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Human Rights,
Democracy and
Other Titles in the Series

Peace and Justice

Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Economic Integration in South Asia: Issues and Pathways

Natural Resource Management

Imagine a New South Asia
Series Editors: John Samuel and Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir



ActionAid International Asia

Lead Author
C. K. Lal

Regional Taskforce Members

Syed Naveed Qamar (Pakistan)
Nurul Kabir (Bangladesh)
T. A. John (India)

Delhi • Chennai • Chandigarh

Copyright © 2010 ActionAid International Asia

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Series Introduction vii

Preface xi

1 Introduction 1

2 Context 14

3 Human Rights 38

4 Democracy 64

5 Governance 86

6 Political Exigencies 110

7 Rise of Regionalism 123

8 Shared Destiny 132

9 Common Future 144

Bibliography 153

About the Author 157

Index 159
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Series Introduction

A New Tryst with Destiny: Towards a New South Asia

South Asia is at a new threshold of history, and we have choices to make. The ques-
tion is whether we have to be driven by the past or whether we need to imagine a
new future. Though divided by the territorial borders of relatively new nation-states,
South Asia can be seen as a confluence of religions, languages and creeds—a very rich
and cohesive cultural landscape, shaped and made fertile by multiple faiths and prac-
tices. We need to discover and affirm voices lost in history and suppressed by feudal,
caste and patriarchal power structures. Such a vision requires a collective search and
a collective commitment.
Imagine a New South Asia (INSA) is neither a project nor an organization, but
an initiative promoted by civil society activists, artists, media practitioners, academ-
ics and policymakers to unshackle the painful chains of the past and dare to dream
a New South Asia. It has emerged from a shared sense of South Asian citizenship
among many of us who strongly feel the need to move beyond the present predica-
ment of mistrust created by the vested interests of each country.
INSA is a call to dream as well as a call to action; a call to develop a sense of col-
lective imagination and responsibility, to sing new songs of freedom and hope, and
to discover new voices. It is a creative initiative to unleash the poetical and political
imagination to work towards a shared and cohesive New South Asia as a confedera-
tion with multiple new possibilities. Skeptics may say that it is a mere romantic dream,
but dreams can usher in a new dawn. In a growing climate of cynicism, young people
should not lose the ability to dream about a New South Asia. As a part of the INSA ini-
tiative, we plan a series of activities over the next few years, to publish new voices, pro-
mote new policy options, and to think about the possibilities of a real New South Asia.
To build a broader and visionary perspective of a plural-federated South Asia, the
initiative has conducted research to better understand the political, social and institu-
tional structures and processes that shape policy decisions, and to generate new ideas
for establishing a people’s South Asia. Its findings have been put together in the form
of a four-volume series, also named ‘Imagine a New South Asia’, organized around four
thematic clusters: peace and justice; human rights, democracy and governance; eco-
nomic integration in South Asia; and natural resources and sustainable environment.

Peace and Justice

Peace and Justice explores the possibility of a pluralistic South Asia that is democratic
and decentralized. Political system must ensure that their agents take a more just
viii Series Introduction

approach when dealing with the cultures of the minorities to maintain plurality. The
report on peace and justice examines the possibility of bringing together the nations
based on trust. The volume seeks to break away from the politics of exclusion towards
a more inclusive South Asia by focusing on issues such as conflicts, militarization,
ethnicity, caste and religious fanaticism. It attempts to explore mechanisms to prac-
tice pluralism, which is currently tainted by the practice of hegemony and oppression
in the name of religion, ethnicity, caste, culture, etc., and come up with ideas to build
peace based on justice.

Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Taking examples from the shared history of South Asia, Human Rights, Democracy
and Governance examines the present complexities of society and politics in the re-
gion. It examines the way issues in governance, democracy and human rights can be
addressed to imagine a new Southasia and ensure justice for all of its people. Finally,
it proposes common institutions for a collective future. It focuses on the assurance
of rights and people-centred democratic processes and institutions, emphasizing on
the need for a South Asian Human Rights Charter, Human Rights Court, and South
Asian Parliament, and suggests mechanisms of check-and-balance among the judicia-
ry, legislative and the executive bodies to reform the common, two-hundred-year-old
colonial rules and regulations. These are expected to lead towards greater emancipa-
tion of the fraternity of South Asians, and to provide strategic directions for greater
economic integration, political accommodation and socio-cultural understanding.

Economic Management
The research described in the volume Economic Integration in South Asia attempts to
suggest solutions for the one-and-a-half billion people belonging to the region, based
on a collective vision for a New South Asia in which they will not have to live in fear,
will not be bound to national boundaries, and will be able to cross state borders freely
for better livelihoods, options, environments, and markets. The volume especially at-
tempts to outline a roadmap to achieve common economic frameworks; to identify
the institutions needed to overcome common obstacles such as poverty, hunger and
barriers to natural resources; to suggest clear strategies to utilize regional resources in
a sustainable and equitable manner that enhance the growth and redistribution of
wealth; and to offer feasible economic solutions that support marginal small farmers
involved in agriculture, industrial workers, and workers in the informal sector—all
within the framework of a sustainable environment.

Natural Resources and Sustainable Environment

Natural Resources and Sustainable Environment focuses on the political economy of
natural resource governance, and tries to formulate a collective approach for addressing
Series Introduction ix

natural resources governance in the region. Energy, land, biodiversity, water and at-
mosphere governance are discussed at length from a people-centric view. Each chap-
ter is organized on the basis of pressures, state and response framework to identify
the common pressures that South Asia faces. An attempt is made to propose the
collective responses to cope with these pressures. Broadly the volume tries to use a
regional approach to respond to the common problems in natural resources sector
across South Asia and other dimensions of sustainable development; to examine op-
tions to ensure food and water security in South Asia; to suggest mechanisms for the
utilization of natural resources on a regional basis to maximize benefit for the people
as a whole; to suggest alternative policy framework in ensuring sustainable environ-
ment; and to look at ideas for building professional institutions in this area.

It is important to develop a sense of South Asian identity beyond our own sense of
‘nationalism’. We need to exorcise the ghosts of the past. We, as South Asians, have
much more in common in terms of language, culture, food, music and tastes than
any set of people in the world. Hence, it is important to find lasting solutions based
on mutual cooperation, collaboration and joint effort. The largest number of poor
people live in South Asia. We, as a region, are the most vulnerable to natural, social
and political disasters, and to the entire range of violent politics, extremism and ter-
rorism. Conflicts over natural resources, identity and inequality are on the rise here.
Unless we challenge and change this situation, it will perpetuate new conflicts, and
undermine democracy and development across South Asia.
The first step towards lasting peace in the region is to develop workable and
realistic solutions to entrenched conflicts, without undermining the integrity and
sovereignty of the countries in South Asia. This demands a positive social and cultural
agenda for all countries of the region, and the development of a framework for hu-
man rights. The idea of a new South Asia will have to be debated among the peoples
of South Asia to inspire a new vision of a peaceful, prosperous region, where every
person and community can live with a sense of dignity.
It is time to Imagine a New South Asia—where borders will be transformed
into bridges and bonding, where all children will go to school, no one will go to bed
hungry, and the human rights of minorities will be respected; where there will be
prosperity and peace rather than war and violence; where people can rise above their
narrow interests to share a common vision. Let us imagine a new South Asia that can
transform itself and the world. It is time to rediscover the dream of Rabindranath
Tagore as envisioned in his oft quoted verse ‘Chitto jetha bhoyshunyo uchcho jetha
shir’ from his Nobel Prize-winning Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
x Series Introduction

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

It is time to rekindle a politics of hope. We need to make a new tryst with destiny for
a New South Asia.

November 2009 John Samuel

Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir

The idea of preface is intrinsically presumptuous. It assumes that the author is sure
about the aims, contents, audience and the possible impact of the book being intro-
duced. It is difficult to be so sure about any work that is not a report or a pamphlet.
Everything else is an exploration of the unknown. The very title of this book suggests
that it is a journey towards a direction, the destination being an aspiration.
The nature of this work is equally vague. Written in a hurry—in about three
months between conceptualisation and completion—it probably lacks academic
rigour. Since it relies more on interpretation than reporting, it will be difficult to call it
a journalistic work. A collaborative effort to a certain degree, it’s not a personal reflec-
tion either. It is an investigation of a concept with like-minded people. Consequently,
opposing arguments have been either ignored or contradicted. It is a collection of es-
says in the formal sense of the term: attempts to write about subjects of interest.
Memory is the primary source of this work. Only most essential books have been
acknowledged in endnotes and bibliography. In tune with the times, extensive use
of web resources has been made. Google is not a verb yet, but it is one of the most
convenient tools for writers forced to work on a deadline. It is said that topical writ-
ing is all about being faster than the best and better than the fastest. What they fail
to mention is that such a balance is difficult to achieve and impossible to maintain.
Inconsistency and lack of cohesion creep into any hurried work like ticket-less travel-
lers into the crowded compartment of a local train in much of Southasia.
Moral support and informational cooperation from country authors have been
invaluable. But except where expressly attributed, the lead author of this book takes
full responsibility for accuracy of facts, bases of interpretation, strength of arguments
and biases visible in its conclusions.
Acknowledgments are due to INSA initiative, ActionAid and NGO Federation,
Nepal, for coming up with the idea of this book and seeing it through. I wish to
record my gratitude for Dr Netra Timilsina and his helpful colleagues at the NGO
Federation. Their unfailing support throughout the endeavour of writing this book
has been invaluable. I would like to thank Himal Southasian where some of the col-
umns reproduced in this book first appeared. Country authors are inalienable part of
the team, but I take this opportunity to thank them for their understanding and help.
It may not be necessary to say so, but I reiterate once again that the responsibility of
opinions and acts of omission and commission are all my own.
My wife Archana helped me organise reference material, son Apoorva assisted
with computer work, and daughter Abha kept up my spirits with her banter as missed
deadlines sapped my energy. The widespread belief that every Southasian enterprise
requires the collaborative effort of one’s family and friends is apparently true.
xii Preface

Writing of this book has made me go through a learning curve; it made me realise
how little I know about one of the most fascinating regions of the world where I live.
I commit myself to keep learning about Southasia.

C. K. Lal
1 Introduction

The past, present and future coalesce to create an amalgam of actuality and aspiration.
The history of South Asia shows that the foundation for creating South Asian unity
still exists, though in a dilapidated condition. The base laid by the Mauryan and
Mughal empires continues to bind the peoples of South Asia together. There are more
commonalities in art, architecture, dance, music, religions, cultures and many more
things than leaders of the region dare to admit in the face of present realities of
equally multifarious conflicts within and across national boundaries. But the present
is hardly discrete—it is an intersection where the past and the future meet. The
present is more important for what can be done with what vexes the mind rather
than what exists.
The year 2007 marked 250 years of the Battle of Plassey, 150 years of the Revolt
of 1857 and 60 years of Independence from the British Rule in India, Pakistan
and what was to later emerge as Bangladesh. All these momentous events of South
Asian history had repercussions elsewhere on the globe. The battle in the marshes of
Bengal transformed the British East India Company into a commercial enterprise
with political power. Among one of the unintended consequences of the uprising in
the Ganga heartland in 1857 was the emergence of Britain as an empire without a
sunset. The dawn of independence in the subcontinent in 1947 was to become the
dusk of the British Empire all over Asia and Africa. For all these reasons, the year
2007 has caused mixed emotions among a lot of South Asians. The region has come
a long way from the embarrassment of Nawab Mirza Muhammad Sirajuddaula of
Bengal in 1757, the angst of Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh in 1857 and the frustrations
of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1947, but the yearning for a better collective
existence for everyone in the region is still great. Perhaps the year 2007 is as important
and appropriate a historic moment to Imagine a New South Asia as any other, but
there is a sense of urgency to create, reinvent and rediscover the lost collective identity
of the region.
Afghanistan has its own reasons for being part of the new imagination as it tries
to come out of the debris of old tribal loyalties, the brutal rivalries of the Cold War
era, the religious extremism and the pain of being ‘shocked and awed’ into abject
submission. Democratic aspirations are still alive in Burma despite decades of military
rule. Bhutan struggles with the anomaly of having two kings simultaneously in the
twenty-first century. Maldives is making determined efforts to modernize itself with
insignificant success. Tibet’s rail link with mainland China has brought challenges
2 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

to its culture and opportunities of economic growth in its wake. Sri Lanka has yet
to resolve the violent conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese. Almost all countries of
South Asia appear unhappy in their own ways. A vision of a common democratic,
humane and just future carries the possibilities of inspiring all peace-loving people in
each of these countries.
The rationale for imagining a new South Asia has internal as well as external
dimensions. Imagining a new South Asia is a regional imperative, a historic necessity
to lift the poor out of the vicious circle of poverty, illiteracy, ill-health, disparity,
violent conflicts, depravation and degradation. The quality of education and health
care in South Asia remains worse than all other parts of the world except sub-Saharan
Africa even though the region has two nuclear-armed defence forces, a vast pool of
scientists and technologists, and abundant natural resources.
It has been rather easy to blame colonialists for all the ills of South Asia until
now. But 150 years since the First War of Independence and 60 years since the ‘tryst
with destiny’, perhaps it is now time to examine what went wrong with the dreams
of emancipation and chart a new and collective course for the future. Humane
governance has intrinsic value, but its instrumentality in establishing sustainable
peace is equally important.1 Thus, the means and ends are intertwined.
The external dimension is no less compelling. Immediately after the end of
colonialism, Cold War machinations pushed countries of the region into opposing
camps. This intensified internecine rivalries. However, interventions in the past were
indirect. In the wake of the 9/11 catastrophe, the hyper power has formally entered
South Asia through Afghanistan. This provokes a sense of urgency towards forging
better understanding between peoples of the region.
Unity between peoples is also necessary to resist, redirect and utilize the forces
of globalization for regional advantage. The threats of a new form of imperialism
were never as real as in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Fortunately, a
concurrent people’s movement in every country has been ignited largely due to the
intensification of marginalization. Linkages can improve the effectiveness of these
movements. But only a unity of purpose can make them decisive. This requires
identification of common values, and shared aspirations and formulation of collective
agenda for action.
Imagining a better future for nearly one-fourth of the global population is too
huge a task to be accomplished in a hurry. But as the old adage goes, it is better to
light a lamp than curse the darkness and show the courage of taking the first few steps
towards the giant leap into the desirable future.
The main thesis of this study is that South Asian unity is necessary and possible.
It seeks to establish the primacy of human rights, democracy and governance for
the establishment of a just society in the region. Envisioning regional institutions to
pursue common goals of the region is an inalienable part of Imagining a New South
Asia. However, future prospects will have to be grounded in past experiences and
contemporary ground realities. Thus, it is by necessity rather than choice that this
study has to take a panoramic view and say something about several things rather
Introduction 3

than follow the scholarly practice of presenting everything possible about something
very specific.

The expression ‘South Asia’ is now well established. This term is recognized and often
used by academic institutions, civil society organizations, government agencies, the
media and the market. However, its meaning is not the same for all. For governments
of the region, ‘South Asia’ stands for member countries of the South Asian Association
for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) initiative. To most academic institutions of the
West, it usually implies the Commonwealth countries that emerged out of the British
India. For people on the streets, a vague sense of belonging and commonalities that
bind one another make them South Asian, but boundaries of the region are yet
unclear. However, the stigma of South Asia being a manufacture of ‘Area Studies’
programmes of the universities of USA at the height of the Cold War years2 has now
been replaced with the positive concept of a common region.
Demarcating a region within a continent, even when there is an established
subcontinent, is not an easy task. It implies recognition of existing commonalities and
identification of shared aspirations. While similarities are no guarantee of inclusion,
dissimilarities are not a disqualification. To a certain extent, it is a subjective decision
based upon realities on the ground and preferences of the moment. Increasingly,
‘South Asia’ has come to include the region between Afghanistan and Burma, and
parts of Tibetan Plateau to island states of Maldives and Sri Lanka. The official
SAARC process has already admitted Afghanistan as a full-fledged member. China
has an observer status in the organization. But considering the importance of Tibet
for the water security3 of South Asia, the direct presence of Tibet Autonomous
Region or its representation through Beijing in any South Asian process has become
extremely important. Despite Tibet’s present political status as an autonomous region
of the People’s Republic of China, Tibetan culture has closer ties with South Asian
civilization than with the Han Chinese.
South Asia could have been called the Subcontinent4 or just India as the region
has been known to the rest of the world for millennia. In deference to the political
sensibilities of member states, the SAARC process chose the name with caution and
preferred a seemingly neutral expression of South Asia. This is the way it continues
to be referred in all regional discourses. However, a need is being felt to think about
the name afresh based on what has already been achieved. Joining two words to create
a single term ‘Southasia’ seems to be an option worthy of adoption. This study uses
South Asia and Southasia interchangeably with a preference for the latter.
Joining two words to create a sense of unity was first attempted by Himal magazine
published from Kathmandu, perhaps the first periodical that described itself to be
Southasian. However, the term Southasian is slowly gaining popularity. There is also a
collaborative effort between several television channels of the region that call themselves
Southasian and telecast under that banner. But the concept of Southasia as a unified
4 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

entity has yet to catch popular imagination. In fact, there is a need to imagine it afresh
to prepare the ground for the eventual creation5 of Southasia. It has to be imagined in
order to be pursued and achieved.
The challenge of imagining Southasia is complex because it already exists and yet
is not a reality. The first challenge is to see if what is believed to exist is indeed so: Does
Southasia have a shared sense of civilization that can support its aspirations of unity?
If civilizational unity of the peoples is conceded, what is it that keeps them apart? Is it
possible to outline common aspirations rather than interests to build upon? The nature
of these questions demands reflections and deliberations rather than description.
No matter how ancient, resilient and vigorous a civilization, it doesn’t exist in
isolation and can’t remain impervious to global currents. Conceiving the entire planet
Earth as one interdependent family of states, nations, races and communities—
Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam in an ancient Sanskrit formulation—has been a longstanding
desire of all humanity.6 Conceptualization of regions as families is a stepping stone
towards that direction. Until the world emerges as one family, it has to make do with
being a community of regional entities.
Universalism, however, needs to be based on the sanctity of individuals in
order to be accepted by all. Even though tolerance of dissent7 isn’t as recent as it
is believed to be, it has to be accepted that detailed enunciation of human rights,
conceptualization of democracy and articulation of institutional structure, to ensure
such conditions, is of relatively recent origin. This work has to traverse through the
intricate web of shared civilization, contested history, national conflicts, aspirations
and sensibilities of individuals and sometimes contradictory expectations. But before
such complexities are tackled, the depiction of reality is necessary.
Depiction of reality, however, is in itself a contested terrain. There are at least
three levels of reality. The first, second and third order of showing things are their
presentation, representation and meta-representation. The first is based on observation;
the second is an act of interpretation while the third calls for imagination.
• Presentation comes from the experience of sensory organs. The ear learns
how the dog barks which then the sound can mimic. The eyes convey how
the dog looks which the hand can then draw.
• Representation is a creative composition of reality to accentuate its specialty.
A dog that roars like a lion and looks like a horse and a fish and a woman
merging together to form a mermaid are some popular compositions created
to represent desired reality.
• Meta-representation8 is imagination: representation of things as they should
be, could have been, or are likely to be. Meta-representation is grounded in
reality but has to go beyond it.
Imagining a new Southasia requires the use of techniques of presentation and
the creativity of representation. But most of all, it needs the courage of conviction
to look at the possibilities of meta-representation—the act of imagination. After all,
every imaginative conception is a new vision and a new creation in itself.
Introduction 5

This endeavour isn’t pure research, though considerable research is needed to

understand the task at hand, that of imagining a new Southasia. It is not complete
creativity either, even though peeping into an unpredictable future is essentially
an act of creativity. This is an attempt to fuse the two to portray a picture of
what is possible for the ‘common good’ of all Southasians. The kind of research
used for formulating Southasian identity is neither pure basic research that aims at
nothing more than advancement of knowledge nor the applied research used for
preparing a ready-to-implement agenda of action. Instead, it falls in the category
of what is sometimes called the strategic-basic research that provides a background
for applied research.
There exists a respectable body of academic work about Southasian history,
society, economy and politics. The SAARC process and civil society initiatives have
produced extensive documents about the possible agendas of action. This study aims
to connect the two for policy entrepreneurs and activists alike. It may seem premature
to pessimists, redundant to optimists and contestable to pragmatists, but unity
of Southasia without impinging upon the sovereignty of states within the region
is an idea worth pursuing for its own sake. Changes in geopolitics and economics
brought about by the rise of a hyperpower and globalization of business have made it
necessary. But the imagination of a new Southasia has to go beyond what is achievable
or appears possible. In the soul-stirring lines of Robert Browning, ‘Ah, but a man’s
reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?’ Heavens may be higher up, but
creation of a more humane Southasia for all Southasians as an important, responsible
and responsive member of the global community is a possibility worth pursuing and
a goal imminently achievable.

Space and Time

Geography offers descriptions of location, locale, human-environment interaction,
movement and region. History narrates time, period and context of ideas, events and
personalities. These separate but interrelated disciplines dealing with space and time
mingle to present a reality with all its complexities. It sounds somewhat rhetorical,
but the geography and history of entire Southasia are so intertwined that unity seems
to be the ultimate destiny of the region despite all the present predicaments.
It is said that there are three essential characteristics of geographical work:9
emphasis on location, importance of society–land relations and regional analysis.
If geosophy10 is to geography what historiography is to history, a holistic study of
Southasia will probably show that contra-contemporary cartographic divisions of the
subcontinent is a geographical reality. The very creation of the landmass of Southasia
bound the region into a distinct entity. In some Southasian myths, Bharat was once
part of an island that was called the Jambu Dwip. Science confirms the myth with
a twist: Some 225 million years ago, Southasia was indeed an island off the coast of
what is now Australia. Moving slowly northwards—some estimates put the speed at
6 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

nine metres per century—it hit the Eurasian plate sometime around forty to fifty
million years ago. Such a terrestrial smash of epic proportions between two rock
masses of almost equal density lifted up the colliding face, somewhat like the raised
hoods of two cars hitting each other head-on. What was once the bed of the Sea of
Tethys was forced up to become mighty mountains. Thus were created the majestic
Himalayas. The Indian plate slid under the Eurasian plate, folding the land mass and
creating the Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This was the process that also created an expanse about four and half kilometres high
known as the Tibetan Plateau—the ‘roof of the world’ of Southasian imagination.
Geologists estimate that the Himalayas continue to rise as the Indian plate pushes
northward for a closer fit.
Movement and collision of massive plates induced planetary climatic
changes, the most important of them being the monsoons. The giant Tibetan Plateau
absorbs the atmospheric heat forcing the warm air to rise further up. Moisture-
laden cooler air rushes in from surrounding oceans to fill up the low-density surface.
This creates monsoon rains. Tibet is thus an integral part of the Southasian life
Rains cut through mountain slopes creating river systems that rush down to the
Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Some of the most fertile plains in the world have
been creations of the Tibetan Plateau, the Eurasian plate, monsoon rains, mighty
rivers and surrounding seawater of Southasia working together. Considering the
way they are so closely interrelated, perhaps it would have been more appropriate
to call the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean as the Indus11 Sea, Bay
of Himalayas and Southasian Ocean respectively. The Southasian penchant for
renaming needs to be resisted for one simple reason: it will create cartographic
confusion of Himalayan proportion.
It is a short hop from geosophy to historicism. Civilizations have flourished
for millennia in several river valleys of Southasia as elsewhere in the world. River
systems with their turbulent tributaries and feeders of the Indus in the west, Ganga
in the north, Brahmaputra in the east, Narmada, Godavari and Mahanadi in
the central region and the Kaveri and Krishna in the south have witnessed and
sustained the rise and fall of some of the mightiest empires in the world. Irrawaddy
in Burma and Mahavali Ganga (all perennial rivers are Ganga in Sri Lanka) have
similarly helped create thriving cultures. But nothing symbolizes the eternity of
Southasians as the history of the Indus—the river that gave birth to words such as
Hind, India and Indic.
Any search for the tenacity that has helped Southasians survive the ravages of
time should probably begin with the history of the Indus Valley. In Tarana-e-Hind,
Allama Iqbal sings:

Yunaan-o-Misr-o-Roma sab mit gaye jahaan sey

Ab tak magar hai baaqi naam-o-nishaan hamaara.
Kuchh baat hai key hasti mit-tee nahin hamaari
Sadion raha hai dushman daur-e-zamaan hamaara.
Introduction 7

This stanza has been translated in different ways, but Khushwant Singh’s rendition12
is perhaps the closest to the essence of Iqbal’s passion:
For centuries we have survived the world’s hostility
While glories of Greece, Egypt and Rome have faded into the background
Our name and deeds in the world’s corridors still resound.
There is something that has given us immortality
For centuries we have survived the world’s hostility.
From the existence of irrigation, agriculture, granaries, houses, settlement
patterns, burial grounds and artefacts found at sites like Mehrgarh in the Indus
Valley, it is estimated that settlements probably began in that area around 12000
BC, acquired sophistication seen at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa by 2500 BC and
collapsed somewhere around 1200 BC, sometime before the composition of the
hymns collected in the Rigveda, the oldest historical document of Southasia.
There are several theories that attempt to explain the sudden ‘extinction’ of the
Harappan civilization. Tectonic changes, a shift in the river course, climatic changes
and desertification, ecological degradation and Aryan invasion from the north-west
are some of the causative factors explained by various archaeologists. A combination
of all these factors that pushed the Harappan people towards the south-east sounds
equally probable. But more than the causes that led to the collapse of the cities in
the Indus Valley is their inherent character that offers inspiration for the future. The
distinguishing features of the Indus Valley civilization include:
• No emperors or high priests
• No evidence of epic battles or warfare
• No large temple complexes or palaces
• No slavery
All the above features point towards the existence of a peaceful, egalitarian and
secular society. Then there are evidences of a civilization that had built:
• A sophisticated irrigation, agriculture and animal husbandry system
• A reliable system of measurement, currency of exchange, markets, trade
and taxation
• A trade and transaction system with contemporary civilizations
• A form of writing
• An urban civilization based on planned towns with roads in cardinal direc-
tions, public platforms and well-laid houses
Apparently, settlements of the Indus Valley were well administered, prosperous
and its people lived in harmony for millennia. It is difficult to imagine that a society
with such a level of complexity and sophistication just disappeared. The probability
of its dispersion throughout the subcontinent appears to be much higher. All
Southasians share the heritage of this ‘once great’ civilization.
The unity of the Southasian people continued with the rise of great cities along the
Ganga, thriving coastal towns of the Deccan peninsula, and agricultural communities in
8 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

the fertile delta of Brahmaputra that blended into the pastoral societies of the Himalayas.
The epic of Mahabharata is much more than the story of human passions; it also tells the
tale of the churning that the region went through as it faced the challenges of change.

Cauldron of Cultures
The religions of the region—choice of plural intentional—have survived and evolved
with the times. It is said that many seers before Buddha had said the same thing;
the reason his sermons survive to this day has to be seen in the invention of paper
and ink that allowed his teachings to spread throughout Asia. Overt support of
Emperor Ashoka in the propagation of Buddhism cannot be discounted, but had it
been only the court patronage that made or broke religious movements, the Bhakti
and Sufi movements wouldn’t have taken the subcontinent by storm. The Bhakti and
Sufi movements were essentially subversive of the established order and their appeal
lay in the way they challenged the status quo.
The unity of Southasian cultures is even more prominent. Claims have been made
that a Muslim from Bangladesh is somehow on more familiar grounds at the home of, say
an Indonesian or a Somali Muslim, because their ummah is one. But in reality, a person
from Dhaka perhaps bonds relatively more easily with someone from Kathmandu or
Colombo or even Jakarta despite their religious differences. If culture is a way of life—
food habits, customs, traditions, manners, values, etiquette and unexpressed sentiments
of solidarity—then the distinct Southasian identity becomes clearly discernible in any
alien surrounding. On home ground in Southasia, differences are more discernible, but
that is probably because those differences have been known to each other for millennia.
In the case of languages, symbols of commonality in languages abound. The
legacy of Prakrit, Pali and Sanskrit is the common heritage of almost all languages
in Southasia. Persian was the court language of rulers in Delhi for so long that its
influence can be found as far apart as Kathmandu and Chennai. Punjabi, Bengali,
Tamil and Nepali are shared languages of people across international borders in the
west, east, south and north of the subcontinent. But it is Hindustani, Hindi or Urdu
that truly binds the region together in suffering, struggles and joy.
Urdu is said to have emerged at the cantonment of Mughals where the royal
tents in military camps were called urd and edicts emanating from there were termed
urdi. The hybrid that emerged from Mughal rulers’ interactions in various parts of
the then Hindustan emerged first as the language of cantonments and then the lingua
franca of the vast Southasian landmass. Urdu’s emergence later as the language of love,
longing and belonging was a slow process of evolution of Allama Iqbal’s celebrated
tarana: Sare Jahan se Achcha Hindostan Hamara.
Folklores sound strangely familiar wherever one travels in Southasia. The
stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata are known with its variations in most parts
of the region. The Mahabharata connects rugged Kandahar of Afghanistan with
Indraprastha on the banks of the Yamuna. Ramayana’s rebirth as a religious tract has
Introduction 9

overshadowed its importance as an epic of a civilization that once spanned from the
Himalayas to the Indian Ocean.
The teachings of Buddha, the directives of Mahavir and the system put in
place by Shankarcharya have coexisted for centuries. The Jews of ancient Israel,
the Zoroastrians of early Persia and the Islamic preachers from latter-day Arabia all
found a welcoming land that was once India. Interacting with indigenous religious
practices, all these great faiths of the world gave birth to two uniquely Southasian
beliefs—Bhakti and Sufism. The Sufi celebration of the spiritual overlord and the
Bhakti submission to the will of god are variations of the same theme: it is love and
not hatred that sustains the creation of the Supreme.
Livelihood in the region has been intertwined due to reasons of topography,
climate and connectivity. Itinerant traders from Afghanistan, farmers of the Indo-
Gangetic plains, herders of the Brahmaputra basin, warriors of the Himalayas,
seafarers of Malabar, teachers and preachers from Bengal, craftsmen of the Deccan and
merchants from Sindh found hospitable climate for sustenance and growth wherever
they went within the region. Their interactions over the millennia gave birth to a
Southasian civilization which is diverse and distinct. Unlike the Han Chinese identity
that was forged at the courts of various emperors, Southasians have been able to
maintain their diversity due to the voluntary nature of their relationships. Somehow,
this loose confederacy of cultures under myriad rulers of a shared civilization began
to change with the arrival of the British in the region.
Unlike the Maurayan Empire (322 BC–185 BC) and the Mughal Empire that
evolved from ambitious monarchies to great empires, the East India Company came
to Southasia as merchants with profit as their primary motive. After the Battle of
Plassey in 1757, the British achieved political power. But political power for the
rulers from abroad was meant to maximize commercial earnings rather than to govern
well and ensure the longevity of the regime. Pious pronouncements from Western
apologists notwithstanding, the British rule was no civilizing mission. The Resistance
of 1857—variously called the Mutiny, the Revolt, the Rebellion and the First War of
Independence by different historians—was essentially an uprising against increasing
exploitation of the traditional peasantry, landowners, traders, soldiers and priests by
rapacious adventurers from abroad. The resistance failed in military terms, but it
became the catalyst that changed the course of history. Queen Victoria’s Proclamation
of 1 November 1858 declared that India would be governed in her name through the
Secretary of State of the British government. The policy of British rulers then shifted
from maximizing profits from a colonial outpost to building an empire.
But Queen Victoria’s assumption of the title of Empress of India failed to change
the fundamental character of the British rule which was to administer the territory as
outsiders rather than to assimilate into the society and govern it as stakeholders. In
part, this difference arose from the European template of empire which visualized far-
flung colonies as suppliers of cheap produce and labour rather than possible territories
worthy of integration. Perhaps, this perception was a factor that created a sense of
alienation among educated Indians and gave birth to the independence movement.
10 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Unlike the Revolt of 1857 that had brought the rulers (kings and nawabs),
intermediaries (merchants, maulavis and priests) and the ruled (farmers, craftsmen,
soldiers and labourers) together, the Indian independence movement of the early
twentieth century was essentially an agenda of the intelligentsia. Its pioneers were
the westernized elite either educated abroad or Macaulay’s Children,13 products and
propagators of the European concept of state, based on the Peace of Westphalia. In
the Westphalian notion, primacy of state is based on the principles of independence,
sovereignty and international law. The stalemate created by the treaties in the mid-
seventeenth century Europe is sometimes called the ‘Peace of Exhaustion’ as it ended
the Eighty Years War between Spanish warriors and the Dutch as well as the Thirty Years
Germanic War but failed to produce enduring bases of peace. The Westpalian definition
of state sovereignty downplays the importance of interaction of cultures and the resultant
diversity. The emergence of the ‘two-nation theory’ that led to partition of British India
can partly be attributed to the very nature of the independence movement: if it was
the authority of the Empire that kept perpetually warring nations and tribes hanging
together, then it had to fall and disintegrate once the rope from above was removed.
Given the disgrace of deaths, disappearances, destruction and displacement in the
wake of partition of the subcontinent, all discussions about the division of territory
and consequent dislocation in the region tend to be emotional. But any dispassionate
examination of the independence movement of the early twentieth century would perhaps
show that the eventual partition of the subcontinent was a foregone conclusion. ‘Leave
India to God and if that be too much, leave her to anarchy, necessity for withdrawal lies
in its being immediate’, Gandhi had thundered in the aftermath of the failed Cripps
Mission.14 This sense of urgency hastened the process of independence, but it also
prepared the ground for immediate resolution of longstanding grievances by making
whatever compromises necessary. From an option of last resort, partition became the
most convenient way of resolving the question of Hindu and Muslim nations.
Despite the erudition and eloquence of Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’
speech, celebrations of independence in Pakistan and India in 1947 were sombre
affairs tinged with a sense of foreboding. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible
to argue that eventual independence of Bangladesh was built into the very ideology
of nation-state inherent to partition: if it was permissible to part ways on the basis
of religion despite sharing the same civilization, perhaps it is equally plausible, if not
more so, to desire political autonomy based on distinct cultural identity. Governance
systems of Southasia are still struggling with the legacy of partition: a lack of consensus
over justifiable reasons for peaceful separation between mistrustful communities or a
widely shared sense of community between distinct national identities.
Social structure in most parts of Southasia was shaken to its very core by
independence and partition. People uprooted from their ancestral homes in various
parts of the region were expected to replace old ties of culture with freshly minted loyalty
towards religion-based states. It has been an agonizingly slow process to get over the
legacy of living together for millennia and adapt to the European notion of nation-state.
Introduction 11

An expression like ‘a devout secularist’ will probably be considered a contradiction

anywhere else in the world; in Southasia people who fit that description abound.
Bankers in beards, lawyers offering ritual prayers in court premises, nuclear scientists
with caste marks on their foreheads and surgeons with sacred threads dangling
down their shoulders are not uncommon in Southasian cities. Asghar Ali Engineer,
a modern traditionalist, would have been considered almost an oxymoron anywhere
else. In Southasia, he is one of the high priests of secularism espousing the possibility
of harmony between devotion to different faiths and coexistence as equals in society.
Engineer argues somewhat pensively that the idea of religious nationalism was mooted
for the first time in the Indian subcontinent, much before anywhere else in the world.15
It is too early to dismiss the idea—but neither Israel nor Pakistan has been able to live
up to their initial promise of emancipation of all believers.
The case of Israel is different in the sense that the Jewish migration towards their
promised homeland did not disturb power relations in Europe. In Southasia, large-scale
transfer of population—perhaps the biggest, in terms of affected population, in human
history, changed social structures, altered power relationships, shook economic activities
and created alienation and animosity of massive proportions. The social self-correcting
mechanism has since taken over - human adaptability and endurance surmounts
seemingly impossible odds. However, intellectual and institutional enterprises of
establishing newer bases of possible integration are still lacking.
Celebration of diversity in the region is perhaps the necessary condition for
creating unity in Southasia through economic integration, political accommodation
and socio-cultural understanding. Unlike the European Union that has evolved out
of Two World Wars and the unnerving Cold War, Southasia has the advantage of not
repeating the same mistake of going through the creation of nation-states, endless
conflicts and prolonged negations to discover the advantages of a union of equals.
It is not necessary to follow the path of the Association of South East Asian Nations
(ASEAN) either—an entity clearly created by one of the superpowers to counter
another in the region. Southasian unity will have to be based on human values rather
than politics or economics. It will have to be a collective enterprise for human dignity
and justice. Its success will depend upon the sincerity of its proponents; people are
quite ready for being what they have always been—inheritors of a common civilization
with shared yearning for coexistence, dignity, peace and prosperity.

1. Amartya Sen discusses the universality of democracy and its intrinsic and instrumen-
tal values in the Journal of Democracy 10.3 (1997) 3–17. http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/
jod/10.3sen.html. Accessed 6 August 2007.
2. Though not discussed openly, this has been the predominant progressive view at private
exchanges between scholars of the region. David Ludden discusses some of its intricacies and
implications. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~dludden/areast1.htm. Accessed 1 August 2007.
12 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

3. Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Centre for Policy
Research in New Delhi argues that channelling Tibetan waters northward can have grave
implications for South Asia as China aims for a bigger share of South Asia’s water lifeline.
His reasoning appears to be based on looming water crisis in mainland China and its
brimming foreign currency reserve that can precipitate diversion of Brahmaputra flow
northwards. Japan Times Online, Tuesday, 26 June 2007. http://search.japantimes.co.jp/
cgi-bin/eo20070626bc.html. Accessed 5 July 2007.
4. I have discussed contestations over the name in Adluri Subramany Raju (ed.) Imagining
South Asia in a Unipolar World, Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, 2007.
5. Himal Southasian hosted a roundtable on 18–19 November 2001, just prior to the 11th
SAARC summit in Kathmandu. A summary of the proceedings was published in the Janu-
ary 2002 issue of the magazine. It was discussed again a year after in ‘The necessary manu-
facture of South Asia’. http://www.himalmag.com/2003/january/asia_special_2.htm
6. The Delhi High Court used this belief to dismiss a Public Interest Litigation—evidently
aimed at Sonia Gandhi and Congress (I) headed by her—seeking to debar persons of
foreign origin from holding any constitutional post and de-recognize any political party
having a foreign-born person as its president. One of the presiding judges said: ‘If one has
to follow the liberal and humane concept of ancient Indian philosophy, then what our
scriptures have taught us is “Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam”, i.e., the whole planet is a family.’
Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 26 November 2006.
7. Amartya Sen dates it back to the imperial edicts of Ashoka in the third century BC and
argues convincingly that it was the position of the great Mughal ruler Akbar too in his
popular tract The Argumentative Indian, Penguin Books, 2005.
8. Referring to A. M. Leslie, ‘Pretense and Representation: The Origins of “Theory of
Mind”’, Psychological Review, 94 (1987), pp. 412–426, Simon Baron-Cohen has discussed
differences succinctly in The Biology of Imagination < http://www.entelechyjournal.com/
simonbaroncohen.htm > accessed 4 June 2007.
9. R. D. Dikshit (1997). Geographical Thought: A Contextual History of Ideas. New Delhi:
10. John K Wright coined this term by joining ge meaning earth and sophia meaning
knowledge. But he also gave a tongue-in-cheek warning: geosophy shouldn’t be con-
fused with geosophistry or geopedantry! John K. Wright (1947). Terrae Incognitae:
The Place of Imagination in Geography in Annals of the Association of American Geographers
37: 1-15. Available on the net at http://www.cplorado.edu/geography/giw/wright-jk/1947-
ti/1947_ti.html. Accessed 29 July 2007
11. Recent researches suggest that sediments brought down by the Indus River System from
Karakoram Hindu Kush and western Tibet have helped form a 10-kilometer-thick Indus
Fan extending up to 1000 to 1500 kilometres into the Arabic Sea. This should be reason
enough to call it Indus rather than the Arabic Sea. http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.
asp?page=2007%5C07%5C02%5Cstory_2-7-2007_pg12_8. Accessed 2 July 2007.
12. Khushwant shows humility when he says: ‘I am not happy with my translation and will
be grateful to readers for suggestions on how to improve it.’ http://www.tribuneindia.
com/2005/20050702/saturday/above.htm > The challenge should prompt readers to
Introduction 13

attempt it though the act of translation helps in the understanding and internalization of
the zeal of the poet.
13. The term ‘Macaulay’s Children’ is often used for people of Indian ancestry who adopt a
Western attitude, culture and lifestyle and begin thinking like westerners. This mindset is a
tribute to the success of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859) who had observed
in his famous minute on education in 1835: ‘We must at present do our best to form a class
who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons,
Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.’
I have discussed the enduring influence of this group in ‘Macaulay’s Orphans: The Rotten Core
in the Middle’ in Himal Southasian, November 2003. http://www.himalmag.com/2003/
november/southasianphere.htm (accessed 24 September 2007) and also ‘In the Shadow of
Fear’ in Himal Southasian. September, 2005. http://www.himalmag.com/2005/september/
southasiasphere.html. Accessed 24 September 2007.
14. This was an unusually strong statement from Gandhi in view of his conciliatory gestures
towards the British earlier. According to Mark Tully’s review (available on the web at:
article2361518.ece; accessed 1 September 2007) of Last Thousand Days of Empire, histo-
rian Peter Clarke casts Gandhi in the role of a villain. But there is little doubt that Gandhi
was a politician and may have erred in estimating the staying power of post-war British in
India. A concise description of evolution of the Indian National Congress can be seen in
‘The Congress and The Freedom Movement’ available at. http://www.aicc.org.in/
the_congress_and_the_freedom_movement.htm#quit. Accessed 24 September 2007.
15. Engineer observes that the attempt of an union between Egypt, Syria and Libya to create
United Arab Republic by Nasser in the 1970s failed even though all of them shared the
same language and religion. He argues ‘When the Saudi King objected to Nasser’s use
of the term “Arab Nationalism”, and suggested instead “Islamic Umma”, Nasser rightly
pointed out that what was common between an Arab Muslim and an Indonesian Muslim
except their religion.’ There is a short but fervent plea against religious nationalism by
Asghar Ali Engineer on the web, ‘Nation, State, Religion and Identity’. http://ecumene.
org/IIS/csss33.htm. Accessed 24 September 2007.
2 Context

