While there are significant differences between the countries that constitute South Asia- the region as a whole has seen the common impact of globalisation and liberalisation policies, growing inequalities, ethnic and communal strife, serious threats to democracy, governments which have been readily succumbing to imperialist pressure and popular movements which have been resisting policies that effect peoples’ livelihood and survival. The upper middle classes, under the pressure of the global and national media, think there is much to celebrate. Perhaps there is, for them. Never before in modern history did so few hold such a large majority of the world to ransom. Never before in modern times could governments sit back smug in the belief that national interest could be defined in any other way than popular interest, or popular interest be defined in any other way than the interest of the poor. Never before was the global media so hegemonic, and the retreat of the intellectual so remarkable. It is in this context that that democracy and secularism still survive in South Asia. The right wing and left wing strive as viable alternatives to liberal democracy, which is under attack most vociferously from the right, while the left strives to defend it even as it hopes to transcend it.
The Military ‘Alternative’ in Pakistan
The military coup of General Musharraf in Pakistan which overthrew the democratically elected Government of Nawaz Sharif has, from all media reports, evoked little hostility--a point of great concern, and a lesson for elected regimes that throw democracy and peoples welfare to the winds.
In a country where the literary and the artistic community has always stood at the forefront to defend democracy, and checkmated all attacks on civil liberties and human rights, and where women’s rights have been vociferously expressed through sections larger than the very active women’s movement, there is currently little attempt to distinguish between a military rule and an elected government.
The General’s argument that he is not imposing martial law seems to have achieved its goal of a minimum consensus in a broad sense, and a two to three years concession to this regime before it may, in its own terms, think of restoring the rights of the electorate, has been accepted as almost natural.
It needs to be remembered that democracy is essential for giving voice to peoples’ point of view in a state given to adopting liberalisation policies and concessions to the feudal elite, and for ensuring that regional aspirations do not assume parochial forms, or the state communalised. It is shocking that the Supreme Court of Pakistan has directed the government to create an economy that is ‘interest free’, because to take or give interest is ‘un-Islamic’. Similar reasons for suppressing women’s rights are all too familiar, and do not emanate solely from the religious clergy as we know only too well in South Asia.
The Indian right wing’s agenda has always been open
Elected to power through the ballot, the democratically-elected not so democratic BJP-led government in India has given a loose reign to the fascistic agenda of its Sangh Parivar affiliates, even as it plays the drama at its executive meet of abiding by the NDA manifesto. The votes were barely cast and the counting not yet over, and we were already paying the wages of having elected a BJP led government at the centre. No aspect of life has remained untouched.
The Sangh Parivar used the occasion of the Pope’s visit to unleash hate filled campaign against the Christians, probably aware that it has greater potential for success than their ‘swadeshi’ campaign against Sonia Gandhi (the great Indian Bahu). Christmas is being made into an occasion for a hate filled campaign against the minorities through a wide distribution of leaflets and pamphlets. A shilanyas for a Ram Temple in a Gujarat village has taken place under the nose of the Government. Census type questionnaires that have left the Christian community feeling insecure have been permitted, and Dharma Sansads, which could easily spill over into actual violence against the minorities, are being held all over the country. There is little pressure on the government for following up on the Shrikrishna Committee Report, which held the Shiv Sena members guilty in the 1995 Bombay riots, or getting Mr. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi or Uma Bharti to step down from their ministerial posts, despite their open involvement in the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Now the BJP UP state government has withdrawn the cases against those accused in the Meerut riots a decade ago- on the strange grounds that it would be in the interests of communal harmony.
Infiltration into academic institutions and changes in curricula are being systematically implemented. There is a concerted move to bypass the volunteer-based adult literacy programme in favour of centering it around the RSS literacy centres. Grants to higher education have been severely curtailed, and the slogan of autonomous colleges is being revived to push though privatization and commercialisation of education at a fast pace.
On the economic front the BJP led government can’t wait to please its imperialist masters and the business and industry associates who put their eggs into the Hindutva basket. While there are numerous concessions promised to big capital, Indian and foreign, the ‘tough economic decisions’ are directed at people’s livelihood and earnings. Within days the government has passed the Insurance Bill and the Money Laundering and the FEMA bills, announced rapid disinvestments in the public sector, a further cut in subsidies, including essential items in the Public Distribution System. The 35% increase in diesel prices has spiraled into a general price rise. This relentless privatization drive and cuts in social welfare spell a national divide. They clearly split the nation horizontally- into those they benefit, the miniscule minority, and the entire people whom this economic package disadvantages.
The government on its part is trying to arm the State with draconian laws that spell the doom for collective and individual citizenship rights and civil liberties. Historical experience has shown that these are ultimately instruments to bring liberal democracy into line and beat the Left with. The Information Technology Bill, according to a news report in the Hindustan Times (Dec. 19, 1999), if passed unamended, will allow the police to search and arrest without warrant on the basis of mere suspicion. The Criminal Law Amendment Bill recommended by the Law Commission for enactment is worse than the TADA.
The lack of consensus over these measures in society is, sadly, not in evidence among the people’s representatives in Parliament. Barring the Left parties, there is a broad agreement on them across the political spectrum- reflected in the ease with which the one-after-another anti-people measures are being carried through. The adulation with which the media is greeting these measures and the jubilant mood of the organizations of business and industry has made things easier for the Government despite widespread trade union protests.
The Congress, and the 23 NDA constituents have shown they neither take their secularism seriously, nor their pledges to safeguard the people’s rights and welfare.
South Asian countries at Seattle
The Conference at Seattle reflected the unequal status of the member countries participating as well as the political stand of the countries represented in it. Not surprisingly Seattle witnessed remarkable protests of varied kind--from environmentalists, from trade unions, from those arguing against the unequal trade laws from groups located in what continues to be collectively known as the Third World, despite the complexities of the New World Order and the politics of cooption practiced by the countries that dominate, and in the Western or First World. What strikes remarkably, but is not so surprising nevertheless, is that lead in voicing democratic concerns was taken by the African rather than the South Asian countries. This is indication of where the focus of the global multinationals is today and of the role of the governments of the western countries in reflecting that focus and pushing though their agenda. But it is equally an indication of the distinct political character of the regimes in power in South Asia which see globalisation and liberalisation policies as keys to their own survival when faced with peoples’ protests.
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