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Is Indian Democracy a ‘Human Institution’? What Does It Mean?

Reading ‘Human Institution’ in light of the intellectual history of Hindutva politics could throw up some answers.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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India’s societal conditions differ substantially from democracies in the West, necessitating due modifications that were incorporated during the drafting of the Indian Constitution. However, in making Indian democracy out to be a ‘human’ institution, PM Modi seems to be moving in an altogether different direction.

“Our democracy is not a western institution,” the PM recently proclaimed. “It is a human institution.”

He went on to say that India’s history is filled with examples of democratic institutions and that it is therefore essential today to “warn citizens” about the “attacks on India’s nationalism.”

It is surprising that these statements have not garnered the extensive analyses that Modi’s words generally do, especially given the implications they have in terms of carrying forward his party, the BJP’s, ideological legacy.

A ‘Humane’ System, Perhaps?

PM Narendra Modi has established himself as a leader who flourishes in the public eye. This was the case recently, when in his reply (above) to the Motion of Thanks on the President's Address in the Rajya Sabha, he made sweeping statements about the basic nature of Indian democracy.

Indeed, one of the major burdens of the Hindutva project has been to argue that the democratic structure adopted by independent India was inimical to our progress and therefore a travesty of history. In ‘integral humanism’ — the official philosophy of the BJP — Deen Dayal Upadhyay argues that ideologies such as nationalism, democracy and socialism are not free from the limitations of the particular western contexts for which they were created.

It may be fairer to argue that the esteemed prime minister perhaps meant a humane system, were it not for the state of India’s social and political landscape under the current regime.
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‘Human Institution’ — A Difficult Term to Ascribe Meaning to

Instead, the ruling party has continually projected an enduring self-confidence while discussing the ‘merits’ of their time in power. Rather than engaging the body of evidence, Modi chose to take refuge under the garb of a mangled neologism. That is perhaps why, despite its bewildering vagueness, ‘human institution’ was met with resounding applause from the Rajya Sabha. While this is a difficult term to ascribe meaning to, reading it in light of the intellectual history of Hindutva politics may provide some answers.

It must be remembered that the right wing project has long been committed to the ouster of the very idea of democracy itself. Although Modi and the BJP did achieve their mandate through two massive electoral victories, they remain rooted in the organisation and ideology of the RSS, which has constantly and purposefully maintained its distance from electoral politics. One need not look further than a set of three letters written by sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar in April 1973 to understand why.

Read out after Golwalkar’s death, these letters emphasised aspects of his worldview and philosophy to be kept in mind during the lengthy struggle towards establishing the ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

Here, Golwalkar embarked on a fascinating tirade against democratic theories and institutions. He vehemently rejected political participation as the key to resolving India’s national crisis, arguing that politics was the most morally corrupting part of life, and that democracy furthered materialistic self-interest.

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Golwalkar’s Modality of Societal Change

Golwalkar offered an alternative modality of societal change that would surpass the limitations of democracy through the construction of a new order based on ‘Indian’ culture or chita, and on dharma. This society would be organised on the lines of the Vedic caste system, a four-tiered hierarchical structure which operates on the predetermination of social function, including the veneration and service of the Brahmin, and the existence of ‘untouchability’ in the lowest rung. There would therefore be no space for western democratic ideals of individual freedoms and rights in this dharmic realm.

Upadhyay contemplated this on a grander scale: since for him ‘bharatiya’ culture is holistic and integrated, it could potentially provide terminal solutions to human conflict and establish harmonious coexistence.

This would be a society based on ‘bharatiya’ culture, where unity is uncompromisable, where the individual is to be subsumed by the whole, where the interests of any minority are less important than the iron will of ‘dharma.

The Pantheon of Hindutva ideologues argued that this idealised State would be administered by a governing body that would seek constant guidance from the RSS and its core principles.

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The ‘Bharatiya’ System

Modi appears to have tapped into these same ideas when constructing the dichotomy between western democracy and the ‘human institution’ of India. One may assume that the PM is differentiating India from democratic ideals so as to elevate the supposed universalism of a characteristically ‘bharatiya system.

It is further possible that he sees the merits of shrouding his aspirations behind the garb of the word ‘democracy,’ given the consensus against explicit attacks on that system in the 21st century world.

However, it is precisely to circumvent this consensus that Modi chose to differentiate us from Western democracies. Doing so helps him avoid the kind of scrutiny that Western democracies expose themselves to.

No wonder, then, that the PM specifically took issue with those he designates as ‘andolanjeevis’. In his own words, they are those who “...live for andolans. They look for ways to start new andolans. The country needs to identify and be wary of these andolanjeevis.”

This call for vigilance stems from the view that ‘andolanjeevis’ are not merely protestors but ‘serial conspirators’ against Modi’s government and against India itself.

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India: Then & Now

It is interesting that this concept of ‘andolanjeevis’ finds mention at a time of massive farmers’ protests against the government’s policies, notably in the same speech where the PM made jabs at Congress MPs over the Emergency era. Curiously, whereas the shrinking space for dissent and difference clearly marks us distinct from western democracies, the only manner in which India today is distinct from India in 1975 is that we are made to believe we live amidst constant existential threat of attack from beyond.

(Vartika Rastogi is an alumna of English Literature from Hindu College, University of Delhi with a postgraduate diploma in Journalism from Xavier Institute of Communications, Mumbai, and is currently working as a freelance journalist specialising in gender and politics. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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