Human beings are said to be social animals associating with others in private and
political spaces. The fear of loneliness and love for companionship create the context
for institutions of private space such as the family and the community. It is not that
concerns of security and transaction are absent from private space, but the primary
purpose of association in private space is emotion—love, affection, attachment
and respect. Frustrations over contestations and conflict in familial relations can
be immensely destructive. But such quarrels need a larger structure to become
devastating. They have to enter into the arena of political space.
Political space emerges as the site of contestations, conflicts, negotiation,
cooperation and coexistence. Where interests are commercial, transactions usually
resolve the conflict. For example, ‘A’ wants a stone axe but does not know how to
build it; and ‘B’ has a spare but won’t give it to ‘A’. Worldly-wise ‘C’ suggests that if ‘A’
helps ‘B’ carry quality stone from a certain quarry, ‘B’ can make more axes and barter
his creation for fish and yam. ‘A’ gets his axe, ‘B’ gets fish and yam, and ‘C’ probably
ends up with everything—axe, fish and yam. Using innovation and enterprise to
resolve conflicts of interests over possessions have given rise to trade and commerce.
Collective efforts to create common facilities also occur in political space.
Maintenance of water sources, construction of protective fences around hutments
and erection of tree-top platforms to keep watch required the effort of more than one
person. They were probably the earliest civil society. Once the person, the family, the
community and the society began functioning, the need for their proper management
and defence against competing systems must have been acutely felt, for it gave rise
to one of the most complex organizations known to humanity—political authority.
In all probability, the earliest political authority was claimed by either the
strongest or the wiliest. It is also possible that the wiliest tricked the physically
powerful into cooperating or the strongest threatened the crafty into submission and
they joined hands to lord over everyone else. The way such cooperation in primitive
societies emerged is a matter of conjecture—initiatives may have occurred differently
in different societies. But the end result was almost similar—emergence of a vertical
order, a hierarchy of power.
Invocations of supernatural forces that gave rain, sunshine and saved tribes
from forest-fires were probably designed as methods of exercising control, but the
elderly, the worldly-wise, or the wily old fox of yore managed to claim top of the
hierarchy as oracles, shamans and priests. All authority requires the threat of coercion
Context 15

to enforce its will. Even though priests managed to frighten the meek with the wrath
of nature, an occasional resort to brute force may have been necessary that gave
birth to professional soldiery. Priests and soldiers are intimately connected and tribal
chiefs often embodied both the authority of the priest and the power of the warrior.
The earliest form of political organization was that of a tribe, which consisted of
interdependent families. Tribal ties, in the name of castes, communities, extended
families, religious orders, club memberships or even cooperatives are the strongest of
all links in most societies.
It is quite possible that favoured by nature—higher productivity of land, larger
population due to leisure and fertility, easier access to natural resources such as better
stone to make axes or stronger sticks to craft arrows, more innovative entrepreneurs
capable of adding value through transactions and stronger chiefs to enforce their
will—some tribes grew to be too big to be able to remain confined within their
territories. They expanded and subsumed neighbouring tribes. The emergence of
kings and emperors was a process of natural progression; they were merely more
complex forms of tribal chiefs—the bigger the tribe, the greater the stake of the
chief and higher the complexity. Most early ‘emperors’—from Dhritarashtra in the
mythology of the Mahabharata right up to the pharaohs of Egypt were essentially
some of the greatest tribal chiefs of their time who waged war or constructed pyramids
for the glory of their families and gods in that order.
Empires formed by conquest and commerce emerged out of the necessity of
certain tribes that could no longer sustain themselves by remaining in the same place.
They ventured out on foot, on horseback, in dugout canoes and established contact
with other tribes. Sometimes, the association may have been consensual. In other
instances, conflicts occurred. The sealing of alliances through marriage might also
have been employed. The establishment of tribute to the stronger or more influential
party was another option. It probably kick-started the process of empire-building—
the bigger an empire got, the more its ambitions to acquire new territories and the
higher its capacity to acquire subservience from smaller tribes.1
From the evolution of tribes to territories ruled by kings and empires the process
appears to be a natural process of increasing complexity of social existence. However,
the difficulty in understanding the concept of nations persists. The notion of nation
inspires people to fight and die for fellow beings mostly unknown to them. Such
an idea of sacrifice originates in religion. The crusades and jihad come naturally
to mind when Christendom or Islam are mentioned. In the Indian subcontinent
too, Buddha’s teachings somehow had the backing of Emperor Ashoka’s formidable
army. Even though Devanampriya Ashoka (Favourite of Gods—that is how Ashoka
describes himself in a stone inscription at Lumbini, in Nepal, the birthplace of Prince
Siddhartha who later became Buddha) isn’t known to have used brute force to spread
the influence of the Sangha; such a possibility probably speeded up the process
of dispersion of the imperial religion. Revival of Hinduism through the efforts of
Shankaracharya might not have been as peaceful as is commonly made out because
all signs of Buddhism, once the major religion of the region, had almost disappeared
16 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

from the Ganga plains much before the ascendance of the Islamic empire. Violence
in some form or the other is always an integral part of any religion. The reason it is
attributed more to the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb is probably because of his transparent
religiosity and his hidden design of keeping the loyalty of the influential Muslim
clergy and the powerful nobility.
The concept of nation appears to have emerged in opposition to the suffocation
of organized religion. The declaration of the English Republic was made in the name
of God,2 but the intent of the statement was the denial of the religious tenet of the
divine right of kings. The nation was the people. Voltaire, who had been in exile for
much of his life, had opined that the Bible was a book, ‘what fools have written, what
imbeciles command, what rogues teach, and young children are made to learn by
heart.’ Citizens without breeches in the streets of France accepted his interpretation
and refused to mention His name in their cries of freedom: liberty, equality and
fraternity. Nietzsche declared that God was dead; and German nationalism was born.
Even in the United States of America, nationalism of the masses carried a whiff of anti-
religiosity. ‘As to the book called the Bible’, thundered Thomas Paine, ‘it is blasphemy
to call it the word of God. It is a book of lies and contradictions, and a history of bad
times and bad men. There are but a few good characters in the whole book.’3

There are important differences in the way nationalism was propounded in England,
France, Germany and USA. The Great Rebellion in England was for sovereignty
over the Church and the State, while the French Revolution was all about fraternity.
In Germany, Bismarck embarked upon his state-building spree for supremacy and
the American Independence was basically for property rights. Religion was not an
important element in any of these explanations of nationalism.
According to the English definition, nationalism is ‘the desire by a group of people
who share the same race, culture, language, etc. to form an independent country’.
The ethnocentrism of the definition made a scholar of Yugoslav studies observe: ‘It
is interesting that most British people do not distinguish between citizenship and
nationality’.4 In effect, the subject status of the British Queen may be made or acquired,
but the true British are the ones born so to bona fide parents of historic ancestry. It
is almost the same in Germanic tradition: belongingness to ‘volk’ is a privilege that
can’t be bestowed upon anyone else. The French too apparently believe that the very
idea of equality implies some form of uniformity and insist upon assimilation as a
precondition of citizenship.5 In the melting-pot assumption of USA, at least three pre-
conditions of acceptance are imminent: capitalism as the sole ideology, English as the
only worthwhile language and inevitability of US supremacy in world affairs.
Various efforts have been made to intellectualize the phenomenon of nationalism.
Ernest Gellner’s contingency theory and the ‘imagined community’ explanation of
Benedict Anderson are widely quoted in almost every discussion on nation and
Context 17

nationalism. In essence, both explanations are rationalist. But emotions and religious
beliefs may have some role to play in frequent outbreaks of patriotic frenzy. The Soviet
nationalism was centred upon the premise of emancipation, but when push came to
shove during the Second World War, doctrinaire communists and commissars had no
hesitation in invoking the glory of Peter the Great.
Wider discussion upon the issue of nationalism is necessary to imagine Southasia
for four reasons. First, the modern idea of nationalism is relatively new to the
subcontinent where other markers of identity such as clan, caste, locality, province
or religion are still very strong. The introduction offered by someone from Southasia
would probably run something like this: Me, Chand Muhammad, Son of Hazi Saheb
of Suga Village, Post Jaleshwar, Mahottary District or something similar. Second,
religion has always been a strong component of political mobilization right from
the uprising of 1857, through the Quit India Movement, Independence in 1947
and almost all subsequent contestations in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma,
India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The fanatically religious Taliban and the
US-supported regime in Kabul continue to be at loggerheads. Bangladesh emerged
as a secular state and acquired Islamic status subsequently but the debate about its
relevance continues, as Nurul Kabir reflects in the accompanying essay.

De-Secularisation of Bangladesh:
On the Creating of a Democratic Future
Nurul Kabir
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions
of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. The time is always
ripe to do right. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of
racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963.
It was just past midnight on 19 November 2003 at Sadhanpur, a small village in
Banshkhali upazila, about 25 kilometres south of the port city of Chittagong. An armed
band of about 25 men stormed into the two-storey earthen house of Tejendra Lal Shil.
Twelve members of the landed family, who had retired to different rooms on the upper
floor a few hours ago, woke up with a start. They locked the doors from inside as the
intruders tried to break in. Denied entry, the criminals locked the doors from outside,
doused the ground floor with a petroleum product and set the house on fire. All but
one of the residents, including seven women and a newborn, were burnt alive. As the
screams of the dying shattered the silence and the flames dispelled the darkness and
people came out of the adjacent houses, the criminals fired several gunshots and left the
place. ([Daily] New Age, Dhaka, 20 November 2003.)
Only Bimal Shil, son of Tejendra, survived the carnage. He had jumped out through
a window and broken a leg in the process. The victims of the horrific incident belonged
to the minority Hindu community and the alleged perpetrators to the majority Muslim
18 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

community. ‘The mortal remains of the charred bodies of an entire family reminded
many of the vicious killer episodes of “Mississippi Burning”, the celebrated Hollywood
film on Ku Klux Klan carnage,’ wrote a Dhaka-based English-language daily (ibid.).
A Dhaka-based Bangla daily reported in October 2003 that a politically influen-
tial member of the local Union Parishad had forcibly occupied 4.5 acres of cultivable
land of a Christian family at village Mirzapur of Itail union in Jamalpur. Again, the al-
leged encroacher, Munser Ali, is a member of the majority Muslim community. ([Daily]
Janakantha, Dhaka, 27 October 2003.)
Another Dhaka-based Bangla daily reported in September 2003 that a group of local
political activists had forcibly encroached on some land of the Buddhist vihara (monas-
tery) of the Rakhaine community at the coastal Kalapara upazila in Patuakhali. Once
again, the perpetrators were Muslims ([Daily] Bhorer Kagoj, Dhaka, 17 September 2003).
The Ahmadiyya community, a small sect of Islam, came under repeated attacks from
an overzealous group of the Sunni sect at Tejgaon in the capital, Dhaka, on 21 November
2003 ([Daily] New Age, Dhaka, 22 November 2003). The Sunni dogmatist group, which
claims that Ahmadiyyas are kafirs (heretics) and demands that the state declare them non-
Muslims, tried violently to make their way into an Ahmadiyya mosque in the area. The
government provided protection to the Ahmadiyya mosque this time.
Later, on 19 December, the anti-Ahmadiyya religious bigots threatened to paralyse
the country, if the government did not evict the Ahmadiyyas from a Nakhalpara mosque
[in Dhaka] by 3 January 2004. ‘We will go there [the Ahmadiyya mosque] on 9 January
[again] and we will not return until we have driven the kafirs out of the area’, the media
quoted the amir of Hifazate Khatme Nabuwat Andolon Coordination Committee, an
anti-Ahmadiyya alliance, to have announced at the gathering ([Daily] New Age, Dhaka,
20 December 2003).
The government did not drive out the Ahmadiyyas from the mosque but entertained
one of the orthodox mullahs’ irrational demands before the expiry of the deadline. A ban
on ‘all kinds of publications, sale, distribution and retention of all books and book-
lets on Islam published by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat’ came on 8 January 2004.
Meanwhile, the administration had turned a blind eye to the reported intimidation of
the Ahmadiyyas in some other parts of the country over the period in question. Dozens
of incidents of repression, intimidation and exploitation of members of the religious
minority communities—be they Hindus, Buddhists, Christians or Ahmadiyyas—took
place in 2003. The media, especially the print media, covered the incidents as and when
they unfolded.
One need not prepare a list or a chronology of such incidents to prove that the reli-
gious minority communities in Bangladesh have valid reasons to suffer from a sense of
insecurity. What one, however, needs to do is examine whether the majority Muslim
community regards intimidation and oppression of smaller religious communities as
their divine responsibility or whether such intimidation and oppression are tools of vested
groups of Muslims who use religion to secure earthly gains. Should the latter proposition
be true, one needs to determine why the majority of Muslims allow or, for that matter,
tolerate the repression of religious minorities by smaller vested groups of Muslims in a
country that emerged as a nation-state through years of secular democratic movements
of the people only 33 years ago. The formulation of any resolution to such repression of
minority communities depends largely on the answers to such questions.
Context 19

Not a Clash of Religious Ideologies, Yet

The first three instances of minority oppression mentioned above clearly follows a pat-
tern, with material interest the prime motive and the governing political party provid-
ing the oppressors with the socially required patronage. Perpetrators of the Banshkhali
carnage had reportedly intimidated Tejendra and his family on several occasions with
a view to grabbing some land adjacent to their house before they carried out the arson.
Reports also have it that the arsonists had, and still do, enjoy the patronage of a local
member of the parliament, an influential central leader of the ruling Bangladesh Na-
tionalist Party. In the case of the encroachment of 4.5 acres of land of a Christian family
at Mirzapur, the alleged encroacher is an influential member of the local government.
According to media reports, he, too, belongs to the BNP. Also, the encroachment of the
monastery land at Kalapara was designed to set up the local office of a political party
none other than the ruling BNP.
The fourth instance can be construed to have its root in ideological conflict, espe-
cially since a section of Sunni leaders brands Ahmadiyyas as kafirs and has long been
pressing the government to declare them non-Muslims. Ironically though, there was
a report in the print media that ‘a dispute over the construction of an 18-storey com-
mercial building was behind the attack on the Ahmadiyya mosque’ ([Daily] Janakantha,
Dhaka, 23 November 2003).
Evidently, therefore, most of the incidents of exploitation or repression or intimidation,
however one puts it, of the religious minority communities do not stem exclusively from
religious bigotry, even though the perpetrators belong to the majority Muslim community.
It is important, however, to note that a certain section of Sunni Muslims feel inspired
and entitled to intimidating the Ahmadiyya community whenever Jamaat-e-Islami Ban-
gladesh shares, directly or indirectly, the state power in Bangladesh. Jamaat asserts, at the
ideological level, that the Ahmadiyyas are non-Muslims and argues, at the political level
that the government should declare them non-Muslims. Abul A’la Moudoodi, founder of
Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, declared in 1953 that members of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat
are non-Muslims and demanded that the government should declare them kafirs. The
Pakistani government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto conceded to the Jamaat demand and declared
the Ahmadiyyas non-Muslims in 1974. In Bangladesh, a small section of the Sunni big-
ots attacked the headquarters of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat at Bakshibazar in the capital
Dhaka in October 1992 when the BNP was in power with the parliamentary support of
Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh. They have become active once again since Jamaat secured its
share of the state power in 2001, courtesy an electoral alliance with the BNP.
Noticeably, as evident in the aforementioned instances of the repression of religious
minorities, the perpetrators enjoy the support, explicit and implicit, of influential po-
litical parties, especially the one in power. Needless to say, mainstream political parties
outside power, play no lesser a hand in the repression or exploitation of the minority com-
munities. Reports have it that immediately after the general elections in 1996 and 2001,
the minority Hindu community in some constituencies had to face the wrath of the los-
ing candidates belonging to both the power-contending political parties, the Bangladesh
Awami League and the BNP.
The findings of a methodical ‘inquiry into causes and consequences of deprivation
of Hindu minorities in Bangladesh through the Vested Property Act’ point to the
involvement in the repression of the religious minority communities of all the major
20 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

political parties, especially when in power. The study by a group of professional

researchers, led by Professor Abul Barakat of Dhaka University, has shown that 925,050
or 40 per cent of the total Hindu households of the country have been affected by the
unjust ‘enemy property’ law of the Pakistan era, which continues to exist in independent
Bangladesh under a different nomenclature—‘vested property law’ (Inquiry into Causes
and Consequences of Deprivation of Hindu Minorities in Bangladesh through the Vested
Property Act: Framework for a Realistic Solution, ed. Abul Barkat, PRIP Trust, Dhaka,
2000, pp. 36–37). Out of 9,25,050, all of 7,48,850 were dispossessed of agricultural
land; 2,51,085 of homesteads; 48,455 of garden land; 79,290 of ponds; 4,405 of com-
mercial land; and 1,14,530 of other categories of lands (ibid., p. 37). The total amount
of the dispossessed land was estimated at 1.64 million acres, which is 53 per cent of the
total land owned by the Hindu community and 5.3 per cent of the total land area in
Bangladesh (ibid.).
As of 1997, according to the study, 44.2 per cent of the individual occupiers of the
dispossessed Hindu property belonged to the Awami League, 31.7 per cent to the BNP,
5.8 per cent to the Jatiya Party, 4.8 per cent to Jamaat and 1 per cent to other politi-
cal parties, while the political identity of the remaining 10.6 per cent was ‘difficult to
ascertain’ (ibid., p. 63). The scenario as regards the political identity of the occupiers was
quite different in 1995—11.5 per cent belonged to the Awami League, 71.6 per cent to
the BNP, 4.9 per cent to the Jatiya Party, 3.7 per cent to Jamaat and 1.2 per cent to other
political parties. Again, the political identity of the remaining 6.2 per cent could not be
ascertained (ibid., p. 63).
When one takes note of the fact that the two different situations in two different
times, 1995 and 1997, were marked by the subsequent rules of the two major political
parties, the BNP and the Awami League, one cannot fail to see a pattern: exponents
of the ruling party possessed the greater share of the land dispossessed by the Hin-
dus under the vested property law. When managing the affairs of the state, the Awami
League, the BNP, the Jatiya Party of Jamaat has understandably found the perpetuation
of communal disparity quite convenient for its translation into material dividends for
the leaders and activists. It is unrealistic, therefore, to expect the government, regardless
of whichever of the parties is at the helm, to ensure rule of law or, in other words, equal
distribution of the state protection and criminal justice between majority and minority
On the other hand, when observed dispassionately, it becomes clear that the num-
ber of Muslims grabbing the landed property of the minority communities, sometimes
legally, courtesy of an unjust law such as the Vested Property Act, is not very high, given
the size of the Muslim population in the country, which is more than 100 million out
of a total of over 114 million.
Evidently, therefore, the majority of the Muslim population, who are neither com-
munal nor beneficiaries of religious communalism, are insensitive to a sustained exploi-
tation of the minority communities. The question is why. More so because it was the
entire populace that rose in the 1950s and 1960s against the communal state of Pakistan
and made enormous sacrifices to make Bangladesh emerge on a secular democratic po-
litical line in 1971. Is it that the same people are becoming communal as well? If so,
why? What is the role of the ruling elite? What is the role of the state machinery, which
the elite use to perpetuate its rule, in the regressive changes of the national psyche?
Context 21

Non-secular Elite and Gradual Islamization

of State, Politics and Education
After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the popular aspiration for a secular
democracy apparently found adequate expression in the constitution of the new state.
It rightly proclaimed ‘secularism’ as a ‘fundamental principle’ of the state, and avowed
‘elimination’ of ‘communalism in all its forms’, ‘granting by the State of political status
in favour of any religion’, ‘abuse of religion for political purposes’, and ‘any discrimi-
nation against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion’ (Article 12,
‘Authorized English Translation’ of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Ban-
gladesh, which was passed by the Constituent Assembly of Bangladesh on 4 November
1972 and authenticated by the Speaker on 14 December 1972. The Constitution came
into force on 16 December 1972).
Besides, while guaranteeing ‘every citizen’ the democratic right ‘to form associations
or unions’, the constitution had prohibited formation of any group with an objective of
advancing politics based on any religion.
… no person shall have the right to form or be a member or otherwise take part in
the activities of, any communal or other association or union which in the name
or on the basis of any religion has for its object, or pursues, a political purpose, . . .
said the constitution (Proviso, Article 38, ibid.).
There could not be a better beginning from the point of view of the secular demo-
cratic aspiration of a politically organized people wrestling out national independence.
For a newly emerged state to retain its secular aspiration in society, flourish it further
and sustain the ideal, it essentially needs certain ideological apparatus, such as compat-
ible public education and mass media, to ensure secular democratic hegemony over any
non-secular cultural trends; and to do so the state requires certain legal instruments. The
couple of constitutional provisions in question had provided the government of the day
with the adequate legal instruments to begin its secular journey.
But, it soon proved to be a false dawn. The government of the founding president
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman quickly introduced rather a multi-theocracy in the name of
secularism, both at the political and ideological levels, in running the affairs of the state.
Immediately after the independence of Bangladesh on 16 December 1971, ‘some of the
secular intellectuals from the University of Dhaka took the lead of discontinuing the
practice of Pakistan days in opening the programmes of the State[-run] Radio and Tele-
vision with recitations from the Holy Qur’an and substituted a programme of “Speak-
ing the Truth” based on secular ethics’ (Talukder Maniruzzaman, Politics and Security of
Bangladesh, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1994, p. 9). But after the return of Sheikh
Mujibur Rahman from Pakistan’s prison on 10 January 1972, his government of the
Awami League adopted ‘the policy of equal opportunity for all religions and ordered
citations from the holy books of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity at the
start of the broadcasts’ by the state-run electronic media (ibid.). The policy is absolutely
inconsistent with the principles of secular democracy, which considers ‘faith’ as a matter
of personal ‘belief ’ of the individual citizens, and subsequently disapproves endorsement
of, or aid to, any religious doctrine by the state or the government of a state.
The government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman also failed to ensure ‘separation of
religion from [public] education’, although such separation is the sine qua non for the
22 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

growth as well as sustenance of secular values in a society, without which construction

and perpetuation of a secular democratic state becomes an impossible proposition in
any country. Bangladesh’s first education commission, headed by Dr Kudrat-e-Khuda,
recommended, in the beginning, that ‘instead of creating blind allegiance to the external
aspects and formal rituals of religion, the curricula and textbooks should inculcate in the
students a refined and well integrated system of secular ethics to produce a new genera-
tion of citizens for secular Bangladesh’ (Bangladesh Sikkah (Education) Commission,
Interim Report, 1973, p. 8).
The recommendation was absolutely compatible with the idea of secular democracy.
‘Plants are fashioned by cultivation, man by education’, observed the French education-
ist Jean Jacques Rousseau. Naturally, it is education, particularly primary and secondary
education that shapes the political and cultural future of a populace. A society aspiring to
be democratic in its political and cultural psyche, therefore, needs to formulate its educa-
tion curriculum in a way that helps shape the psyche of the thousands of individual chil-
dren in a democratic mould. Secularism is inherent in the concept of democracy, since
democracy as an original idea emerged in the West through political struggles against
feudalism backed by religious ideologies. That which is not secular is not democratic.
But Dr Khuda was to be disappointed, thanks primarily to the non-secular elite. The
Khuda Commission had circulated among members of the most educated section of so-
ciety—vice-chancellors and professors of universities and degree colleges, principals and
professors of medical colleges, principals of higher secondary colleges, headmasters of high
schools, members of associations of school and college teachers, and superintendents of
madrasahs, educationists, essayists, poets, novelists, playwrights, newspaper editors, top-
level civil servants and members of parliament—a set of identical questionnaires for their
opinions on the nature of education necessary for Bangladesh. As many as 2,869 persons
responded, and 74.69 per cent of them said that ‘religious education should be an integral
part of general education’ (Talukder Maniruzzaman, op. cit., p. 11).
The government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave in to the desire of the non-secular
elite, and the Khuda Commission gave up its secular approach, leaving behind the dem-
ocratic aspirations of the millions, who had brought about the nation’s independence
for, along with other things, a secular society and state. The commission eventually rec-
ommended papers on religions, as optional courses, for students of grades IX and X in
the humanities groups (Bangladesh Sikkah (Education) Commission, Interim Report,
op. cit., pp. 15–24).
So, the kind of religious syllabi that the Pakistani rulers had adopted for the major-
ity Muslim students in the primary and secondary education with a political view to
perpetuating Islamic cultural hegemony in society remained almost intact, and with
that remained the religious syllabi for the non-Muslim students. Besides, the govern-
ment adopted the policy of financially sponsoring hundreds of madrasahs, educational
institutions that cannot but sow the seeds of religious and, therefore, parochial world
view among students.
This was how the ruling elite of a newly emerged state failed to separate public edu-
cation from religion in the early days of the country’s independence, leaving the scope
for thousands of impressionable school and madrasah children to grow with a parochial
world view, who would in the future stand in the way of building a truly secular society
in Bangladesh.
Context 23

The government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was overthrown by a military

putsch in 1975, and all the governments that followed, except the one headed by
Sheikh Hasina between 1996 and 2001, harshly criticized the Sheikh for his vari-
ous undemocratic actions. However, all the successive governments, including that
of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, only carried forward vigorously the non-secular
programmes of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, giving a fillip to the process of backward
movement of the society in general.
To begin with, the military government headed by Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad
Sayem took away from the constitution, by a martial law proclamation in May 1976, the
provision that prohibited the use of religion for political purposes (The proclamation was
eventually ratified by Parliament through the Constitution through the Fifth Amended
Act in1979). The proclamation was eventually ratified by Parliament through the Con-
stitution (Fifth Amended Act, 1979). Then came another proclamation in 1977, which
struck out Article 12 of the constitution that proclaimed ‘secularism’ as a fundamental
principle of the state and inserted into the book new provisions, professing ‘absolute
trust and faith in the Almighty Allah’ and pledging that ‘absolute trust and faith in the
Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all activities’ of the state. The same proclamation
inserted Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar Rahim ‘in the beginning’ and ‘above the Preamble’ of
the constitution (The Proclamations [Amendment] Order, 1977, published in the Ban-
gladesh Gazette Extraordinary, 23 April 1977, Office of the Chief Martial Law Admin-
istrator, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh). Later, all these political
misdeeds, from the point of view of secular democratic values, were ‘ratified’ by the Par-
liament in 1979, with Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman heading the undemocratic state
machinery as its president (The Constitution (Fifth Amended) Act, 1979).
The negative changes in state principles, albeit from the point of view of secularism,
found reflection on the education system as well. The committee on curricula and syllabi,
which was constituted by Ziaur Rahman’s administration, asserted: ‘Islam is a complete
code of life, not just a sum of rituals. A Muslim has to live his personal, social, economic
and international life in accordance with Islam from childhood to death. So, acquir-
ing knowledge of Islam is compulsory for all Muslim men and women.’ (Report of the
Bangladesh National Syllabi and Curricula Committee, Part - II, Ministry of Education,
Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, 1977, p. 149.) Subsequently, the syllabi and curricula
committee in question recommended compulsory Islamic courses for Muslim students of
all grades from I to VIII, and as an elective course for grades IX and X. Similar courses on
other religions were recommended for students belonging to non-Muslim faiths (ibid.).
The government of Ziaur Rahman quickly implemented the recommendations of the
syllabi and curricula committee.
Then appeared in the political scene Lieutenant General H. M. Ershad, in 1982,
and drove the last nail in the coffin of secular ideals at the state level. His regime had
the constitution amended in June 1998 to declare that ‘the state religion of the Repub-
lic is Islam’ (Article 2A, Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, which
was inserted into the constitution through the Constitution [Eighth Amendment] Act,
1988). While the separation of ‘divine’ religion/s from the earthly affairs of the state
remains one of the major components of classical democracy, the Ershad regime mingled
the two. The immediate political implication was, however, the relegation of members of
the minority religious communities to second-class citizenry.
24 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

The height of insensitivity of the so-called democratic elite to the rights and dignity
of members of the religious minority communities became evident, once again, when
an influential group of the elite went to the court against ‘decentralization of the high
court’, which was part of the autocratic constitutional amendment in question, ignor-
ing the other part that relegated members of the minority religious communities to the
status of second-grade citizens. (See the constitution’s 8th Amendment case judgement
with summary of submissions, Bangladesh Legal Decisions, Special Issue, Volume IX (A),
ed. Mahmudul Islam, Bangladesh Bar Council, Dhaka, 1989.)
After the fall of the Ershad regime in 1990, following some eight years of movement
for democracy, the BNP, headed by Khaleda Zia, came to power through general elec-
tions in 1991. Notably, one of the central focuses of the BNP’s entire electoral campaign
was Islam—the ‘need of defending Islam’ from the ‘un-Islamic’ political forces. The pro-
paganda infected the electoral campaign of other political parties contending for state
power. Sheikh Hasina, chief of the Awami League which occasionally claims to be a
secular party, presided over her party’s entire electoral campaign, wearing a hijab (head
scarf ) and carrying a rosary.
The government of Khaleda Zia adopted and implemented a policy for primary edu-
cation in 2002, and the first of its 22 objectives was ‘indoctrination of students in the
loyalty to and belief in the Almighty Allah, so that the belief inspires the students in
their thought and work, and helps shape their spiritual, moral, social and human values’
(National Education Policy—2000, Ministry of Education, People’s Republic of Bangla-
desh). Indoctrination of ‘belief system’ of any kind is irrational, in the first place. Belief
obstructs the believers from questioning the status quo—be it political or ideological,
virtually relegating the thinking human to the non-thinking animal. And such a situation
always helps the establishment to perpetuate the existing reality, which is, in the present
case, a non-secular Bangladesh.
Then came the turn of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, which came to power in 1996.
The AL government formed another education commission, headed by Professor Sham-
sul Haque, in 1997, which found the ‘madrasah education an integral part of the national
education system’ (Report of the Education Commission, 1998 Ministry of Education,
People’s Republic of Bangladesh) while bringing in no changes to its syllabus that manu-
factures in hundreds of poor young boys a mediaeval world outlook, plagued by a deep
sense of intolerance for opposing ideologies—political or religious. One of the major po-
litical agenda of the government of Sheikh Hasina was to prove, by means of patronizing
various Islamic organizations/institutions, both politically and financially, that the party
in no way lags behind the BNP in terms of detesting secular ideals.
Before the last general elections in 2001, the power-contending political parties had
shed even the last string of secular ideals. The BNP’s election manifesto proclaimed that
the party, if voted to power, ‘will not enact any law in contrary to Islam’ (Election Mani-
festo of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, 2001). The Jatiya Party, headed by H. M. Ershad,
went a step further. ‘Shariah laws will be followed, the existing laws will be brought in
line with the principles of the Qur’an and sunnah, special laws will be made for punishing
those making derogatory remarks against Allah, the prophet and shariah, while religious
education will be made compulsory at all levels’, announced the Jatiya Party (Election
Manifesto of Jatiya Party, 2001). The Jamaat announced in unambiguous terms that the
party, if voted to power, ‘will convert the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh into an Islamic
Context 25

Republic’ (Election Manifesto of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh, 2001). Sheikh Hasina’s

Awami League decided not to lag behind. ‘If returned to power,’ it announced in its elec-
tion manifesto, ‘no law will be enacted, which will be inconsistent with the dictates of the
Qur’an and Hadith’ (Election Manifesto of Awami League, 2001). The proposition inher-
ent in the announcement is absolutely inconsistent with the concept of classical democ-
racy that finds the ‘general will’ of the people, instead of the will of divine God ‘revealed’
through religious scriptures, as ‘sovereign entity’ to govern the earthly affairs of a modern
state. The AL announcement reminded many, secular and anti-secular alike, of a fact of
history that the party was born in 1949 with the name Awami Muslim League.
Only the 11-party alliance, a conglomeration of the left and liberal democratic par-
ties and groups, pledged that they, if voted to power, would work for ‘restoring’ secular
ideals (Election Manifesto of the 11-party alliance, 2001). This alliance, however, failed
to realise that that there had hardly been any ‘secular ideal’ ever practised by the state
that could be ‘restored’ as such. Rather, Bangladesh needs to construct afresh a secular
democratic state that will consider all its citizens as equal human beings, without con-
sidering their personal faiths.
Khaleda Zia’s BNP, which had forged electoral alliance with some Islamist funda-
mentalist parties and groups like Jamaat (a party that does not hide its political agenda to
set up a theocratic state in the country), won the parliamentary polls in October 2001.
Khaleda Zia’s government (of the four-party alliance) set up in January 2003 a national
education commission, headed by Professor Maniruzzaman Miah, to ‘identify problems
in the education system’ and to recommend measures to ‘improve on the system’. The
Miah Commission found the system faulty, particularly as regards ‘uniformity’ of educa-
tion required to build up a ‘unified’ nation. The commission, then, ‘identifies’ certain
‘problems’ in making reforms in the education curricula, particularly in the madrasah.
‘With Islam being the religion of the State, it is highly sensitive, and consequently time-
consuming, to bring in the [required] reforms in madrasah education’, observed the
commission in its report (Report of the Jatiya Sikkah Commission—2003, Ministry of
Education, People’s Republic of Bangladesh, p. 59).
The commission, therefore, found it ‘unnecessary to bring in any changes’ in, or
amendments to, the ‘objectives’ of the primary education’ adopted in 2000 and approved
by the government of BNP in 2002 (ibid., p. 9). Notably, the first of the 22 objectives,
set in the policy in question, aims at, as said earlier, ‘indoctrination of students in the
loyalty to and belief in the Almighty Allah, so that the belief inspires the students in
their thought and work, and helps shape their spiritual, moral, social and human values’
accordingly (ibid.).
The result was obvious. The Miah Commission’s proposed curricula for the primary
level (grade I to V) includes compulsory religious teachings and viva voce examinations
on religious teachings for students of grade III to V. Students of grade IV and V will
study, along with other courses, physical education, music and fine arts, but they will not
have to take these subjects as seriously as religious teachings, as they will not be required
to sit for any examination on these subjects (ibid., pp. 53–56).
Again, when recommending courses for the junior secondary (grade VI to VIII), the
commission proposed a 100-mark course on religious teachings, 200-mark course on
‘history–geography–sociology’ and 50-mark course on physical education; there are no
marks at all for courses on fine arts and music (ibid., p. 82).
26 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

At the secondary level (grade XI-X), the commission proposed 100 marks for reli-
gious teachings, and only 50 for history and 50 for geography, with no marks for fine
arts and music. Courses like the history of science and philosophy, ethics and health–
food–nutrition have been kept ‘optional’ (ibid.).
The accent remains, palpably, on religious teachings—an unfailing ideological
instrument of producing and reproducing unthinking citizens that help to peacefully
perpetuate undemocratic governance.
Jamaat, a partner in the BNP-led four-party government, have genuine reasons to boast
of ‘foiling conspiracy’, if there was any, to secularize the education system. ‘There was a con-
spiracy to secularize the country’s education system. But we have foiled that conspiracy’, Ali
Ahsan Muhammad Mujahid, a Jamaat leader and social welfare minister of Khaleda’s cabinet,
told a party rally in the capital city ([daily] Prothom Alo, Dhaka, 31 March 2004)—the day
before the commission submitted its report to the Prime Minister on 31 March 2004.
Still, an unhappy Sheikh Hasina complains that ‘the BNP-Jamaat came to power in
the name of religion’ but the coalition ‘have so far ignored Islam a lot’ ([daily] New Age,
Dhaka, 12 September 2003). ‘It is an irony that the Awami League was branded as an
anti-Islamic party, although my government worked tirelessly to establish the religion in
the country’, the media quoted Hasina as saying when addressing a group of mullahs at
her residential office in Dhaka on 11 September 2003 (ibid.).
The Jatiya Party, on the other hand, submitted a ‘private member bill’ in 2001, seek-
ing compulsory state intervention in making sure that all Muslim citizens of the coun-
try pray to Allah five times a day, and providing a maximum financial punishment of
Tk 10,000 for any Muslim citizen violating the provisions of the proposed law. (Jatiya
Party lawmaker Golam Mohammad Kader, who finds ‘enforcement of namaj the only
way of generating morality’ among citizens, submitted the bill called Namaj Kaem Ain
in 2001. The proposed law seeks all offices, shopping malls, educational institutions, etc.
to keep closed during every prayer time and the passenger transports lacking adequate
space for offering prayer to stop by the nearest mosque. The bill also proposed the for-
mation of monitoring committees at every administrative unit of the state, from the
districts down to the municipal wards, to supervise enforcement of namaj five times a
day.) Thank god, the bill has not been passed yet.
The brief almanac of the non-secular—rather anti-secular—legal, political, ideological
and economic schemes implemented so far by the elite, active under various political plat-
forms of the day, perhaps, provide adequate clues to why the once secular Muslim popula-
tion of Bangladesh are gradually getting insensitive towards various kinds of exploitation
of the religious minority communities by the politically backed vested quarters.
The more important point to note here is that the ruling elite’s deliberate implemen-
tations of the carefully crafted series of undemocratic, legal, ideological and economic
programmes over the decades have already desensitized quite a significant section of the
people about the de-secularizing process of society and state. The section of the people in
question even includes many of those who once consciously fought for secular democracy.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

In the midst of many a regressive social, cultural and political development, there are
still positive instances in which ordinary Muslims rose against repression of the minority
communities–religious or ethnic. A ‘fact file’, prepared by a Dhaka-based human rights
Context 27

organization, Odhikar, shows that local Muslims, led by a sub-inspector of the Tomaltala
police camp, carried out an attack on some Hindu households on 2 June 2003, follow-
ing a deliberate propaganda by the ‘lawman’ in question that Bishwambar Das Babajee,
a priest of a local ashram, had defecated on the Qur’an. At a point of the vandalism, a
local Muslim asked the sub-inspector to produce evidence of the charge brought against
Bishwambar Das (Daily Star, Dhaka, 17 August 2003). The policeman failed and it
eventually came out that he had engineered the attack against the Hindu families in the
locality because he was refused bribe that he had demanded of some Hindu people the
day before. ‘Then the agitated [Muslim] mob, being repentant of their own misdeeds,
cordoned the police camp and demanded punishment of the sub-inspector’, Bishwam-
bar Das Babajee was quoted to the Odhikar investigators (ibid.).
The incident of mass resistance against the repression of the Hindu community is not
an isolated example of civil society’s support to the genuine cause of the religious minority
communities. When a group of fanatic Muslims of the Sunni sect threatened in October
2005 to take the Ahmadiyya base, the Dhaka-based South Asian People’s Union against
Fundamentalism and Communalism called for civil society resistance to the uncivil move.
Civil society, including left-wing political parties and individuals, actively stood by the
Ahmadiyya community. The government was also forced to take actions against the Sunni
bigots. ‘Police action and civil society resistance kept at bay religious fanatics who threat-
ened to capture the Ahmadiyya headquarters’ in Dhaka on 27 October 2005 (Daily Star,
Dhaka, 28 October 2005). The top leader of the Ahmadiyya community, Meer Mobash-
wer Ali, ‘thanked civil society’ for the democratic resistance, and observed that ‘the secular
people of Bangladesh possess a strong power, and the dream that attended Bangladesh’s
birth will come true if they join hands to this end’ (ibid.).
It is also important to note that the mass media, particularly the private-sector
media, both print and electronic, has hardly failed to stand against any kind of commu-
nal gestures displayed by any extremist Islamist groups. A large number of human rights
groups and non-governmental organizations are also quite active across the country in
defending the democratic rights of the religious minority communities.
Still, if the political process of Islamization of the country’s education and state
machinery continues, without immediate and effective political, ideological and cultural
intervention by truly democratic forces of society, one can safely predict that the Muslim
population in general will get ‘indoctrinated’ to a degree when democratic voices against
intimidation, exploitation and oppression of the minority communities will get further
subdued, if not muted. In such a possible scenario, it is not only the minority communi-
ties that will be affected adversely, the rationally thinking members of the majority Mus-
lim community will also be a major victim of a theocratic polity which never tolerates
rational views in general and dissenting opinions in particular.

Democratic Future To Be Created

The future is not merely to be predicted, it is also to be created. The construction, and
perpetuation, of a secular democratic society calls for a series of politically conscious
simultaneous actions at different levels, especially including education and culture—
not to mention the obvious need for organizing perpetual protests, at the political level,
against the formulation and implementation of non-secular policies and programmes by
the communal elite.
28 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

As regards democratic intervention at the cultural and ideological level, fighting for
the formulation and implementation of secular democratic curricula remains one of the
most important responsibilities. Because, a secular and scientific education generates among
children, who are the future citizens, a sense of demystification of the universe, which
automatically encourages them to constantly question and review all structures, processes,
institutions and situations of society from the point of view of democratic ideologies.
One, however, should not have any illusion that the much-required democratic
intervention at the cultural and ideological levels will be welcome by the establishments
of the undemocratic ruling elite, which has deliberately created over the last few decades
the ‘existing order’, primarily to perpetuate their social political and economic interests. It
is, therefore, only expected that the undemocratic establishment will offer stiff resistance
at every possible level, while the non-secular intelligentsia that is, in the words of Antonio
Gramsci, ‘organically bound’ to the establishment will be the first group to react. The
political repressions by the coercive machinery of the state, controlled by the ruling elite,
might well follow after the failure of the non-secular intelligentsia to face, at the social
level, the stronger arguments for secular democratic culture of education and politics.
Still, the lesson of the history of the civilizations is that the forces of regression get
eventually defeated to the ones of progress. There are people even among liberal demo-
crats who believe these days, especially in the context of the United States and France,
the motherlands of secular classical democracies, turning to be fundamentalists, that
secular democracy is a political ‘utopia’ in this age! This is absolutely nonsense.
‘Utopias are often only premature truths’, as Lamartine put it long ago. Today’s uto-
pia may well become the realities of tomorrow, because, every historical event is an
ever-renewed deliverance from a topia (existing order) by a utopia, which arises out of it.
Only in utopia and revolution is there true life, the institutional order is always only the
evil residue which remains from ebbing utopias and revolutions … the road of history
leads from one topia over a utopia to the next topia, etc. (Karl Mannheim, Ideology and
Utopia, Harcourt, Inc., USA, 1936, p.198).
Hence, now is the time for the democratic forces to take up the difficult task of
fighting back the non-secular social, political and cultural adversaries to construct a
democratic state in Bangladesh, and thus defend the human dignity of members of the
minority communities. This is the only way to defend the sense of dignity of members
of the majority community.
A gigantic political task, indeed, but it remains, unquestionably, an achievable agenda.
(The essay was first published in the weekly, Holiday, Dhaka, on 11 November 2004, under
the title ‘De-secularizing Bangladesh: Will the Weak Voice of the Minority Plunge into the
Thunder of the Majority? ’)

In Bhutan, an ostensible reason for the expulsion of Lhotshampas has been the
challenge to Druk culture, but obviously religion has played some part in the conflict:
most Lhotshampas are Hindus and Druks are predominantly Buddhists. Similar is
the case in Sri Lanka where the role of religion in conflict between Buddhist Sinhalese
and Hindu or Muslim Tamils often does not get the attention it deserves. Even though
Hinduism is the religion of the majority in secular Nepal, Islam is the state religion of
the predominantly Muslim Pakistan and Buddhism the prime religion in Burma and
Context 29

Tibet, religion in some or the other form is the integral part of nationalism in all these
countries—minorities have to constantly prove their fealty. But the most important
reason for the proper understanding of nationalism in Southasia is also the most complex:
why is it that almost every country in the region has to live with the challenge of possible
fragmentation even after over six decades of independence? Revisiting the tumult of the
early days of the independence struggle in India can perhaps offer some explanation.
Religion has always played an important role—if not the most important role—
in Southasian life. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. From Rajendra Chola
(1012–44) who controlled parts of Indonesia from the southern part of India, through
Akbar (1542–1605) of the Din-e-ilahi synthetic religion experiment to Maharaja Ranjit
Singh (1780–1839) of Raj Karega Khalsa premise, all great rulers of the last millennium
have relied on religion to run their empires. It was the recognition of the traditional
role of religion rather than enunciation of any new principle that made Mahatma
Gandhi accept it as the primary force of his politics. But Gandhi’s rendition of religion
was based on multiplicity of faiths coexisting in harmony. He told the Federation of
International Fellowship in January 1928 that ‘After long study and experience I have
come to these conclusions that: (1) all religions are true, (2) all religions have some
error in them, (3) all religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism. My
veneration of other faiths is the same as for my own faith. Consequently, the thought of
conversion is impossible . . . Our prayers for others ought never to be “God give them
the light thou has given me!” but “Give them all the light and truth they need for their
highest development!”’6
The third factor that affects the issue of nationalism in Southasia is language.
Kashmiri poet Somdeva Bhatta in the eleventh century, the Tamil writer Kamban in the
twelfth century, the Marathi versifier Gyandeva in the thirteenth century, Urdu lyricist
Amir Khusrau in the fourteenth century who first wrote Hindustan is like Heaven,
Telugu author Vemana of the fifteenth century, philosopher Kabir in early and Mirabai
in the late sixteenth century, right up to the great Bengali bard of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries Rabindranath Tagore—scores of litterateurs in Southasia—have
left rich repertoire that are parts of everyday lives. This is the attachment that makes
a student in Lucknow rejoice that Urdu is the state language of Kashmir. Bangladesh
accepts the creation of Tagore as its national anthem with pride. Language divides, but
it also unites. Language-based nationalism is an integral part of Southasian existence.
The fourth important component of the discourse on nationalism in Southasia
is the paradox of identity and belongingness. Most Bangladeshis will probably find
it hard to see any contradiction in laying claim to the heritage of the struggle for
Pakistan on the one hand and liberation from Pakistan on the other. Punjabis, Tamils,
Maithilis, Nepalese, Bengalis, Kashmiris or Tibetans across international borders in
Southasia belong to the same cultural family and yet are members of different political
communities. On the face of it, such cultural linkages across borders appear to be
advantageous for better relationships between states. But it also complicates the status
of linguistic minorities: what to make of a Nepali-speaking Indian in Uttarakhand,
a Bengali Muslim in Assam or a Tamil from Sri Lanka in Kerala? Southasia is home
30 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

to immense diversity, yet some form of unity is felt by the people of the region that
remains unarticulated.
These four distinct features of nationalism—primacy of clan, relevance of
religions, importance of language and perceived unity in diversity—will have to be
kept in mind in imagining a new Southasia.

