An interview with author Ram Mashru on human security issues in India.
By Ankit Panda
January 17, 2014
Ram Mashru is author of the new book Human InSecurity: Fear, Deprivation and Abuse in India, which goes behind the news to consider the factors driving some of the stories of India’s social and political ills. The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda spoke with Mashru recently about his book and the potential ways India could improve its record on human security.
You begin your book by asking the question, famously posed by The New York Times: Does India’s democracy get more credit than it deserves? What is your answer to that question?
The distinction I draw is a basic one, between India as a formal democracy and India as a substantive democracy. The former – India’s election capabilities, the size of its electorate, high voter turnout, etc. – is certainly impressive, and institutions like the Electoral Commission bolster India’s reputation as an exemplary democracy, but in a limited sense. If we switch to India’s substantive democratic record we must ask questions about the country’s performance on human rights, development, minority rights, law and order, etc. On these issues there is a great deal to be critical about.
Do I think India’s democracy gets more credit than it deserves? Only to the extent that an appraisal of India as “the world’s largest democracy” distracts attention away from a regrettable record on gender equality, tribal rights, corruption etc. Professor Varshney argues, in his latest book Battles Half Won, that India is an electoral wonder but that it performs poorly between elections. This is the view I encourage.
The tones used to discuss India have shifted significantly since The New York Times article, and I cite it as one of the first examples I came across of an attempt to challenge the dominant discourse. The article itself is tentative in its criticism and since then India’s performance as a democracy has, rightly, attracted more and more scrutiny. We can attribute this shift to a whole series of changes: a more trenchant press, more interest in India as it rises on the international stage, the investigations of human rights organizations and development professionals, and shocking cases such as the horrific Delhi gang rape. These changes have all chipped away at India’s dubious reputation as a shining post-colonial success story.
Of course, compared to Bangladesh, where the elections earlier this month were deadly and undemocratic, India is a shining regional example. But the argument that India is a relatively stable and successful democracy is compatible with the argument that it has a lamentable record on development and rights.