhood.

Statistics show an alarmingly rising number of hate killing between 2014-18: out of a total 143 mob attacks between 2015 September 15 and 2018 August 2 share of cow related killing forms 52% ; and of all victims of all mob violence Musalmans and Dalits form 41% and 19 % respectively. The map of hate attacks encompasses Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat—all BJP ruled states—horribly prominently; again this map converges well with one of "determined" resistance to positive change regarding the social views on girl children and women, let alone the lower castes and Musalmans. Areas which are so zealous about worshiping-and making others worship-the Gau-mata appear terribly cruel to the future matas-the girl children, and horrendously neglectful about the present matas-the women in general.

Hate killings and communal riots have a classical pattern where the poor the population is the higher the chance of its becoming the victim. Notwithstanding the classical nature of riots or mass violence being very much alive I think the present situation has gathered some newer-and more dangerous-dimensions. Unlike in 1943-48, the Hindutwavadi forces are very strong, and they have managed to decentralise the Hindu-rashtra idea across the localities. They have successfully established village level Hindu rashtra in parts of the country, like Gujarat, Muzaffarnagar of Uttar Pradesh, or Delhi-Haryana border. Musalmans have been evicted from village after village, and are left to live upon the mercy of the rejuvenated Hindu-rashtravadi neighbour. Even the well-to-do Musalmans are in danger. The world knows how the physicist and human rights activist Professor Bandukwala's house was ransacked in Barodra. Take the example of West Bengal. That in the city of Calcutta, Musalman MBBS doctors have received threat to leave a flat in a posh neighbourhood, which has turned "Hindu", is not unrelated to the democratic deficit. Based on empirical data collected through an extensive survey of households a public report, "Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal" published in 2016, shows how bulk of Musalmans of the state are being deprived from the publicly committed services—education, health, employment, social security, and so on. It is true that the deprivations occur not in the line of religion, but in the line of social injustice. Dalits and adivasis, and other groups of the population face similar discriminations. Owing to the lack of opportunities Musalmans, are severely under-represented in the upper echelon of the society—public offices, universities, media, and so on. This, inter alia, historically constructed religion based distance led to the strengthening of the identity based differences. Thus, the actual injustices can and often do give way to divide the citizens psychologically. Again, the present Hinutdva-political enterprise of anti-Muslaman hate-trade has drawn substantially from the general deprivations that the lower rung of the majority Hindu face. Huge vacuum in fulfilling the constitutional guaranteeing the basic rights of the citizens, opportunities to flourish, is being filled through hate-based programme that severely violate another constitutional guarantee—the right to life of the population in general and the minorities in particular.

In Amartya Sen's words:
Democracy is a guarantee of process. But offers no guarantee as to how that that process will be pursued and what will come of it. If you don't do anything, you won't get anything…. At some level democracy was to involve majority rule and free voting. That's the point at which someone like Samuel Huntington would like to stop. I would like to go further. It must also include minority rights, which are part of the institutional structure, and the protection of public discussion—free public discussion, free media and so on. Now, these two requirements are institutional. But the third aspect is not purely institutional—it's the requirement that people use public reasoning; democracy would be more active the more we use public reasoning in an open way. Now, if the latter doesn't obtain but the first two do, is it a democracy or not?...I'd say, it is a democracy but it's not doing very well. That's what I'd say about India today.

Resorting only to institutions, and not paying heed to their functioning—how they work, whether they work the way they were devised to, whether justice has been seen to be done—is now taking its toll. It is threatening the existence of the institutions—from legal institutions like the Suprme Court, financial institutions like the Reserve Bank of India, educational institutions like the Universities, and most of all the parliament, and the constitution is in danger. The very idea of India is in danger.

Justice Sachar fought all his life to make democracy meaningful, so that through public reasoning and reasoned action the country could make its institutions more robust, equitable, and champions of universal human values. He was an uncompromising fighter for justice and democracy, equality and freedom. He nourished in his heart and mind the essentiality of Indian plurality and its secular traditions. Born, brought up and educated in the intellectually vibrant environment of Lahore Justice Sachar trained himself not only as a legal practitioner—an able heir of the legal family he was born into, but also built himself up as a practising democrat. Well-known as he is for presiding over the Report on Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India, rightly being famous as Sachar Committee Report, he left numerous footmarks along his journey. The non-conformity that showed its first sign in his taking part in 1963 in the battle against corruption and mal-administration of the then Chief Minister of Punjab Pratap Singh Kairon, has grew over time, making him ardently involved in series of movements for civil liberty, human rights, equality and justice. At this precarious time when Indian democracy is in danger; the core idea of India—its plurality and tolerance—is facing violent attacks; aggressive programmes of destroying the institutions—the constitution, the judiciary, the parliament—are being maddeningly pursued, one must draw strength from Justice Sachar's ideological commitment and his lifelong practice of Indian-ness built not over a geographical base but on the philosophical eternity of the meaning of human being. Undeniable as his individual excellence was, Justice Sachar was a product of an India that based its philosophical belief on universal human flourishing, an India that built up its institutions on the core values of freedom. But it was also India that resisted to severe its tie with obscurantism, divisiveness, and annihilation of human dignity. Any tribute to Justice Sachar requires commitment to save the idea of India—a plural India free from divisiveness, obscurantism, and oppression—that he cultivated so well in his mind and took all the pain to embed it in day-to-day practice.

Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018