Sociology of Control
Deliberating upon the importance of power and authority in a slim but important volume
on political sociology in India,7 Dipankar Gupta concludes that Western theories about
nation-state and tradition and modernity needed to be adapted in view of somewhat
different ground realities of the place. This view is in line with the conventional wisdom
that measurable truths and generalized theories belong to the realm of physical sciences;
humanities require close attention to the particular. This is what Kabir said when he
placed the Akhan Dekhi experience above the Kagat Lekhi wisdom of the written word.
Tradition and modernity coexist in Southasia like seldom seen elsewhere.
Traditionalism in Japan is a construct of maintaining identity in the face of contemporary
challenges to its distinctiveness. Chinese modernity has proven to be shallow—the
supposed modernity of its economy and defence has yet to penetrate into the system
of governance or social practices. But the complexity of modernity and tradition
overlapping each other makes the task of understanding Southasian society and polity
extremely complex.
It is difficult to pigeonhole the production of political power and exercise of
coercive authority in Southasia in the constructs of Max Weber. Governance systems
in the region oscillate between the traditional, rational-legal and the charismatic.
Karl Marx’s conception of class solidarity is even less relevant in India where Ram
Manohar Lohia, a critic and contemporary of Jawaharlal Nehru, famously observed
that caste was perhaps the more important determinant. However, there are certain
important features of political power in Southasia that need to be kept in mind.
A visible characteristic of Southasian politics is the dynastic succession of
leadership—the most prominent of them being the Nehru-Gandhi family where a
fifth-generation scion was anointed as Secretary General amidst speculations of snap
polls in September 2007. From Motilal Nehru down to Rahul Gandhi, the dynasty
has produced three prime ministers—Jawaharlal, Indira and Rajiv—and scores of
members of parliaments, ministers, party functionaries and diplomats. The Koirala
family holds a record in Nepal where all the three sons of Krishna Prasad—Matrika,
Bishweshwar and Girija rose to become prime ministers. The Begums of Bangladesh
and Pakistan owe more to their lineage in politics than anything else. Similar is the
case with Bhandarnaike in Sri Lanka.
Authoritarian trends in politics can partly be attributed to dynastic succession. In
India, where procedural democracy repeatedly sends clannish politicians to power—
Mishras and Yadavs in Bihar, Karunanidhis and Ramchandrans in Tamil Nadu, Raos
Context 31

in Andhra, Karunakarans in Kerala, Pawars and Thakares in Maharashtra, Scindias in

Madhya Pradesh, Mirdhas in Rajasthan, Abdullahs and Sayeeds in Kashmir and Patnaiks
in Orissa; the list is endless—elected leaders often behave like feudal lords. Oligarchic
cliques built by dynastic politicians elsewhere in Southasia are hardly different.
To be sure, there are certain advantages in having elected leaders from established
families. They are known quantities and voters can make a fair guess about their
attitude. Existing networks of supporters make dynastic regimes relatively stable. It’s
not for nothing that from North Korea to Singapore and from Japan to USA, dynastic
succession continues to thrive. But risks of elected scions are no less compelling.
Most leaders from established political families are essentially in favour
of maintaining status quo. They find it easier to live in peace with the military,8
commercial or administrative elite. But what really makes dynastic succession
dangerous is the tendency of elected hereditary leaders to concentrate political
power in their own hands. Since they thrive because of the politics of patronage,
centralization of all authority ensues. Constitutional procedures fall by the wayside
as invincible leaders begin to perceive themselves as indispensable. Sadly, this gives
rise to submissive tendencies among their followers. One of the ways of countering
this trend can perhaps be an effective devolution of power at the provincial level and
empowerment of local government units at the grass roots.
The social structure that emerges out of Southasian nationalism is inherently
susceptible to manipulation by the middle class. In Nepal, it has been argued that the
‘Five M’ of military, mandarins, merchants, meddlers and mediators sustained
the sixth M—absolute monarchy. In India, the bourgeoisie loves to deride the system
that benefits it the most. The Sinhalese chauvinism in Sri Lanka is largely a middle-
class phenomenon and most of the supporters of General Parvez Musharraf ’s power-
grab were from the comfortable classes. The anti-politics hysteria in Bangladesh that
resulted in the cancellation of elections and suspension of democracy was ratcheted
up by the bourgeoisie. According to classical theories, the middle class is a bulwark
against populist tendencies and a protector of freedom. Southasian experience has
been to the contrary.
Fortunately, wherever there are periodic elections, the poor go out and vote in
large numbers, yet again contrary to the realities of Western societies, where it is
the middle class that sways election results. In Southasia, the comfortable class is
hesitant to queue up out in the sun to vote, so they stay home while the poor want
to make the best use of their right. Willingness and the ability of the poor to vote
out the powerful have given rise to three kinds of reactions among the members of
the traditional elite. In Pakistan, the response has been military takeovers with an
unfailing regularity. The defence forces of Pakistan consider themselves to be the
guardians of the state and step into the civilian sphere whenever they feel that their
intervention has become necessary.
In India, the established elite respond to the voters’ yearning for change by
making appeals to the baser instincts of voters. For Nehru, it was grandeur; Indira
Gandhi maintained her grip with the slogan of Garibi Hatao (remove poverty).
32 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Democracy was the word that the Janata Party experiment in the late 1970s
established in the popular discourse. The Bhartiya Janata Party, Shiva Sena and a
few other communal parties pander to the religiosity of the masses. But the recent
development has overtaken all previous trends. Regionalism is the new arbitrator of
destinies of political parties. Coalition building is a compulsion for any political party
aiming to get into power in New Delhi. Populism is the vehicle of political power in
the republic of India. In countries like Bangladesh and Nepal where the international
community—read donors and lenders—have considerable influence, NGOs
sometimes push political parties into the background. Guardianship, populism and
manipulation are aberrations of democracy, but they are the realities of social control
systems in Southasia that cannot be wished away.
Regionalism, however, has its saving graces as far as formation of integrated
Southasian identity is concerned. Tamils, Punjabis, Bengalis, Sindhis and Maithilis
bond so well across international borders that politics often fails to keep them
perpetually divided. The fundamental unity emerges as soon as instigating factors
of enmity disappear. Perhaps this is the reason that centralized states of Southasia
fear devolution of power and federalism and want to maintain the hegemony of
the centre through what is often called ‘de-centralization’. Empowered cultural
units within the boundaries of sovereign states will probably help allay the fears of
central governments and initiate cross-border linkages of people’s unity. It is a time-
consuming process, but the unity achieved through this ‘bottom-up’ approach will
be much more lasting than the one created by amity between elites of capital cities.

Separated Economy
One of the unfortunate fallouts of studying the history of the divided people
in Southasia9 through the Western lenses of nationalism has been that undue
attention is given to personalities (Mohammad Ali Jinnah versus Jawaharlal Nehru),
religion (Hindu versus Muslim) and disintegration after independence (disciplined
rulers and anarchic population). The economic rationale that created conditions for
partition and which may lead to eventual integration is often ignored.
British colonialism, especially after the uprising of 1857, destroyed the resilience
of the feudal mode of production and distribution in Southasia. The relationship
between land, capital, enterprise and labour has always been in decreasing order
of importance in feudal Southasia. Merchants of the British Empire made it worse
by putting capital above everything else. It turned feudal zamindars (patrons and
protectors) into self-centred talukdars, traditional seths (trusties of wealth) into
sahukars (moneylenders), adventurous paikars (entrepreneurs) into banias (petty
shopkeepers) and karigars (craftsmen) into kaamdars (workers). Zamindars, seths,
paikars and karigars benefited differently from the collective, but their relationship
was based on recognition of each other’s importance and consequent mutual respect,
the exception being the ‘untouchables’ of the Hindu society. But interactions between
Context 33

talukdars, sahukars, banias, and kaamdars had to be mediated by the state; each of
them recognized their dispensability and lacked the confidence to respect each other.
Once this animosity became widespread, nominal control of the centre that had
existed from the days of the Mughals could not hold together. The human tragedy
during Partition notwithstanding, perhaps it needs to be kept in mind that had the
British rule continued any longer, the acrimony and hostility building up in Indian
society since 1857 could have led to even bigger horrors than the displacement,
destruction and death of 1947.
Discussing history and memory in his classic tract on The Idea of History,
R. G. Collingwood argues that memory need not be experience of the self.10 What
one has heard also goes into the repertoire of personal memory. In fact, such a memory
has always played an important role in the formation of ideas about the ‘self ’ and the
‘other’ in Southasian societies. One such memory is about the exploitative castes
in the Indian mainland. The role that the British rule played in institutionalization
of this memory is seldom examined for the fear of being branded as reactionary.
However, it is possible to argue that the surplus economy of pre-British India that
soon degenerated into a deficit one must have had some saving graces. It needs to be
recognized that the antagonism against co-existence of castes—its predecessors have
been religious hatred and linguistic hostility—couldn’t have been as strong as it is
now without some help from the formation of memory inimical to traditions.
In Muslim households of Uttar Pradesh, bania is almost a term of abuse. Many
Hindus, on the other hand, still consider Muslims to be unreliable. If this is the state of
affairs after 60 years of organized state effort of creating unity, the situation that existed
prior to 1947 can only be imagined. The Kashiram–Mayawati combine created an
electoral alliance of what they called Bahujan (the majority) out of a provocative slogan:
kanta, kalam aur talwar, inko maro jute chaar. The allusion is to the stranglehold of a
weighing balance, pen, and sword signifying banias, Brahmans and Rajputs. Clearly,
the inter-relationship that had made the caste system work had lost all relevance and a
necessity of manufacturing new bases of association is acutely being felt.
Modern economy that came into existence after the Industrial Revolution
in Europe is not based on trust; it functions on the basis of contracts that require
the authority of the state to back them up. When the state is elitist, as in colonies,
monarchies, military dictatorships or plain majoritarian democracies, those without
access to power have very little control over their destinies. The deficiency of political
power manifests itself in the emergence of dependent peripheries around prosperous
centres. Under the cover of what has been called the ‘competitive advantage’—do
only that which is easily possible—regions have been pushed into the shadow of
centres of political power. Thus, when Jinnah was told that creation of Pakistan will
not work in Bengal because jute farming was done in the eastern part while all the
mills to process the agricultural produce were located in the western part which was
then traded through Calcutta, Qaid-e-Azam reportedly thundered that it was all the
more reason to separate both to let them develop independently. Ironically, when
Jinnah’s Pakistan gave continuity to the same colonial policy—East Pakistan as the
34 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

producer and West Pakistan as the processor, trader and governor—the creation of
Bangladesh became inevitable.
The post-modern economy, however, has the potential of reactivating the pre-
modern coexistence with specialization brought about by modernity. When trade
between India and Pakistan became a victim of military confrontations, enterprising
merchants got around the barrier by re-routing supplies through Singapore, Dubai
and even South Africa. Relationships developed in Silicon Valley. London Hospitals
had professional entrepreneurs, coming from a region, working together. The post-
modern economy is likely to help people rediscover old ties of language, caste, culture
and clan across borders and cement them through social networks, international
institutions and professional associations rather than government guarantees.
Separated economies of Southasia can then work together without imposition of
instruments of transactions from the top such as South Asian Free Trade Agreement
(SAFTA). This bottoms-up approach is slower than the imposed functionality of
international agreements and covenants, but will perhaps be much more integrative
and sustainable in the long run.
Despite relentless effort of the British to wipe out traditional craft of the Indian
subcontinent and replace it with modern industrial products, mostly imported from
Europe, skills that have evolved over the millennia still survive in different parts of the
region. They have been travelling around the landmass for generations for livelihood
and recently created political boundaries are merely hassles in their movement.
Awareness of rights and contestations of state-imposed conditionalities need to
be seen in the light of interdependence built into the very system of Southasian
economy. In Kathmandu, some of the best masons are from East Bengal, the most
efficient plumbers are from Orissa and the finest carpenters belong to North Bihar;
and no fencing of borders is going to stop their movement. Freeing of the labour
movement in Southasia is perhaps more important than all the free-trade agreements
that regimes of the region can think of.

Petrified Polity
All wars are fought out of fear; and the persistence of armed conflicts in the
subcontinent shows that the states of the region are extremely frightened. The
establishment in New Delhi perhaps fears that Jawaharlal Nehru’s invention of
India—that’s what his Discovery of India is all about—may not survive. According
to all the Western theories of nation-state, India is too heterogeneous to be a single
country. The guardians in the garrisons of Islamabad are unsure of the two-nation
theory that has already created three states. The Dhaka intelligentsia is apprehensive
of its own theory: can language alone hold a country together? The dread in
Colombo is different. The spectre of marginalization of Sinhalese ‘land, race and
faith’ prompted populist rulers of Colombo to enact Sinhala-only official language
legislation of 1956. Nearly half-a-century later, the condition in the island had
Context 35

become so serious that the founding chair of political science at the University of
Ceylon, A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, made the grim prediction in the preface of his book
The Break-up of Sri Lanka: The Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict: ‘Ceylon has already split into
two entities. At present, this is a state of mind; for it to become a territorial reality is
a question of time.’11 Reluctance of unrepentant traditional elite to usher in inclusive
policies created conditions for the Madhesh Uprising in the plains of Nepal in the
winter of 2007, but its aftershocks has merely hardened the fear of disintegration in
Kathmandu. Despite enormous resources spent in the name of defence, Southasian
regimes are terrified. The fear psychosis of the ruling elite in the capital cities of the
subcontinent lies at the root of most armed conflicts. This also signifies the failure
of institutional mechanism—constitutions of independent countries—to establish
grounds of peaceful contestations.
The very origin of the word ‘constitution’ says everything that it means. According
to the dictionary definition, the word comes from ‘constitution’ in Middle English
(denoting a law, or a body of laws or customs). It claims its root to Latin constitutio(n-).
This in turn evolved from constituere meaning establish or appoint which is a combined
form of con (together) and statuere (set up). It is believed that the concept of rule of law
in Greece in 461 BC enshrined ISONOMY (equality before laws), ISOTIMY (equal
right to hold public office) and ISEGORY (liberty of expression) as its basic features.
Those tenets continue to be the fundamental faiths of constitutionalism. But even
in societies that lay claim to Greek heritage, the struggle for constitutional order has
been long and arduous. To take the British example, the beginning of their unwritten
constitution perhaps started with the Magna Carta (The Great Charter on Human
Rights) of 1215, Petition of Rights in 1629 (end of the Divine Right Theory), and
the Bill of Rights (unquestioned supremacy of Parliament) of 13 February 1689 and
continues to evolve even now. The persistence of people’s desire to create a just society
has been a common feature of all struggles for constitutionalism.
From the ancient Manusmriti, ‘Vidur Niti’ of Mahabharata and Kautilya’s
Arthasastra to Ain-e-Akbari of Mughal rulers, supremacy of the written law has
always existed in some or the other form in Southasia. Jung Bahadur Kunwar Rana
of Nepal is acclaimed to have been the first eastern potentate to set foot in Europe.
Upon his return, he enacted the Muluki Ain patterned after the Napoleonic code.
But these records can hardly be cited as practice of constitutionalism. A yearning for
living under a constitution made by the people is an inalienable part of the modern
definition of constitutionalism. This is where experiences in Southasia widely differ.
The constitution-making exercise in India is essentially a consensus-building
process. That is perhaps the reason it continues to evolve to this day. A major aberration
to the evolution of constitutional rule in India has been Indira Gandhi’s experiments
in authoritarian rule in the name of internal Emergency in the mid-seventies, but the
country got over it within a relatively short period. However, its lingering legacy—the
concept of enshrining duties of citizens in addition to their rights in the constitution
itself—continues to empower India’s judiciary and other non-elected institutions into
making laws that bear little relation to the concerns of the people.
36 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

The Constitution of Pakistan is a product of negations between competing

power groups that held sway in the newly formed state in the 1940s and 1950s. The
trials and tribulations of the constitution-building process between the adoption of
the Objective Resolution of Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan in March 1949 and the
final enforcement of a proper constitution on 23 March 1956 include the decision
of the Chief Justice Muhammad Munir that gave birth to that peculiarly Pakistani
invention: Doctrine of Necessity. This archaic principle has since been used by almost
every usurper to justify patently unconstitutional takeovers. Another much-misused
instrument in Pakistan is something called the Legal Framework Order issued by
various military dictators from time to time to introduce convenient legal innovations.
The ‘contribution’ of Bangladesh and Nepal to the collection of aberrations
is similar—reinterpretations of constitutional provisions by ‘useful idiots’ of the
legal profession to justify repeated transgressions by authorities. In Sri Lanka,
the constitution is used as a tool of institutionalizing discrimination rather than
guaranteeing minority rights and establishing rules for fair play.
The petrified polity of independent states in Southasia has created constitutions in
their own image—documents for exercising control rather than enabling citizens. In this
situation, even if covenants of regional integration were to evolve, their implementation
would not be easy. Only people’s movements for the coexistence of states within
Southasian plural unity can bring about substantive changes under these circumstances.

1. In the chapter ‘The Feudal System’, Jawaharlal Nehru credits the emergence of empires in
Europe to the enterprise of robber barons lording over serfs from his castle at the bottom
and fighting for the bigger lord at the top and argues that the process had been differ-
ent in India and China. (Jawaharlal Nehru, Glimpses of World History, Jawaharlal Nehru
Memorial Fund/Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Thirteenth Impression, 1998.) That
may have been so, but it’s possible to argue that empires have always been built through
complex processes of negotiations of which brute force is often just a component. Threat
of coercion is necessary to hold a territory together, but it’s impossible to administer it
without some form of acquiescence of the population
2. Writing about the heady days of short-lived English Republic, Winston S. Churchill
observes in the 2nd volume of his A History of English Speaking Peoples, ‘On 4 January
1649, the handful of Members of the House of Commons who served the purposes
of Cromwell and the Army resolved that “the people are, under God, the original just
power, . . . that the Commons of England in Parliament assembled, being chosen by and
representing the people, have supreme power in this nation.’ Quoted from: Winston S.
Churchill, A History of English Speaking Peoples, Volume Two, The New World, Cassel,
London, Fifth Edition, Seventh Impression 1980, p. 227.
3. These quotes appear in a different context in Carlin Romano’s opinion piece, ‘Are Sacred
Texts Sacred? The Challenge for Atheists’ in The Chronicle Review, Volume 54, Issue 4, p. B11
http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?id=z7l8lk37pncd9zfjn38qnmmjbzxlbng9. Accessed
28 September 2007.
Context 37

4. John B. Allock (1989). ‘In praise of chauvinism: rhetorics of nationalism in Yugoslav

politics’ in Third World Quarterly, Volume II No. 4, The author makes an important con-
tribution to the theory of nationalism by analysing what he calls ‘Nationalism as political
“rhetoric”’ in the Yugoslav context. pp. 206–221
5. Noting similarities, John Rex observes, ‘The clearest case of a society that bases itself on
the notion of citizenship and the ideology of modernizing nationalism is that of France,
where the natural tendency is to deny and seek to destroy the ethnicities of minorities.
In Germany, the second kind of ethnic domination is to be found. There is a belief in
the existence of a volk which pre-exists the nation of citizenship and whose membership
includes many not even resident within the nation-state, while excluding others, who may
be so resident but are not members of the volk,’ in ‘National Identity in the Democratic
Multi-Cultural State’, Sociological Research Online, vol. 1 no. 2 section 5.2. http://www.
socresonline.org.uk/socresonline/1/2/1.html. Accessed 9 June 2000.
6. Jawaharlal Nehru (1981). The Discovery of India. Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund/
Oxford University Press, New Delhi. p. 362
7. Dipankar Gupta (1996). Political Sociology in India: Contemporary Trends, Orient Long-
man, New Delhi. p. 19
8. Dubai Deals and London Exchanges between emissaries of General Parvez Musharraf,
Benezir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were topics of heated discussion in the aftermath of
Lawyers’ agitation in Pakistan. There is a penetrating cover story of possible power pact in
the August 2007 issue of Newsline, published from Karachi.
9. A comprehensive overview of the processes of Partition that led to the creation of Pakistan
and India is given by Mushirul Hasan in his introduction Partition Narratives to The Parti-
tion Omnibus, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002.
10. R. G. Collingwood (1994). The Idea of History. Oxford University Press, Oxford. p. 366
11. P. Saravanamuttu (1989). Ethnic Conflict and Nation-building in Sri Lanka, Third World
Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, London.
3 Human Rights

The emergence of ‘human rights’ as a secular religion is of relatively recent origin. It

appeared out of the horrors of the Great Wars and was formalized by the proclamation
of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the 10 December 1948 in the
General Assembly of the United Nations. Perhaps that is the reason human rights
are not as sacrosanct in states that escaped the devastations wrought by the wars
between peoples and nations. Southasia had to bear the human, material and moral
costs of the Great Wars without having played any part in their conflagration. Wars
taught Southasian leaders not to take violations of human rights lightly. Fundamental
freedoms are enshrined as inalienable rights of every individual in every constitution of
the subcontinent. Adherence to those norms, however, is a different matter altogether.
There is some truth in the observation that when there is a contradiction between
behaviour and norms, the latter prevails. But in tradition-bound societies, attitudes
change slowly. In the concepts of dhamma of Buddhism and dharma of Hinduism,
rights are considered preposterous—individuals are called upon to concentrate on
duties as in the famous injunction of Lord Krishna to Arjun in the Bhagvada Gita:
‘Your rights are limited to performing your duties, not on the outcome.’ Even in
Christianity and Islam, relatively modern religions compared to other faiths of the
subcontinent, the concept of duties—towards the Almighty, society, family and
self—overshadows individual rights. The mindset produced by deeply held beliefs
comes in the way of implementation of human rights laws in Southasia.
The social mechanism of monitoring human rights violations is equally lax
for three reasons. Religious affinity, family honour and tribal ties are considered
important in the subcontinent. Secondly, liberalism—the ideology that gave birth to
the concept of human rights—is not widely understood in the region. Even though
the sanctity of an individual’s life, liberty, property, identity and dignity are implicit
in all faiths, it has not been able to overcome the horizontal division between creeds
or the vertical hierarchy of caste. The third barrier to the acceptance of human rights
is also the strongest. For reasons of its own, almost every state in Southasia lives under
the constant threat of disintegration. This turns the ideology of ‘Reasons of State’ into
an instrument of consolidating power and exercising authority without a due process
of law or accountability. The romantic notion of a person being born free only to
find fetters all around later in life is as true in Southasia as anywhere in the world.
The universal declaration of human rights is hence an important consideration of
existence in the region.
Human Rights 39

Unfreedom in the Region

From Afghanistan to Burma (west to east) and from Tibet to Sri Lanka (north to
south), the status of fundamental freedom leaves a lot to be desired. It is relatively easy
to blame western governments of duplicity and double standards in judging human
rights records of developing countries, but self-examination by any Southasian would
reveal that there is a lot to do to establish the dignity of the individual in this region.
Russian occupation and Taliban totalitarianism had already shaken the celebrated
resilience of the Afghans. Americans have since destroyed whatever was left behind.
Ever since US President George W. Bush and his neocon1 advisers dreamt up the
dubious idea of a War on Terror in the wake of 11 September 2001, the civilization
of Kandahar and Kabul continues to bear the brunt of the biggest military power of
the planet. Despite the backing of the American military might, the puppet regime
of the West in Kabul has not been able to establish its grip on Afghan society, much
less bring some semblance of order back to the hills and valleys. The violence of
insurgency and counter-insurgency rocks the countryside with unfailing regularity as
the government’s writ does not extend beyond heavily fortified administrative centres.
Even aid workers are often abducted, tortured and executed. To talk of human rights
in Afghanistan in such a situation is somewhat like chasing a mirage. But it must be
talked about to prepare for the days when things will return to normal.
In 2007, the imperfect democracy of Bangladesh was replaced with a synthetic
governance system based on a hybrid civil–military combine ruling the nation in a
technocratic manner. But the regime that claims its legitimacy upon efficacy and
efficiency hasn’t been able to do much in improving the dismal human rights records of
the previous regimes. Pathologies of a repulsive level of corruption, high-handed police
force, inefficient judiciary and wayward religious zealots persist; and there is justifiable
reason to question the non-political administrative solution of what are essentially issues
of governance. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), formed to fight organized crime, is
alleged to engage in serious abuses such as extra-judicial killings, torture and abductions,
but the political atmosphere to complain against their excesses is simply not there. The
RAB, according to human rights groups, acts as informers, judges and executioners all
rolled into one, and there isn’t much its victims can do to have their plight addressed.
Bhutan has made considerable progress under the tutelage of New Delhi except
in case of acceptance of the principle of plurality and culture of diversity. Absolutely
no attempts have been made by Thimpu over the decade to create conditions for the
return of Lhotsampa refugees languishing in the camps of eastern Nepal. A whimsical
ban on satellite channels in the name of cultural purity continues. The Bhutanese king’s
innovation of Gross National Happiness (GNH) in place of the globally accepted
parameters of Gross National Product—absolute or adjusted to purchasing power
parity—is all very well, but life in the Druk kingdom is not easy for anyone who dares
question the status quo. When the definition and limits of individual freedom are set
by the royal clique professing to be progressive, the lives and liberties of individuals
depend more upon the mercy of the law enforcement agencies than on laws themselves.
40 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

The political uprising in Burma brought about the fundamental flaw of all military
regimes to light: no matter how sincere and ‘efficient’ the ‘guardians of the nation’—
that’s how the defence forces of unstable countries like to describe themselves—are,
people everywhere yearn to exercise some control over their collective destiny. Very
little seeps out of a country under the stranglehold of one of the most secretive regimes
in the world, but prolonged incarceration of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is proof—if any
proof was needed—that the junta in Rangoon has no tolerance for even dissidence,
let alone democracy. Human rights under such a regime can only be of academic
interest. But it requires more, not less, academic enquiry.
It is impossible to generalize about the human rights situation in India; the country
is too vast and varied to be overviewed in a paragraph, or a book, for that matter. Popular
aphorism about the complexity of India—whatever is true, it’s exact opposite is equally
true—is accurate in all its majesty. Country author, T. A. John, attempts to do the
impossible in the accompanying piece, ‘Democracy, Governance and Human Rights:
India Perspective’. But aberrations of the otherwise ‘normal’ human rights record in India
are glaring. The dreaded POTA—Prevention of Terrorism Act—has been repealed, but a
mere mention of sinister acronyms such as TADA (Terrorism and Disruptive Activities)
or MOCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organized Crimes Act) still sends shivers down
the spine of many of its victims. These instruments gave sweeping powers to investigative
agencies which were then recognized by courts. In a landmark case, the Constitution Bench
of the Supreme Court upheld the validity of section 15 of the TADA which made a con
fession statement recorded by a police officer as admissible in evidence. Its saving grace was
the minority view that differentiated between approaches of the police and the judiciary.2
Another anomaly that plagues the human rights record in democratic India is
the persistent abuse of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA.
Since the Northeast3 is the main victim of AFSPA excesses, the metropolitan press
often ignores what the armed forces do with everyone they perceive to be suspects.
Institutionalized discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, gender, age and infirmities
persist in democratic India even sixty years after its tryst with destiny at the stroke of
midnight, but attempts are being made to get over them. But more alarming is the
tendency to use armed forces to resolve political issues.
Reports are quite effective in giving a sense of reality through the description of
visible details—length, breadth , height and composition. But to go to the depths of
agony or ecstasy, there is nothing like poetry. Agha Shahid Ali, a Delhi-born American
poet of Kashmiri origin—a personification of multiple exile and cosmopolitanism—
wails in his 1997 poem ‘Farewell’:
Army convoys all night like desert caravans:
In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights,
time dissolved—all winter—its crushed fennel
We can’t ask them: Are you done with the world?
‘They’ are never done with the world.
‘We’ all have to be constantly on guard
against human rights violations anywhere and everywhere.
Human Rights 41

Democracy, Governance and Human Rights:

India Perspective
T. A. John
India symbolizes one of the largest and oldest democratic nations in the world. The
constitution defines India as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic. It has
three branches of governance: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Since in-
dependence in 1947, India has maintained cordial relationships with most nations. As
important as civil and political rights in the Indian context are the rights of the mar-
ginalized—women, tribals, Dalits or lower castes and the poor. It is the rights of the
marginalized and of the minorities in the country today that are in peril. The challenge
is to empower the poor and marginalized to fight for their rights and participate in the
public sphere.

Where Do We Stand?
India has made considerable progress in its social and economic development in recent
decades, which is clearly visible from its improved social indicators of life expectancy,
infant mortality and literacy rate. However, improvement in women’s status is lagging
far behind than other accomplishments. Women in India live under the strain of vari-
ous forms of oppression. These are evident from social, cultural and religious pressures
in family, law, politics, government programmes, information services and education.
These pressures adversely affect women’s access to resources. The underdevelopment
of rapidly ‘developing’ India is quite evident as various human development indica-
tors reflect that we have not been able to guarantee basic development rights to the
citizens of India even after five decades of independence. The status of basic health,
primary education or hunger continues to take centre stage as access to these services
in various states for many disadvantaged communities is far from satisfactory.

Livelihood prospects continue to decline. While the growth rate of employment took
a beating in both urban and rural India in the 1990s, the extent of the decline was much
larger in rural India. The annual growth rate of employment in rural areas dipped to 0.58
per cent in the period 1993–94 to 1999–20 from 2.03 per cent in the period 1987–88
to 1993–94. In urban areas, it declined marginally from 3.39 to 2.27 per cent during the
same period.

Livelihood and agriculture—A dismal picture. In fact, during the second half of the
1990s, as per the NSS data, employment growth in agriculture almost completely dried
up. Decline in the growth of employment opportunities was, in large measure, policy-
driven through reduction in public development expenditure, declining input subsidies
and drying up of rural credit.

The myth of growing food security. It may also be noted here that the decade of the
1990s is indeed the only one since independence when per capita food grain output in
the country declined in absolute terms. It reflects a complete disregard for the right to
livelihood, as reflected through appalling access to employment and food availability and,
in recent years, the situation appears to have deteriorated alarmingly.
42 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Health—Arduous path ahead. The public expenditure on health as a percentage

of GDP in India is among the lowest. India spends only 4.46 per cent. Even Bangla-
desh has overtaken us in this regard over the past decade. It is worth noting here that
according to the Human Development Report, 2004, in terms of public expenditure
on health care as a proportion of total health care expenditure (in the country), India
ranks as low as 171 among the 175 countries studied. On the other hand, in terms
of private health care expenditure as a proportion of the total, India’s rank is rather
high at 18.

Education—Promises need to be backed by commitment. The NDA government’s

last budget, for the year 2004–05, had set aside Rs 6,004 crore for elementary educa-
tion, whereas the Tapas Majumdar Committee had suggested that to achieve the goal of
universalization of school education over a ten-year time frame (1998–99 to 2007–08),
the total expenditure required was around Rs 1.37 lakh crore, and for 2004–05, it had
suggested an expenditure of about Rs 17,000 crore. Also, the capital allocation on edu-
cation, which is meant for the creation of new buildings and other infrastructure, had
been very low throughout the tenure of the NDA regime. It declined from around Rs
224.53 crore in 1994–95 to Rs 18.42 crore in 2002–03.

Human rights in India—Historical perspectives. Despite being a ‘vibrant democracy’

with strong constitutional protections, India’s human rights enforcement record has been
‘poor’ and needs improvement. The Constitution of India is one of the most rights-based
constitutions in the world. Drafted around the same time as the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights (1948), the Indian Constitution captures the essence of human rights
in its Preamble, and the sections on Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of
State Policy.
The Constitution of India is based on the principles that guided India’s struggle
against a colonial regime that consistently violated the civil, political, social, economic
and cultural rights of the people of India. The freedom struggle itself was informed by
the many movements for social reform, against oppressive social practices like sati, child
marriage, untouchability, etc. Thus by the mid-1920s, the Indian National Congress
had already adopted most of the civil and political rights in its agenda. The movement
led by Dr B. R. Ambedkar against discrimination against the Dalits also had an impact
on the Indian Constitution.
In spite of the fact that most of the human rights found clear expression in the Con-
stitution of India, the independent Indian State carried forward many colonial tenden-
cies and power structures. Though the Indian State under Jawaharlal Nehru took many
proactive steps and followed a welfare-state model, the police and bureaucracy remained
largely colonial in their approach and sought to exert control and power over its citizens.
The casteist, feudal and communal characteristics of the Indian polity, coupled with
colonial bureaucracy, weighed against and dampened the spirit of freedom, rights and
affirmative action enshrined in the constitution.

Concerns for India

The major concerns for India are:
-Judiciary —especially the lower judiciary, which is plagued by a lack of sensitivity
and enormous delays.
Human Rights 43

-Policing—which is reeling under ineptitude and corruption, and in which the prac-
tice of custodial torture is prevalent.
-Discriminatory approaches—by the government towards certain regions within the
country—for example, the Northeast.
-Caste-based discrimination—often leading to starvation deaths.
Of the 1.2 billion Indians, an estimated 74 per cent are living in the country’s rural vil-
lages. The improvement in the living standards and quality of services available to this
74 per cent of the population, guaranteeing them the basic minimum rights, would be
better proof of the improvement of human rights and the rule of law vis-à-vis economic
development in India.
Panchayati Raj is a concept that has been implemented in India since April 1993.
The Act also provided the panchayats with the authority to function as institutions of
self-governance. To facilitate this, certain powers and responsibilities are delegated to
panchayats, to prepare and implement a plan for economic development and social
justice. In effect, the process was aimed to decentralize governance and also at the same
time to promote, through a positive reservation, the empowerment of backward com-
munities, women and the members of the scheduled castes and tribes in India.

South Asia
South Asia is home to 47 per cent of the world’s poor living on less than $1 a day.
India has reduced its poverty rate by 5–10 per cent since 1990; most other countries
registered reduction in poverty over the period, except for Pakistan, where poverty
has stagnated at around 33 per cent (using national poverty lines). Looking beyond
consumption poverty at other indicators of social progress, the region has had
encouraging success in some areas: for example, mortality in children under five has
reduced substantially between 1990 and 2004 (from 129 to 92, per 1,000), especially
in Bangladesh (149 to 77, per 1,000) and Nepal (145 to 76, per 1,000), At the same
time, challenges remain in key areas such as child malnutrition, primary and sec-
ondary completion rates, maternal mortality, and gender balance in education and
health outcomes; nearly half of all children under the age of five are malnourished
in Bangladesh and Nepal, and youth illiteracy in the region is high—18 per cent for
males and 35 per cent for females.
• Democracy and Human Rights in the South Asian Context
South Asia faces numerous human rights and development challenges that threaten stabil-
ity and democracy, while various long-standing ethnic conflicts and insurgencies hamper
further progress. Despite these challenges, there have been notable successes. The con-
tinuing thaw in relations between India and Pakistan was another positive development.
Continued engagement between India and Pakistan has the potential to improve the lives
of the Kashmiri people by ending years of estrangement and political violence.
The institution of ‘human rights and democracy’ in a country is unavoidable to pro-
mote the multicultural values and ethics of tolerance positively. The South Asian region
has experienced the autocratic rule of the regime if we look at the development of South
Asian history. The colonialism has left behind conflicts which have inculcated suspicion
among citizens of a country and have drawn a ‘line of uncompromising state’ for its
solutions. We cannot spare the conflict of the Kashmir dispute and the stateless people
of Bangladesh in South Asia. The colonialism, on the other hand, has enrooted a sense
of nationalism and safety of nation-state so strong that no people of the nation-state
44 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

would compromise with the state identity. The dawn of a democratic nation like Nepal
has yet to strengthen its multicultural, plural society in terms of the ethic of tolerance.
The century-old monarchy still plays a vital role in state affairs, which is often found in
the contrary to the tolerance of handing over power and authority to the people’s repre-
sentative. The South Asian nations comprise of a multicultural ‘law of the land’ in terms
of ruling the state. The Himalayan nation, Nepal, is gripped by the bloody war between
the ‘underground Maoists’ and the government. Nepal is also struck by the controversy
of the constitutional monarchy and democracy. The existing multi-perception of the
system of governance has weakened the multicultural, multiparty democracy of Nepal.
• South Asian Women’s Perspectives
The rapid growth of fundamentalism, combined with ‘communalism’ and other fac-
tors in India, has led to an increasing number of human rights violations targeting
specific ethnic or religious sectors of the population by both state security forces and
civilian actors. Many Muslim minorities in India feel more Indian than anything else.
In India, to focus on national and regional security is difficult, as the security needs in
India’s context are linked to the struggle against communalism. Caste also affects all
religious groups, making promoting the cause of human rights difficult as it involves
challenging the social system, which in practice is still the foundation of inequality
and inequity in India.
–Women’s approach to mobilization in India is through networking across the lines
of conflict on multiple issues rather than on single agendas. These agendas however,
should be holistically linked. The issue of Kashmir should not be neglected and the
analysis should go beyond the issue of terrorism. While the current peace efforts are
still fledging, women should be more integrally involved.
–Women are suffering mental and physical abuse, rape and other human rights violations.
There has been an increase in killings, kidnappings and cases of disappearance of women.
–Access to emergency health services by women is limited or non-existent, with preg-
nant women and children being the most adversely affected.
–Unemployment has increased due to restrictions on movement and fear resulting
from the suspension of certain fundamental freedoms.
• State of Corruption in South Asia
Corruption afflicts South Asia at all levels of state and society. Scarce government
resources that ought to be financing basic welfare programmes are often allocated to
huge arms deals and infrastructure projects that offer officials and politicians prospects
of lucrative kickbacks. At the individual level, high levels of corruption impose dispro-
portionate costs on the majority of South Asians, as they are forced to pay bribes in order
to gain access to basic social services. Democratic and authoritarian governments alike
wax lyrical about the need to combat corruption, but the region’s political, bureaucratic
and military elites are rarely held accountable.
The largest country, India, has the strongest democratic institutions in the region,
but it is as plagued as Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan by systemic public and private
sector corruption. The state’s standard response to the demand for corruption control is
to implement new strategies, laws, regulations and institutional mechanisms.
While all South Asian countries have rigorous anti-corruption laws, conviction rates
are low and sentences are rarely carried out. The judicial process is open to manipula-
tion and cases drag on for years. However, a vibrant press, with a healthy tradition of
Human Rights 45

exposing corruption in high places, is emerging. Corruption exposés are turning the
heat on governments and providing an impetus for reform.
As South Asian countries grapple with critical social, political and economic trans-
formation, corruption is unlikely to decrease in the short run. Political instability, un-
derpaid civil servants and unresponsive state institutions are compounded by rising pov-
erty and unemployment. Political violence, increasing military expenditures spawned by
intra-state and inter-state conflict, and massive debt burdens are also major problems.
All these factors limit the capacity of states to institute the meaningful institutional re-
forms necessary for economic development and reducing corruption. Media and public
pressure, collective citizen action and the consolidation of democratic institutions could,
however, turn the tide in the medium term.

Concerns for South Asia

Gender disparities
• As is by now well known, the level of gender disparities in health and education
outcomes for girls in South Asia is the highest in the world.
• Even within South Asia, and within India or Pakistan, there are huge variations
in gender disparity. Differences in gender disparity among Indian states or among
provinces of Pakistan are typically greater than those among the world’s nations. The
ratio of female to male child mortality in one Indian state (Haryana) is worse than
in any country in the world, although in another state (Tamil Nadu), it is lower than
in all but three countries.
• Across and within the set of developing nations, gender disparity is not a phenom-
enon of poverty only. There is almost no correlation between per capita income and
gender disparities in health and education outcomes. So, although absolute levels of
health and education outcomes for girls are strongly related to economic conditions,
the disparities between outcomes for girls and boys are not.
• Gender-based violence (GBV) is a serious public health, economic and gender is-
sue that violates human rights. Although not exclusive to women and girls, GBV
principally affects them across all cultures. Because of this, gender-based violence is
sometimes used interchangeably with violence against women.
• A survey in India by ICRW shows that 52 per cent of women suffer at least one incident
of physical or psychological violence in their married life. The NFHS-II says that one
in five married women in India experiences domestic violence from the age of 15 years.
• In Pakistan, 80 per cent of women experience violence within their homes. Violence
against women takes a different form in Nepal. Published figures in Nepal suggest that
between 5,000 to 7,000 Nepali women and girls are trafficked for sex every year. In Ban-
gladesh, 47 per cent women experience physical violence at the hands of their partners.
• In India there are nearly 150 dowry deaths estimated per year. In 2002, 315 women
and girls in Bangladesh were victims of acid attacks.
• Effective prevention and response to gender-based violence requires a well-planned
and coordinated multi-sectoral effort by the community, health and social services,
police and security forces, and the legal systems. Governments need to monitor GBV
data collection. Referral networks need to be established to help victims of violence.
Best practices in preventing violence need to be documented and disseminated.
46 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Good governance
Good governance is an issue of great importance in South Asia. An essential feature of
good governance is promoting people’s participation in decision making, including the
participation of women in governance at all levels. The 73rd Constitutional Amend-
ment that was passed in India in 1992 gave formal constitutional recognition to local
self-governance units at the village and town level. Most significantly, it reserved 33 per
cent of seats for women. Today, an estimated one million Indian women hold political
office at that level.

Making democracy work

Democracy works when citizens and the most marginalized people have the capability
to ask questions, seek accountability from the state and participate in the process of
governance. While the constitutional framework and human rights guarantees can build
the grammar of democracy, it is always the people and the ethical quality of the political
process that make democracy work. Democracy dies where discrimination begins and
the politics of exclusion takes root. Accountable and people-centred governance can
provide an operational framework for making democracy work.
Hence, there is a need to challenge the ‘good governance’ paradigm and to begin
to practice and promote people-centred governance as an expression of grass-roots de-
mocratization process. A rights-based approach to governance is a function of power
relationships within and beyond the institutions of government and the exercise of such
power with a sense of justice, fairness and equity. Such an approach is based on five key
elements: human rights, distributive justice, democratic legitimacy, peoples’ participa-
tion and accountability.

• If human rights are to become the framework for social development, fundamental
reforms in and strengthening of the human rights regime are necessary. The first and
the hardest is to accept the implications of the universality of human rights.
• Mainstreaming human rights in development would mean that the elimination of
poverty should be the principal aim of development projects.
• Social and economic rights must be given priority in research projects that have
been denied to the underserved. Considerable research and imagination are needed
to provide the practical underpinnings of economic and social rights; the modalities
for enforcement, and standards and benchmarks for monitoring progress. This will
require more funding for this enterprise, the establishment of networks and, above
all, the commitment of governments.
• Scheduled castes (Dalits and ‘low’ castes [SC]) and scheduled tribes (indigenous
groups [ST]) make up 24 per cent of the Indian population. Discrimination faced
by Dalits in India is similar in all South Asian countries, so discrimination against
the entire community should be recognized and addressed.
• A well-functioning and orderly police system will bring solutions to various issues
considered as being cancers in Indian society. Rooting out corruption, caste-based
discrimination and starvation deaths must begin with making the police accountable
for their actions and inaction.
Human Rights 47

• A time-bound and well-thought-out plan must be immediately drawn up to address

the core issues concerning its policing system. The honest and legitimate participa-
tion by civil society in this process must be ensured and welcomed.
• Immediate and stringent measures must be taken by the government and by the
Supreme Court of India to save its lower judiciary from its current state. India must
learn its lessons from bad examples where the term justice has no meaning to the
ordinary people.
• No country can ignore the plight of 22 per cent of its population. The Dalits in India
must be considered as equal citizens with equal rights. For this, the government of India
must recognize that development must be carried out through a bottom-up approach.
• Existing legislation to prevent caste-based atrocities must be strictly implemented and
police officers refusing to implement such laws must be punished. A country like India,
which is rich in food reserves, has no excuse to justify a single death from starvation.
Each death from starvation in India must be considered as a stain on democracy.
• Advocacy methods to mobilize tribals, low castes, Dalits, the rural poor and women
are required to work together to fight for land, water and forest rights. The aim
should be to make access to land a national priority. The majority of India lives in
villages; hence land is a key issue here.

• Human rights and democracy are among the pillars on which our modern societies
stand. More often than not, especially in the case of human rights, they are used as
indicators of peace, security, tolerance and freedom in a country, and are thus also
the prerequisites for the effective sustainable development of a society.
• Neither the state nor the system is likely to support the struggles of the oppressed.
Therefore, the revolutionary potential of rights is likely to remain dormant for
the foreseeable future. The support for human rights will not be secured so long
as poverty is not seen as a concern of the rights regime. But this in turn will not
happen until the concept of rights is used to mobilize society to demand greater
equity. Unless there are pressures from civil society, in both the rich and the poor
communities, for social justice and respect for human dignity, little progress will
be made.
• A major weakness of the human rights struggle has been the inability to involve the
masses as subjects rather than objects of rights. In this lies the most fundamental
challenge to human rights scholars and activists. Hence, there is little prospect for
success unless there is transformation in the regime of rights.
• India has a lot to improve upon before it can consider itself as being a model for
other developing nations.
• Despite existing social challenges for development, India is emerging as a potential
global leader. India, however, must recognize that reform cannot be focused only on
economic challenges, but needs to integrate the social dimension as well.
• India must encourage the widespread participation of civil society, local governments
and non-governmental organizations in reform efforts. By increasing democratic
participation, India will be better positioned to confront the growing social concerns,
such as rural distress and resource misuse.
48 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

• At a regional level, India should recognize it has a major role to play in strengthen-
ing regional economic ties. It must take pragmatic steps to resolve the long-standing
Indo-Pakistan dispute, address current regional disputes over resources like water,
and help return democracy to Nepal. By demonstrating good governance and politi-
cal will at a domestic and regional level, India will move closer to establishing itself
as a global leader.
• The global policy promises of the Eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG)
and the national policy promises in the 10th five year plan will not be made good in
India without political will, adequate budgetary commitments, civil society moni-
toring and participation. The political promises made by the current government at
the centre will be postponed unless citizens groups and civil society organizations
actively seek accountability and monitor the political and policy pronouncements.
20 July 2007
(T. A. John is associated with the Human Rights and Law Unit of the Indian Social Institute
[Lodi Road, New Delhi], in India.)

There is a new danger to the human rights situation in India: sensationalism of

the media. In an emblematic ‘sting operation’,4 a school teacher in the Indian capital
was victimized by an ambitious journalist, raising a justified hue and cry over media’s
unrestrained power of humiliating and prosecuting an individual. Trial by media is
commonplace in 365 × 24 ‘news channels’ that package their reports and views in
entertainment format.
The human rights situation in Maldives, where the president exercises totalitarian
authority, is at the mercy of the state. Even a monitoring body like the National
Human Rights Commission (NHRC) isn’t allowed to function independently. The
government’s disdain for dissidents was evident in the way Maldivian President
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom promptly blamed his political opponents for the explosion
caused by an improvised explosive device in the capital city of Male5 in September
2007. The explosion that injured several tourists also shows that Maldives may
emerge as a soft target for various forms of terror attacks. That will further exacerbate
an already precarious human rights situation in the country.
Still struggling to recover from the aftershocks of a decade-long Maoist
insurgency and ruthless monarchist-military counterinsurgency that claimed the
lives of over 13,000 people, displaced hundreds of thousands from their villages
and upturned all previous certainties, impunity is one of the biggest problems in
contemporary Nepal. The April Uprising in 2006 created space for sustainable
democracy and peace, but unless the long-promised constituent assembly elections
are held in a free and fair manner, it will not be possible to be sanguine about the peace
process. The police, the military and the Maoists have all violated norms of human
rights in the past when extra-judicial killings, abductions, torture and disappearance
Human Rights 49

were routine. Attempts are being made to sacrifice the judicial process at the altar of
political expediency, but this will further entrench a culture of impunity endemic to
the system of governance in Nepal. The saving grace of the horrible human rights
record in Nepal is a vibrant civil society that keeps a close watch on all abuses.
Volunteers in blue jackets with ‘Human Rights Defender’ emblazoned in white are
a common sight even in remote parts of the country. Whether their work bears
fruit and institutionalization of retributive justice succeeds in ending the culture of
impunity or not remains to be seen.
Persistence of military rule and politics of unsavoury deals have hamstrung all
efforts to establish a functioning democracy and rule of law in Pakistan. All other
forms of violations of human rights in Southasia are visible in their magnified form
in Pakistan. But what makes matters much worse for the people of this country are
the provisions of so-called Islamic laws including clearly archaic blasphemy laws.
The concept of blasphemy6 is by its very nature amorphous—almost anything can
be construed to be an insult to faith. It is but natural that extremists make full use
of such provisions and the state finds it a convenient tool to hit out at critics. If
the Indian ‘contribution’ to the legal tools inimical to the culture of human rights
are POTA and AFSPA, Pakistani innovations in blasphemy and honour laws make
it one of the worst countries for all kinds of minorities. Death and disappearances
caused by the ‘War on Terror’ in Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan are not even
properly reported because those areas are almost out-of-bounds for independent
observers. General Parvez Musharraf had managed to get himself elected president7
before shedding the uniform. Its implications upon a largely submissive judiciary
that had shown some courage in the middle of 2007 is unlikely to be very
After the abrupt breakdown of the Norwegian-brokered peace process, Sri Lanka
is back into the vicious cycle of insurgency, counterinsurgency, alienation, revolt and
suppression that gives continuity to the ‘war’ being waged by Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The armed conflict had already claimed more than 70,000
lives before precarious peace prevailed for four years. Once the fighting resumed,
death, disappearances and extrajudicial killings have once again become common.
In a damning indictment of the government of Sri Lanka, the International Crisis
Group (ICG) noted,
More than 1,500 have been killed and more than 250,000 displaced since early
2006. There have been hundreds of extrajudicial killings, and more than 1,000 people
are still unaccounted for, presumed to be the victims of enforced disappearances.
Hundreds more have been detained under the newly strengthened Emergency
Regulations that give the government broad powers of arrest and detention without
charge. The security forces have also expelled hundreds of Tamils from Colombo.
Forces commanded by the ex-LTTE commander Karuna, leader of the Tamil Makkal
Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) now aligned with the government, engage in child
recruitment, extortion, abductions for ransom and political assassinations.8
50 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

The government of Sri Lanka contests these allegations and claims that they
are intentionally overblown to tarnish its image. But no number can express the
tragedy of ‘forced disappearances’ of people like the priest of the Allaipiddy Catholic
Church in Jaffna, Father Thiruchchelvan Nihal Jim Brown9 or the near and dear ones
of suicide bombing victims. Sri Lanka is the most dangerous place in Southasia for
human rights violations.
Human rights violations in Tibet are seldom discussed in Southasia, but behind
the glitter of trains connecting the Roof of the World with mainland China, there
is a sordid story of displacement of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans from their
homeland. Many Tibetans try to escape from the clutches of Chinese control, but
they are prevented from doing so by border authorities.
Public apathy to widespread human rights violations in Southasia makes the grim
situation even worse. The legacy of the Cold War era propaganda—that human rights
concerns somehow show the hypocrisy of western governments who don’t criticize
their puppet dictators for gross violations but never refrain from castigating Third
World governments—persists. What makes matter worse is the opaque relationship
between human rights defenders and INGOs. Like public security, fundamental
freedoms too have to be ultimately guaranteed by state agencies. A democratic regime
accountable to the people is thus the sine qua none of ensuring human rights in
every country. But a pan-Southasian people’s movement to establish the sanctity of
fundamental freedoms will perhaps be more effective than a scathing criticism of
INGOs and western governments.

Institutional Framework
Independent Human Rights Commissions have high visibility and command better
respectability. The iconic figure of frail-looking Asma Jehangir of the Pakistan
Human Rights Commission battling religious bigotry, military excesses and social
discrimination single-handedly makes for arresting news stories. But more often than
not, HRCs record high-profile cases and compile data of violations. Their capacity
of redressing grievances is extremely limited. Ensuring human rights is a complex
process involving institutions of administration, policing, justice, prisons, media
and civic movements. Southasian states lag behind on all counts, but the colonial
structure inherited from the British in general administration is perhaps the biggest
bane of the human rights structure in the region.
Practices result from ideas and beliefs of people involved. The elitist
composition of the civil services in Southasia makes them oblivious of the pain
of the people at the bottom rung of social structure—often the main victims of
human rights violations. But values of Public Management Morality (PMM),
inherited from colonial masters, are no less responsible for the insensitivity of
public administration in Southasian states. PMM in commonwealth countries
have evolved from ‘obedience to political authority, hierarchical organization,
Human Rights 51

meticulous application of rules and parsimony of public expenditure’ to include

moral values of ‘political accountability, working for public interest, altruistic
motives, objectivity and conflict to loyalty’ and ethical principles of ‘respect for law
and system of governance, respect for persons, integrity, diligence, economy and
efficiency’;10 but practices in Southasian states still revolve around mai-baap-sarkar
(mother-father-lord) model of colonial magistrates.
The police force too is a colonial legacy. Until the fag end of the Mughal rule
in the subcontinent, order in society was often a local affair and if the situation
got out of hand, the imperial army would intervene. With revenue maximization
as their prime motive, the British strengthened policing. The main purpose of the
police force was not to serve the law but to carry out orders. That situation remains
largely unchanged. It is not for nothing that TV serials, movies and docudramas in
India and Pakistan ridicule the police so much; there is some truth in the widespread
belief that ordinary people always lose in their contact with the police. But no matter
how good the rules are, their implementation requires cooperation of the police.
For the human rights situation in Southasia to improve, policing practices have to
change to suit the complexity of governance that has gone much beyond revenue
maximization and execution of orders of colonial masters. However, much more
than the cultural ethos of policing, it is the ‘super cop syndrome’ that encourages
blatant human rights violation.
‘Super cop’ K. P. S. Gill, credited to have stamped out Sikh insurgency in Punjab
in the 1980s, acquired iconic status thereafter and was made security advisor to the
Gujarat government. But Gill is widely believed to have no respect for norms of
human rights. As an aside, it is interesting to note that the ‘super cop’ was found
guilty of molestations during his term of office and fined by the court. Apparently,
there is some correlation between untrammelled power and irresponsible behaviour
of a police officer. Then there are the notorious ‘encounters’ that police personnel
in Southasia employ to get around the due process of law and ‘eliminate’ those they
consider to be guilty beyond doubt. Exceptions apart, most victims of such staged
‘encounters’ are the poor, the marginalized and those with little or no access to power.
The less said about the corrosive corruption in Southasian policing the better; it is too
widely recognized to be detailed—a policeman is perceived to be corrupt until found
otherwise by the public. Police reforms are necessary for various other reasons, but
to address human rights concerns, it is essential to bring about attitudinal changes in
the police force of Southasia.
The judicial process in Southasia is notoriously slow and the dictum of justice
delayed is justice denied holds true. Court cases drag on in India for ages. In Pakistan,
snide comments about ‘poodle judiciary’ are quite common.11 Courts in Nepal have
been feted in the past for challenging the might of the monarch, but corruption in
the judiciary is a legitimate concern. However, it is the class bias of the judiciary12
in the subcontinent that makes it ineffective in addressing the concerns of the
downtrodden, the main victims of human rights violations. The belief that courts of
law are meant for the powerful and the poor cannot hope get justice makes outraged
52 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

members of the marginalized section take law into their own hands. Honour killings
in the tribal belts of Pakistan, ‘bagi’ dacoits in Central India and revolutionaries of
Nepal draw their strength from the perceived failure of courts. The importance given
to ‘contempt of court’ in the region too is a result of class bias—Chief Minister
of Kerala E. M. S. Namboodiripad was once found guilty of ‘contempt for calling
the judiciary “an instrument of oppression” and the judges as ones “guided and
dominated by class hatred, class interests and class prejudices, instinctively favouring
the rich against the poor”’.13 The worrying part is that contempt laws of India
that protect fragile egos of robed judges are being regarded as models elsewhere in
Southasia—Sri Lanka, for example—where robust criticism of judiciary has been
previously accepted.14
Prison reforms continue to be one of the most neglected areas of administration
in Southasia, but jails are places where human rights violations routinely take place.
Notoriety of prisons as dens of vices in India is a hot topic of debate, but not much
has been done over the years to improve their conditions. There may be some truth
in the depiction of jails in Bollywood movies as factories that turn minor offenders
into hardened criminals.
The role of the media in reporting human rights abuses cannot be over-
emphasised, but the Fourth Estate in Southasia tends to behave as one: an extension of
the state. Human rights violations by non-state actors are reported as ‘crimes’ ‘terror’ or
‘insurgency’, but transgressions by state authorities are presented from a nationalistic
rather than a human perspective. Then there is the increasing commercialization
of Southasian media forcing them to concentrate on the sensational rather than
substantial issues of social concern.
The responsibility of civil society in Southasia has increased tremendously: this
group has now to shoulder much more burden than it can handle. Civil society is
called upon to assist in conflict resolution, help to combat corruption and steer polity
towards democratization. Concerns for human rights add to an ever-burgeoning
list. Civil society’s contributions in bringing the plight of minorities in Southasian
societies to light, however, need to be appreciated.
Judicial activism is an important tool to make human rights a central issue of
governance. Public Interest Litigation (PIL) can help the poor and the marginalized
for the protection of human rights. But there are limits to judicial activism beyond
which the tool itself may turn into tyranny. However, judicial activism in Nepal and
India has been able to set important landmarks15 and judiciaries in other countries of
the region have been trying to make it work in their own ways.

Protective Rights
Three things are now well established about human rights in public discourse. One,
human rights are inherent and cannot be denied to any citizen. The government’s
Human Rights 53

role is limited to ensuring human rights, not deciding about their applicability.
Two, the universality to human rights transcends political boundaries of states. The
sovereignty of states cannot protect governments responsible for gross violations
of human rights. And three, the international community has the responsibility
to protect victims in case of grave human rights violations by any state. These
points of agreement, however, apply to what are called the ‘first generation rights’:
right to life, dignity, equality and privacy. First generation rights also include,
with justifiable limitation clauses in different states, assurance of fundamental
freedoms such as freedom of expression, association, assembly, opinion, belief,
religion and movement.
Second generation rights that include access to food, water, housing, health care
and social security are still on the wish-list of many countries. There is a lack of
consensus over their universal applicability. The third generation rights of identity,
language, culture, development and environment are even more contentious; they
continue to be at the level of political debate. Environmental rights, for example,
need to take into account future generations and global ecology. It is not easy to
legislate or execute such ambiguous rights in an effective manner. Right to self
determination and right to rebel are considered to be too controversial to be included
in any universal declaration even though the philosophical basis of these rights dates
back centuries.
On the issue of human rights, there is justifiable concern about the special
rights of those without significant voice or substantial vote: the marginalized, the
minority and the minute (tiny population groups). Often such groups offer little
physical or legitimacy challenge to the regime and sometimes there is a lack of societal
consensus in giving special protective rights to children, aged, women, poor, lesbians
or homosexuals. But increasingly, their claims for protection have begun to reach the
rubric of human rights.
Minority rights begin with the politics over definition. The concept of
minority is not just about numbers—as opposed to majority—even though that
is a very important consideration. Minority is also about powerlessness. Then
there is the relativity of minority within boundaries of the state. To take but one
example, Muslims are a minority in India but a majority in the Kashmir valley.
Similarly, Sikhs form an overwhelming majority in Punjab but a tiny minority
almost everywhere else. Perhaps the best definition of minority is also the
simplest: ‘inhabitants who differ from the rest of the population in race, religion
or language.’16 The status of minority rights continues to be precarious almost
everywhere in Southasia not only in practice, but even in intent.17 Specifically,
religious minorities continue to be victims of overt (as in the case of Ahmadias
in Pakistan) or covert (Hindus in Bangladesh, Christians in Nepal and Muslims
in India) suppression and prosecution. The accompanying piece, presented at a
meeting of political science researchers, gives a perspective on minority rights in
54 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Democracy and Minority Rights:

Concept and Context
C. K. Lal
Democracy traces its origin to a Greek term ‘demos’, meaning people. In essence, democracy
means, as put famously by Abraham Lincoln, ‘Government of the people, by the people,
and for the people.’ This is such a succinct description; however, it raises an important
question: who are ‘the people’?
The delineation of boundaries of ‘we, the people’ is often contested. Politics over the
definition of ‘people’—of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and of inclusion and exclusion—are the main
concerns of minority rights. Thus, ‘minority’ is a concept peculiar to the rule of the people,
to democracy. Non-democratic rulers ride roughshod over the ruled without bothering
about the niceties of individual liberty, minority rights,(a) and restrain upon the tyranny
of the majority. Hence, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to discuss the concept of minority
rights without understanding the principles and practices of democratic governance.
Systems of governance may vary, but certain fundamental features are common to all
democracies sans qualifiers. (Qualifiers like ‘basic’ in Pakistan, ‘grass roots’ in Indonesia
and panchayat in Nepal were used to dilute the essence of democracy and turn the system
into a façade for dictatorship.) Some of the distinctive characteristics of democracy(b) are:
• Democracies respect individual liberty tempered with responsibility towards the
• Democracy implies rule of the people through their elected representatives function-
ing under the rule of law.
• Democracy institutionalizes some form of decentralized government at local and
regional levels.
• Democracies are devoted to protecting fundamental freedoms such as freedom of
expression, freedom of movement, freedom of faith and freedom of association, etc.
In addition to that, democratic societies strive to be tolerant and respect diversity of
views and faiths.
• Democracies guarantee basic human rights to security, freedom of speech, the right
to equal protection under the law and an opportunity to organize to peacefully pur-
sue different political goals.
• Democracies conduct free, fair and periodic elections to form legislature and execu-
tive branches of the state, and hold them accountable to laws of the land.
• Democracies subject their armed forces to civilian control.
• Democracies enshrine an independent judiciary.
• Freedom of the press is protected and promoted by democratic regimes.
Even a cursory examination of these fundamental principles of democracy(c) is enough
to reveal the fact that social power is equitably distributed in democratic systems. This
brings another aspect of the concept of minority into focus—the idea of power.
Minority is commonly understood in numerical terms. That is a fact of electoral
politics where the concept of majority and minority are synonymous with the ruling
group and the opposition. But the idea of social minority is related to who holds power,
how it uses it, for which purpose and to what effect.
It’s not easy to define power. Like the energy in physical sciences, power can neither
be created, nor destroyed but it can be transformed. The process of transformation of
Human Rights 55

power from one form to another is an eternal question dating back to the time when
men fought each other for a larger share of the food hunted or gathered collectively.
Among the various forms of power, the physical power is perhaps the most ancient as
well as most enduring, daisy-cutters and precision-guided missiles being merely tools of
enhancement of physical power or naked power. Other than naked power, at least the
following forms of power can easily be recognized:

Traditional power. The physical power that has been institutionalized to venerate chief-
tains and kings. The legend has it that the first Shah king of Gorkha principality won the
crown by winning an annual race—a physical prowess—and then promptly discontin-
ued the tradition to entrench himself in power.

Knowledge power. Perhaps the ones who first chanced upon the method of producing
fire or fell upon herbs that healed wounds faster began to use their knowledge to exercise
control over their fellow beings and knowledge power began to be ranked with physical
and traditional power. The jargon for the knowledge power these days is ‘intellectual
property’, but its effect is no less effective even now.

Economic power. This power must have evolved with the surplus and saving that came
into being after nomadic tribes began to settle in grassy lands that offered easier prey for
hunting. Later, such lands in the floodplains of streams and rivers encouraged settlers to
domesticate and rear animals for consumption and even for buying security. Economic
power is relatively newer, hence more potent.

Institutional power. Permanent settlements brought the complexity of personal rela-

tions, property protection, and individual freedom to the fore. This must have neces-
sitated the rise of institutions such as family, caste, clan, tribes, and later, much more
elaborate institutions like chieftains, kingdoms, priesthood, religion, and courts. These
institutions exercise power that is much more than the sum of power at the disposal of
men and women involved in them.

Social power. The residual power exercised by families and persons even after they have
lost their control over physical, knowledge, economic or institutional power can only be
characterized as social power. It comes from the memory of the society and turns clans-
men of the king into babusahebs and illiterate children of poor priests into gurus. An
interesting anecdote about George Bernard Shaw illustrates the social power of titles. It
is said that the police wouldn’t spare Shaw even when told that he was the greatest living
author and philosopher; but the moment someone mentioned that he was a Lord, the
police withdrew immediately!

Cultural power. The most recent—and hence the most potent—form of power is cul-
tural power. A heady mix of ideological and media power makes cultural power one
of the most effective forms of power known to human race. Even in its weakest form,
cultural power is an amazing force multiplier. At its full strength, it is more devastating
than all other forms of power put together. Whether its Samuel Huntington’s Clash of
Civilisation hypothesis or Francis Fukuyama’s End of History proposition, relentless ef-
forts are being made to transform USA’s unilateralism into a cultural power which will
keep it in the lead for as long as a newer form of social power isn’t devised.
56 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Oppositional power. Perhaps the least recognized is the power that comes from not
conforming to the majority easily. Gandhi used this power first to exercise control
over the Indian National Congress and then mobilized the masses to oust the British.
Oppositional power is moral in nature and its effectiveness is partly dependent upon the
characteristics of the opponent. It is unlikely that the Jews’ ‘peaceful non-cooperation’
would have had much effect upon the Nazis. But the moral force of one right person or
opinion is stronger than all others put together. Albert Einstein put it most beautifully
when he was told of the publication of the book One Hundred Authors Against Einstein.
His retort was humble but tough: ‘Why 100? If I were wrong, one would have been
enough.’ It’s this power of being right, even though alone, that brings the rights of mi-
norities into focus. After all, any form of power performs mainly two functions (i) Make
others do what one wants, and (ii) Resist doing what the other forces one to do. It’s here
that the concept of minority comes to the fore. The minority is often characterized by its
powerlessness.(d) Its ability to pursue its own interests is limited and it is often not strong
enough to resist the interests of the majority.
If the minority is to be defined as a state of powerlessness, it bears pointing out that
powerlessness isn’t a permanent state, for every majority is a minority in some other
context. Doggerel, attributed to Leonard H. Robbins, best describes the irony inherent
in the term minority in political context:
How a minority
Reaching a majority
Seizing authority
Hates a minority!
The powerlessness of a minority, however, manifests itself in several forms. Politi-
cal minority is relatively less powerless. The more debilitating forms of minorities are
ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural. Historian Isaac Deutscher once wrote that the
political and moral health of a society can be measured by its treatment of Jews. The
term ‘Jews’, here, can also be interpreted as a metaphor for cultural minorities in every
society. As such, rights of minorities need to be understood as an integral part of funda-
mental human rights.
Minorities are characterized by their economic exploitation, social suppression,
political repression, cultural marginalization and exclusion. In this way, Nepali women,
to take an example, are exploited, suppressed, and marginalized; but they are neither
victims of political repression nor exclusion—they are very much a part of Nepalipan.
Hence, women aren’t true minorities. Similarly, Dalits are victims of several forms of
exploitation, but they are part of the national agenda of the Nepali elite’s definition of
‘we, the people’. Similar arguments hold for non-Nepali speaking hill communities.
The true ‘Jews’ of Nepal are its Madhesis in general and Madhesi Muslims in particular.
However, it doesn’t imply that women, Dalits, and hill and mountain Janjatis do not fit
the minority criteria, indeed they do. It simply means that Madhesi women, Madhesi
Janjatis and Madhesi Dalits need much more attention than their ‘Nepali’ compatriots
within the Nepaliya identity.
It is said that three general principles are of great value in human rights and re-
lated works: the principle of respect, confidence-building and protection. Minority rights
too need all these three in equal measure—the state as well as society must respect its
Human Rights 57

minorities, it must institutionalize confidence-building measures, and it must protect

minorities from the tyranny of the majority.
Some of the safeguards needed to protect, create and promote minority rights are:
• An educational system that fosters awareness of and respect for different cultures,
religions, languages and ethnicities
• Laws and legal system that protect minority rights while establishing norms of ma-
jority rule.
• A societal consensus on values of tolerance
• Understanding of historic wrongs and acceptance of the role of affirmative action.
• An appreciation of the role of democracy in institutionalizing minority rights and an
understanding of the risks of penalizing non-conformists that made Socrates drink
hemlock, obliged Christ to embrace stakes and forced Galileo to retract his beliefs.
These safeguards also point towards the risks to minority rights. The biggest risk to the
very concept of minority rights is the project of creating uniformity. In addition, a few
other challenges to minority rights are discussed below.

Market economy. The LPG (liberalization, privatization and globalization) wave is an

organized effort to create uniformity. It seeks to create a global class of consumers whose
behaviour can be predicted. Consumers bitten by the affluenza bug (the disease of easy
affluence) have very little patience for the concerns of the minority. Politics has to keep
the market in check if minority interests are to be safeguarded.

Authoritarianism. Authoritarianism has to constantly justify itself. The easiest excuse

to call upon people to bear tyranny is to make them fear imaginary enemies. Often
minorities are the handiest enemies within. While mannequin elite figures may benefit
from an authoritarian rule,(e) the minority in general have to accept a subservient role.

Totalitarianism. Whether of the left or the right, totalitarianism is the ultimate proj-
ect of creating uniformity. No totalitarian(f ) system has any place for any minority.

Media concentration. Commercialized media in general and commercial television in

particular survive by appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator of their target
audience. Presenting the minority as a threat to the majority is the easiest method of
earning the favour of the powerful. Concentration of the media also discourages dissent,
which has a negative impact upon the voice of the minority. Media concentration is one
of the biggest risks to minority rights.

Resentment against affirmative action. Apologists of merit system, with little or no con-
cern for the historic wrongs that prevented the evolution of a level-playing field, object
to affirmative action. Such a populist stance often succeeds in creating cohesion in the
ranks of majority and the process of exclusion of the minority is institutionalized.
To get over these risks to minority rights, institutionalizing democracy is perhaps the
safest choice. However, democracy needs to allow enough autonomy at the local level
to keep hegemonic ambitions of the majority in check. James Madison expounded this
proposition during the Constitutional Convention of the United States of America in
the following terms:
58 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that in the
first place a majority will not be likely at the same moments to have a common interest
separate from that of the whole or of the minority; and in the second place, that in the
case they should have such an interest, they may not be apt to unite in pursuit of it.(g)
Madison advocated such an arrangement because he feared that ‘if a majority be
united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure’.
In addition to democracy and autonomy at various levels, certain other conditions
favourable to the protection of minority rights are:
• Rule of law to ensure equality
• Representative legislature to make just laws
• Accountable executive to implement laws justly
• Independent judiciary to uphold justice
• Federal structure to prevent concentration of power
• Free press to expose injustice
• Liberal education to propagate values of coexistence and tolerance
• Vibrant civil society to oppose injustice
• Cooperative international community to show solidarity with the just and oppose
Thus, it is clear that the interests of the majority and the minority aren’t dissonant in
any civilized society, for these are precisely the conditions required for the development
of a tolerant community.
This is the reason every society claiming to be civilized must protect and promote
its minorities. It’s only by doing so that it can protect its own interests. A society that
doesn’t vigorously promote its minority soon falls into the hands of a tyrannical regime
ruling under the name of the majority but in fact ruled by a very tiny minority.
When the Nazis arrested
I kept silent
Because I was not a
When they rounded up
Social Democrats
I kept silent
Because I was not a
Social Democrat
When they picked up
I did not protest
Because I was not a
When they arrested me
There was nobody left
To protest
(This poem is by Dr Martin Niemoller, a Protestant clergyman who was active in the
resistance movement against Hitler.)
Human Rights 59

(a) In Nepal, ‘Whoever we may be, we are all Nepalis’ is a politically correct expression,
used by the power elite, that hides the fact that Nepalis of non-Nepali ethnicity have
to prove their ‘Nepalipan’ at every step in order to be considered a Nepali. Nepaliya
and Nepaliyata—terms that can be used to identify ‘political Nepali’ rather than mere
ethnic ones—are yet to gain currency.
(b) http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/principles/what.htm has a more comprehensive
list of characteristics of democracy.
(c) According to universal principles of democracy, Nepal has never been one. Even the
Constitution of Kingdom of Nepal merely put the kingdom on the road to democ-
racy—it has no provision for federal structure, and it fails to bring Royal Nepal Army
unequivocally under civilian control.
(d) A more traditional discussion about majority-minority relationship is available at
(accessed on 1 June 2005): http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/principles/majority.
htm; http://www.safhr.org/minority_SA.htm; http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/
thscrip/print.pl?file=2002072700051000.ht.../&prd=th; and http://www.hinduonnet.
(e) During Panchayat, prominent minority persons were chosen from Madhesi, Janjati
and Newar communities to parade them as symbols of tolerant ‘Nepalipan’. How-
ever, they were often powerless to do anything for the community they ostensibly
(f ) Fascists prosecuted its minorities, Nazism eliminated them, Soviets and Chinese
suppressed them, and Pol Pot executed whoever dissented. It’s unlikely that Nepal’s
Maobadis would be any different if their dictatorship of the proletariat were to be
(g) http://www.fairvote.org/library/history/flores/conclusion.htm
(downloaded: 19 January 2005)
(This paper was presented by C. K. Lal at a conference on minority rights in Kathmandu.)

There is even less agreement over special rights of the marginalized. It has been
argued that the condition of Dalits—percieved to be ‘untouchables’ by high-caste
Hindus—equals that of apartheid. But positive discrimination being practiced for
the progress of Dalits in India hasn’t been replicated even in Nepal. Meanwhile,
over six decades of political campaign hasn’t yet ended the plight of Harijans—the
endearing term coined by Mahatma Gandhi means the ‘people of God’—and they
continue to be discriminated against in society. The rights of children, women and the
differently-abled continue to be at the level of rhetoric, and deep-rooted prejudices
against homosexuals and lesbians persist in all Southasian societies.
Protective rights of minute population groups—Parsis in Nepal, Jews in India
or Sikhs in Pakistan, to take the most visible examples—are yet to emerge as issues
of concern in the region. Even NGOs find it hard to champion causes that concern
a very tiny minority.
60 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

The Asian Human Rights Charter, initiated and finalized by human rights
activists, was signed on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights at Kwangju, South Korea on 17 May 1998. In a nutshell, it represents concerns
that should engage Southasian policymakers too. According to AHRC, the following
rights need attention:
• Right to life
• Right to peace
• Right to democracy
• Right to cultural identity and Freedom of conscience
• Right to development and social justice
• Rights of vulnerable groups
• Women
• Children
• Differently-abled persons
• Workers
• Students
• Prisoners and political detainees
An overview of the human rights situation in Southasia shows that intent,
institutions, instruments and individual efforts to defend fundamental freedoms are
grossly inadequate and sometimes inappropriate. There is a lot of room for improvement.
States, independent human rights commissions, civil society, media, and human
rights defenders need to be vigilant of all transgressions not only by vertical authorities
(by states or rebel groups over citizens) but also horizontal players (corporations or
powerful persons over employees and citizens). But these attempts can benefit a lot
from a transregion coordinating institution for two main reasons. One, every significant
minority in a region is perhaps a majority somewhere else, and that can help provide
moral support and succour in case of transgressions. Secondly, regional coordination is
the best antidote to international interventions as often seen in Southasian countries.

Rule of Law
Philosophical bases of rule of law and human rights are closely related; both spring
from the assumption that there is an inherent contradiction between (i) life and
liberty of human beings are inviolable, and (ii) unlimited power creates conditions for
risks to life and liberty. The rule of law approach seeks to resolve the issue by placing
laws—just laws, made justly and implemented humanely—above the sovereign, while
the human rights method places emphasis upon universality of individual liberty that
predates the emergence of states. They are complementary in intent.
Rule as the will of the sovereign—whether an individual, a group or the numerical
majority—is the foundation of rule by laws.18 It breeds tyranny and creates ground
for what rulers decide are ‘legitimate’ violations of fundamental freedoms. Victims
of such excesses are mostly the minority and the marginalized. Limitations placed
Human Rights 61

upon the executive, equality before law in legislation and procedural and formal
justice are significant aspects of rule of law. The rule by law, by contrast, assumes that
sovereignty is above law; and that holds true in case of monarchy (Divine Right of
Kings assumption), oligarchy (The Guardians of State hypothesis) and some forms of
democracy (Supremacy of Parliament theory and the elected ‘autocrat’ syndrome). In
Southasian context, the rule by law is often used as a convenient tool to disguise the
absence of rule of law and expedient laws19 are enacted to suppress dissent.
The doctrine of necessity has been repeatedly used in Pakistan to confer
legitimacy upon the military takeover of the state. Indira Gandhi had declared
internal Emergency to protect what she called ‘national interests’. The monarchies
in Nepal and Bhutan have always considered themselves above laws. The elected
‘autocrat’ syndrome works as an impediment to the peace process in Sri Lanka. The
guardian of state hypothesis seems to be at the heart of technocratic takeover of the
government in Bangladesh. A concerted regional effort to establish the inviolability
of rule of law in Southasia will go a long way in ensuring human rights for all.

1. Roger Cohen (2007). ‘The New L-Word: Neocon’ in The New York Times. 10 April. Blog-
ger Matthew Yglesias defines neocons as people who ‘believe that America should coercively
dominate the world through military force’; ‘believe in a dogmatic form of American excep-
tionalism’; and ‘favour the creation of a U.S.-dominated “universal empire”’. http://www.
Accessed 6 October 2007.
2. R. Shunmugasundaram in Can POTO Achieve what TADA could not? quotes the opinion
of one of the dissenting judges: ‘There is a basic difference between the approach of a
police officer and a judicial officer. A judicial officer is trained and tuned to reach the
final goal by a fair procedure. The basic of a civilised jurisprudence is that the procedure
by which a person is sent behind the bars should be fair, honest and just. A police officer
is trained to achieve the result irrespective of the means and method which is employed
to achieve it. So long as the goal is achieved the means are irrelevant and this philoso-
phy does not change by hierarchy of the officer.’ http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/
op/2002/01/01/stories/2002010100150100.htm. Accessed October 5, 2007.
3. Bhaskar Ghose, a former bureaucrat and active commentator, ridicules excessive concern
with security in states of the Northeast. (Always only a corner of India, Frontline, 21
October 2005), but even liberal columnists eschew direct criticism of defense forces.
4. Madhur Singh asked rhetorically in Time Magazine, ‘Does India’s Media Go Too Far?’ Per-
haps it does, but not where it should—in reporting human rights and exposing abuses. http://
www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1661070,00.html. Accessed 6 October 2007.
5. Stratfor—a strategic studies think-tank—chose to call the event A wake-up call in
Maldives and highlighted the involvement of FBI in investigations even though no US
national was involved in the attack. http://www.stratfor.com/products/premium/read_
article.php?id=296041. Accessed 6 October 2007.
62 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

6. This issue is widely discussed at blogs and discussion forums but less so in the tradi-
tional media. An introductory overview by Anwar Syed, professor emeritus of political
science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, US, is available at www.dawn.
com/2006/07/16/op.htm. Accessed 6 October 2007.
7. ‘What do you call an election when there are such doubts over the legality of the winning
candidate that no official results can be announced? A Pakistani one, is the answer: on
Saturday October 6th—after months of popular protests and constitutional confusion—
Pakistani law-makers finally re-elected General Pervez Musharraf to be the country’s presi-
dent; or maybe they didn’t.’ smirked The Economist in its web edition on the day results were
announced. It cast doubt over the independence of the judiciary too. http://www.economist.
com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9926669. Accessed 10 October 2007.
8. The Report also indicts LTTE for ‘political killings, abductions, extortion and sui-
cide bombings and suppression of dissent’. http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.
cfm?l=1&id=4896. Accessed 7 October 2007.
9. In an editorial comment on disappearances in Sri Lanka, Himal Southasian blamed the gov-
ernment and LTTE for large number of people who apparently vanish in thin air without
any trace. The commentary was appropriately titled: Not my fault. That’s the position of
both parties to the violent conflicts. Himal Southasian, September, 2007, Vol 20 No 9, p. 7.
10. Discussed by Ali Haider and Len Pullin in Public Management Morality and the Employ-
ment Relationship in the Westminster style of Cabinet Government: Developing a Con-
ceptual Framework for Empirical Study with Special Reference to Australia in The Indian
Journal of Public Administration, Vol XLVII No 4, October–December 2001.
11. ‘General Musharraf may have said in recent weeks that he is “nobody’s poodle”, but there
is no question that the judiciary is his poodle—or that of whichever general happens
to be in power at the time.’ writes Baseer Naveed of the Asian Human Rights Com-
mission in a scathing indictment of judiciary in Pakistan. http://www.rghr.net/mainfile.
php/0825/1130/. Accessed 8 October 2007.
12. The issue is neither unique, nor new. Winston Churchill is believed to have said in the
House of Commons: ‘The courts hold justly a high, and I think, unequalled pre-emi-
nence in the respect of the world in criminal cases, and in civil cases between man and
man, no doubt, they deserve and command the respect and admiration of all classes of
the community, but where class issues are involved, it is impossible to pretend that the
courts command the same degree of general confidence. On the contrary, they do not,
and a very large number of our population has been led to the opinion that they are,
unconsciously, no doubt, biased.’ Quoted by Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer in ‘The Majesty of
the Judiciary’. http://indiainteracts.com/columnist/2007/03/12/THE-MAJESTY-OF-
THE-JUDICIARY/ . Accessed 8 October 2007.
13. A. G. Noorani (2000) in ‘Courts and contempt powers: A case for a new approach in
India to the law of contempt’, Frontline Vol. 17, Issue 08, 15–28 April. Noorani also
notes selective use of contempt powers, ‘But Union Law Minister P. Shiv Shankar was let
off despite his defamatory remarks against the Supreme Court specifically. “The Supreme
Court composed of the elements from the elite class had their unconcealed sympathy
for the haves; i.e., the zamindars” and “anti-social elements, i.e. FERA violators, bride
burners and a whole horde of reactionaries have found their haven in the Supreme Court”
Human Rights 63

(P. N. Duda vs. P. Shiv Shanker, AIR 1988 S.C. 1208).’ http://www.hinduonnet.com/
fline/fl1708/17081010.htm. Accessed 8 October 2007.
14. Chhetriya Patrakar in Mediafile, Himal Southasian, October–November 2007, Vol 20
No 10/11, p. 100
15. Dr Ram Krishna Timalsena provides introductory text on PIL from Nepali perspective
in Public Interest Litigation and the Protection of Human Rights in Nepal. http://www.
interights.org/doc/WS2_Timalsena.doc (accessed 9 October 2007) while judicial activ-
ism is discussed in The Hon Justice Michael Kirby’s Bar Association of India lecture 1997.
http://www.hcourt.gov.au/speeches/kirbyj/kirbyj_indialt.htm. Accessed 9 October 2007.
16. Mollica Dastider (2007), Understanding Nepal: Muslims in Plural Societies, Har-Anand
Publications, New Delhi. Attributed to Permanent Court of International Justice. p. 27.
The word differ has been italicized to emphasize its many dimensions of difference, dif-
ferentiation, discrimination and, arguably, sometimes even disdain as in, “Oh, but ‘they’
are different from ‘us’.
17. A review of the rights of minorities in Southasia finds unsatisfactory condition almost
everywhere in the region. A realistic assessment of ground realities in Southasian coun-
tries is compiled in a report edited by Meghna Guhathakurta Including the Excluded:
Rights of Minorities in South Asia, South Asians for Human Rights, Colombo, 2006.
18. A concise description of differences between the concept of rule of law and rule by law is
available at http://www.oycf.org/Perspectives/5-043000/what_is_rule_of_law.htm. Accessed
8 October 2007.
19. There are several instances of expedient laws in Pakistan such as Legal Framework Order,
National Accountability Bureau laws and the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).
NRO was opposed vociferously by civil society (http://www.dawn.com/2007/10/10/nat2.
htm) but defended by government equally stoutly (http://www.dawn.com/2007/10/10/
nat3.htm); both websites accessed on 11 October 2007.
4 Democracy

There is a strange paradox about democracy; it is a contested yet normative term.

Differences over the definition of democracy continue to exist, but increasingly, less
and less people consider democracy per se undesirable. The controversy over the relative
merits of what were called ‘the people’s democracy’ and ‘the bourgeois democracy’ in
the latter half of the twentieth century, too, has settled in favour of the latter in large
parts of the world. And yet, the dilemma persists: what exactly is the form and content
of desirable democracy? That question is pertinent not just in other countries of
Southasia but also in, supposedly, the largest democracy of the world—India.

The Question of Democracy

It does not need a genius to figure out the democratic deficit in the region—every
rickshaw-puller of Southasia knows what’s wrong with the political system in his
country and what needs to be done about it. Whenever they get a chance, they vote
out ruling parties, boo off dictators and shoo away foreign meddlers with relish.
Contrary to emerging trends in settled democracies, where less people vote and
even lesser demonstrate these days, Southasians do both. Perhaps that is the reason,
the ruling elite—mullahs, monks, merchants, mandarins, mediators, monarchs
and the military—sacrifice politicians at the first opportunity at the altar of public
dissatisfaction. The propaganda against politicians runs full steam all year round in all
the countries of Southasia. But despite ceaseless misinformation against the conduct
of the political class, they are the ones who always come back after every experiment
if non-democratic systems of governance fail.
Perhaps Pakistan has borne the brunt of more non-democratic political
experiments of governance than any other country in Southasia. Starting from the
liberal democratic dreams of Muhammad Ali Jinnah,1 who died too early to give a
definite shape to the country he had created, Pakistan has traversed a long journey of
over six decades and a painful partition to go back to where it was during the rule of
the first military dictator General Ayub Khan in October 1958. Ayub introduced what
was called ‘Basic Democracy’—an invention that inspired panchayat democracy in
Nepal—but ultimately failed to convince the people of his intentions of ‘modernizing’
Pakistan. (The article in the box titled ‘The Oligarchs of Islamabad and Kathmandu’,
traces similarities between the turbulent political trajectories of Nepal and Pakistan.)
Democracy 65

His successor was General Yahya Khan, another military dictator, who should at least
get the credit for conducting the first ever parliamentary election in his country in
December 1970. When the verdict of the people was not honoured, civil war ensued
and independent Bangladesh was born in what had been East Pakistan. The debacle
in the eastern flank also led to the emergence of another absurdity—civilian martial
law administrator, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His role in Islamizing Pakistan is often not
recognized, but Ahmadiyas were declared non-Muslims during his tenure. When
General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq overthrew Bhutto on 5 July 1977 and established
military rule, all he did was to intensify the process initiated by his civilian mentor.

The Oligarchs of Islamabad and Kathmandu

C. K. Lal
Nepal has been following the authoritarian lead of Pakistan since the 1960s. It is time
to stop doing so.
Animals are shell-shocked
The bush is on fire
Vegetables can’t even run away
Where is the switch for this inferno?
—From the Hindi poem, ‘Switch’, by Ashtabhuja Shukla
The puppeteers of ‘President’ Hamid Karzai in Kabul must have heaved a huge sigh
of relief. The resurgence of the Islamic right has somehow been checked for the moment
in Islamabad. General Musharraf, the self-appointed president of the Islamic Republic
of Pakistan, too has finally managed to find a puppet to play his executive role.
Not that General Musharraf needs to fear premiers anymore, at least not until Wash-
ington DC decides that he has outlived his utility. By decreeing some extremely contro-
versial amendments—almost all mainstream political parties opposed these moves—he
has concentrated wide-ranging powers in himself. He can sack the Prime Minister, dis-
solve Parliament, and stack the all-powerful National Security Council. All in all, this
gives the military a permanent role in the governance of the country.
At an operational level, the general-in-sherwani has the authority to appoint the Chief
of the armed forces as well as the provincial governors. The powers of provincial governors
are no less sweeping—they too can send provincial cabinets packing, and dissolve provincial
assemblies, but presumably only at the direct instruction of their boss. Indeed, Musharraf is
increasingly looking like a latter-day Lord Protector, in the mould of Oliver Cromwell.
The General claims that he has transferred all executive power to Mir Zafarullah Khan
Jamali, the new premier of Pakistan. Jamali, in turn, has vowed to give continuity to all
the policies decided by the chief of the armed forces. This means, most importantly, that
Islamabad shall continue to discharge its duties as a frontline state in the ‘war on terror’.
Apparently, Hamid Karzai can sleep in peace at his American-guarded presidential palace in
Kabul for now; friends of the Taliban have been kept at bay by the General in Islamabad.
But he need not be sanguine about the future. In his attempt to cut the mainstream
political parties of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto down to size, Musharraf has let the
66 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

likes of Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the right-wing coalition and Muttahida Majlis-i-
Amal (MMA) gain political relevance. After the sehari and iftar of Ramadan is over, will
the new mullahs of Pakistani politics go back to simply offering namaz five times a day,
leaving Mir Jamali to shoulder the burden of Musharraf ’s blunders on the western and
eastern frontiers?
‘New Musalmans are more fervent namazis’ goes an Urdu proverb, and if the MMA
takes its opposition to the controversial constitutional amendments decreed by Mush-
arraf to the Parliament as well as to the streets, Mir Jamali’s meagre mandate will not last
long. Predicting the course of Pakistani politics is hazardous business, but let me venture
that it is unlikely that the civilian government in Islamabad can last long by being true
to the mandate of the people. It will have to be true to the General and the armed forces
In this, the premier of Pakistan can learn a lot from his counterpart in Nepal. There
are unique parallels between the situations of Mr Jamali, who takes his cue from the
General, and the minister-in-chief in Kathmandu, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, who is
beholden to King Gyanendra for his elevation. The questions over the ‘mandate’ of the
Pakistani premier are reflected in the question of whether the Chand council of min-
isters has ‘executive authority’. The general agreement is that it does not, particularly
in the face of an amendment in the working rules of the cabinet just approved, under
which the Narayanhiti royal palace has arrogated to itself the power to hire and fire
senior secretaries of the government.
Regarded as clean and competent by those who matter, Lokendra Bahadur Chand
was picked up as prime minister once earlier when the palace needed a helping hand, in
the penultimate days of the panchayat system, in the middle of the people’s movement
of 1990. Going by his appearances on the television news, Mr Chand spends more time
offering prayers than in Singha Darbar, his secretariat. With executive authority not
really within his grasp, and having to shepherd a cohort of technocrats and discredited
politicians in the council of ministers, the devout Prime Minister seems to have decided
to spend his time more productively: attending the anniversary ceremonies of a Hanu-
man temple, participating in the birthday celebrations of Sai Baba, or releasing the
music cassette of an upwardly mobile Kathmandu socialite.
Columnist Ayaz Amir bluntly dismisses Jamali in his Dawn column: ‘He is a nice
soul—the last description of the spineless.’ If the SAARC summit were to be held
on schedule (an unlikely prospect, given the attitude of the Bharat and Bhutan gov-
ernments so far), Chand would get an opportunity to hand over the chair (which Ne-
pal holds) to one of his own kind. If however, the summit is postponed, who knows
who will be playing, by that time, the role of the executive authority in either or both
And, it is not just the premiers; the ruling elites of Nepal and Pakistan too are alike.
According to historian Ayesha Jalal, the Pakistani ‘state of martial rule’ originates in its
‘political economy of defence’. Something akin to this can be seen in Nepal where a ‘king
of martial traditions’ has given birth to the ‘political sociology of control’. Both tenden-
cies thrive on the politics of keeping powerful institutions—armed forces in Pakistan
and the palace in Nepal—away from the control of people-led politics. The elite of the
Kathmandu valley is just as remote from the dirt of the village and marketplace as the
Anglicized elite of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi
Democracy 67

Pakistani Mob
Created a secessionist state (India inherited the unitary apparatus as the successor state
of the British Raj), Pakistan has been a challenged state right from the beginning.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah harboured visions of a secular and modern nation-state where
Muslims would dominate, but other communities would not be discriminated against.
However, ethnic cleansing during the process of partition ended any chance of translat-
ing those plans into reality.
Post-Jinnah, Pakistan came to be dominated by an ambitious Mohajir civil bureau-
cracy, a confident Punjabi military elite, and the feudal lords of Sindh and Baluch-
istan. Together, they weighed heavier in the balance of institutional power than political
parties. In the absence of visionary politicians, competent professionals, a questioning
press, a vibrant civil society and an entrenched capitalist class, the military-bureaucratic
elite of this new nation-state went about building a political economy of defence by
hawking the eminent threat from Pakistan’s ‘enemy’ in the east. To this day, Pakistan
devotes a disproportionate share of its national income to defence-related expenses—29
per cent of the annual budget according to the World Bank.
In the geopolitics of the Cold War era, bright generals had the pride of place in
the American scheme of things designed to check the spread of communism to newly
independent African and Asian countries. After the first military coup in 1958, the sup-
port of the Central Intelligence Agency has been crucial for almost all generalissimos
in Islamabad. Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul Haq and now Pervez Musharraf have
all looked towards Washington for support in times of crises. However, no democratic
regime in Islamabad has ever been bailed out by the United States. Patronized by the
first ‘hyperpower’ of the world, the MOB (military officers and bureaucracy) has almost
edged democratic politics out of the mainstream of Pakistani society. The control of the
MOB on the political economy of Pakistan has become self-perpetuating.
Keeping politics out of society has its price. Ready to meet the terms of Ronald
Reagan’s jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Zia-ul Haq let loose the mullahs in
the name of Islamization. The Talibanization of the baser elements and the criminaliza-
tion of the bourgeoisie in the wake of easy money and free weapons that flowed into
Pakistan through the better part of the 1980s and 1990s made it impossible for any
politician in Islamabad to remain untainted. Begum Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz
Sharif were corrupted by the times, and provided the MOB elite ample ammunition to
keep blasting at the entire political class.
Nepal’s political sociology of control is rooted in its elite’s fear of the masses. Formed
by the military conquest of the Shah rulers in the later part of the 18th century, Nepal’s
expansion was halted by the British in India. With no enemy to fight on the frontiers,
the formidable Gorkha fighting machine soon turned on itself, and transformed the
palaces of Kathmandu into courts of intrigue.
The Nepali military became a ready tool for whoever happened to win the all-too-
frequent internecine battles between the competing nobilities of the Kathmandu court.
The Pandeys, Thapas, Ranas and Shahs—all these exalted Chhetri families severed each
other’s heads by turn, while the masses lit earthen lamps in the street for the winner. An-
other set of players in the power game were the Brahmin (Bahun) officials of the court,
traditionally barred from the higher echelons of the military but not any less influential
in deciding the outcomes of the family feuds of the Chhetri nobles for that.
68 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

These civil and military officers owned almost all the fertile farming land of the country
through a system of jagir under which the court-faithful were granted large parcels of land
in the tarai in exchange for services rendered to the rulers. With their monopoly of knowl-
edge and powers sanctioned by religion, Brahmin priests were quite often a deciding factor.

Nepali Depolitization
Inspired by the independence struggle of India, Nepal did have a brief honeymoon with
party politics in the 1950s, but the military–bureaucratic elite soon reasserted them-
selves. In the winter of 1960, King Mahendra dismissed the Prime Minister, dissolved
the Parliament and put almost all the important politicians of the day in jail under the
specious pretext of a ‘threat to nationalism’ being posed by the 18-month-old elected
government of B. P. Koirala.
Nepal then implemented the Panchayat system, modelled on Ayub Khan’s Basic De-
mocracy, and it remained in place for three decades. During this period, Yahya Khan’s
ruthless suppression of all opposition inspired the rulers of Nepal to further tighten the
noose on political activity in the 1970s. General Zia-ul Haq’s Islamization gave rise to a
concurrent wave of so-called ‘Nepalization’ in the 1980s. And it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s
summary execution that prompted the fear for B. P. Koirala’s fate in Nepal. Students in
Kathmandu then went on a rampage, forcing King Birendra to call a national referendum
on a multi-party system versus the Panchayat. The eventual outcome favoured the Pan-
chayat, amidst charges of rigging by opposition forces, but this was a major hiccup.
Meanwhile, after the advent of what Bangladeshi scholar Rehman Sobhan calls an
‘aid-driven market economy’ in the 1960s, under the aegis of the American Cold War,
a business class was born in Kathmandu. This class made its money by manipulating
decision-making processes rather than the creation of wealth through investment in
productive businesses. What have since come to be known as ‘commission businesses’ (a
euphemism for fixing deals) and ‘export-import’ (smuggling, in common parlance), gave
birth to a class of businessmen that had a vested interest in the perpetuation of autocratic
rule in the country. The military, officialdom and the business elite form the ‘MOB’
oligarchy in Nepal, and this is the principal tool in the hands of the palace to keep the
emergence of a democratic society at bay.
Like its peers in Pakistan, the MOB in Nepal has been actively engaged in de-politi-
cizing society through the politics of keeping the real rulers above politics. A remittance-
consuming leisure class has emerged in both these countries, which tries to suck up
to the MOB elite in order to show that it does not belong to the unwashed masses
anymore. The MOB elite exploit the inherent insecurity of the petit bourgeoisie to keep
it at its command. Leon Trotsky observed in 1931 that the petit bourgeoisie was often
the main constituency of fascism and his insight of so long ago has proven to be true in
many countries.
Ever since Musharraf alighted from his nearly-hijacked Colombo-Karachi flight and
burst onto the Pakistani political stage, Nepal’s elite have willed the king of Nepal to
‘do a Musharraf ’. Whether by accident or design, King Gyanendra is now in a position
where he is an active political player, which is a dangerous place for a monarch to be.
Generals mean less to countries than kings, which is all the more reason for Nepal not
to emulate the Pakistani example this once.
(This article by C. K. Lal first appeared on: http://www.himalmag.com/2002/december/
southasiasphere.htm. Accessed 10 October 2007.)
Democracy 69

With brief interludes of fractious and stormy politics, Pakistan seems to return
to the certitude of military rule with unfailing regularity. The mullah-mandarin-
military troika has entrenched itself so well in Pakistani society that a fully functional
democratic regime will take a long time to evolve.
The predicament of Pakistan magnifies pathologies of politics elsewhere in the
region. Bangladesh has succumbed to two squabbling begums—Khaleda Zia and
Sheikh Hasina—in one corner, an assertive military on the other with a technocratic
elite completing the triangle that seems to have strangulated democracy for quite a
while. In Sri Lanka, populist posturing negates chances of a just peace in the northern
region. Nepal is still caught in the contestation between a dying monarchy, edgy Maoists
and blundering mainstream parties. The monarchy in Bhutan and authoritarianism in
Maldives display similar features of intolerance. The monk versus military struggle—for
and against democracy—in Burma may turn decisive, but it remains to be seen if the
system that emerges will have the same resilience that the army has shown in running
the country almost single-handedly as it wished, for so many years.
Democratic innovations and inventions in India have been no less perplexing.
The way Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maharaja Hari Singh
annexed Kashmir wasn’t exactly democratic and New Delhi continues to pay the
price for the adventures of its founders to this day in the Valley. Suppressions of
communists in Kerala with the covert help of the United States of America during
the Nehru era was an aberration of democracy, as was the ruthless repression of
Naxals later in Bengal and Bihar during Indira Gandhi’s rule. The internal emergency
Mrs Gandhi declared in 1975 to save her rule and let her son Sanjay shine, was
clearly not consonant with democratic norms. The caste politics in Bihar and UP, the
ethnic uprising in the seven states of north-eastern India, Hindutva communalism
in Gujarat, linguistic chauvinism in the states of Deccan—it’s not for nothing that
India is called a functioning anarchy. But barring the overt authoritarianism during
the brief period of Emergency, India has managed to maintain some semblance of a
democratic façade. This makes some of its good practices worthy of examination and
consideration for replication elsewhere.
The quality of leadership in India was supposedly blessed with institution-builder
Nehru in the fifties and sixties; policy entrepreneur Mrs Gandhi in the sixties and
seventies; and champion of civil liberties Jayaprakash Narayan balancing them both
during the entire period. Social architects E. M. S. Namboodiripad, Karunanidhi
and Karpoori Thakur were products of the independence struggle that established
the ‘Idea of India’. More importantly, despite their privileged backgrounds, Indian
leaders struggled their way up from municipal politics2 and fine-tuned their ideas
through praxis. The Bhandarnaikes of Sri Lanka, Bhuttos in Pakistan, Koiralas in
Nepal, Rehmans or Zias in Bangladesh took the escalator rather than climbing up the
ladder to the upper reaches of politics in their countries. Perhaps that is the reason
dynastic politics has degenerated to the level of patronage rather than mentoring and
The second important lesson of democratic evolution in India is the visualization
of an alternative. It was not just Gandhi who had a vision; every important leader had
70 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

an alternative imagination3 of India of their desire rather than just a vague dream.
Perhaps that imagination gave a sense of purpose, united its population and created a
sense of ‘we, the people’, the most important ingredient of a functioning democracy.
The third innovation that has kept India together is the way it has tried to
accommodate plurality of religions, languages, cultures and beliefs within the broad
rubric of assimilative Indianness through projection of illustrious and representative
personalities. There was something imperial in the manner of Nehru that helped
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Sheikh Abdullah and Pratap Singh
Kairon emerge as kings of their communities. Indira Gandhi helped regional satraps
to grow without appearing to be overtly patronizing. These towering personalities
were icons that helped satisfy anxieties about identities of various minorities. Its
culmination could be seen in the early twenty-first century when Indians grew out of
their brief fascination with Hindu fascism of the Bhartiya Janata Party variety with a
vengeance and installed the trio of Italy-born Sonia Gandhi as kingmaker, Pakistan-
born Sikh Manmohan Singh as premier and a Maratha-Thakur woman Pratibha Patil
as President. This mix of a symbolic representation may appear anachronistic, but
compared to what ‘modern’ Hinduism did in Gujarat,4 perhaps symbols continue to
be important for a society in transition.
The creation of linguistic states without altering the over-riding powers of the
centre was yet another masterstroke of maintaining diversity in unity. Apparently,
this was not an easy task; leaders groomed in the European tradition of assimilation
went through excruciating doubts5 before they were forced by the circumstances
to take the momentous decision of reorganizing states according to language. But
reorganization has helped the Indian Union to survive other more pressing challenges
to the centre like left wing extremism, ethnic upsurge and communal clashes that
keep erupting in different places.
The fifth important lesson of Indian experiments in democracy is the
acceptance of a vibrant opposition. A government at the centre collapsed within
thirteen days; there have been premiers that had to bow out within few months;
but none dared challenge the basic structure due to the existence of powerful
political parties in the opposition waiting to be an alternative. In conventional
parliamentary politics, forms of protests such as gherao (sit-in), chakka-jam (traffic
blockade) and bandh (forced closure) are considered illiberal.6 But they have saved
Indian democracy from stultifying effects that political stagnation can sometimes
induce. Ram Manohar Lohia, an icon opposite to Jawaharlal Nehru, had once
thundered that no live community could ever wait for five years (alluding to the
term of the Parliament) in silence. And indeed, governments change with unfailing
regularity in India without creating worries about fragmentation, destabilization
or anarchy.
The sixth conclusion is easier to draw from Indian experience—federalism is a
precondition of political unity in plural and multicultural societies.7 The failure of
institutionalizing meaningful federalism in East Pakistan led to its fragmentation.
Lack of sincerity in addressing genuine concerns of Tamils created conditions for
Democracy 71

nihilistic politics of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). The Indian Union has
also failed in several instances such as in Kashmir and in the north-eastern states
where people are struggling for more control over their destiny than they now have,
but on the whole, successes outweigh failures in Indian federalism.
Last, but certainly not the least, Indian democracy illustrates the role of cultural
activism in ensuring fundamental freedoms. Values of tolerance cannot be legislated;
it requires cultivation through arts, cinema, music, media, literature and sports.
The role Hindi films, cricket, and popular music has played in unification of the
Indian mind—In some ways, their hegemony extends to the Southasian mind in
general—have been rightly appreciated, but less prominent is the relatively quiet
role artistes have played. Salman Rushdie, the Bombay-born iconoclast who earned
the fatwa of Iranian Ayatollahs, Bangladeshi exile Taslima Nasreen, barefoot
painter M. F. Hussain, actor-activist Shabana Azmi and diva of dissent Arundhati
Roy reaffirm faith in the continuity of Indian plurality despite the presence of the
Narendra Modis and Praveen Togadias.
There is a popular anecdote about music maestro Bade Gulam Ali Khan who
had migrated to Pakistan just after the partition. However, he returned to India
within three years. Giving the reason for his escape and homecoming, Khan Saheb is
reported to have said, ‘I was scared because of riots after partition. I was completely
unnerved and thought I should save my life. But while in Pakistan, I had to face
different problems. I was once invited to sing before a select gathering. The moment I
began with a Thumri, which mentioned Shyam, someone from the audience shouted,
“please don’t talk of Krishna here”. Then whose name I should take, Mohammad Ali
Jinnah, Liaqat Ali or Sikander Mirza?’ Such an attitude made it impossible for me to
live there along with my music.’8 Secularism is much more than mere separation of
religion and politics—it implies acceptance of everyone’s faith as equal to one’s own.

Intercepting Inter-Personal Communications:

Infringing On Democratic Liberties of the Citizens
Nurul Kabir
… the ordinary people are being suspected [of breaching national security], as if the
intelligence agencies are more patriotic than the general public …! If it so happens,
how come the foreigners know all secret [strategic] information of our country?
Or why are our domestic products being smuggled out, and foreign commodities
smuggled in, with the active cooperation of our border guards? General public never
undermine the causes of their country; never do they betray their national interests.
It is the political incumbents, military top brasses, rich traders and industrialists who
betray the national causes since time immemorial.(a)
–Abu Zafar Shamsuddin
In a modern democracy, individual privacy is considered an inalienable fundamental
right of every citizen, and infringing upon such a democratic right by any government,
72 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

legally or illegally, amounts to despotic abuse of political power on the one hand and a
clear breach of trust that the electorate entrusts a government with through elections on
the other.
The government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led four-party alliance has com-
mitted both the offences—despotic abuse of power and breach of trust—by getting a
law enacted to legalize the hitherto illegal act of intercepting as well as recording inter-
personal communications of the citizens.
The governing alliance, in fact, got an old law on telecommunications rewritten
in February this year, by the sheer strength of its brute majority in Parliament, to
authorize ‘any officer of the intelligence agencies, national security intelligence, inves-
tigating authorities or law enforcing agencies’ to ‘intercept and record’ telephonic con-
versations of, and exchanges of messages—electronic or otherwise—between, private
citizens.(b) The law also stipulates penalties, financial and physical, for telephone
operating companies in case of their failure to comply with the government’s demand
as regards intercepting and recording oral and electronic conversations between their
The government authorities concerned seem to have been very active in widely
enforcing the law in the quickest possible time. The Bangladesh Telecommunication
Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has asked all private sector mobile phone companies,
on 16 March, to complete the re-registration of their clients, recording personal infor-
mation of over 11 million subscribers in the electronic database within two months,
with a view to facilitating the intelligence agencies to tap conversations of the phone
users.(d) The BTRC is also set to ask the Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board, the
public sector telephone operating body, to re-register its subscribers, around one mil-
lion, under the phone tapping initiative of the state.(e)
However, if it continues to be in force, the law allowing the police to intrude into the
private spaces of the people will not only continue to erode civil and political liberties
of the citizens, particularly in terms of the infringement of personal liberty, and their
democratic right to the freedom of thought and expression, it will also further constrict
the manoeuvrability of the democratic media, already suffering from a restrictive legal
regime, to have access to the public information system and thus stand in the way of
the media discharging its democratic responsibility to keep the public informed about the
affairs of the state. Clearly, the legislation has served as another stumbling block to the
building up of a democratic state in Bangladesh. Why and how?
Classical Democratic Idea of Individual Liberty
Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of the greatest ideologues of classical democracy, believed in
the ‘inalienability of human liberty’. To him, ‘renouncing liberty was to renounce being
a man’. While outlining the principles of a democratic state, the ‘problem’ for Rousseau,
therefore, was ‘to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the
whole common force the person … of each associate, and in which each, while uniting
himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before’.(f )
Rousseau found the answer in forging a ‘social contract’ by the people, which is to be
based on their ‘general will’, while the clauses of the social contract are to be ‘everywhere
the same and everywhere tacitly admitted and recognized. … The clauses, properly un-
derstood, may be reduced to one—the total alienation of each associate, together with
all his rights, to the whole community’.
Democracy 73

By surrendering ‘all his rights’ to the community, an individual, however, eventually

loses none of his rights. ‘Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under
the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each
member as an indivisible part of the whole,’ argues Rousseau.
Each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody, and as there is no associ-
ate over which he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he
gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preserva-
tion of what he has.
Aware of the individuals’ democratic right to freedom, the French thinker explains
that what man loses by social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to ev-
erything he wants to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty. Rousseau
here distinguishes ‘natural liberty’ from ‘civil liberty, arguing that the former is bound
only by the strength of the individual while the latter is limited by the general will.
However, as soon as the ‘social contract’ is made, Rousseau argues on, in place of the
individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral
and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains voters, and
receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life, and its will.
This public person, so formed by the union of all other persons, formerly took the
name of city, and now takes that of Republic or body politic; it is called by its members
state when passive, sovereign when active, and power when compared with others like
itself. Those who are associated with it take collectively the name people, and severally are
called citizens, as sharing in the sovereign power, and subjects, as being under “the laws of
the State.”(g) The Laws are, properly speaking, only the conditions of civil association.(h)

Fake Grounds for Encroaching upon Private Spaces of Individuals

To determine whether a ‘law’ or ‘condition’ of a ‘civil association’ called ‘Republic’ is
democratic or not, one needs to examine whether its provisions are consistent with
the ‘general will’ of the people,(i) supposedly embodied in the provisions of the ‘social
contract’, or, in other words, the constitution of the republic on one hand, and to see
whether it ensures the ‘individual liberty’ of the ‘citizens’ within the framework of the
Republic on the other. Besides, one also needs to examine whether the legal provisions
in question are consistent with the provisions of the universally recognized international
rights instruments that the State is a party to.
The historical fact remains that the classical democratic method was not followed while
framing the original constitution of Bangladesh for the document to become a genuine
manifestation of the general will of the people. Besides, the constitution in the present
form can hardly be considered the ‘solemn expression of the will of the people’, particularly
after getting it brutally operated upon by so many civil and military authorities in the past.
Still, it guarantees the citizens, ‘subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law’, the right
to ‘privacy of his correspondence and other means of communication’.(j)
The reasons for ‘intercepting and recording’ inter-personal telecommunications of
the people that the objective clause of the amendment bill in question offered was to
‘control crime and ensure public order’ by way of tracking down those behind various
crimes and disorders, and disrupting communications between the perceived criminals
74 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

as and when necessary.(k) Although the objective clause of the bill did not specify the
categories of criminals to be hunted down by telephone tapping, many a government
leader in their public oratories have argued quite clearly that the law was ‘required’ to
take care of the glamorous extortionists and the Islamist fundamentalists engaged in
violent political activism to set up a theocratic state in Bangladesh.
The couple of ‘reasons’ advanced by the government to justify the state’s infringe-
ments, by implications, on certain fundamental democratic rights like privacy, freedom
of expression and free flow of public information, hardly sounds ‘reasonable’. Because,
as regards the controlling of crimes, it is common knowledge that hardened criminals
have always grown up in the country under direct political patronage of the political
class, particularly those in power, on the one hand and the active cooperation of the
law enforcing agencies on the other. The politicians and the police officials concerned,
who have always been the direct beneficiaries of grand extortions by the glamorous
hoodlums, always know the whereabouts of the criminals in question. If really willing,
politicians and law enforcers controlling the state machinery can always take care of such
hardened criminals. No individual, however powerful one may be, is capable of being
stronger than the state apparatus in any political system.
Secondly, as for containing the Islamist fundamentalists, one has hardly any reason
to believe that the government of the BNP-led alliance is genuinely interested in com-
bating them to the end, simply because more than one component of the governing
coalition, including Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh have made it clear that they are there
for advancing their political cause to establish the ‘rule of Qur’anic law’—a political
proposition diametrically opposite to the principle of democracy that preaches separa-
tion of divine religion from worldly affairs of politics, in the first place. Besides, violence
remains one of the major means of Jamaat to establish its hegemony over the competing
political ideologies, which has frequently been displayed by its student front, Islami
Chhatra Shibir, in different educational institutions across the country for years now.
The Jamaat, the Bangladesh chapter of an international Islamist political movement,
not only resorts to political violence in the country but also extends supports to jihadi
movements beyond Bangladesh. Notably, the party, which made a public announcement
of raising funds for the ‘oppressed Afghan population’, in the first week of November
2001, admittedly received contribution worth ‘about Tk 12 lakh and sent ‘about Tk 1.5
lakh’ to the oppressed Afghans through ‘private channel’. The party eventually ‘stopped
persuading people to contribute to the fund only after the fall of the Taliban’s Islamist
fundamentalist government of Mullah Omar’ in the second week of November that year.(l)
Apart from Jamaat-e-Islami, and other Islamist fundamentalist components of the
BNP-led governing alliance, there are Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) of Shaikh
Abdur Rahman and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh of Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla
Bhai, the much talked about fundamentalist duo, who, in a bid to challenge the non-
Islamic rule in the country, admittedly carried out a series of bomb blasts in public places
late last year, taking quite a number of politically innocent lives. No sane person would
deny the need to take care of these obscurantist killers, but there is hardly any reason
for the people to believe that the incumbents have genuine democratic commitment to
politically uproot the fundamentalist menace, particularly when some important BNP
insiders are on record to have repeatedly claimed that there were ‘some ministers and
members of Parliaments belonging to the ruling BNP behind the rise and expansion of
Democracy 75

Islamist militancy in the country’. Abu Hena, a lawmaker elected from the Rajshahi-3
constituency of Parliament on a BNP ticket in the 2001 elections, was expelled from the
party on 24 November last year for making a public statement accusing some ministers
and party legislators of providing support to the Islamist militants.(m) But such accusa-
tions gained solid ground when Bangla Bhai, while on police remand, reportedly told the
investigators, more than once, that he used to receive active support from a state minister
and a police official in conducting extra-judicial operations.(n)
Ironically enough, the minister for posts and telecommunications, Aminul Haque,
who found it important to officially propose to the cabinet the idea of legalizing the
hitherto illegal act of tapping telecommunications of the citizens to take on violent
crimes, himself is widely accused of providing support and shelter to the fundamental-
ist Bangla Bhai and his Islamist killer gang. One, therefore, has no reason to accept the
pronounced objective behind legalizing the intercepting and recording of conversations
of private citizens is to take on violent crimes unleashed by the Islamist fundamentalists.
There is rather an unpronounced objective, which has already been unearthed by the
media,: that political leaders in the oppositi on camp, leaders opposing the ruling views in
the governing parties, journalists, leaders of civil society groups and some business leaders top
the list of people that the government has been preparing for tapping the telephones of.(o)
Clearly, the law is being used in violation of the constitutional guarantee to one’s
inalienable right to ‘privacy of his correspondence and other means of communication’.
The phenomenon reminds one of George Orwell’s nightmarish novel, Nineteen
Eighty Four, which provides the readers with a haunting account of a power structure
that controls not only information but also individual thought and memory—the worst
imaginable crimes as regards the destruction of freedom and dignity of the individuals.
The law in question, therefore, does not qualify to be a democratic ‘condition’ of
‘civil association’ called Republic, because the reason that the government has offered
for intercepting and recording interpersonal communications—hunting down the hard-
ened criminals and Islamist fundamentalists—is fake and the ‘restriction’ imposed on
the private citizens is totally ‘unreasonable’ as it violates a major provision of the ‘social
contract’ called constitution that promises ‘privacy of correspondence and other means
of communication’ of the ‘citizens’ within the framework of the Republic.
Besides, the legal provision is also inconsistent with a major international rights instru-
ment—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948—which proclaims that ‘no one
shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy … or correspondence …’.(p)

Infringing on Freedom of Speech and Expression

If in vogue, the law in question will not only continue to arbitrarily interfere with the
citizens’ democratic right to ‘privacy and correspondence’, it will also continue to curb
people’s inalienable right to the ‘freedom of speech and expression’—a right that the
constitution of Bangladesh apparently guarantees, conditionally though, to the citizens.(q)
The freedom of speech and expression, which is required to exercise another consti-
tutionally guaranteed right—the right to the ‘freedom of thought and conscience’(r)—
includes, as interpreted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘freedom to
hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and
ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.(s) While telephone, cellular or non-
cellular, remains one of the prime medium of communication between citizens to ‘seek,
76 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

receive and impart information and ideas’, intercepting and recording the citizens’ inter-
personal telecommunications, electronic or otherwise, amounts to an unambiguous ‘in-
terference’ with one’s democratic right to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of
thought and conscience, speech and expression. Notably, the Supreme Court of India
observed in 1997 that tapping of telephonic conversations is unconstitutional, arguing
that ‘when a person is talking on telephone, he is exercising his freedom of speech and
telephone-tapping, unless it comes within the grounds of restrictions, is violation of the
freedom of speech’.(t) Clearly, the law in question effectively infringes on the people’s
right to freedom of thought and expression, a major creative component of life that
distinguishes human beings from other animals. It is, therefore, an undemocratic ‘con-
dition’ of the ‘civil association’ called Republic, and therefore, unacceptable for those
committed to a democratic way of life.

Blocking Free Flow of Public Information

Free flow of public information remains one of the most important components of
democracy, as without public information the citizens of any country find it absolutely
difficult to develop an informed opinion about the state of affairs of the Republic, usually
managed by politicians and civil servants. In between remains the mass media, the prime
vehicle for the people to have access to public information, which help people make nec-
essary political moves to ensure that the managers of the state adhere to the provisions of
‘social contract’ signed between the citizens within the framework of the Republic. But
the law in question has actually struck the last nail in the coffin of the democratic concept
of free flow of public information.
The reason is simple: the legal regime guiding the government functions allows nei-
ther the ministers nor the civil servants to disseminate public information to the mass
media. The ministers are oath-bound not to ‘communicate or reveal, directly or indi-
rectly’, ‘to any person’, ‘any matter which shall be brought under’ his/her ‘consideration
or shall become known’ to him/her while ‘discharging duty’.(u)
The civil servants, on the other hand, are bound by their conduct rules that make it a
punishable offence for any officer to disclose, ‘directly or indirectly’, to any ‘non-official
persons’ or ‘to the press’ any ‘contents of any official document’ or communicate ‘any
information which has come into his possession in the course of his official duties, or has
been prepared or collected by him in the course of those duties’.(v)
A recent example should clarify as to what rigour the conduct rule in question is
being applied against public servants, particularly when it comes to the perceived divul-
gence of public information to the press.
The commerce ministry suspended, in the first week on December 2005, two of its
employees on the charge of ‘leaking information’ relating to the WTO negotiations as
regards the market access of LDC products to the industrialized countries.(w) A newspa-
per reported earlier that the World Trade Organization, in its first draft to be debated
in the Hong Kong ministerial, had agreed ‘full market access’ for the products of the
least developed countries, including Bangladesh, to the rest of the world’s markets, while
the developed United States and certain developing countries like India and Pakistan
actively opposed the idea.(x)
Given the national economic interests involved in the trade negotiations within the
WTO, it is of importance for the country’s people in general and the exporters in particular
Democracy 77

to remain updated about every phase of the negotiations, and on the role that the bureau-
crats, in other words the public servants living on public money, are playing in the process
of the negotiations. It is, therefore, a serious democratic responsibility of the government
to regularly provide the public with information on both counts. But in the present case,
the government has not only failed in its duty to the public, it has rather punished two
individual government employees for their perceived ‘crime’ to leak information to a media
outfit that was eager to keep the public informed about developments in a matter of serious
national interest.
Such anti-people use of conduct rules is, however, not a monopoly of the incum-
bents. The previous government/s also used it in a similar manner.
Under such undemocratic legal and political environment, the country’s media dis-
charges its democratic responsibility, as much as possible, to keep the people informed.
Now that a legal tool is there for the government to ‘intercept and record’ even the
informal interpersonal exchange of views among citizens, many a journalist will hesitate
to make critical queries on various social, political, economic and cultural issues. Even if
they make queries, a minister and/or a civil servant on the other end would hardly speak
out their minds to the media people, fearing government reprisals.
The result is obvious. The law in question has completed the process of convert-
ing the people’s republic called Bangladesh to a police state, where the governmental
bodies refuse to divulge public information on the one hand and control thoughts of
the citizens on the other. A piece of legislation has really appeared to serve as, to coin
an Orwellian phrase, ‘thought-police for an undemocratic political establishment’—a
double-edged sword, restricting free flow of public information on the one hand and
dissemination of dissenting thoughts and views on the other.

Resistance is the Democratic Answer

It is, perhaps, quite clear now that the recently enacted Bangladesh Telecommunication
(Amendment) Act, 2006 will continue to provide any government with a legal instru-
ment to arbitrarily invade into the private spheres of the citizens, effectively curb the
citizens’ democratic right to the freedom of expression and block entirely the free flow
of public information. Ironically, such an obtrusive law has been made in the name of
protecting ‘national security’ and restoring ‘public order’. A free nation does not deserve
such a humiliating treatment from any government elected by the people.
True that two legislators of the opposition Awami League recorded their ‘note of dis-
sents’ against the proposed amendments to the law when scrutinizing them in the parlia-
mentary standing committee on the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, arguing
that ‘the amendments, if adopted, would seriously undermine the people’s fundamental
right to privacy’.(y) But the politically conscious citizens of the country have hardly any
reason to expect any spontaneous initiative from any future government, even if there is
a change of guard in the next general elections, to do away with the extremely undemo-
cratic piece of legislation.
Notably, no government has yet struck out from the statute book the Telegraph Act,
1885, enacted by the colonialist rulers, empowering the authority to intercept and/or
stop, in the name of ‘public emergency’ ‘or public safety’, transmission of ‘any message
or class of message to or from any person’ (z) and the Post Office Act,1869, permitting
‘any officer of the post office’ to ‘detain any postal article in course of transmission by
78 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

post which he suspects to contain … any newspaper or book’ published in non-confor-

mity with’ established political order.(aa)
While the laws in question were made by the English colonialist rulers to oppress
freedom fighters of the day, neither any government of Pakistan after independence from
the British rule, nor the successive governments of Bangladesh after independence from
Pakistan has even thought of repealing the law. The reason is simple: with an obtrusive le-
gal regime in place, it is easier for any government to rule at will, without any democratic
transparency and accountability—a proposition that our political class is very fond of.
However, the citizens who find liberty of the individuals a non-negotiable compo-
nent of the democratic way of life within the framework of a Republic, cannot afford
to entertain such despotic aspirations of any political party. Besides, as Alexis de Toc-
queville, famous author of The Old Regime and the French Revolution, asserted, ‘only lib-
erty can produce patriotism in citizens and greatness in nations’. Bangladesh needs both,
patriotism and greatness, and therefore, the country is left with no option but to build
up democratic resistance against all the laws like the Telecommunication (Amendment)
Act, 2006 that stands in the ways of liberty—civil or economic, political or cultural.

(a) Abu Zafar Shamsuddin, Atmasmrity (Memoirs), Sahitya Prokash, Dhaka, Unabridged
edition, 2005, p.492. Emotionally and intellectually enraged by interception of his
son’s letter, sent from the UK, by the intelligence agencies of the erstwhile Pakistan,
Shamsuddin, one of the most progressive Bengali intellectuals of his time wrote these
words in his personal diary on 9 January 1971. Translation of the Bangla paragraph has
been done by the author of the present essay.
(b) Clause 97a, Bangladesh Telecommunication (amendment) Act, 2006.
(c) Clause 97c, Ibid.
(d) New Age, Dhaka, 18 March 2006.
(e) New Age, Dhaka, 30 March 2006.
(f ) The Social Contract and Discourses, Everyman’s Library, London, 1968, p.12.
(g) Ibid, p.13.
(h) Ibid, p.31.
(i) Article 7(2) of the constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh claims that the
‘Constitution’ is the embodiment of the ‘solemn expression of the will of the people’.
(j) Article 43 (b), The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, as modified up
to 31 May 2000, The Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, the People’s
Republic of Bangladesh. The article in question says: Every citizen shall have the right,
subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security
of the state, public order, public morality or public health– … to the privacy of his
correspondence and other means of communication.
(k) Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Posts and Tele-
communications, Bangladesh Jatiya Sangsad, February 2006, pp.6–7.
Democracy 79

(l) [Weekly] Holiday, Dhaka, 8 March 2002.

(m) New Age, Dhaka, 25 November 2005.
(n) New Age, Dhaka, 23 March 2006 and 25 March 2006.
(o) New Age, Dhaka, 14 December 2005.
(p) Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
(q) Article, 39 (2), the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, ibid. The article
says: Subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security
of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in
relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence – a. the right of every
citizen to freedom of speech and expression; and b. freedom of the press, are guaranteed.
(r) Article, 39 (1), ibid. The article says: Freedom of thought and conscience is guaranteed.
(s) Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948)
(t) People’s Union of Civil Liberties v. India, AIR 1997 SC 568. Quoted by Mahmudul
Islam in Constitutional Law of Bangladesh, second edition, Mullick Brothers, Dhaka,
2003, p.242.
(u) The Oath (or affirmation) of Secrecy, Article 148(2)(b), Third Schedule, the Constitu-
tion of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, op. cit.
(v) Clause 19, the Government Servants (Conduct) Rules, 1979.
(w) New Age, Dhaka, 7 December 2005.
(x) Ibid, 28 November 2005.
(y) Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Posts and Tele-
communications, op. cit, p.3.
(z) Section 5(1)(b) of the Telegraph Act, 1885.
(aa) Section 27 B (1) (a) (i) of the Post Office Act, 1869 as amended in 1973.
(The essay was first presented at a city roundtable styled as Bangladesh Telecommunication
[Amendment] Act, 2006: National Security or Infringement on Civil Rights, on 9 April
2006. The roundtable was organized jointly by New Age and Odhikar—a Dhaka-based
human rights coalition.)

Democratic Disquiet
Intrinsic values of democracy are almost universally accepted. However, there is less clarity
and consensus over the instrumental aspects of democratic governance. The sequencing
of democracy and development has been one of the most contested areas of inquiry.
Throughout the Cold War era, think-tanks of western governments espoused
the modernist explanation that development will ultimately lead to democracy.
80 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Meanwhile, poor countries were safer in the hands of ‘benevolent dictators’—

dictators who supported the ‘other power’ were all malevolent by implication.
This was the mindset that made USA prop one after another, military dictators
in Pakistan and accept the autocratic rule of King Mahendra in Nepal. In
the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emphasis was reversed.
Democracy now became a pre-condition of development. This led to what has
been called the third wave of democratization. The third school of thought
has acquired widespread support in the wake of the fiasco of ‘liberation’ of
Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, the dominant view is that even though it is difficult
to establish positive correlation between democracy and development, people’s
participation in governance is desirable for its own sake. Essentially, this is the
intrinsic advantage argument.
Experiences in Southasia,9 however, favour the ‘democracy first’ hypothesis.
Sri Lanka has done reasonably well despite the ongoing conflict under democracy.
Nepal showed positive indicators on almost all counts from 1991 to 2001 except
in ethnic discrimination and distribution of wealth, even though much of the
energy of the state had to be spent in countering violent Maoist insurgency. India
is emerging as an economic power without taking recourse to dictatorial ‘discipline’
in its economy. Discontents abound, but democracy per se in Southasia is not
denounced as an obstacle to development; aberrations of democracy—nepotism,
corruption and dishonesty—are blamed for its supposed ‘failures’ that usurpers
promise to correct.
Positive correlation between democracy and human rights is less contentious.
Openness inherent to democratic governance makes oppression too costly for
the ruler. However, this logic cuts both ways: usurpers often begin throttling
democracy by curtailing fundamental freedoms. The relationship between ‘good
governance’ and democracy require more substantiation than is currently available.
Whether democracy ensures social and economic justice is still debatable—had
it done so, there would have been much less internal conflicts in democratic
countries—but its advantages are too obvious to be neglected. In a monograph
on Hunger and Public Action, its authors conclude, ‘It is important to …
re-emphasize our focus on public participation—collaborative and adversarial—
in eradicating famines, under-nutrition and deprivation.’10 ‘Collaborative and
adversarial public participation’ is perhaps the academic formulation of vibrant
democratic practice.
Anecdotal evidences suggest that introduction of democracy often induces
conflict in societies that have learned to endure despotic or authoritarian systems.
Democracy is supposed to transform conflicts and bring issues up for debate rather
than leave them for settlement through violence. This logic seems to work in settled
democracies, but in emerging democracies, populism and majority excesses often
drive the dispossessed to violence. Nowhere has this tendency emerged with as
much force as in Sri Lanka, a state that shows that things can go wrong even when
everything appears to be going right.
Democracy 81

Sri Lanka displays all the characteristics of a stable democracy viz.

• Working democracy with fairly long and uninterrupted history. Universal
adult franchise was introduced way back in 1931.
• Deep-rooted political party system that operates from the centre to the
village with an extensive network.
• Regularly held elections.
• Very high voter participation in elections; mostly over 75 per cent
eligible voters participate in every election.
• Active and vibrant civic life that covers professions, economy, culture
and market associations.
• Powerful trade unions with significant left wing activism.
• Boisterous media.
And yet, the island of serendipity has turned into an isle of tears, wrecked with
some of the worst violence in the region, mainly due to the following reasons:
• Xenophobic nationalism and unequal laws
• Tyranny of the majority
• Degeneration of democracy into politics of plebiscite
• Self-perpetuating military confrontation with groups that have a vested
interest in the continuation of the conflict
• Insular ruling elite at the helm
The lesson that Sri Lanka offers to the rest of Southasia and beyond is obvious:
democracies have to build effective checks and balances in their constitutions to
counter ‘ethnic majoritarianism’.11 But democracies also have an inherent capacity to
transform conflict. Perhaps the scale of violence in Sri Lanka might have been worse
and might have resulted in ethnic cleansing had there been no democracy in that
country. Democracy creates the space for collective bargaining, but if one or more
groups are either unwilling to give up their privileges or are bent upon ensuring an
advantageous position through guns or brute majority, conflicts are bound to occur.
The supposed ‘weakness’ of democracy in handling challenges creates a public
clamour for a strong person at the helm. In weak democracies, such as Bangladesh,
Nepal and Pakistan, a general urge for a saviour results in the rise of ‘men on
horseback’—usurpers who claim to save society from disintegration. But even in
countries where constitutionalism has taken deep roots, as in India and Sri Lanka, the
lure of Bismarck or Cromwell persists. Such a national mood may prompt executive
heads to centralise authority, often with disastrous consequences. Even though
the internal emergency declared by Indira Gandhi did not last long, its scars on the
national psyche of India remain.
The dispute over parliamentary versus presidential system of governance in
Southasia is concerned more with the question of unity of command and diffusion
of authority rather than republican constitutionalism of the United States of America
and legislative supremacy patterned after Westminster. Southasian experiences show
82 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

that presidential systems have been less accommodating of dissent while the politics
of patronage—buying and selling of legislative support rather than forming issue-
based coalitions in hung assemblies—have given parliamentary democracy a bad
name. Ambitious leaders seem to prefer the politics of plebiscite that eventually
emerges in presidential systems. However, African and South American experiences
show that populism of an individual—the President—can be even more damaging
than influence-peddling by a couple of legislatures. A balance has to be evolved for
application in Southasian states.
A semi-presidential system with a directly elected President and a majority premier
in the legislature working together can be a solution if legal mechanisms for inevitable
conflict between the two are put in place. Conversely, a system with a parliamentary
form of government in federating states with limited presidential government at the
centre can be designed to work in tandem. Sometimes the provision of a directly
elected premier is also proposed, but that appears to be neither here nor there. But
whether it is a Westminster parliamentary supremacy or a presidential monopoly over
power, political parties that make both systems work are paramount in any plural
democracy. The real debate should therefore shift towards making political parties
vibrant and compete with each other with a sense of decency and fair play.

Democratic Deficit
Democratic deficit has become a popular jargon that signifies the failure of democracy
despite all its visible trappings remaining intact. A country may have a constitution,
like Pakistan does, but need not be run according to law. Another may have periodic
elections without substantive changes being introduced into the polity in a peaceful
manner. The example of Sri Lanka easily comes to mind. Elections fought on the basis
of caste, creed or community rather than political principles or economic agenda
are common in India. The expression ‘democratic deficit’ finds immediate resonance
almost everywhere in Southasia. Some of the symptoms of this endemic disease are:

Decadence: This trait is most prominent among legatees of the freedom struggle.
The Indian National Congress, Nepali Congress, and Awami League are some of the
prominent examples where parties—and their leaders—claim legitimacy on the basis
of legacy rather than agenda for change or performance.

Demagoguery: Populist parties try to counter the influence of entrenched forces

by creating a dichotomy between ‘us’—the ideological versus ‘them’—the opportun-
ists. The Bhartiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) operate
on this plane from opposite sides. The problem with this strategy is that it defames all
parties and creates a crisis of legitimacy.

Desperation: When the more things change, the more they remain the same, fringe
groups are driven to desperation, which then becomes self-perpetuating. The Naxalites,
Democracy 83

LTTE, various parties in the Northeast and Kashmir, small parties in the plains of
Nepal and Islamist groups in Bangladesh and Pakistan recruit and operate by exploiting
the sense of desperation among certain sections of society.

Dynasties: This phenomenon is too well-known all over Southasia to need elabo-
ration. Political dynasties are not uncommon elsewhere, but in Southasia, there is a
veritable class of begums, bibis, nephews, nieces, sons and daughters that hardly leave
space for anyone else in mainstream politics.

Despots: Democratic despot is a contradiction in terms, but let anyone tell that to
Mulayam Singh Yadav or Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu or
any of the dynastic politicos in any Southasian country. Mai-baap-sarkar (Mother-
Father-Master) figures — G. P. Koirala, Benezir Bhutto and Sonia Gandhi—abound
in Southasia to the detriment of democratic culture.
Some of the treatments being tried sporadically are:

Reinvention: Ideology is the glue that keeps political parties together during dif-
ficult times. Sadly, it has fallen prey to pragmatism. ‘The discourse of liberalization
in between elections and the discourse of welfare during elections,’12 notes a study of
political parties in Southasia. Parties will have to rediscover their ideological basis or
reinvent them if necessary.

Political party reforms: Cacophony over ineffective parties will have to be

reduced to fight demagogic tendencies. Laws will have to be made to streamline the
functioning of political parties and systems for their financing will have to be put in
place. A code of conduct for political parties has already been doing the rounds; they
will have to be made more effective. A code of conduct for political parties should
include, but not be limited to:
(1) Democratization of the internal organization and working of political
(2) Promotion of political tolerance;
(3) Rejection of victimization of opponents and dissidents;
(4) Protection of constitutionally mandated institutions;
(5) No alliances with non-democratic forces;
(6) Opposition to electoral rigging of all kinds;
(7) Respect for poll outcome;
(8) Institutionalization of referendum to gauge public opinion on all impor-
tant issues;
(9) Guaranteed freedom for peaceful protest on all issues;
(10) Active promotion of inclusion;
(11) No deriding the constitution and ease of amendments to make with-
drawal pointless;
(12) Institutionalization of periodic review to keep the code of conduct relevant.
84 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Electoral Reforms: A mandatory provision for inclusive policies to ensure proper

representation of dalits, minorities, women, ethnic groups, and language groups is
one way of ensuring proper functioning of elected bodies. Another method could be
a proportionate election system or a mixed system. There are no proven methods of
removing all anomalies at one go; gradual fine-tuning is the most effective method of
electoral reforms. But the commitment to introduce changes and try out new ideas
must be there.
Democracy in itself is not a sufficient condition for plural unity of Southasia, but
democratic regimes functioning properly will perhaps be more open to suggestions for
cooperation. Constitutionalism will ensure smooth transfer of power and embolden
political parties to take courageous decisions for the common good. There are enough
reasons for Southasians to work for promotion of democracy in their countries for its
own sake. Possibility of a better Southasia emerging through their efforts is an added

1. In his frequently quoted presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan
on 11 August 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah had pointedly said, ‘You are free; you are
free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of
worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that
has nothing to do with the business of the State.’ Apparently, Quaid-e-Azam had failed
to understand the force of idea he had helped propagate: religion as the basis of state-
formation had struck roots in Pakistani psyche.
2. Jawaharlal Nehru was elected Chairman of the Allahabad Municipal Board on 3 April
1923, where he had the first taste of obstacles to bringing about changes in entrenched
administrative behaviour. At about the same time, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who would
grow up to be the Iron Man responsible of uniting India post-independence, was the
Municipal Chairman of Ahmedabad. B. R. Nanda discusses the baptism of Nehrus in
Indian politics with passion in The Nehrus (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, Cente-
nary Edition, 1989).
3. In early 1957, Jawaharlal Nehru had written a letter to his partymen at the request of
Dr Sampurrnananda, the Chief Minister of UP, in which the Congress Party President
details his Basic Thinking. The document retains its relevance for a firm belief in planning
and prioritization of land reforms, education and health. Reproduced in M. O. Mathai, My
Days with Nehru (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1979), pp. 69-77.
4. ‘Gujarat, in 2002, provided a glimpse of this modernized Hinduism, as Benetton-clad
young Hindus carted off the loot of digital cameras and DVD players in their new Japa-
nese cars.’ Pankaj Mishra, Temptations of the West (Picador, 2006), p. 151.
5. ‘The chief ministers of Bengal and Bihar offered to amalgamate their states in a bid to
check “linguistic madness”’,’ recounted a journalist about the convulsions of those days.
Durga Das. India: From Curzon to Nehru and After, (New Delhi: Rupa and Company,
1981). pp. 326-331.
Democracy 85

6. ‘Protests that take over public space and obstruct public passage can thus be called illib-
eral forms of public protests,”’opines Genevieve Lakier in ‘Illiberal Democracy and the
Problem of Law: Street Protests and Democratization in Multiparty Nepal’ in Mahendra
Lawoti (ed.), Contentious Politics and Democratization in Nepal (Sage Publication, New
Delhi, 2007). pp. 251–272.
7. In a different context, commenting upon Gorbachev’s policies in the Baltics, columnist
Charles Krauthammer wrote way back in August 1990 in The Times, ‘Twenty-two years
ago, in his classic Federalism and the French Canadians, Pierre Elliot Trudeau argued
that the highest form of political association is the federal association of free peoples
in a common political union. “In the advanced societies,” he wrote, “where the road to
progress lies in the direction of international integration, nationalism will have to be
discarded as a rustic and clumsy tool.” Trudeau scorned the pettiness and provincialism
of such narrow separatisms. He was right. As the success of the American experiment has
shown, federation is the superior political system. It affords not just economies of scale
but also, as Madison predicted, a substrate for free government. Before Madison, it had
been assumed that democracies had to be small. Madison argued that, on the contrary,
a large republic, by multiplying the number of competing interests, makes it more dif-
ficult for any single interest to achieve tyrannical power. Two centuries of the American
experience have borne his theory out. But federalism does more than nurture democracy.
It may be the only force capable of taming that great nemesis of the 20th century, nation-
alism.’ http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,970863,00.html. Accessed
14 October 2007.
8. Mohammad Yunus (1980), Persons, Passions and Politics, New Delhi: Vikas Publishing
House, p. 110–111.
9. Amartya Sen argues convincingly against economic excuses for denying democracy and
cultural unsuitability of ‘people power’ in Asia. His hypothesis seems to be informed
by Southasian experience. Amartya Sen, Democracy as a Universal Value in Journal of
Democracy 10.3 (1999) 3–17. http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/jod/10.3sen.html. Accessed 14
October 2007.
10. Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze (1999). ‘Hunger and Public Action’ in The Amartya Sen and
Jean Dreze Omnibus, Oxford, New Delhi. p. 279.
11. Jayadeva Uyangoda traces the roots of conflict in Sri Lanka: ‘Tragedy in Three Acts—the
Citizenship Act of 1948, the Franchise Act of 1949, and the Official Language Act of 1956.’
He observes, ‘These pieces of legislation that discriminated against the ethnic minorities
re-defined both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalisms in a post-colonial setting. The subse-
quent history of Sinhalese-Tamil relations under a working parliamentary democracy is
not just history. It haunts Sri Lanka’s present, and the future too, in the context of a violent
and protracted civil war that began in the early 1980s.’ http://svr87.edns1.com/~starnet/
forum/2006/december/democracy.htm. Accessed 16 October 2007.
12. K. C. Suri (2007), Lead Author, Political Parties in South Asia: The Challenge of Change,
International IDEA, Stockholm. p. 21.
5 Governance

Literate Southasians never tire of complaining about the lack of ‘good governance’
in the region. In their assessment, there is little point in debating about the form of
government, what really counts is the function. But the form and the function of
government are not independent of each other. What the government does is a result
of how it has come into being, for what purpose and who controls its operations.
The easiest definition of governance is something that a government does: the
conduct of public affairs. Governance of any kind—good or bad—requires some
convictions, a few conventions, a constitution, various institutions and many actors.
That’s quite a lot of factors to account for in trying to understand governance.
Faith in mandate—divine, popular or altruistic—is the fundamental conviction
that makes governance possible. Whenever force is used to impose ‘governance’,
good or otherwise, it doesn’t take long for jealousy, resentment or dissatisfaction
to boil over. Equally important is the role of social dynamics that produces certain
conventions which create grounds for the making of a constitution. Constitutions
create institutions and structures that guide actors in governance.
Governance takes place through administration, the process captured so well
in an acronym coined by Luther Gulick in 1935—POSDCORB—where each
letter stands for separate functions of administration, namely planning, organizing,
staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting and budgeting, in that order. The central
figure of this process is the agency, also called the permanent government of any
country. Agencies that run according to laws are bureaucracies, but non-bureaucratic
agencies running the administration on an ad-hoc basis aren’t uncommon. Under
dictatorial regimes, an aristocracy of administration often functions equally effectively.
Centrality of subject—the actor who makes things happen—is the defining feature
of administration. No wonder, the Southasian elite are so fixated with the challenges
of administering.
Management has been defined as the optimum use of human, material,
knowledge and technological resources (stylishly represented with 4m—men, money,
material and machinery) to achieve specified objectives within the given time frame.
The primary concern of management is result. It is the object that guides and controls
every activity in all management exercises. Agents of modernity—donors, lenders,
managers and consultants active in Southasian societies—offer or prefer management
solutions for deep-rooted social and economic problems of the region.
Governance 87

Both administration and management are important components of governance.

Central1 to all concerns of governance has to be politics—the activity—rather
than the subject or object. Dealing with hopes, fears, relationships and exigencies
fall in the arena of politics. Politics also has to grapple with governance issues of
accountability versus responsibility, rule of law—what are the laws and how it has
been formulated, roles and responsibilities of decision-makers and decision-takers,
transparency, procedural clarity and public participation. However, leaving aside all
these questions, the politics of governance continues to be stuck in a post-colonial
debate over relative merits and demerits of ‘republic of laws’ versus ‘democracy of
parliamentary supremacy’.
The politics of governance in the United States of America, supposedly a country
that has a mix of both republican laws and democratic vibrancy, is conducted through
a mechanism that consists of its constitution, social dynamics, interplay of interest
groups, political parties, regular elections, the President as the chief executive, the
Congress as the main legislature, the federal bureaucracy and the judiciary. More or
less similar institutions and structures exist in all Southasian countries. Countries
following the Westminster model of parliamentary supremacy have taken a slightly
different route. But that too isn’t very much different from the American model
except some important distinctions in emphasis—the British value conventions
while Americans respect the constitution. However, a curious anomaly exists
throughout Southasia—in this region, republics tend to become legalistic rather than
constitutional while democracies often degenerate into a tyranny of the majority that
de-legitimizes the process itself.
The republican model has its advantages. But the risks of constitutionalism
turning into legalism are real. Drawing from his experiences in Pakistan, I. A.
Rehman quotes Burke’s famous dictum that bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny
and opines: ‘Quite a few political crises in Pakistan have been caused by its rulers’ use
of legal instruments to defy the demands of propriety in a society that professes to be
democratic.’2 The latter part of his argument is important: republicans profess to be
democratic, often without being one.
Degeneration of democracy into mob rule has been the primary fear of all elitists,
but Fareed Zakaria wrote a whole book to lament what he calls ‘illiberal democracy at
home and abroad’. In a paranoid paragraph, Zakaria writes,
Greek democracy often meant, in Constant’s phrase, “the subjection of the
individual to the authority of the community”. Recall that in the fourth century
BC in Athens, where Greek democracy is said to have found its truest expres-
sion, the popular assembly—by democratic vote—put to death the greatest
philosopher of the age because of his teachings. The execution of Socrates was
democratic, but not liberal.3
Democratic, but not liberal? That may be stretching the dichotomy a little too
far. It’s necessary to understand the false assumptions inherent in that logic.
88 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

The way the present age understands democracy traces its origin to the late 16th
century term in French démocratie, which is said to have evolved from Greek dēmokratia,
the expression that combines the will of the dēmos (the people) to kratia (power, rule).
Its denial on any pretext will invite catastrophe. In any case, twentieth century republics,
such as that of USA and USSR, have killed far more potential Socrates’ than all the
democracies of the world combined. The ‘republic’ too traces its origin to the late 16th
century French république, an evolved form of Latin respublica. It combines patronizing
res (concern) for affairs of the publicus (of the public). The Southasian elite too would
prefer to have self-selected rulers show ‘concern’ for the ‘public’ and make trains run on
time (Emergency, India, mid-seventies), ensure security (Royal-military coup in Nepal,
2004), eradicate corruption (The Chief Advisor experiment in Bangladesh, 2007)
and maintain stability (Burma, 2007). Maoists in Nepal have shown a preference for
a ‘Democratic Republic’, but its details seem to have been intentionally left vague.
However, it seems there is no alternative to bearing with deficits of democracy in the
short-term to establish a republic that doesn’t appropriate power in the name of ‘public
good’. Any attempt, however, to make democracies function under the supremacy of
laws rather than that of traditions or a majority should be encouraged.
Other than its form, levels of government also affect its functioning. There is
an overwhelming desire among powerful leaders to institute centralized governance.
In a centralization process preferred by ambitious rulers, authority and control
remain in the hands of the government at the centre which then mobilizes people to
acquire legitimacy. Movements for autonomy are derided as fissiparous and fought
ferociously. Perhaps, this is the reason that a centralized structure can never be fully
democratic even though it is possible to have a centralized republic.
When pushed into a corner, leaders try to accommodate voices for devolution
with decentralization. In decentralization, control of the centre persists with
dispersal of some authority in smaller units of the government. The centre still seeks
submission of all people, though in decentralized structures; the term preferred for
total compliance is cooperation.
Devolution is a state where local control and local authority of different
federating units is merely coordinated by the centre. It gives rise to competition
between units. Perhaps that’s the reason politicians are in dread of the word
devolution. A system of joint control between the centre and local units, with
complete local authority that ensures popular participation—an arrangement based
on the principle of subsidiarity—is perhaps the best model of federalism. But its
practicalities need to be studied in the Southasian context. The so-called federal
‘success story’ in India is perhaps a refined form of decentralization rather than
devolution. Some form of federalism, however, is sine qua non of supranational
solidarity. Centralized states are too enmeshed with ‘national’ issues to pay attention
to regionalism or universalism.
Democratic republics that enjoy popular legitimacy have succeeded in
institutionalizing the supremacy of laws and independent judiciary, with clearly
defined limits of power of the federal government, and federating units will perhaps
Governance 89

be more confident to face the challenges of an unified Southasia that values its unity
and celebrates diversity.

Governments in Action
The slogan of ‘good governance’—which gained currency in the post-1990 era of
liberalization, privatization and globalization in Southasia—is contentious. While
the intent of ‘good governance’ design may be good, it has been used often to
de-legitimize democratic regimes. Components of ‘good governance’, such as
rule of law, accountability, decentralization, honesty and probity in public affairs,
independence of judiciary, human rights, people’s participation, equality of treatment,
absence of discrimination, administrative responsiveness, social sensitivity, ethical
approach, willingness to learn, etcetera, are all worthy goals in the conduct of public
affairs. But there can be no ‘good governance’ without popular legitimacy—consent
of the governed—and supremacy of laws. Perhaps that’s the reason the DFID Good
Governance Assessment instrument identifies areas such as the foundation of state
power, electoral arrangements, rights and representation, rule of law, transparency
and information, levels of government, financial accountability, government income
and expenditure, authority and competence and public service.4 Politics is definitely
central to all these concerns, but equally important components of the ‘good
governance’ design are what have been called instruments of the state.
The most visible instrument of a state is the bureaucracy—for most people, the
bureaucracy is the state. Unfortunately, a lot remains to be done in Southasia to make
bureaucracy responsive towards the people. It was once said of the Indian Civil Service
that it was neither Indian, nor civil but provided excellent service to its colonial
masters. Names have changed, but the administrative ethos remains the same, at
least in all former colonies in the region. Administrative services—from the village
level to the federal secretariat—require revamping to make it more representative of
the people it’s required to serve. While corruption in administration gets justified
attention, often bribery, nepotism, favouritism and misuse of authority are symptoms
of a deeper malaise—continuation of the so-called Iron Frame of colonial era that
didn’t have to be accountable to anyone other than their immediate superiors.
Weaknesses of the colonial system are even more manifest in the police service.
In most parts of Southasia, distrust of the police runs deep. Due to lack of public trust
in policing, protection rackets, extortions and crime thrive. It’s a sad anomaly that
even though Southasia has two nuclear-powered defence forces, none of the police
organizations in the region are good enough to be a model for everyone. The Nepal
police was in the process of emerging as a dependable community police, but the rise
of Maoist insurgency, counter-insurgency and its use by the army as a secondary unit in
their ‘war’ against insurgents put paid to those experiments. The Nepal police, however,
hasn’t lost its verve; sometime ago, it proposed the formation of SAARCPOL (South
Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Police) patterned after Interpol and Europol.
90 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

The court system too will require a thorough overhauling. Perhaps a regeneration
of traditional methods of conflict resolution at the village level can reduce the load on
formal courts that have backlogs running into years and sometimes decades. Courts
are important components of the system of governance; and people’s faith in the
justice system is necessary for the proper functioning of democracy. Quasi-judicial
bodies need even closer attention. Perhaps it’s possible to deliver speedy justice
without impinging upon the authority of the court by creating more organs of the
state with quasi-judicial powers. This is an area that doesn’t seem to have got enough
attention in the governance discourse.
The role of the media in monitoring governance is well known, but what is
often less appreciated is the way mass media can shape the behaviour of the people
to influence the way they are governed. Through a sequential impact of awareness,
information, attitude and behaviour, the media empowers people to act as citizens.
Unfortunately, the media in Southasia has succumbed to the market mechanism.
Mission journalism had its pitfalls, but created national unity in post-colonial
societies. The next logical step would be to rise up to the challenges of forming
a Southasian identity. But that will require a concerted effort which seems to be
lacking at present. An accompanying article by Nurul Kabir depicts the media scene
in Bangladesh. On many issues, the challenges are similar elsewhere in Southasia.
The state has its institutions and instruments, market forces work through
their own channels, but the civil society has very little at its disposal other than the
cooperation of the media to take its initiatives to the larger public. This may be the
reason civil society is at the forefront to protect media freedom. But as the media moves
into a high-profit area of what has been called ‘Page 3’ journalism—celebrity fixation,
high life and low intellect doses of candy for the mind—civil society is getting weaker.

Media Regime in Bangladesh: Rule of Obtrusive Law

Nurul Kabir
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience,
above all liberties.
– John Milton
I would like to begin the discussion on the proposed topic by drawing attention of the
august audience to certain disturbing observations made recently on the issue by two of
the country’s reputed as well as influential editors. The observations are disturbing, because
both the editors have separately told the nation and the world at large that Bangladesh is
enjoying democracy and press freedom since the ouster of General H. M. Ershad in 1991.
‘… 16 years of military rule … ended when the government (of H. M. Ershad)
was toppled by civil unrest in December 1991. It is at this time, when democracy was
restored and the media was at last given freedom to operate, that Bangladesh’s journey
towards development began’, Mr Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, one of the
Governance 91

most liberal newspapers of the country, has recently observed. (‘The Media and Devel-
opment in Bangladesh’ in The Right to Tell: The Role of Mass Media in Economic Develop-
ment, WBI Development Studies, The World Bank, Washington, DC, 2002, p. 267)
Mr Reaz Uddin Ahmed, editor of the daily News Today, who has also led the coun-
try’s journalist community for a long time, now believes,
A representative Parliament was established through a free and fair general election
conducted by a non-party caretaker government in 1991. The newspapers earned,
for the first time, the unrestrained freedom to operate in an environment free from
repressive media laws … There is no longer any hindrance in publishing newspapers,
as the media laws standing in the ways of publishing newspapers were scrapped.
Besides, the laws seeking to ban newspapers have been done away with. Subsequently
… the free flow of information has been ensured.
Satyer Sandhane Pratidin (Everyday in Quest of Truth)
Ananya, Dhaka, 2002, pp. 8-9
I would like to humbly assert here that the observations are totally baseless, and thus mis-
leading, from various points of views—legal and political inclusive. Such observations flow
from either a poor understanding of democracy and press freedom as a whole, or an idea
to deliberately trivialize such vital issues in the interest of the undemocratic political elite.
Before we go for interpreting in detail the issues in question, it is imperative to
note that during the movement against General H. M. Ershad’s autocratic regime in
the 1980s, the mainstream political parties—Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Awami
League (AL)—assured the people that they would bring in a democratic system of gov-
ernance after the ouster of the General. People ousted Ershad from power in December,
1990. The BNP was victorious in the parliamentary elections, while the AL secured the
position of the main opposition party in Parliament. Then they jointly told people that
the switchover to the parliamentary system of governance from the presidential system
would usher in a ‘real representative democracy’.
But it did not really happen, especially because the political parties concerned, while
implementing the ‘switchover’ in 1991, simply replaced the word ‘President’ with ‘Prime
Minister’ in the Constitution, keeping intact the entire or unrestrained executive power of
the President (of the presidential system) in the hands of the Prime Minister (of the parlia-
mentary system). Contrary to the spirit of parliamentary democracy in the West, the BNP
and the AL did not bother to provide the system of checks and balances of power between
the head of the government (Prime Minister in the present case) and the head of the state
(President). Subsequently, the nation got, in the place of an ‘all-powerful’ President, an
‘all-powerful’ Prime Minister with the entire executive power of state concentrated in his/
her hands. The political parties thus provided the people with a dictatorial type of Prime
Ministerial system and that, too, in the name of parliamentary democracy. On top of that
all, they retained all the repressive constitutional provisions controlling the citizens’ free-
dom of expression, which is essentially the basis of the freedom of the media.
This is, however, not the end of the sad story. The BNP and the AL unanimously
inserted into the Constitution, or rather revived, a provision from the original Constitu-
tion adopted in 1972 that makes it a punishable offence for the elected representatives
of Parliament to vote in the House at the dictate of conscience—political or moral. How
92 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

can one, under such a constitutional regime, claim that democracy was established on
the rubbles of the Ershad regime?

Legal and Constitutional Provisions Impeding

Freedom of Expression and Media Freedom
The struggle for media-freedom and/or free flow of information is directly related to
the struggle for establishing the citizens’ democratic right to the unhindered freedom
of thought and expression. And the concept of such rights were initially formulated by
the classical bourgeoisie of the West, who secured their political victory over the feudal
monarchies, e.g., the French monarchy, or imperial colonial powers, e.g., the British
colonial power in the United States, in the second half of the eighteenth century.
‘No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious
views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by
law,’ pronounced Article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Approved by the National Assembly of France in August 1789, the provision was later
incorporated into the French Constitution.
Article 11 of the Declaration says:
The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the
rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom,
but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.
Again, the political elite of the US bourgeoisie proposed in Article 1 of its Bill of
Rights in September 1789, ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of
speech, or of the press …’. The article was eventually incorporated into the US Consti-
tution in December, 1791.
But the bourgeoisie that we, the media, operate under in Bangladesh does not have
the revolutionary vigour of their classical predecessors, thanks to various historical
reasons — political and economic. The lesser bourgeoisie that it is, the Bangladeshi
political elite, like their prototypes across the world, can neither afford to grant citizens
the unrestrained freedom of expression, nor can it ensure free flow of information. They
cannot guarantee unrestrained freedom of expression, because the political ideologies
they preach do not have adequate inherent strength to fight back the counter ideologies;
and they cannot ensure free flow of information, because they have things to hide from
the public.
The state machinery that the local bourgeoisie has built up here to rule the nation is,
therefore, insensitive towards the classical democratic rights in general and the right to
the freedom of thought and expression in particular. The Constitution, upon which the
State is ‘legally’ based, adequately reflects the undemocratic psyche of the ruling class
in question. Article 39(1) of the Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees the ‘freedom
of thought and conscience’. But Article 39(2) of the constitution subjects the ‘freedom
of speech and expression’ and the ‘freedom of the press’ ‘to any reasonable restrictions
imposed by law …’. Now the question arises as to what is the use of the ‘freedom of
thought and conscience’, if one is not allowed to express his/her conscientious thoughts
freely? Besides, the pre-condition for the freedom of expression descended to the Con-
stitution of Bangladesh directly from that of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan—the state
the Bangalees broke away from due to its continued undemocratic actions.
Governance 93

There are, however, people who tend to argue that there is nothing wrong in impos-
ing ‘reasonable restrictions’ on the freedom of speech and expression, or freedom of the
press for that matter. This category of people fails to understand that ‘reasonable’ is a
vague term which, being open to interpretations, can always be used in a very selective
manner to get particular interests served by particular quarters—not to mention that
what is reasonable to some people could well be unreasonable to others.
The empirical evidences show that the successive governments of Bangladesh have
invoked this provision on several occasions to get their particular political interests
served. The most recent unreasonable imposition of the so-called ‘reasonable restriction’
was the one made by the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina in 2001.
Hasina’s government got a legislation (The Preservation and Display of the Father of
the Nation’s Portrait Act, 2001) enacted on 18 January 2001, making it mandatory for
various government, semi-government and autonomous organizations to ‘preserve and
display’ the portrait of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and awarding jail terms to those criti-
cizing the Sheikh, the first president of the country and father of Sheikh Hasina. ‘None
will make any offensive remark or derogatory statement, in either oral or written form,
against the Father of the Nation (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman)’, said Clause 4 of the law.
‘If anyone violates this provision,’ says clause 5(3) of the legislation, ‘s/he will be deemed
to have committed a cognizable offence and will be awarded maximum three months of
imprisonment, or Taka ten thousand financial penalty or both’.
What do the clauses of the legislation sound like?—The proclamation of a mili-
tary junta that threatens citizens with severe punishments for criticizing an extra-
constitutional takeover of power? —A decree by a thirteenth century Inquisition against
heretics? —It could be anything but a piece of democratic legislation.
The Sheikh had cultivated the image of a great protagonist of political pluralism
and parliamentary democracy in the last days of Pakistan. But when his government
in independent Bangladesh failed to deliver, and was subjected to public criticism for
nepotism and other vices, he banned all opposition parties to introduce one-party rule,
switched over to the presidential form of governance to become an all-powerful Presi-
dent, banned all the newspapers criticizing his administration—let alone resorting to
severe oppression of the political opponents. Mujib visibly turned out to be a despotic
leader, himself shattering the image he had cultivated over the years. Now, why should it
be reasonable for the democratic minds to be legally obliged not to ‘criticize’ a politician
who has both positive and negative contributions to the nation’s struggle for democracy?
But the government of Sheikh Hasina found the restriction reasonable!
The government of the BNP, the arch political rival of the Awami League, eventually
got the law scrapped on 21 March 2002. But the ground the BNP showed for repeal-
ing the law clearly demonstrates that it has no problem with the concept of snatching
away the people’s democratic right to criticize a politician—dead or alive. The ‘objective
clause’ of the repeal Bill, introduced in the House on 7 March 2002, kept complete
silence over the infringement of the democratic rights the controversial law did. It only
said, ‘the law requires to be scrapped, as it created an imposed compulsion to preserve
and display the portrait of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, denying the great contributions
made (in the history of the country’s struggle for independence) by other national lead-
ers including Ziaur Rahman’. Clearly, the BNP did not have any problem with the law,
had it also barred people to criticize Ziaur Rahman.
94 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

However, the ruling elite’s sustained idea of granting people conditional freedom
of expression is also violative of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which
Bangladesh is a signatory. Article 19 of the Declaration says, ‘Everyone has the right
to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions
without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any
media and regardless of frontiers, says the Declaration. Contrary to our constitutional
provision in question, the UN declaration refuses to endorse abridging of the freedom
of expression and information in the name of so-called ‘reasonable restrictions’.
However, the legal regime that governs the Bangladeshi media remained as undemo-
cratic as it was in the colonial and neo-colonial days of the British and Pakistani. rule.
To begin with, the Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration)
Act, 1973, the prime law regulating the press is a crude imitation of an ordinance pro-
mulgated in 1960 by the head of the erstwhile military junta of Pakistan, General Ayub
Khan. The government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman scrapped Ayub’s law, but retained
the old licensing system for the printers, publishers and editors of any book, newspaper
or irregular sheets as stipulated in Ayub’s ordinance, against which the freedom-loving
Bengalis fought for about a decade.
The 1973 law has vested the authority of issuing licences, and cancelling licences
as well, with the District Magistrates. Under the law, publication of any ‘news-sheet’,
meaning ‘any document other than a newspaper containing public news or comments
on public news’, will also require prior written approval of the DM, or Deputy Com-
missioner for that matter. Publication of newspaper or news-sheet without a licence is a
cognizable offence to be punished with a fine and/or imprisonment. Besides, ‘any police
officer or any other person empowered in this behalf by the Government may seize any
unauthorized news-sheet or unauthorized newspaper wherever found’. [Section 22 of
the Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration) Act, 1973] More-
over, the police may seize the printing press believed to have produced the ‘unauthor-
ized’ newspaper or the news-sheet (Section 23, ibid.).
The introduction of the licensing system for the newspapers in the subcontinent
dates back to the British colonial rule. It was John Adam, the acting Governor General
of India, who introduced the system in March, 1823.
Henceforth, no one should publish a newspaper or a periodical without having
obtained a licence from the Governor-General-in-Council, signed by the Chief
Secretary. The application for a licence should give the names of the printer and
publishers, of the proprietors, their place of residence, the location of the press and
the title of the newspaper, magazine, register, pamphlet or other printed book or
said a regulation made by Adams (Mohit Moitra, A History of Indian Journalism,
National Book Agency, Second Reprint, 1993, Calcutta, India, p. 72). Six Indians, in-
cluding Dwarka Nath Thakur and Rammohan Roy, filed a petition in the Supreme
Court so that Adam’s regulations could not become a law. But the court rejected the
appeal in April the same year, saying: ‘India was not an independent country, so the laws
and rules consistent with an independent state cannot be applicable in India.’ (Quoted
in Debesh Roy, Upanibesher Samaj O Bangla Sangbadik Gadya, Papirus, Kolkata, 1990,
p. 22) As a result, Adam’s regulation, known in the history of subcontinental journalism
as Adam’s Gag, became law.
Governance 95

In protest against the law, Raja Rammohan Roy immediately closed down his paper,
Mirat-ul-Akhbar. In the editorial of the last issue of the Persian language paper, the Raja
quoted a Persian couplet: ‘The honour that has been purchased at the cost of a hundred
drops of blood of the heart, O Sire, do not sell that honour to the door-keeper for hop-
ing to get favour.’
But the independence of Bangladesh, which was achieved at the cost of an ocean
of blood of three million people, could not protect that ‘honour’ for those believing in
the democratic principle of unrestrained freedom of expression. The government of the
Awami League, like the British administration of John Adam and the Pakistani military
regime of General Ayub Khan, did not consider the citizens of Bangladesh fit for ‘laws
and rules consistent with an independent state’. It re-introduced the Adam’s Gag under
a different nomenclature—the Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Reg-
istration) Act. With the passage of time, the regulations have rather become more strin-
gent, more undemocratic and more insulting for the members of an independent nation.
The 1973 Act bars any publisher and printer to print and publish ‘anything that
affects the interest/s of the State and the government of Bangladesh’. Under the Act,
the printers and the publishers require to give separate declarations, ‘before the District
Magistrate within whose local jurisdiction such newspapers shall be printed or pub-
lished’, that they ‘will not publish in the proposed newspaper anything which is objec-
tionable for, or offensive against, the interests of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh or
its government’.
Until the mid-1990s, the publisher and the printer were only legally obliged not to
publish anything detrimental to the interest/s of the State. But later, during the govern-
ment of Sheikh Hasina (1996–2001), the text of the ‘oath of affirmation’ was changed
secretly—without public knowledge. This is absolutely undemocratic to commit a
publisher and/or a printer to an undertaking that s/he will not publish/print anything
against the interests of a government.
The people give a political party the mandate to govern the country for a particu-
lar period of time on the basis of certain social, political, economic and cultural pro-
grammes it presents before them ahead of elections. If the government of that party
deviates from its mandate, it is the responsibility of the media to highlight its failures
or deviation from its electoral pledges. But provision demands that the publishers and
the printers of newspapers do not come out with those governmental failures, lest the
disclosures affect the interests of the government! This is absolute nonsense.
It is the responsibility of a democratic media to disclose certain actions, and at
times certain inactions, of a government that could be detrimental to the public in-
terests. But such objective disclosures could genuinely excite people against, or rightly
induce hatred for, the government. But the media in Bangladesh have little legal pro-
tection while performing this democratic responsibility. It is, rather, subjected to sev-
eral legal constraints.
Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representa-
tion, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites
or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law will be
punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added, or with imprison-
ment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine,
says a piece of law (Section 124A of Bangladesh Penal Code).
96 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

A note of ‘explanation’ of the law says that ‘the expression ‘disaffection’ includes
‘disloyalty and all feelings of enmity’.
This is absolutely undemocratic for any authority to claim that a citizen cannot have
the right to cause ‘disaffection’ against a government, even if it fails to take steps to meet,
say, the electoral pledges of a governing political party.
This law, or the Sedition Act as it is called, was inserted into the Indian Penal Code in
1870, while the ‘explanation’ was drafted by Lord Macaulay, the infamous mastermind
of the Filtration theory of education that aimed at creating ‘brown sahibs’ in the Indian
subcontinent. The law was re-written in the present form, with the ‘explanation’ remain-
ing in the original form, in 1898.
Then, there is another piece of law in the statute book, a part of which forbids mak-
ing, publishing or circulating ‘any statement … or report’ ‘with the intent to cause,
or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public
whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State …’ [505(b)
of the Penal Code]. In case of violation of the law, the person concerned ‘shall be pun-
ished with imprisonment which may extend to seven years or with fine or with both’.
The original law, made by the British colonial authorities, found the offences under the
provision punishable with two years of imprisonment, or with fine or both. But the
government instituted following the ouster of General Ershad in 1990 increased the jail
term to seven years. This is the period, which two of our editors ironically identified as
the beginning of democracy and press freedom.
However, the next section of the Penal Code institutes a more direct and a constant
threat to the freedom of thought, opinion and expression in general and the freedom of
the press in particular. It stipulates that ‘whoever—(a) by words, either spoken or writ-
ten, or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise does anything, or (b) makes,
publishes or circulates any statement … or report, which is, or which is likely to be
prejudicial to the interests of the security of Bangladesh or public order, or to the main-
tenance of friendly relations of Bangladesh with foreign states … shall be punished with
imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years, or with fine, or with both’
(505A of the Penal Code).
This piece of law, incorporated into the Penal Code in 1991 by the first BNP govern-
ment of Khaleda Zia, is a clear betrayal particularly with the journalist community. The
Non-party Caretaker Government headed by Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, which was
formed after the fall of the Ershad regime to conduct a general election, repealed certain
sections of the SPA (Sections 17, 18 and 19) controlling the freedom of speech and ex-
pression of the citizens in general and the freedom of the press in particular. But as soon
as the BNP was voted to power in 1991, it incorporated the more stringent provision
into the Penal Code. The couple of our editors in question seem absolutely unaware of
the situation.
Section 505A appears innocent, even patriotic at times, as it seeks to protect the
‘security of the country’ and maintain ‘public order’. But it is a well-known fact that
most of the ‘national security laws’ have long been providing the rulers, especially of
the Third World countries, with one of the major ‘legal’ instruments for silencing the
freedom of speech and expression of the political opponents—the Special Powers Act
being a glaring example in Bangladesh.
The idea of controlling the freedom of thought and expression on grounds of the
‘maintenance of friendly relations with foreign states’, as the section 505A of the Penal
Governance 97

Code stipulates, hardly has any pro-people rationale. Why should a citizen be punished,
if s/he finds, and subsequently says, that maintenance of friendly relations with certain
foreign state/s, which is, say, hostile to Bangladesh, is counter-productive? Under the
new world order, it is at times a patriotic job to inform the democratic citizens of an
undemocratic foreign state, or the hostile state, about the ill-intentioned steps imposed
on the people of Bangladesh, or any other country for that matter. But section 505A of
the Penal Code forbids the citizens of Bangladesh to take a nationalist course vis-à-vis
the hostilities of the foreign states.
However, when ‘offering unfettered controversy and fearless scrutiny of the inten-
tions of the powerful is the primary function of the media’, the government of Bangla-
desh reserves legal authority to forfeit ‘every copy’ of a particular issue of a newspaper,
or a book, or a document if the publication ‘appears to the government to contain ...
any matter which is defamatory of the President ..., Prime Minister of the Government,
the Speaker of Parliament ..., or any words or visible representations which incite, or
which is likely to incite, any person or class of persons to commit any cognizable offence
(Section 99A of the Code of Criminal Procedure).
In a democracy, it is only natural that their actions and inactions of the executive
authorities of the State would, and should, be under continuous public scrutiny; and
the media will examine and re-examine their performances on behalf of the people. It is,
therefore, the moral responsibility of the press to report on them, if, and when, a Presi-
dent, Prime Minister or Speaker of Parliament indulges in things unbecoming of him/
her, or involves himself/herself in things that are not permitted by the law of the land.
But section 99A of the CrPC is an impediment to such reporting.
As regards free flow of information, which is rightly considered a very important
ingredient of democracy and press freedom, Bangladesh suffers from certain legal and
constitutional constraints. As we all know, public offices, especially government min-
istries, are major sources of important information that influences public life in every
country. But the prime minister, ministers, ministers of state and the deputy ministers
of Bangladesh are constitutionally obliged, under an oath of secrecy, not to disclose any
information they come across while discharging the duties.

I … do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will not directly or indirectly communicate
or reveal to any person any matter which shall be brought under my consideration
or shall become known to me ..., except as may be required for the due discharge of
my duty…

reads the constitutional text of the ‘Oath (or affirmation) of secrecy’ [(Article 148(2)(b),
Third Schedule, Bangladesh Constitution].
Many believe that it is rather ‘required for the due discharge of duty’ of a minister
that s\he ‘reveals’ all matters brought under his\her consideration’ to the media—the
professional intermediary between the people and the people’s representatives. There
are, however, others who believe that a degree of confidentiality is required for the due
discharge of duty of the ministers. But the fact remains that the ministers usually find
it convenient not to divulge public information to the media in the name of upholding
the oath of secrecy.
A legal regime permitting free flow of information, as all concerned know, is an im-
portant component of all modern democracies of the world. Besides, the issue of the free
98 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

flow of information is related directly to the issue of transparency—which is, again, an

important component of good governance advocated by all national and international
democratic bodies these days.
But the legal regime that governs the Bangladeshi media remained as undemocratic as it
was in the colonial and neo-colonial days of the British and Pakistani rule, with the perpetual
existence the Official Secrets Act in independent Bangladesh being a glaring example.
The Official Secrets Act, made by the English colonial rulers in 1923, actually ap-
plies to matters relating to national security. It bars public servants to hand over to
anyone any secret government plan, document, note, sketch, model, signal, informa-
tion etc., which are related to ‘restricted places’, and which, if made public, could pose
a threat to the security of the State by its enemies. But in practice, the government
offices classify almost every decision, even including the order of transfer of a small of-
ficer from one desk to another, as a ‘top secret’ document and thus conceal even trivial
information in the name of upholding the law. The law is thus frequently used, rather
abused, by the government officials as a pretext to turn down journalistic requests for
Besides, the officials of the public-sector business enterprises, such as Bangladesh
Jute Mills Corporation, are legally obliged by a ‘declaration of fidelity and secrecy’ to
‘not’ to ‘communicate or allow to be communicated to any person not legally entitled
thereto any information relating to the affairs of the Corporation.’ They are also to be
oath-bound ‘nor’ to ‘allow any such person to inspect or have access to any book or
document belonging to or in the possession of the Corporation and relating to the busi-
ness of the Corporation’ (Bangladesh Gazette, Extraordinary issue, the Government of
the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 13 April 1977). Then, there is a provision in the
conduct rule for the public servants, which directly stands in the ways of dissemination
of public information to the media.

A Government servant shall not unless generally or specially empowered by the Govern-
ment in this behalf, disclose directly or indirectly to Government servants belonging to
other Ministries, Divisions or Departments, or to non-official persons or to Press, the
contents of any official document or communicate any information which has come
into his possession in the course of his official duties, or has been prepared or collected
by him in the course of those duties, whether from official sources or otherwise,
says the rule (Section 19 of the Government Servants [Conduct] Rules, 1979). And
the government/s hardly show/s any flexibility in enforcing the conduct rule, especially
when it poses a slightest threat to their political image. A recent example might help
understand the situation. In the wake of the deterioration of law and order in the capital
city in February 2002, the newsmen started making frequent queries to police officers
concerned about the reasons behind their failure to nab listed criminals and the plans to
improve the situation. As some police officers responded to the journalistic queries, the
Ministry of Home Affairs issued a circular, reminding the police officers of their obliga-
tion under the rule not to talk to the press [The (daily) Bangladesh Observer, Dhaka,
13 March 2002)].
Under such a circumstance, the country’s newsmen depend largely upon the ‘favour’
of the ministers and the officials concerned for gathering information emanating in the
public offices. But whenever a journalist receives a ‘favour’, or a perceived favour for that
Governance 99

matter, s/he has to pay the price—someway or the other. The consequence is obvious:
professional journalism is the prime casualty.
But the executive authority of the state is still not satisfied with the legal instruments
barring dissemination of information. It has also reserved the ‘legal’ authority to restrict
the free flow of information, within the country and outside, by way of even intercept-
ing postal articles and telegraphic messages.
There is a law that permits ‘any officer of the post office authorized by the Post
Master General’ to ‘detain any postal article in course of transmission by post which he
suspects to contain … any newspaper or book’ published in or non-conformity with the
Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration) Act, 1973. [Section
27B(1) (a) (i) of the Post Office Act, 1869 as amended in 1973]. The officer also enjoys
the legal authority to detain ‘any document, containing any treasonable or seditious
matters …’ (Section 27B (1) (a) (ii), ibid.).
However, the owner of the postal article has the scope to apply for release of the
detained article ‘within two months of such detention’, on the ground that the seized
article does not contain any treasonable or seditious matters. Subsequently, ‘the Govern-
ment may consider such an application and pass such orders thereon as it may deem to
be proper’ (Section 27B, ibid.).
The law does not give any specific time frame for consideration of the application/s.
Besides, ‘no order passed by the government’ ‘shall be called in question in any court’,
other than the High Court (Section 27B (2), ibid.). In case of rejection of the applica-
tion by the government, the victim ‘may, within two months from the date of order
rejecting the application, apply to the High Court Division for release of the article and
its contents ….’ (Section 27D, ibid.).
The legal authority vested in the government to detain any postal article con-
taining any newspaper or book or document that ‘includes any printing, drawing,
photograph or other visible representation’ on the one hand, and the complicated,
time-consuming and expansive way of releasing the seized postal article on the other,
clearly demonstrate the State’s undemocratic attitude towards the concept of the free
flow of information.
Under another law—The Telegraph Act, 1885—the government enjoys the author-
ity to intercept and/or stop transmission of any telegraphic message in the name of
‘public emergency’ ‘or public safety’.

On the occurrence of any public emergency, or in the interest of public safety, the
Government or any officer specially authorized in this behalf by the government
may … order that any message or class of message to or from any person or relating
to any particular subject brought for transmission by or transmitted or received by
any telegraph, shall not be transmitted or shall be intercepted, or detained, or shall
be disclosed to the government making the order or an officer thereof mentioned in
the order,
says the law [Section 5(1)(b) of the Telegraph Act, 1885].
The Income Tax Ordinance, 1984, stands in the way of disclosing certain types of
specialized information, which is specially related to the social prestige of the unscrupu-
lous rich. Section 163(1) of the ordinance says that ‘all information’ contained in ‘any
statement made, return furnished or accounts/documents produced’ before the taxmen
100 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

‘shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed’. Section 168 of the ordinance provides
punishment to the officials and others violating the secrecy provision. It says,
A public servant, or any person assisting, or engaged, by any person acting in the
execution of this Ordinance is guilty of an offence punishable with imprisonment for
a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, if he discloses any particulars
or information in contravention of the provisions of 163.
The provisions of the Income Tax Ordinance are, in the first place, directly inconsistent
with the concept of transparency of the government functions that various national and
international civil society bodies preach these days. Besides, the provisions only provide for
the unscrupulous section of the tax officials and that of the rich with the scope to strike un-
holy deals behind the scenes, depriving the public exchequer of a huge amount of revenue
every year. The unscrupulous rich often use the provision as a Damocles’ sword against the
tax officials to keep the former’s financial crimes out of the public eye. To give an example,
five NGO officials in September, 2002, threatened one of the tax officials with punish-
ment, under the two sections of the Ordinance, for presumably divulging information
about the allegations of their financial irregularities to the press. Their move reportedly
worked well in terms of gagging the mouths of the tax officials concerned. After the ‘legal
notice’ issued to the tax official concerned, the rest of the officials became ‘absolutely un-
cooperative with the press, making the job of journalists, as regards collecting information
and cross-checking them, very, very difficult’ ([Weekly) Holiday, Dhaka, 27 September
2002). Clearly, the provision concerned is totally inconsistent with the democratic concept
of the ‘free flow of information’, or in other words, the ‘people’s right to know’.
Not that the all the constitutional and legal strictures discussed above are regularly
applied against the media. But they are always there, as a Damocles’ sword, ready to de-
capitate anyone, including media practitioners, trying to take critical looks at the estab-
lishment. Under such a circumstance, it is absolutely ridiculous to claim that Bangladesh
is a democratic state, especially as far as media freedom is concerned.

Rocky Road to Freedom

Freedom of the media, as said earlier, is directly related to the development of democ-
racy, which needs to be understood something beyond mere transfer of state power
through peaceful means. For a better understanding of democracy and freedom, we can
take refuge in the ideas of a world-famous physicist, rather than those who already find
Bangladesh democratic and its media free.
By freedom I understand social conditions of such a kind that the expression of
opinions and assertions about general and particular matters of knowledge will not
involve dangers or serious disadvantages for him who express them. This freedom
of communication is indispensable for the development and extension of scientific
knowledge, a consideration of much practical import. In the first instance it must be
guaranteed by law. But laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that
every man may present his views without penalty, there must be a spirit of tolerance
in the entire population. Such an ideal of external liberty can never be fully attained
but must be sought unremittingly if scientific thought, and philosophical and cre-
ative thinking in general, are to be advanced as far as possible.
Governance 101

If the second goal, that is, the possibility of the spiritual development of all individu-
als, is to be secured, a second kind of outward freedom is necessary. Man should not
have to work for the achievement of the necessities of life to such an extent that he
has neither the time nor the strength for personal activities. Without the second kind
of outward liberty, freedom of expression is useless for him. Advances in technology
would provide the possibility of this kind of freedom if the problem of reasonable
division of labour were solved.
(Albert Einstein, ‘On Freedom’, Ideas and Opinions,
tr. Sonja Bargmann, Rupa & Co, 1999, Calcutta, pp. 31–32)
Understandably, the road is rocky. Meanwhile, the journalist community should real-
ize that it is time they start fighting for scrapping of the whole gamut of undemocratic
laws the Bangladeshi media is vulnerable to. For the freedom of the media, we are free to
demand, in the words of Jefferson, ‘Printers shall be liable to legal prosecution for print-
ing and publishing false facts, injurious to the party prosecuting, but they shall be under
no other restraint.’
(This essay was presented at a week-long national workshop on Media, Democracy and
Human Rights in June 2003. The Dhaka-based human rights coalition Odihkar organized
a workshop in collaboration with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development

Recognition of the role of civil society initiatives in ensuring justice for all
has given rise to the concept of tri-sector partnership in governance involving the
state, the market and the organized efforts of citizens. The matrix can also work for
Southasian integration for the benefit of the poor of the region. Integration initiatives
by the state end up in accommodation between ruling elites. The market functions by
exploiting whatever opportunity is available—once supplies from Amritsar to Lahore
across the international border in Punjab were routed through South Africa to get
around the consequences of a strained relationship between India and Pakistan. But
civil society alliances need a free flow of ideas and people. For obvious reasons—visa
regime in the region refuses to go away—a beginning has to be made with the free
flow of ideas.

Militarized Polities
A normative hint is implicit in all discussions about civil-military relation, the assumption
being that civilian supremacy should prevail over all military matters. However, this
has never been so in Southasia. Every ruler prior to the arrival of the British in the
subcontinent was invariably a military chief, the role that the king of Nepal held until
quite recently and other heads of state continue to perform at least in a ceremonial
capacity. The concept of civilian supremacy came with the East India Company.
The ‘army’ of the East India Company was essentially a mercenary force that
functioned for and under the merchants of the colonial enterprise. Unfettered from
102 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

the political struggles, sepoys of the Company did wonders under their careerist
expatriate officers. It is estimated that the Company ‘annexed 27 square miles (70
square kilometres) of Indian territory per day over the century since 1757’.5 Had
the Mutiny—or the First War of Independence—been successful, it is doubtful that
there would have been so much anxiety over the primacy of the military in polity.
This is one of the reasons that military in Burma claims legitimacy is its role during
the freedom struggle. Had the Indian National Army under Subhash Chandra Bose
not been disgraced due to its close association with the Imperial Army of Japan—
notorious for its excesses in South-East Asia—the place of the defence forces in the
Indian psyche could have been different. But those are matters of speculation. The
hard reality is that the role of the defence forces in civilian affairs is not frowned
upon anywhere in Southasia. Even in India, the most stable democracy in the region,
defence forces practically run several states in the north-east and Kashmir.
Civilian leaders in India have succeeded in keeping their formidable defence
forces under control for five main reasons. First, the multi-ethnic composition of the
Indian Army makes it impossible for ‘nationalist’—in an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ sense of the
term—appeals to gain currency. Second, the federal structure of the state, even though
limited in substance, ensures that no military takeover can hope to acquire popular
legitimacy. It’s much more advantageous for the defence forces to accept civilian
supremacy mediating contradictory aspirations of various linguistic states. Third,
political parties donning the mantle of freedom fighters, though much discredited,
still exist and continue to be symbols of national unity. Fourth, the dreaded ‘military–
industrial complex’ is much weaker compared to the market–politics nexus, mainly
because defence production continues to be monopolized by the state and controlled
by civilian bureaucrats who fear military dominance even more than politicians. Last,
but not the least, unlike the elite background of military officers in most Southasian
countries, the leadership of the Indian defence forces comes from the middle class, a
group that prefers to play it safe and continue with the status quo.
Various hypotheses have been forwarded to explain the divergent route taken
by defence forces of India on the one hand and those of Bangladesh and Pakistan
on the other, even though all three originated from the same root of the British
Indian Army. Pakistan as a praetorian state hypothesis is based on the assumption
that the military since the time of independence has been the sole force that had
kept the diverse country together. This hypothesis collapsed with the independence
of Bangladesh. Another proposition, popular among intellectuals in India, revolves
around geo-strategic designs of the Cold War era when the military was identified as
a primary force of modernization by US academics. Armies,
are among the most modern elements in the underdeveloped countries, and
are imbued with “the spirit of rapid technological change”. At the same time,
they are an important modernizing influence upon the society at large, for they
train members in modern techniques and inculcate new attitudes to work,6
wrote a leading British sociologist supporting the views of an influential American
Governance 103

The fourth explanation centres around the importance of means in influencing

outcomes—states created through violence have higher propensity of being dependent
on coercive force than those that gain their independence through peaceful struggle
or collective bargaining. That would make USA a security state, but that’s what its
critics believe it to be in any case. An innovative explanation for the difference of
democratic resilience was traced to the ‘political economy of defence in Pakistan
and Bangladesh’ which nailed spiralling military budgets in these countries as the
propellant behind the rise of authoritarianism.7 All of these arguments have some
merit. They all point to the same thing: the self-perpetuating might of the Southasian
military. Not that it makes Southasian countries any safer, but the size of the security
apparatus and their expenditure keep rising regardless.
According to an International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) report,
Afghanistan has 50,000 troops besides the International Security Assistance Force
(ISAF) personnel, Bangladesh 126,500, India 1,316,000, Nepal 69,000, Pakistan
619,000 and Sri Lanka 150,900. Bangladesh spends $840 million, India $21.7
billion, Nepal $139 million, Pakistan $4.14 billion and Sri Lanka $686 million
per year8 directly under the defence head in their annual budgets. Actual figures
may be much higher considering that security expenses are often hidden under
various accounts. Clearly, this is an elephant in the room that can no longer be
ignored. The governance discourse in Southasia must include democratic—and
not just civilian control—over the military as an important and urgent issue to
be resolved. That’s easier said than done, but there is no escape. The ‘deal politics’
that has evolved in Pakistan, or the populism that civilian–military collaboration
in Colombo keeps resorting to, have lost steam. Defence forces will have to accept
democratic control for their own good. International engagements of Southasian
security forces are substantial; and that will entail closer scrutiny of how they
function at home.
Some common strategies that can be adopted across Southasia include:
• Gradual withdrawal of defence forces from police duties within the country.
More attention to police reforms is implicit in this agenda.
• Reduction of direct foreign aid for defence forces is a necessary step to
bring them under executive control and parliamentary oversight. One of
the reasons defence forces in Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand have lost
public esteem is that they are perceived to be too enmeshed with foreigners.
A similar fate awaits Pakistan and Nepal if they do not begin to exercise
• Engagement of civil society in military matters is a tricky issue, but it’s
necessary to establish forums of cooperative consultation where each one
can voice her concerns—be it of human rights violations or interference
in professional affairs—without fear of being ridiculed or called a traitor.
• An adequate presence of marginalized, oppressed and minorities in
defence forces ensures their acceptability in society. The question of gender
balance is of equal, if not more, importance. As focus shifts from physical
104 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

to human security—though the two are inseparable, only the approach

and emphases are different—the question of inclusion will become even
more important.
There is a temptation to give some form of political role to the military as has
been witnessed in Turkey. In Southasian societies, it’s hard to see how such a blatant
interference in politics will work. This is something that must be resisted. A technique
to counter political ambitions of influential military officers is to make space for them
after retirement in political parties. This should help ease the strained relationship
between ‘demagogues’ and holders of the ‘Damocles Sword’, the way soldiers and
politicos derisively refer to each other in private conversations. Think-tanks are not
popular in Southasia, but they have an important role to play in bringing academics
and practitioners of strategic affairs together.
Then, there is the paramountcy of the rule of law that must be respected by
all. Once defence forces are convinced that the ruse of civilian control isn’t being
used to make them serve interests of the regime but to be for the people under the
constitution, they will be much more open to suggestions for greater transparency,
accountability and openness.
India too will have to justify its huge military budgets, now that it has a much
lesser conquest or deterrence value—two principles that protect the primacy of
defence forces. Perhaps this may be one of the reasons that India keeps waving the
China Card9—the perceived threat from across the Himalayas which appears real to
many due to the debacle of the 1960s—as it modernizes its security apparatus. But
modernization of the defence forces beyond what the rest of the society can afford is
a recipe for disaster.

Data Power
Clichés are often dismissed as ‘trite, overused words or phrases’; but some scholars
hold that they have at least three legitimate uses: ‘basic communication, developing
the unknown in terms of the known, and mnemonic devices.’10 Perhaps the legend
that ‘information is power’ belongs to the last category. It helps the reader, viewer or
receiver, recognize the importance of what is being said, and remember it for some
future use.
The origin of the cryptic expression about information being power may be
traced to Sir Francis Bacon’s famous dictum: ‘knowledge is power’. Perhaps similar
importance was given to understanding prior to Bacon, and wisdom held sway
earlier than that. With four levels of DIKUW hierarchy—a popular acronym in the
knowledge management field where the capitalized alphabets stand respectively for
data, information, knowledge, understanding and wisdom—thus associated with
power, perhaps now its the turn of data to declare its sovereignty. Datum—facts—are
indeed the most sacred of all, everything else is interpretation. There is some merit
in the philosophical arguments that all facts aren’t truths, but truths have to be facts
Governance 105

to be accepted as such. A humble clerk sweating it out in the decrepit cubicle of

Southasian offices may not be aware of the philosophical nuances between facts and
truth, but he knows—masculine gender is suggestive of the hold it has over much
of the bureaucracy in the region—that any datum or data has some extractive value.
Slightly higher on the baksheesh chain, a set of data becomes useful ‘information’
that answers ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ questions related to something important
to someone willing to pay for it. Now it is guarded even more fiercely, bargained for
at a higher price and denied to anyone perceived to be a challenger. A slew of Official
Secrets Acts—the British original was said to have passed by the Commons in less
than an hour on a quiet Friday afternoon in 1911—forbids government officials
from divulging any information deemed to be of strategic importance. It means
either nothing can be divulged or everything is up for grabs for people with the right
connections or capability to pay for what is being sought.
Things become slightly more complicated at the level of knowledge when skills
and methods have to be identified, answers to the crucial question: ‘how’. Here again,
those with the monopoly of knowledge in professions guard their territory fiercely.
Understanding, more often than not, is closely tied to the ‘production of knowledge’;
so the receiver understands what the sender wants her to. With the denial or release
of biased data, intentional information, controlled knowledge, manufactured
understanding and sanctified wisdom, the contemporary citizen suffers from a surfeit
of information rather than the lack of it. It’s impossible to extricate useful figures from
a web of lies that guard facts. The citizens’ right to information—its a fundamental
right and the absurdity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that Acts have to
be made to ensure what is an inviolable freedom—seeks to institutionalize procedures
that will make it easy for everyone to get the information about what affects them
directly or indirectly. If democracy is a method to seek the consent of the governed,
the right to information is a tool to make the government accountable.
After a long struggle,11 Indians succeeded in getting a Right to Information Act
in May 2005, which went into operation from 12 October of the same year. Now,
Central Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, promises that a grading
system will be employed to improve efficiency of the ministries.12 However, in the
quasi-federal system of governance in India, most provincial governments have yet
to imbibe values that the Right to Information Act seeks to establish. In Pakistan,
an ordinance was promulgated in June 2002 ensuring people’s access to information.
But it doesn’t override the archaic Official Secrets Act that makes almost everything
that the government does opaque by definition. In Bangladesh, such a law has yet
to materialize but Nepal seems to be doing quite fine where rights activists and
journalists have made the right to information the touchstone of all other rights. The
governance aspect of this right, however, remains weak.
More than the intent, it seems instruments and institutions that can ensure right
to information are necessary. A pan-Southasian sample of the right to information—
with prototype acts, methods of implementation and models of institution to monitor
its compliance—needs to be developed. Aruna Roy, a former IAS officer turned
106 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

social activist, has been at the forefront of the struggle for the right to information in
India. She thinks it’s replicable elsewhere in Southasia too. But the Indian example
also shows that the movement for right to information has to be initiated by civil
society activists. Other actors in governance have too much at stake to let such acts
materialize easily.
One indicator of why the bureaucrat-middleman-military-politician nexus
fears the right to information can be seen in the Corruption Perception Index.
With CPI scores of 2.0 in Bangladesh, 3.5 in India, 2.5 in Nepal, 2.4 in Pakistan
and 3.2 in Sri Lanka, Southasian countries make up for the bottom part of the list.
The only Southasian country to reach the half-way mark with CPI 5.0 is Bhutan.
With so much to hide, the establishment is unlikely to learn to be transparent
anytime soon. Only a concerted effort throughout Southasia can make rulers see

Positive Discrimination
Caste in Indian society has long been understood in terms of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’,
an interpretation made fashionable by Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierchicus. But as Irfan
Habib has convincingly argued,13 the economic origin of caste discrimination cannot
be ignored. Since the origins of this practice lie in economics and sociology, remedies
too have to be found in social engineering and political economy.
Experiments in social engineering through political mobilization have been
an ongoing process in India with mixed results. In regions south of the Vindhyas,
empowerment of excluded caste groups has permanently altered power relations in
the society. In the northern region, however, the fluctuating fortunes of Lalu Prasad
Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati have yet to bring about
fundamental changes in the situation on the ground.
Democracy, federalism and social restructuring are preconditions of political
stability. Since these elements of stability are interconnected, actions need to be
taken on all fronts at the same time. Democracy without meaningful federalism
gives rise to centrifugal forces that can tear a state apart. Federalism in the absence
of democracy too will probably lead to disintegration. But both democracy and
federalism functioning properly are not sufficient to ensure political stability if
processes to restructure state and society to remove inequalities and discriminations
aren’t simultaneously initiated. Social restructuring is essential for the sustainability
of democracy and proper functioning of federalism.
There is a considerable difference over the correct way of social restructuring.
The modernist view that equal access to health, education and job opportunities
creates equality in society and offers enough avenues for social advancement is still
very popular in Southasia. Left-wing extremism, on the other hand, will have nothing
less than a new beginning with a clean slate—the proverbial ‘year zero’. Between
these two extremes, various reformist solutions have been implemented with mixed
Governance 107

results in USA, South Africa and India. It’s too early to asses the full impact of these
measures. It has been just sixty years since the experiment began in India; compared
to the 5000 years history of untouchability in Hindu society; any hasty conclusion
drawn from the short experience can be faulty. However, some generalization for
understanding can perhaps be made.
For Southasia, a three-pronged social restructuring process can accelerate the
process of change.

. Redistribution: Affirmative Action has been tried, with mixed results at best,
in the USA to ensure equal opportunity. Lyndon Johnson, the architect of Affirma-
tive Action policy said:
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, bring
him to the starting line in a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all
others”. It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens
must have the ability to walk through those gates.
The race, unfortunately, continues to be between unequal citizens. However,
Affirmative Action can be a useful tool14 to reduce horizontal inequalities between
social, religious or cultural groups.

. Representation: It takes time for affirmative action to take effect. In the

interim, at the risk of stereotyping or tokenism, steps have to be taken to ensure bal-
anced representation. Positive discrimination can be used to remove vertical inequali-
ties based upon gender, caste, regional disparity, religious discrimination, minority
prosecution and class biases. Experiences from South Africa15 in ensuring representa-
tion—again, with mixed results—can be drawn upon to design the restructuring of
society and polity in Southasia.

. Restitution: For the stigmatized sections of society, such as Scheduled Castes

and Tribes in India, religious minorities in Pakistan, linguistic minorities in Bangla-
desh and Madhesi Dalits in Nepal, nothing less than quotas and reservations have
any chance of success. Quotas and reservations have fallen prey to politicking in India
where games are played with constitutional provisions for creation of vote-banks.16
But there should be no illusion that quotas and reservations can be wished away
anytime soon if Dalits in Hindu society have to be brought at par with all others.
Reservation isn’t charity; it is restitution and has to be seen as such.
Buzz-words such as ‘salad bowl’, ‘rainbow formation’ or ‘garden of diversity’
are bandied about in intellectual circles as if sagacious tokenism is the panacea. In
the plurality of Southasia, nothing less than full and equal participation of all in the
process of governance is going to work.
Most of all, Southasian governments have to shift emphasis from oppressive
security-centred rule to responsive-welfare oriented governance. That alone will do a
lot to create conditions for the plural unity of Southasia.
108 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

1. Centrality of politics in governance and change is discussed in Indian context in the book
review of John Harriss’ Essays on Institutions, Politics and Society in India by V. K. Nataraj.
http://www.hindu.com/br/2007/05/29/stories/2007052900561500.htm. Accessed 18
October 2007. I have discussed a somewhat similar theme, though from a journalistic
and Southasian angle, in The Empire of Reckless Depoliticisation. http://www.himalmag.
com/2004/may/southasianphere.htm. Accessed 18 October 2007.
2. The article, aptly titled ‘Law versus people’s will’, discusses legalistic instruments devised
by military usurpers. http://www.dawn.com/2007/10/18/op.htm#1. Accessed 18 Octo-
ber 2007.
3. Fareed Zakaria (2003). The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.
Viking, New Delhi, p. 32.
4. Quoted by C. K. Lal et al. (1999). An unpublished research report ‘An Overview of the
State of Media in Nepal’ prepared for Enabling State Programme, DFID, Kathmandu.
5. Michael H. Fisher (ed.) (1993). The Politics of British Annexation of India 1757-1857,
Oxford India, Delhi, p. 24.
6. The quote is from a tract by T. B. Bottomore seconding the opinion of Lucian W. Pye,
both were influential in their own ways in the formation of western opinion about South-
asian countries in the 1960s. T. B. Bottomore (1982). Elites and Society. Penguin Books,
Reprint. p. 106. Predictably, the author lauds the role of the army in uniting diverse
populations and offering an opportunity for social mobility. Perhaps it wasn’t so clear
back then that these characteristics manifested in the assumption by the defence forces
that it’s the sole guardian and keeper of ‘national interest’.
7. Ayesha Jalal (1996). Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia. Foundation Books,
New Delhi, pp. 140–141. Jalal’s unflattering comments about ‘formal democracy’ in
India riled many of her Indian readers, and a critic wrote, ‘For repeated references in the
text to India’s “formal democracy”, putting a question mark on its “democratic federal-
ism?” and “formally liberal democratic mould” jar on the ear.’ http://www.tribunein-
dia.com/1998/98aug23/book.htm. Accessed 20 October 2007. But her overall analysis
about economic reasons for the dominance of military in civic affairs of Bangladesh and
Pakistan still holds.
8. The news was appropriately titled, ‘Increased military spending to worsen security
in S Asia’. http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2007%5C09%5C26%-
5Cstory_26-9-2007_pg1_11. Accessed 20 October 2007.
9. ‘China keeps arms spend under wraps,’ screamed a by-line news report in establishmen-
tarian newspaper The Times of India. Buried in the text was the nugget that China was
‘the second largest arms recipient in the 1996–2006 timeframe, with a total of $17.4 bil-
lion. India, of course, stood first with $22.4 billion in this category.’ http://timesofindia.
cms. Accessed 20 October 2007.
10. An abstract of the thesis is available at http://rc.english.purdue.edu/weston.html.
Accessed 21 October 2007.
Governance 109

11. An effusive activist exclaimed that ‘The RTI movement will lead India to Swaraj’. How-
ever, he also conceded that ‘The Right to Information Act is only a codification of a fun-
damental right of citizens, to implement and enforce it.’ http://in.rediff.com/news/2007/
oct/11guest.htm. Accessed 21 October 2007.
12. The news report has a provocative heading, ‘Now, grades for Union ministries too!’
http://sify.com/news/fullstory.php?id=14538293. Accessed 21 October 2007.
13. Irfan Habib (1998), Essays in Indian History: Towards Marxist Perspective. Tulika, New
Delhi, Second Reprint. pp. 161–179.
14. Meera Nanda looks at the Indian scene comprehensively in ‘Affirmative action and caste
dilemmas’. Her conclusion: ‘We must be clear that affirmative action is not a panacea
for all ills.’ http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2311/stories/20060616003502700.htm.
Accessed 22 October 2007.
15. Grete S Bosch offers a quick peek in Restitution or Discrimination? Lessons on Affirmative
Action from South African Employment Law. http://webjcli.ncl.ac.uk/2007/issue4/bosch4.
html. Accessed 22 October 2007.
16. C. P. Bhambhri comments upon strains Indian federalism is passing through due to
caste-based and vote-bank politics in demystifying Indian federalism. http://www.india-
seminar.com/2007/571/571_comment.htm. Accessed 22 October 2007.
6 Political Exigencies

In common parlance, ‘groupism’ carries negative connotations; it has a hint of

conspiracy to it. But ‘group formation’ is one of the strongest primordial urges of
human beings. Belongingness to a group provides a sense of physical, psychological
and emotional security to a person. But such a sense of security does not come
for free—most groups demand undivided loyalty from its members. When two
or more groups that a person belongs to are not in competition, the question of
loyalty becomes secondary. However, sometimes even simultaneous membership
of non-competitive groups can become problematic. In such a situation, a Muslim
in ‘secular’ India may have to face a question impossible to answer: what are you
first, a Muslim or an Indian? The intensity of gaze when a similar question is posed
to an ‘outsider’ in a theocratic state can be extremely unsettling. Regardless of the
confidence that adherents of modernism have in the idea of identity as an individual
choice, the reality on the ground in much of Southasia is that caste, community,
language, region, religion and sect are more powerful markers of belongingness than
supposedly secular group identities such as class, nationality, profession or aspirations.
Assertion of group identities seems to have emerged due to the failure of liberal
ideologues to provide space for distinctive communities within a state under the
hegemony of a majority community. Even in Marxist discourses, the cacophony over
class drowns out all other differences. Class consciousness too, however, treats people
of different race, gender, caste, religion, language or disability differently. The politics
of difference is thus as legitimate as libertine egalitarianism or utopian equality. Only
when identity politics becomes rigid does it raise justifiable alarm. The oppressed
turning into oppressors of a different kind is not change for the better.
Assertion of group identities and competing politics of differences—different
forms of resistance—have created their own pathologies. Identity comes from being
identical with each other; but every identity has considerable differences of age, class,
gender, ability or aspirations within it. In order to downplay these differences and
present a unified front against the perceived ‘other’, militant identity groups take
resort to coercion. Some of these coercive techniques have come to be known as
fundamentalism, warlordism and extremism. A thread common to all these methods
is their reliance on violence. Since monopoly of legitimate violence rests with the state,
terrorism is the favoured tool of fundamentalists, warlords, militants, insurgents and
all kinds of extremists. Terrorism, however, has created its own nemesis. Counter-
terrorism is often a bigger threat to political stability and peace: it gives unintended
Political Exigencies 111

legitimacy to terrorism. Common people are unwittingly caught in a cross-fire over

which they have no control.

Like most emotional motives, fundamentalism defies definition. One of the broadest
definitions of ‘pure fundamentalism’ is by Martin E. Marty and R. Scot Appleby who
opine that it comes about when ‘fundamentalists seek to replace existing structures
with a comprehensive system emanating from religious principles and embracing
law, polity, society, economy and culture.’1 Frustrations with the existing system give
rise to fanaticism for ‘systems emanating from religious principles’. These religious
principles are evoked either with the narration of the imagined glories of a ‘pure’ past
or a promise of heaven in afterlife.
Splendours of the age of ‘purity’, the ‘pollution’ brought about by ‘foreign
invasions’ in the past and possibilities of future prosperity are cleverly woven to
create a political platform of Hindutva by Hindu fundamentalists. The imagery is
so strong that it has succeeded in luring highly educated and superficially modern
adherents. But the premise that underlines this vision is that the Indian experiment in
democracy, federalism and social justice, begun during the independence movement
has failed. In essence, it is fundamentalism driven by frustrations.
Fanaticism that emanates from the promise of heaven in afterlife, if one embraces
‘death’ for the glory of God, too, is a result of exasperation with this life. But unlike
defeatist fundamentalists willing to kill to settle scores, those willing to die do so
in ecstasy. It is difficult to deal with those who accept death triumphantly. This is
what makes Islamism such a feared form of fundamentalism in the contemporary
world. Glories of a pure past do not stand closer scrutiny—the supposed Hindu
Rashtra never existed except in the imaginations of some bigots. Southasia has always
had panoply of myriad faiths and multiple cultures surviving together in a plural
civilization. But how does one deal with ‘heaven’ that does not need substantiation
and hence cannot be refuted?
Mohamad Guntur Romli, an Indonesian scholar of Islamic theology, unravels
the myth of heaven without appearing to be disrespectful.
The Arabic word for heaven is “jannah”. According to Al-Mu’jam al-Wasith
dictionary, “jannah” has two synonyms, “hadiqah” and “bustan”. These two
words share a root meaning, the word for garden. For Arab society, surrounded
on all fronts by bone-dry deserts and burning heat, a garden was the most
beautiful place they could imagine: lush, peaceful; an oasis. Because of that,
it is no surprise that the description of the pleasures of heaven (dar al-na’im)
in the afterlife resemble the gardens that are so familiar to us but for Arabs
remained fantastical places. Gardens filled with verdant trees, myriad flowers,
cool ponds and eternally flowing rivers. Beautiful angels, ravishing and ready
to be ravished, populate Heaven. Here is a depiction of heaven that is rather
112 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

material and succeeds in arousing sexual urges. Heaven is thus made in this
worldly image, crammed with those human habits they have tasted on earth.
Then for what reason do they curse the pleasures of this life, if only to expect
and enjoy those very pleasures in afterlife?
He provides the answer too:
If we change “jannah” by one letter to “jinnah”, it no longer means “heaven”
but “madness” (al-junun). Indeed heaven has made men mad. The terrorists
who dare to kill themselves and slaughter others as they do are “mad” about
It brings to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s dark diagnosis: madness is the exception in
individuals but the rule in groups.
Fundamentalism is politicization of religion and its antidote has to
be created through rekindling hope in the project of ‘nation-building’, yet
another term that has acquired sinister connotations due to what has been
happening in its name in Afghanistan3 and Iraq. If political collectives fail to
inspire confidence, religious, communal, class or downright criminal groups
will invariably emerge to fill the space.
Politicization of crime and criminalization of politics, two trends that have begun
to worry Southasian scholars, are said to be results of callousness and corruption
of the ruling class. The apparent connection is too obvious to need clarification.
But politicization of crime, as it happens when politicians patronize criminals in a
quid pro quo of protection in lieu of financial and/or electoral support, too has an
element of identity that makes the transaction appear somewhat respectable, at least
to the in-group members of society. Criminalization of politics—when criminals
contest elections from jails and come out victorious—often has caste or community
connotations in addition to the element of coercion. Mafia groups in Mumbai,
extortionists in Bihar or protection rackets in New Delhi are often organized around
ethnicity, caste, language and religion. The underworld, it would appear, is not
much different from the everyday world in terms of intra-group cohesion or inter-
group competition. Warlordism—creation of loyal bands that draw inspiration and
sustenance from the lord-protector—is fundamentalism of a micro kind.

In the insurgency discourse of Southasia, militancy is associated with ethnic or
national struggles while extremism invariably means left-wing extremism. Left-
wing extremism that drew its inspiration from universalistic aspirations of Marxism
and Leninism—workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your
chains—have been replaced with the Maoism version where ethnicity and identity
are as important components as class solidarity and communist visions. This is the
Political Exigencies 113

combination that made Maoists in Nepal into an unstoppable force. Perhaps the
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has this volatile concoction in mind when
he keeps characterizing Naxalism as India’s biggest internal security challenge.
The strength of left-wing extremism is also its main weakness—its armed tactics
make it look bigger than it is and attracts equally effective retaliation from the state.
Whenever the state takes resort to force—in Indian Kashmir, for example—it is not
difficult to hear voices of dissent. But public silence greets repressive measures against
left-wing extremism in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh4 or Jharkhand. Ever since the
Naxalbari uprising in May 1967, dozens of eruptions all over Southasia have failed to
make any significant change in the lives of the poor. Due to the intensity of reprisal,
left-wing extremism has proved to be counter-productive. But such is the attraction
of revolution that its embers keep getting rekindled by every generation. Extremism
will continue to undermine electoral democracy and attempts for peaceful socio-
economic transformation.

Terrorism has always been a contested term. It is exemplified in a popular axiom,
‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. The media analysis of
terrorism5 is based on three differing definitions of terrorism—official, alternative
and oppositional.
There is very little consistency in the official definition. Prior to the collapse
of the Soviet Union, violence by left-wing groups was invariably terrorism while
regressive bands, such as al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, who were considered as freedom
fighters waging jihad against the ‘evil empire’. The emphasis changed after 9/11.
Now al-Qaeda is a terrorist outfit. ‘We are in a conflict between good and evil. And
America will call evil by its name,’ President George W. Bush had told West Point
cadets in a speech in 2002. The dictionary definition (Oxford) has no such moral
pretensions when it defines terrorism: ‘the use of violent action in order to achieve
political aims or to force a government to act’.
In all official discourses, terrorism is an ‘evil’ on all counts: motive, means, actors
and impact. Terrorism seeks to overthrow legitimate governments through violence.
The asymmetrical nature of conflict can claim innocent lives. Actors involved in
terrorism are somehow the ‘other’ or the ‘different’ in an enemy or pejorative sense
of the term. Terrorism creates fear far beyond its direct impact and may make a
government ineffectual or foolish or both. No wonder, even those governments
that had a violent past look at all acts of terrorism with revulsion. The UN global
counter-terrorism strategy proclaims: ‘The General Assembly reiterates its strong
condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by
whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes, as it constitutes one of the most
serious threats to international peace and security.’
114 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

The alternative definition of terrorism is different only in detail, not in essence. It

questions the legitimacy of the government and asks whether the state is living up to
the standards set by it. Rights activists also reject repression as a legitimate means of
fighting terrorism. When the National Commission to investigate the 9/11 terrorist
attacks found fault with almost everyone connected with security but failed to nail
responsibility on anyone, the fallacy of preparedness of the state was fully exposed.
The alternative stand on terrorism provides some kind of legitimacy to the official
Oppositional conceptualization invokes principles of violence as the option
of last resort and right to self-determination. Oppositional groups insist that when
states are oppressive, resort to violence is legitimate. The second principle about the
right to self-determination flows from the first: when the state does not allow dissent,
adopts repressive measures and uses naked violence to suppress genuine aspirations
for independence or freedom, violent uprising becomes inevitable and terrorism is a
part of it.
Increasingly, however, insurgent groups claiming their right to use terrorism
have begun to lose legitimacy. Even suicide attacks stand stigmatized. Contrary to
general perception, USA’s ‘war on terror’ has given some respectability to an act that
was denounced merely as an aberration in the past. But strategic moves made by the
hyperpower in the name of fighting terrorism everywhere have made other states
wary of USA’s real intentions. In this see-saw, an effective and coordinated effort to
fight terrorism politically has suffered gravely. It seems that politics of terror is going
to be around for quite a while.
Corruption, callousness, criminalization, fundamentalism, extremism and
terrorism are pathologies of politics that exist in some measure and in some or other
form in every society. It is the efforts that are made to fight such menaces that really
count. These problems have acquired added salience in Southasia mainly for three
reasons. First, the spectre of ‘failed state’—the state when institutions of state don’t
work, instruments lose credibility and injunctions cannot be implemented—is used to
interfere directly in the internal affairs of a country as was the case in Nepal at the
height of Maoist insurgency. Second, repressive regimes are supported by international
powers for short-term benefits as by USA in Pakistan or China in Burma. The third
and the gravest of all risks is the use of terrorist threats to justify hybrid regimes with
dictatorial overtones.
Various remedies are being tried in Southasia to face the challenges posed by
the spread of fundamentalism, extremism and terrorism. Sadly, ‘armed solution’ is
the default position of almost all states even though it has been found that this is
a ‘high-cost, low-return’ method of countering violent protests. As Arundhati Roy
puts it succinctly,
The military solution hasn’t worked in Kashmir or Manipur or Nagaland. It
will not work in mainland India. It may not be that the masses will rise in disci-
plined revolutionary fervour. It may be that we will become a society convulsed
Political Exigencies 115

with violence, political, criminal and mercenary. But the fact remains that the
problem is social injustice, the solution is social justice. Not bullets, not bull-
dozers, not prisons.6
One may add to the list of failures of violent counter-insurgency, ‘It hasn’t worked in
Jaffna. It hasn’t worked in Rolpa. It hasn’t worked in Chittagong. It will probably fail
in Balochistan too.’ Unlike writer-activist Arundhati thought, it is difficult to be sure
how social justice can be ensured when governments are perpetually engaged with the
exigency of saving themselves from collapse.
The civil society has been trying alternative networks to give a sense of hope
to the victims of political pathologies. Human rights, gender rights, child rights,
cultural awakening, arts, crafts, literature and festivities help ‘drain the swamp’
that breeds terrorism. But such efforts invariably have a very long gestation period.
Increasingly, civil society initiatives have begun to bring issues of systems of immunity
and culture of impunity to light. Resettlement of the internally displaced, restitution
and reconciliation are being discussed openly. But yet again, solutions outside of
politics are not sustainable.
On the political front, Marxists have been way ahead of others in rekindling an
assimilative ideology based on class solidarity. For reasons specific to the region—
strong family, caste, clan, religion, linguistic and cultural ties—Marxism has less
appeal in Southasia than tradition-based political slogans. In this milieu, it remains
to be seen whether the bhadralok leadership of CPM in India or the petty bourgeoisie
party apparatchiks of UML in Nepal can counter the fiery posturing of the People’s
War Group and CPN (Maoists). But democratic socialism is a possible solution of
checking right-wing regression as well as left-wing extremism.
The rediscovery of Gandhian politics could be one of the ways of countering
democratic deficit, cronyism and corruption, fundamentalism, extremism and
militancy. The problem with Gandhian solution is that it requires a very high level of
awareness, discipline and detachment. That is something in extremely short supply.
Unbridled commercialization in every field of life—education, health, marriage,
ambitions and entertainment—has transformed potential citizens into impatient
consumers hankering for instant gratification. It is difficult to count upon the
altruistic drives inherent in every person. In the short-term, there is no other way
than to count upon the learning ability of democratic institutions to improve their
ways of handling political exigencies.
Then there is always the inherent strength of common Southasians. People
in Nepal rose up in millions—in terms of the percentage of population out on
the streets, the April Uprising, 2006, was an unprecedented event in the history
of political protests in the world—to throw away the royal yoke. Enthused by the
protest march of lawyers, even a cynical commentator like Tariq Ali was forced to
acknowledge, ‘There was something delightfully old-fashioned about this struggle: it
involved neither money nor religion, but principles.’7 If such things can happen in
Nepal and Pakistan, they can happen almost everywhere in Southasia.
116 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Relevance of the Middle Path: Rediscovering

Gandhi for All Southasia
C. K. Lal
Attribute it to the power of the Empire, but Southasians have no hesitation in embracing
Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, Marx or Mao as their own. In one country, where the Turkish
Ataturk is a role model of ‘enlightened moderation’, the proponent of real enlightened
moderation is an ‘Indian’. In the countryside of another Southasian nation, where guns
rule, the epitome of courage with conscience is seldom remembered. Is it a deep-seated
inferiority complex which makes Southasians oblivious of the legacy of Mohandas
Karamchand Gandhi? From South Africa to the United States, proponents of peaceful
protests draw their inspiration from the pioneer of ahimsa. But most Southasians look
at him through the tinted glasses of bigoted nationalism and see a nationalist ‘Indian’.
Within India itself, Gandhi is consigned to history textbooks and his values dismissed
as romanticism in the power corridors of Delhi and the state capitals. However, more
than a concerted effort to rehabilitate his memory, it is the needs of the time that will
establish the primacy of Gandhi as a Southasian ideal who foresaw the complexities of
the region and devised a middle path to face the challenges of the future. His legacy is a
shared Southasian heritage and the region will discover his relevance as it enters into yet
another turbulent phase in its history.
These are sanguine times for some Southasians. Unocal alumnus Hamid Karzai
has declared the dethroned King Zahir Shah as the Father of the Afghanistan nation,
once destroyed and then rebuilt to the specifications of the US Pacific Command.
(Spokesmen for both Unocal and Karzai have since denied any such relationship.)
Bangladesh is happy being at the centre of SAARC and BIMSTEC, two sets of
idiosyncratic alphabet mixes that stand for largely ceremonial organizations. Bhutan
is enthralled by the prospect of democracy which King Jigme Singye Wangchuk
has promised to introduce by 2008. The Burmese junta has just shifted its capital
to correct the feng shui and entrench itself further. India isn’t exactly shining, but
some Indians are certainly gloating over the prospect of becoming the back office
of the world in the next one, two, or three decades depending upon whether you
are talking to a free-market fundamentalist, a socialist planner or a self-proclaimed
pragmatist; they all seem to share the same Brahminical dream of making it big
without getting their hands dirty.
Pakistan is content with a general-in-sherwani espousing enlightened moderation
on the strength of a couple of F16s with nuclear capabilities. Nepal is rediscovering its
golden days of ‘monarchical democracy’ by importing Chinese arms. President Mahinda
Rajapakse of Sri Lanka is proud to have ridden the wave of anti-LTTE sentiments in the
South even though his victory has put the peace process of Serendib in peril. All in all, the
power elite of Southasia are happy and content. Very few, too few it seems, have the time
or inclination to remember the frail old man in a dhoti striding the length and breadth of
the subcontinent with a toothless smile on his face. But just as these are the best of times
for some, there are many others for whom these are the worst of times. In a region where
paradoxes are the rule rather than the exception, the Dickensian metaphor of two cities
is the most accurate description of everyday reality. Just below the shine of the thin silver
lining, there is the reality of an unpredictable dark cloud hovering over Southasia.
Political Exigencies 117

The al-Qaeda organization recently claimed, with some justification it seems, that
it still holds large swaths of Afghan territory under its control. An Islamist upsurge
threatens Bangladesh, a country that grew out of violent conflicts, first for religious ho-
mogeneity and then for independent cultural identity. The racial regime of the Drukpa
in Bhutan has refused to mend fences with the Lhotsampa it forced to flee. The deepen-
ing grip of the Burmese junta is enticing its neighbouring countries into dealing with
an abhorrent regime. The democratic decay in the biggest democracy of the world has
become quite alarming: members of Parliament guzzle local development funds and
accept bribes in order to raise questions in the Lower House. The royal–military rule in
Nepal is digging in its heel. The unity of Sri Lanka’s people stands threatened. The dilu-
tion of Tibetan culture will be a great loss of all human heritages, but most Southasians
appear blissfully unaware of the processes that have been unleashed by Beijing upon the
‘roof of the world’.
This is the time when the modern apostle of peaceful resistance needs to be re-
discovered. M. K. Gandhi’s ideas were extremely powerful during the independence
struggles of Southasia. His beliefs and methods are even more important today in a
region passing through the pangs of adulthood—decomposing democracy, arrogant
autocracy, insecure intelligentsia, boastful business, and violent conflicts are actually
symptoms of the coming of age of a region that had remained mired in orthodoxy and
hopelessness for centuries. When status quo is too oppressive and change threatens
to tear the place apart, Gandhi’s vision beckons like the proverbial light at the end
of a very long and dark tunnel. But first, a powerful myth must be broken to reclaim
Gandhi for entire Southasia. Indians have done a great disservice to the Mahatma by
appropriating his legacy for a truncated Bharat that is India. Gandhi was an apostle of
a non-Brahminic tradition whose teachings and practices are the common heritage of
humanity. Every Southasian has as much right to stake a claim upon his teachings as
any flag-waving Bharatiya.

Misunderstood Messiah
Any attempt to depict the teachings of the Mahatma in a hurry would be inherent-
ly preposterous. After all, his own writings span 100 collected volumes and there are
numerous other works, which delve into his work and thought. Unable to access the
true depth of his life and message, his legions of admirers do the next best thing—they
portray him through epigrammatic quotations often lifted and quoted completely out of
context. From the mischievous ‘I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and
photographers’ to the rhetorical ‘what difference does it make to the dead, the orphans,
and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitari-
anism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?’ and from the banal ‘It is unwise to
be too sure of one’s wisdom’ to the profound ‘whatever you do will be insignificant, but
it’s very important that you do it’—all kinds of quotable quotes have been picked up
and paraded according to the bias of the presenter. So much so that Gandhi has become
some kind of an emblem of the high-end alternative lifestyle where laptops are Macs,
khadi serves for silk, watches are handcrafted but in Zurich, and there is no taboo on
sipping wine from paper cups. These ‘page three Gandhians’ of jet-set Hindi-stan have
done more harm to the memory of the Mahatma than the armies of RSS swayamsevaks
doing calisthenics in khaki shorts. Caricature too is a form of tribute, but not when the
object of spoof is too complex to be understood through inexpert simplification.
118 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Presenting Gandhi as the ‘Father of the Nation’ of India was one of the grossest
simplifications made by the otherwise erudite Jawaharlal Nehru, with his own visions
of Indian grandeur. In fact, that appellation rightfully belonged to Chacha Nehru him-
self more than to anyone else. Along with Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, it was Nehru who
wanted an independent India even at the cost of its division. Nehru probably thought
that he was paying his mentor a tribute by having him declared the father of the inde-
pendent but truncated territory that became present-day India. In fact, that title down-
graded the contributions of an outstanding Southasian of Gandhi’s stature. Unlike
Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Don
Stephen Senanayake, or Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala, Gandhi did not set out to form
a state in the Westphalian sense, or be the ruler of a pre-nationhood tribal homeland.
The Mahatma consistently aimed higher. In a region wracked by centuries of colo-
nialism, the Mahatma wanted to build nothing less than a whole new civilization.
If building a state through conquest, compromise or consensus was his sole aim, he
would not have died a broken man, deeply disappointed by the Partition which still
created countries that most political leaders of his time wanted. Keep in mind that
Gandhi was nowhere near the Red Fort celebrations when the ‘tryst with destiny’ was
heralded by Jawaharlal.
In many ways, Gandhi was an inheritor of the non-Brahminic tradition of Hindu
philosophy. It is not just a coincidence that the Gandhian ideology began to take shape
after Gandhi visited Champaran in the backwaters of Bihar in 1917, an area that has
been the natural refuge of non-Vedic scholars throughout history. Bihar and parts of the
Ganga plains that now fall in modern Nepal have always been home to non-Brahminic
paths of salvation. Householder King Janak refined his beliefs in participation without
attachment in Mithila. Mahavir and Buddha, born into Vaishya and Kshatriya clans
respectively, began their movements against entrenched Brahminism from this region.
Gandhi led the movement against indigo planters in Champaran. In the decayed rem-
nants of historic Vaishali, he probably began something even bigger—a quest for self-
definition. There, in the cradle of the Lichchhavi civilization, he initiated a movement
to restore the dignity of every individual irrespective of race, caste, class, gender or age.
For a society steeped in the tradition of codified hierarchy, this was nothing less than
a ‘total revolution’, an expression that the disillusioned Marxist Jayaprakash Narayan
appropriated once he embraced Gandhism in the early 1970s.
Gandhi surmised with uncanny intuition that there was not much material sur-
plus left in India to redistribute among its 350 million people. Theories of Marx had
little resonance in an area of agricultural decline and industrial darkness. Centuries of
plunder by waves of raiders had killed the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of the
Yamuna–Ganga plains where commerce had become a dirty term associated more with
deceit than fair trade. The mythic duo of baker and butcher trading with each other in
self-interest as immortalized by Adam Smith had no use for subsistence farmers resid-
ing in villages with almost no connection with each other. There had to be a third way,
thought Gandhi, as he saw the depth of physical and moral poverty of fellow human
beings on his way to, and in, Champaran. He saw the alternative in the dream of Gram
Swaraj where individuals did trade with each other, though not for profit but to ensure
collective survival through self-help and self-sufficiency. The British Empire, founded
on the principle of trade and rooted in the traditions of the East India Company, found
Political Exigencies 119

it hard to understand a logic where profit did not deserve even to be denounced. Ergo,
the British had to go and let India find her way.
Goal established, Gandhi searched for the right mix to advance his cause. He had
seen the efficacy of non-violent protests in South Africa. He refined it further by adding
the element of self-inflicted suffering, probably derived from the Buddha’s teaching—the
same Sakyamuni who had walked these mid-Ganga plains two-and-half millennia earlier.
The importance of prayers may have been inspired by Mahavir’s meditations. Was the
spinning wheel an indirect homage to Kabir, the weaver-prophet of Benaras who had
sung the songs of salvation through faith in the self and bread-labour?
The potency of Gandhi’s terms is often lost in translation. For example, ahimsa is
much more than a passive strategy of non-violence; it is an active seeking of the absence
of violence. The literal meaning of satyagraha suggests an insistence on truth, but it is
much more than a tool of protest; it proposes a whole new way of life centred on the
power of belief in one’s own convictions. Brahmacharya is not just celibacy; it is an adop-
tion of the righteous path.
Going beyond non-attachment and goal-seeking, aprigraha is a total commitment to
truth in every aspect of a seeker’s life. Asahayog is often translated as non-cooperation.
But there is no negativity in Asahayog; it suggests instead an insistence on proactive co-
operation. If ethics are to a society what morals are to an individual, Gandhi sought to
establish certain principles of ‘ram rajya’ derived more from the Buddha and Mahavir
than from Valmiki or Tulsi Das, two popular bards believed to have penned the epic
Ramayana in Sanskrit and Awadhi, respectively.
To the band of ambitious westernized oriental gentlemen around him—M. A. Jinnah
in his Saville Row suit, the Etonian Nehru or the upwardly mobile middle-class geniuses
such as Rajendra Prasad and B. R. Ambedkar—these principles were blasphemous to the
ideals of freedom set out by the French Revolution, the American War of Independence
and the Russian October Revolution. Gandhi’s teachings questioned everything they
thought they knew. It was heresy they had to accept only because it seemed to work:
Gandhi’s appeal galvanized the masses. No other apostle since the Prince of Peace in 500
BC has been accepted by the ruler and the ruled alike. Gandhianism had acquired the
potency of a new religion, a way of life that had to be resisted by those who wanted to
build India or Pakistan in the image of Britain, France or the United States of America.
Gandhi’s most trusted lieutenants—Jinnah, Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel—followed his
strategy faithfully, but without the conviction that the means propounded were the ends
in themselves.
Nehru wanted to build an India which would be a hybrid of Mauryan glory and
Mughal splendour. Fearful of his fate in such an entity dominated by the personality
of a self-assured Kashmiri Pandit, Jinnah, a non-believing Shia within a Sunni-majority
Muslim community, sought an alternative vision of a secular polity governing over a ho-
mogeneous population of the faithful—an Islamic ram rajya. He found it in the aspira-
tions of the United Provinces’ landed gentry longing for an Awadh renaissance patterned
after the court of the last nawab of Lucknow, Wazid Ali Shah.
That Nehru could never replicate the Mauryan glory in a pauperized India was a
foregone conclusion. His ‘tryst with destiny’ freedom speech was in fact the swan song of
a disillusioned Emperor Ashoka who suddenly found that the India he was about to rule
held no resemblance to the India he had bargained for. Like all images of an idealized past,
120 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

the secularism of the Awadh court was only partially true; Hindu subjects of the nawab
had accepted a second-class status long before Wajid Ali Shah had begun to sing and
dance like Radha. Jinnah’s oft-quoted speech, before the Pakistan Constituent Assembly
on 11 August 1947, ‘You are free to go to your temples …’, was thus fundamentally
flawed; in any ram rajya, the rule of the enlightened is based on the principle of its com-
plete acceptance by all the rest.
Gandhi had, therefore, already died the day India and Pakistan became independent.
Like most visionaries, the Mahatma had been way ahead of his time. Colonial India was
not ready for his revolution. It accepted his politics, but with strong reservations, and
then only because his methods seemed to work to the amazement of his sophisticated
contemporaries. Gandhi’s famous retort that he was a politician trying to be a saint was
perhaps an acceptance of defeat of his life’s mission. In 1947, he was ready for the parody
that independent India would make of his life and teachings. Nehru consigned him to
the pantheon of gods no sooner had the Hindu zealot killed him and his ashes consigned
to the Yamuna. More zealots kill him every time they garland his statue, parade him
through the streets in religious processions and ridicule him as the Father of the Indian
nation, which bears no resemblance to his formulations. Pakistanis kill him every time
they denounce the man who first sought to establish Muslim pride through his Khilafat
Movement (the Quaid had thought, with remarkable foresight, that it was madness to
rekindle Islamic passions) and worked for the interests of Pakistan even after partition.

Method in Madness
Sincerity was the source of Gandhi’s power. He believed in the purpose of his mission
and worked to achieve a unity between his thought, speech and actions. His modus
operandi was based upon mobilization of the people rather than the political parties.
Once these noble goals were established, he had no hesitation in using the nascent media
of his time to advance his cause. Whether it was his fast unto death, or the long walk
to defy the Salt Law, theatrics was built into the Mahatma’s every protest. The media
loved it and its power shamed the rulers every time a reporter sent a dispatch from the
boondocks of the far-flung empire. With a mischievous twist, Gandhi used the very in-
struments of empire to undermine it from within. Various leftist groups have since tried
to replicate this technique, but since they ignore the fundamental feature of this moral
method of political arm-twisting—non-violence—they fail to create a favourable impact
and cannot move the masses.
Gandhi improvised on the anarchic impulses of Marx and established that any ac-
tion meant honestly to recreate cannot be called destruction. Jinnah and Nehru, the
other two outstanding lawyers from the Temple Inn, could never appreciate the ancient
Hindu logic of dying to be reborn. Like other god-fearing and law-abiding English gen-
tlemen, Westernized Oriental Gentlemen (WOGs) at the fag end of the empire loved
order and feared anarchy. They could not recognize the method in the madness of Gan-
dhi, who had experienced first-hand the tyranny of ‘order’ that then existed in Indian
society—caste, untouchability, gender discrimination and an utter disregard for health
and sanitation. These issues could not wait for either Jinnah’s homeland or Nehru’s
utopia. A revolution was needed to reform the Indian mindset, and revolutions are by
definition anarchic. Order implies continuation of the status quo.
Fear of anarchy has to be overcome in order to initiate long-needed changes in the
existing order that had institutionalized inequality for millennia.
Political Exigencies 121

All the societies within Southasia are passing through a dangerous phase of disil-
lusionment and hopelessness. In some parts, as in Nepal, Telangana, Jharkhand and
Marathbada, political entrepreneurs are seeking solutions by reinventing Maoism. In
West Punjab, East Bengal and Saurashtra, experiments in militant Islam and Hindutva
are vitiating the environment of peaceful coexistence. East of the Brahmputra, a fascist
upsurge plagues separatist movements and racist rulers alike. Elsewhere in the region,
there is a dangerous drift and listlessness. Rediscovering Gandhi in these times is essen-
tial if one seeks the play of sanity in Southasia.
The challenges have multiplied since Gandhi died in 1948. Commercialized newspa-
pers, instantaneous television images, impromptu SMSs and mindless blogs have made
the task of creating a unified answer to the empire of market fundamentalism extremely
difficult. But responses are being crafted that raise hope. The human rights movement
in Pakistan, the agitation by the Narmada evacuees, the voices of dissent in Bangladesh
that speak for its Hindu and Buddhist minorities, the modest Sarvodaya experiment of
Sri Lanka, the ongoing people’s movement in Nepal and the transformation of erstwhile
socialists in the Yamuna–Ganga plains—all are indications of churning of a society on
the threshold of change.
Like most philosophies, Gandhism too needs to be rediscovered by every generation
to suit the needs and aspirations of its time. That Gandhi has endured and thrived in
the dreams of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela alike is ample tribute to his
memory. He has become even more important after the end of the Cold War and the
consequent declaration of the Clash of Civilization in the wake of 9/11. Mull over the
ancient Christian aphorism about turning the other cheek in its transformed Gandhian
version—‘an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind’—and there is no way you
can ignore the force of his ideas and their relevance in our times.
‘Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood
walked upon this earth,’ wrote Albert Einstein. Hindus and Muslims schooled in the belief
of the birth of a redeemer in every epoch may find it unbelievable that a scientist of Einstein’s
stature failed to see that there was no way Gandhi could not have emerged in a region virtu-
ally at the edge of collapse in early 20th century. Passing through almost a similar phase once
more at the start of the 21st century, Southasia will have to rediscover Gandhi because re-
deemers are not born whenever they are needed. They have to be found in their philosophies.
(This essay by C. K. Lal was first published as the cover story on Gandhi in January 2006 issue
of Himal Southasia. Accessible on the web at:
http://www.himalmag.com/2006/january/cover story 1.html)

1. Quoted by Dipankar Gupta (1997), The Context of Ethnicity: Sikh Identity in Com-
parative Perspective, Oxford India. p. 193. Gupta reflects upon fundamentalism in an
appendix to the book.
2. This longish quote is taken from Mohamad Guntur Romli’s powerful article ‘Setting
Heavens Aflame’, translated from Indonesian by Doreen Lea that appeared in Prince
Claus Fund Journal #12 on Living Together, a special issue in cooperation with the
journal Kalam, Indonesia.
122 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

3. ‘It worries me that locals ask for Russians to return. They built roads and dams, which
at least offered visible signs of progress,’ said a British development worker Rory
Stewart to Michael Kohn. According to Mr Stewart: ‘Now they get Western consul-
tants who tell them they have wrong kind of house, the wrong breed of sheep, they
are growing the wrong kind of wheat and not treating their women fairly. Frankly, it’s
pretty depressing and verges on insulting.’ Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol. 170
No. 2 March 2007. p. 79.
4. Praful Bidwai gives a chilling account of ground realities in reportage Dealing with
Naxalism in Chhattisgarh: ‘Naxalism has struck roots in more than 150 of India’s 600
districts. Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have now decisively replaced Andhra Pradesh,
and between January 2006 and June 2007, Chhattisgarh recorded 529 deaths and the
displacement of nearly one lakh people. Yet, Chhattisgarh provides terrifying les-
sons on how Naxalism should not be fought—by unleashing state repression against
unarmed civilians, by creating, training and instigating bandits who target Naxalites,
and by violating the citizen’s civil liberties, even while perpetuating gruesome injus-
tices against the poor.’ http://www navhindtimes.com/articles.php?Story_ID=100425.
Accessed 23 October 2007.
5. This categorization is based upon a paper by Philip Elliot, Graham Murdock and
Philip Schlesinger ‘“Terrorism” and the State: A Case Study of the Discourses of
Television’ in Richard Collins et al. (eds) (1986), Media, Culture and Society: A Criti-
cal Reader, Sage Publications. pp. 264–267.
6. As told to Shoma Chaudhury, ‘Narmada contains a profound argument about every-
thing: power, powerlessness, greed, politics’ in Vox: Critical Conversations, Buffalo
Books, New Delhi, 2006. p. 93.
7. Tariq Ali, ‘Pakistan at Sixty’. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n19/ali_01_ html. Accessed
15 October 2007.
7 Rise of Regionalism

For Europe, West Asia and Central Asia, Afghanistan has been the gateway to
Southasia for millennia. Traders, invaders, scholars and migrants moved eastwards
through the rugged terrain of fiercely independent tribes living together in these
frontiers. In Southasian perception, Afghanistan has always had the image of being
a frontier—in ‘the edge of land where people live and have built towns, beyond
which the country is wild and unknown’ sense of the term. But whatever happens in
Afghanistan invariably affects all of Southasia in due course of time.
Even by Afghan standards—where violence has not been frowned upon to settle
family, tribal or group scores—the late seventies were tumultuous. Uncertainties had
begun with the overthrow of King Muhammad Zahir Shah by his cousin Daoud
Khan in 1973 itself. Daoud’s assassination on 27 April 1978 initiated a veritable civil
war. The Afghan army was on the verge of collapse and the threat of disintegration
of Afghanistan loomed large. This was the situation that prompted USSR to airlift
thousands of troops into Afghanistan where it quickly installed Babrak Karmal as
President. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. USSR failed to safely extricate itself
out of Afghanistan and collapsed. But not before it had set in motion some quick
reactions all over Southasia.
Alarmed by the rise of Marxism on the western frontier, General Muhammad
Zia-ul Haque lost no time in hanging the ousted prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto,
and enacting the controversial Hudood Ordinances that set Pakistan on the path of
Islamic fundamentalism and Kalashnikov culture. In the seventh general elections in
India, Indira Gandhi returned to power heading the Congress party splinter group,
Congress (Indira). By then, her authoritarian proclivities had become manifest
and seeds of insurgency in Punjab had already been sown. In Nepal, the process of
referendum was manipulated to give continuity to status quo of absolute rule of the
king. In Bangladesh, the military establishment had begun to dig its heels. Sri Lanka,
that had a functioning parliamentary democracy, howsoever imperfect, adopted a
constitution in 1978 that was patterned after France with executive presidency of
a six-year term. Jayewardene became the first president under the new constitution
and assumed direct control of the government machinery and party. It appeared, as
if fearful of the machinations of the Russian grizzly bear at the frontiers, that entire
Southasia was withdrawing itself into familiar and protective shells. This was the
background that created the need for a regional organization.
124 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

The inspiration behind the concept of Southasian regional organization was

the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), a grouping that had been
remarkably effective in checking the strategic advances of the Soviet Union in the
region. But despite the fascination Southasians appear to have with the supposed
success of ASEAN, this organization had a rather lacklustre beginning.
ASEAN had started modestly with its Bangkok Declaration of August 1967,
signed by foreign ministers of the five founding states with a history of animosity
and still deeply suspicious of each other. It took nine years to arrive at the Treaty of
Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, signed at the ASEAN Summit in Bali in
1976, which culminated in Preferential Trading Arrangements the next year. The
organization had functioned without a formal secretariat for a decade; it acquired
one in 1977. Intensive consultations and consensus-building over another ten
years resulted in the signing of the Agreement for the Promotion and Protection of
Investments. Four decades after its launch, ASEAN is still an incredibly diverse and
unequal grouping. It has been noted that
economic diversity is very pronounced in Southeast Asia. According to World
Bank data, on a purchasing-power parity (PPP) basis, the difference of per
capita gross national product (GNP) between the richest (Luxembourg,
US$38,247 PPP) and the poorest (Greece, US$14,595 PPP) members of the
European Union amounted to 162 per cent in 1999. The difference is 680
per cent if one factors in the poorest of the EU candidate countries (Bulgaria,
US$4,914 PPP). In Southeast Asia, the difference amounts to about 2,000 per
cent between the richest (Singapore, US$27,024 PPP) and the poorest (Cam-
bodia, US$1,286).1
Whether a consensus-based organization with so much inequality has the
resilience to survive challenges of the future remains to be seen. But ASEAN is
perhaps the wrong model to replicate in relatively cohesive Southasia. Lessons that
ASEAN offers, however, can help reduce animosities between the fiercely independent
Southasian states.
The ASEAN model, other than the unequivocal support of one Super Power
during the Cold War years, worked because of the infinite patience of its members to
continue their engagement in the face of all odds. It has dealt with delicate issues with
what its secretary general called, ‘… through manifestations of goodwill and the slow
winning and giving of trust. And the way to arrive at agreements has been through
consultation and consensus—mushawara and mufaka—rather than across-the-table
negotiations involving bargaining and give-and-take that result in deals enforceable
in a court of law.’2 Consultation and consensus-building have been the keys to the
so-called ASEAN way.
The second lesson that ASEAN offers concerns prioritizing of issues. Despite
sometimes irreconcilable political differences, members pursued the agenda of economic
cooperation with admirable fortitude. The third lesson is even more important—
midwifery by Malaysia, and that too without appearing to be overbearing—was an
Rise of Regionalism 125

important factor in ensuring ASEAN’s survival. It seems someone has to take the
responsibility of nurturing any organization.
In the early eighties, the need for a regional grouping in Southasia was acutely
felt. The model of ASEAN was already there. Yet, the actual formation of a regional
organization wasn’t easy. Indira Gandhi thought that such an organization will turn
into a forum for India’s censure by her neighbours.3 Pakistan was hesitant because it
preferred to be associated with West Asian countries. Sri Lanka dreamt of being a part
of ASEAN. Commenting upon the complications of the conceptualization years,
Pran Chopra wrote:
Although SARC failed to make any headway for almost two years after the idea
of a South Asian summit meeting was first mooted by President Ziaur Rehman
of Bangladesh, and although hesitations persisted, especially in Pakistan, even
after the South Asian foreign secretaries at their first ever meeting, in Colombo
in April 1981, had given the idea of SARC a clean bill of health, yet quite com-
mendable progress was made thereafter.4
There were doubts about Indian intentions too. Even though formally a non-
aligned nation, India was perceived to be closer to Soviet Union by its neighbours
that considered themselves to be more in agreement with USA’s policies in Asia.
For too long we, of Asia, have been petitioners in Western courts and
chancelleries. That story must now belong to the past. We propose to stand on our
own two feet and cooperate with all others who are prepared to cooperate with us.
We do not intend to be a plaything of others . . .
Jawaharlal Nehru had declared at the Asian Relations Conference in March
1947.5 By the time of Indira Gandhi, India had lost that moral high ground. It was
being feared as a likely aggressor rather than a possible protector of smaller countries
in the region. The start of the SAARC was thus not very auspicious. Despite over two
decades of its survival—admittedly, the official SAARC process has done precious
little other than ensuring its continuity—its viability continues to be questioned.6
However, SAARC must hold some potential to attract the interests of powerful
nations who want to acquire the observer status.7
On the positive side, SAARC has a permanent secretariat, though what it does
for most of the year must be one of the best-kept secrets in Kathmandu where its
premises are located. Rather than get a share of revenue from all member countries,
it runs on doles. It should have been staffed with driven doers from the region. All it
gets instead are officers on deputation. Considering the limitations within which the
secretariat has to operate, perhaps it has been doing its best. Their best, however, isn’t
sufficient. Revamping the structure of the SAARC secretariat has become necessary.8
Alternative attempts to create Southasian unity have been equally tardy. Most
such initiatives are patterned after SAARC, in itself an extremely slow process. Routes
where collective things should have been happening—cross-border arts, literature
and poetry festivals, multicultural dialogue forums, students exchange programmes,
teachers and researchers’ movements, youth coalitions—remain less travelled.
126 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

SAARC: Fish Don’t Fly
C. K. Lal
Hold tight, each one of you
Snake-tails of your own
Country, religion, convictions
The way people hold each other
On a sinking boat.
—Noman Shauk, Dubati Nau Par
After the Islamabad tamasha, it is clear that SAARC is yet to grow out of the shadows of
infantile rivalry between India and Pakistan. The regional grouping has failed to evolve
into an independent identity. It has not come of age, despite having crossed 18, the age
at which most Southasians become eligible to vote. As expected, the now-on–now-off
India–Pakistan peace parley hogged the headlines. The summit that had given General
Pervez an opportunity to play host to premier Atal was pushed to the background.
Before the heads of the Seven Sisters meet next in Bangladesh, SAARC runs the risk of
another spell of uncertain hibernation.
After the third try, the medley of SAARC leaders did agree to establish the South
Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) by 2016, but the mechanism to achieve that seems
to have been left deliberately vague. Other than that, the Islamabad meet will be re-
membered more for the sherwanis that Vajpayee ordered with the tailors of Zulfikar Ali
Bhutto than anything else. Trade may open doors ajar, but for a true Southasian com-
munity to develop, some politics need to be introduced into the frail organization.

Apolitical Outfit
SAARC was established by the heads of state and/or governments of countries with au-
tocratic leanings—back then Bangladesh and Pakistan had military rulers (Ziaur, Ziaul),
Bhutan and Nepal had autocrat monarchs (the kings Birendra and Jigme), and India
and Sri Lanka were led by democratic but domineering personalities (Rajiv and Prema-
dasa). There were no surprises when the regional grouping was designed as a convivial
club, a sanitized organization sans politics.
The administrative nature of the organization has proved a mixed blessing. It has
helped the Secretariat of SAARC remain operational, though far from fully functional,
even when its members have squabbled in extremis. But the secretariat cannot do much
else than survive. The secretary generals and seven directors working at the gloomy
headquarters of the organization in Kathmandu lack the mandate as well as the standing
to intervene in any constructive way on any issue.
It was Colin Powell who convinced Vajpayee that there was no alternative to holding
talks with Pakistan, with the summit providing a good cover. Beijing had to use its leverage
with Islamabad to make the ruling junta relent and allow Musharraf to respond to overtures
from New Delhi. Christina Rocca has had to periodically travel to the subcontinent to en-
sure that the various Southasian establishments keep talking to each other. Meanwhile, all
that the secretariat of SAARC could do was to wait for yet another summit to materialize.
Rise of Regionalism 127

If SAFTA is to gain momentum within the given time frame, and if any other
regional programmes are to be added to the SAARC agenda, the very philosophy and
structure of its secretariat has to be reformulated. From a centre of well-paid file-pushers
lacking in agency, it must be transformed into a proactive institution with the ability to
influence events and trends.
The vision presented by the Eminent Persons Group to the SAARC Heads of Gov-
ernment in 1998 was an attempt to redefine and restructure the organization for the
challenges of the new century. Frankly, it was not bold enough to address the aspirations
of the new generation of Southasians, but even that seemed to have been too forward-
looking for our unimaginative leaders. Subsequent summits have refused to discuss the
Eminent Persons’ recommendations, but the need to reinvent this umbrella organization
of all Southasian states has hardly gone away.
One of the ways of beginning the process of change would be to turn the SAARC
secretariat into a semi-political office with the ultimate goal of establishing a full-fledged
regional Parliament, a Southasian Court of Justice, and even an Executive with trans-
border authority and responsibilities. Someone has to dream it up to set the ball rolling.
More than half of all Southasians are youths. They are more likely to be receptive to new
ideas than the granddads and grand-uncles who control SAARC’s secretariat from the
various foreign ministries of Southasian capital cities.

Media Stars
With all due respect to Bangladesh’s QAMA Rahim, the administrative character of
the post of secretary-general is a hindrance to making SAARC a visible organization.
Rahim may be a competent diplomat, as was the Lankan Nihal Rodrigues before him,
but there is no way he can call Chandrika Kumaratunga on the phone for a tête-à-tête.
Diplomats are trained never to extend themselves beyond the decorum of ‘protocol,
alcohol, and no-toll’. The reform has to begin at the top, and it is hard-boiled politi-
cos like Benazir Bhutto, Laloo Yadav, Sheikh Hasina, Sharad Pawar or Sher Bahadur
Deuba who should be leading an assertive SAARC secretariat. They will not hesitate to
throw their weight around and create enough media interest to sustain regional agendas
of the organization.
When a phalanx of Indian politicos visited Pakistan some time ago, it was Laloo who
kept the cameras tailing him wherever he went. Now suppose, if the Yadav from Bihar
were to be the SAARC secretary-general, would he not follow-up the issue of the forgot-
ten Biharis of the Dhaka camps with the governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh in a
completely different way? Imagine a Shekhar Suman take on the Laloo-speak calling the
President of Pakistan on SAB TV ‘Arre Mushharraf Sahab, kuchh to Allah ka Kauf kariye,
history me nam likhbaiye …”’ or to Begum Khaleda, “Arre Behana, hamko aapse kuchh
kehna hai …’. The echo of laughter all over Southasia would be strong enough to force
them to generate a smile, and do something that their predecessors have consistently
refused to do for decades.
The Track II crowd that has made the Wagah-Atari border a celebrated destina-
tion has not been able to bring about tangible change in the relationship between
the two countries, but they have been phenomenally successful in establishing a line-
up of names and faces familiar all over Southasia. Ayaz Amir graces the pages of The
128 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Himalayan Times in Kathmandu, Kuldip Nayar gets pride of place in the Dawn of
Pakistan, both of them are carried on the pages of The Daily Star of Dhaka, and all of
them are talked about in the seminar-circuit from Colombo to Bombay to Calcutta.
Lahore’s human rights volcano, Asma Jehangir is lapped up by TV cameras wherever
she travels. The secretariat of SAARC can show its gratitude to them by declaring them
citizens of Southasia.
There is no reason why member countries of SAARC would object to a common
Southasian passport for ‘eminent regional persons’ like Madhuri Dixit, Ghulam Ali,
M. J. Akbar, in addition to all the current and previous heads of central as well as
provincial governments in the region. The prospect of Narendra Modi drawing his
Southasian passport with a flourish at the Karachi immigration office to prove that he
doesn’t need a visa to enter the country of a common region is too attractive not to think
about. Imagine him calling SAARC Secretary-General Buddhadev Bhattacharya from
his cell phone if he were to encounter any difficulty!

Money Matters
To establish its legitimacy with the masses, SAARC needs to come down from its ped-
estal. Summits are great photo-ops, Track II meets are glamorous diversions for the
intelligentsia, and SAFTA holds enormous promise for the emerging business classes,
but how about the absolute poor who constitute nearly half of the 1.4 billion popula-
tion of Southasia?
Deeply enmeshed in security and trade controversies, Southasian leaders have failed
to do anything other than paying lip service to the issue of poverty so far. To tackle
it, the countries need to pool their resources, and SAARC is a framework that already
exists to implement the dream. A mechanism is required to create a common fund
to create job opportunities. Something needs to be done, and urgently, to make the
children of Southasia a common responsibility of all the governments in the region.
While UNICEF has had them mouth the slogans, it has not been able to generate
commitment among the governments.
The idea of touching the poorest was indeed floated by the Eminent Persons Group,
but it chose to limit itself to the LDCs of the region—Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.
Their main concern was how to make ‘the disadvantaged three’ benefit from the regional
trade. That is an important issue. But traders everywhere are quite capable of taking care
of their interests, by arm-twisting their own governments if necessary. SAARC must
concentrate its anti-poverty efforts on the pockets of backwardness in every country of
South Asia. Literacy, health and infrastructure projects must be run from a common
fund. In the same way, border regions need investments from a common fund that
would be free from internal politics of either size.
Imagine a SAARC Development Fund that is created where every country of the
region devotes a small percentage of its national budget. This budget is then adminis-
tered by a secretary-general who is unafraid of taking bold decisions because of who he
is (a politician). Part of the fund goes to create a string of ponds to conserve rain-water
in the Deccan. Schools are funded in Baluchistan. Health posts are built in Motihari
and mini hydroelectricity plants are financed in Kumaun. Suppose the fund also has a
mechanism—institutions, funds, and authority—for dispatching immediate relief in
case of a disaster anywhere in the region.
Rise of Regionalism 129

Aiming for a common rupee and building a trading block are not original ideas. The
challenges before Southasia are much more complex and enormous. And fortunately,
so are the opportunities. More than one-fifth of humanity, with so much in common,
is in dire need of political innovations for the common good. For how long can we
keep living, with the clock ticking towards midnight, without doing something about it
The leaky boat that we are on—Southasia—cannot be protected by the Islamic
bomb or Hindu missiles. It cannot be kept afloat by—horror of horrors—Buddhist ha-
tred. And it cannot be saved by our heads meeting once in a while to smile and pretend
that everything will ultimately turn out just right. In 1986, even SAARC was a bold
idea—a huge fish that would carry the sinking boat along for a while. Now is the time
to design something else that can fly. Fish don’t fly.
(This column by C. K. Lal first appeared in the January 2004 issue of Himal Southasian.
http://www.himalmag.com/2004/january/southasianphere.htm. Accessed 25 October 2007.)

Institutions and instruments that need to be initiated in future will have to be

grounded in the realities of Southasia rather than be patterned after the European
Union or ASEAN. Unlike other regional groupings, people of Southasia already share
a lot; it is the ruling establishments of the region that need to be brought together.
What Southasia needs is a regional Parliament, not just a forum of parliamentarians
of the region. The Indian weight frightens many Southasians, but consensual politics
is based upon the assumption that the majority alone isn’t enough. The risk that
representatives from non-democratic states in Southasia may catch the virus of popular
politics when sitting in Southasian parliament is always there,9 but that’s a very low
price to pay for the stability and prosperity of the region.
A Southasian judiciary, with consultative and arbitration authority to begin
with, can be created by a treaty to be ratified by all member countries. The best,
of course, would be to create a Southasian constitution, but that is something that
cannot be rushed through. Sufficient preparation is necessary to go towards ultimate
Southasian unity through a consensual constitution.
Southasian monetary authority and a regional development bank are immediate
possibilities. Beyond that, the feasibility of a common currency should be examined
with the harsh ground reality in mind. Sixty years ago, ‘thousands of Muslims had
to manufacture a provisional currency for their new state by stamping huge piles of
Indian rupee notes with rubber stamps marked “Pakistan”’. 10 Attachment to postage
stamps and currency in relatively new countries of Southasia is too strong to give
up. Years of simultaneous existence of national and regional currencies will have to
be facilitated before unification of symbols evolve. For that to happen, the role of
a regional monetary authority to maintain the delicate balance between currency
conversion rates will be important.
Can there be a Southasian supranational executive? That’s a tough question to
answer. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, firebrand Tariq Ali had argued, ‘A voluntary
130 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Federation of South Asian Republics must remain the goal not only of socialists, but also
of democrats, who should not accept the cruel and arbitrary lines drawn by past British
rulers to divide nationalities and tribes from each other.’11 He is still arguing on similar
lines. Answering to Aoun Abbas of Newsline for the October 2007 issue, Ali insisted,
If we look at the situation in Pakistan and India, I feel we need a European
Union–style structure in South Asia. Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and
Sri Lanka need to form a South Asian union which can later be expanded
within this framework.12
The lesson that can be drawn is that if EU took fifty years from its establishment
as EEC by the six federalist states in 1958, there is no reason to lose hope and redouble
the effort to realize the plural unity of all Southasia with a common currency, common
postage stamp and common internet marker—.su, in place of .np or .in.

1. Quoted by Phar Kim Beng. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/EB20Ae03.
html. Accessed 24 October 2007.
2. The ASEAN Way and the Rule of Law, Address by Rodolfo C. Severino, Secretary Gen-
eral of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, at the International Law Conference
on ASEAN Legal Systems and Regional Integration sponsored by the Asia-Europe Insti-
tute and the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, 3 September 2001.
This address provides an overview of the evolution of ASEAN. http://www.aseansec.
org/3132.htm. Accessed 24 October 2007.
3. ‘Indira Gandhi’s anticipatory perception was that such a grouping would serve as a forum
for countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan to exert collective pressure on
India on issues on which they differed from us,’ reminisced a career foreign service officer
J. N. Dixit (1996) in My South Block Years: Memoirs of a Foreign Secretary, UBSPD, New
Delhi. p. 383.
4. The organization was tentatively named South Asian Regional Cooperation (SARC).
Pran Chopra glosses over the hesitations of India. Pran Chopra et al. (eds) (1986 ), Future
of South Asia, Macmillan India. p. 40.
5. Quoted by P. V. Narasimha Rao, ‘Non-Alignment Today and Tomorrow’ in K. P Mishra
and K. R Narayanan (eds) (1981), Non-Alignment in Contemporary International Rela-
tions, Vikas Publishing, New Delhi p. 4.
6. When Air Cdr (R) S. M. Abbas wrote ‘SAARC: A Viable Organization?’ in Pakistan
Times (http://pakistantimes.net/2004/01/05/guest2.htm, accessed 15 October 2007), he
was merely echoing the sniggers of many influential defence personnel of his country.
Elsewhere in Southasia, the annual summit was dismissed as show of bonhomie that cost
a lot to the host country but produced very little.
7. ‘S.A.A.R.C.: A Potential Playground for Power Politics’ says a report of The Power and Inter-
est News Report (PINR) drafted by Sreeradha Dutta. The report concludes that expansion
Rise of Regionalism 131

of SAARC ‘also entails a new great power rivalry in South Asia.’ http://www.pinr.com/
report.php?ac=view_report&report_id=473&language_id=1. Accessed 15 October 2007.
8. A critique of the SAARC Secretariat by its first Secretary General slams member states,
‘the strict control imposed on the Secretary General is symptomatic of member states’
hesitation to part with a degree of their sovereignty’ and expects civil society and media
of the region to raise advantages of regional cooperation. Abul Ahsan, Critiquing SAARC
Secretariat, SAFMA Regional Conference. http://www.southasianmedia.net/conference/
Regional_Cooperation/critiquing.htm. Accessed 25 October 2007.
9. A leading Indian journalist argued on these lines, ‘It is not just India’s size that creates
insecurity among neighbours; it is also the paranoia of their rulers, fearing that the lure of
democracy and friendship might prove too tempting for their people, particularly when
amalgamated to the truth of a common culture. Democratic urges wafting across borders
could fuel movements to overthrow the vested interests who have seized power in both
Pakistan and Bangladesh. If India, with its immensely greater problems, can afford democ-
racy, why cannot Pakistan or Bangladesh?’ M. J. Akbar (1985). India: The Siege Within,
Penguin Books. p. 99. Italics in the quote added for emphasis.
10. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (1979). Freedom at Midnight, Bell Books, New
Delhi, Fifth Edition. p. 170.
11. Tariq Ali (1983), Can Pakistan Survive: The Death of a State, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
p. 197.
12. http://www.newsline.com.pk/NewsOct2007/faceoct2007.htm. Accessed 26 October 2007.
8 Shared Destiny

The problem with glorious history is that it makes the miseries of the present more
difficult to endure, and the future looks even more frightening than it is, when
compared to the grandeur of the past. As Southasians grapple through several
crises all at the same time, there is a sense of desperation in the air. Agonies seem
to prolong, hopes appear dimmer and trials and tribulations seem never-ending. It’s
during such periods of history of any civilization that vision, along with fortitude,
becomes essential ingredients of survival.
Southasians are endowed with enough stamina, some would say that the ability
of common Southasians to patiently suffer exploitation and pain is more than
necessary, but visionary leadership to steer the region safely into the future has always
been found wanting. It was the military leadership that failed in the Battle of Plassey
in 1757; the failure of the political class threw away the initial gains of the Rebellion
of 1857; and Westernized Oriental Gentlemen (WOGs) at the helm of affairs in
1947 failed miserably to handle the consequences of independence responsibly. For
the last 60 years, the subcontinent has suffered the hubris of its leaders of all kinds.
There were several other factors at play in moments of historical crisis, but a thread
common to all historic debacles has been the absence of a clearly outlined vision that
was widely understood and commonly shared. The necessity of vision, mission, goals,
objectives and outcomes for Southasian unity is widely accepted across the region.
However, the aims and aspirations of constituent societies of Southasian civilization
vary over processes and procedures of realizing shared objectives. This situation is
likely to change, mainly due to reasons beyond the control of Southasians. A common
survival strategy will have to be formulated to deal with emerging conflicts created
by the forces of globalization, unilateralism and identity politics. The governance
structure will have to be built with values and principles of democracy and human
rights to withstand external and internal forces at play to weaken Southasian societies.
Inescapability of globalization has entered the realm of conventional wisdom; to
question it is to invite ridicule. But the trade-based process of globalization excludes
subsistence farmers, unskilled labour, the sick, the children, the aged, the differently-
abled, the weak, the marginalized and all other non-economic persons almost by
definition. Inspired by Thomas L. Friedman and his The World Is Flat: A Brief History
of the Twenty-First Century eulogy to globalization, a new Flat Earth Society has sprung
up that sings hosannas in praise of global capital, a long-distance workforce and
wireless communications. Some members of the privileged intelligentsia in Southasia
Shared Destiny 133

drive in their luxurious Lexus and Jeep Cherokees pretending that everyone in the
subcontinent will be eating McDonalds, sipping colas and living off wages from call
centres. Globalization, however, is just a fancy new name for capitalism1—the process
that creates endless conflicts between interest groups. The accompanying review
of the book Bound Together shows some of the stresses that may break to unleash
instability in the region.

Enthusiasm Unbound: The Untrammelled Gusto

of Globalization’s Adherents
C. K. Lal
For millennia, Aryabharta encompassed the world for the elite of India. The area was
big enough to accommodate the ambitions of the Mauryan rulers. Its astounding
diversity kept the best of Brahmin brains perpetually engaged with the mystery of the
before—and afterlife. Farmers ploughed, and hunters or herders went about their daily
tasks, without bothering much about the world beyond the Arabian Sea or the Bay
of Bengal. Some contact with the rest of the world was maintained through land routes.
But frontiers were dangerous places to live: marauders from abroad frequently plundered
these regions.
For a very long time, only merchants or fisher folk dared sail across the seas. The rest
feared the pollution of the black waters. As late as the mid-19th century, Jang Bahadur
Kunwar Rana, the Maharaja of Lamjung and Kaski from Nepal, was still able to become
the first ‘Eastern potentate’ to set foot inside Birmingham Palace. That, of course, sud-
denly changed with the departure of the British from Southasia. With the colonialists
gone and brown sahibs in power, there was no risk of being ridiculed as ‘imperial agents’
after coming back home from the land of the firangis.
‘Go West’ has become the anthem of the middle class in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan
and Sri Lanka, especially for the offspring of those professionals who have benefited
so immensely from their association with the colonial establishment. These are the il-
lustrious Macaulay’s Children, who have shone in every profession in each of their ad-
opted countries. Bongs, Gujjus, Punjus, K’digas, Mallus and Tam-Brams, having slogged
throughout their coursework at various IITs just to get the chance to slog even more in
Europe and the United States, now form a veritable universe of the English-speaking
global elite. Add to that the ever-burgeoning number of ABDs (American-Born Desis),
DVDs (Diversity Visa Dependents) and NRIs, and it becomes clear that the size of the
global Southasian community is now large enough to deserve its own icons.
There are cosmopolitan Indians in trade and industry, with Laxmi Niwas Mittal and
Swaraj Paul among the better known for their wealth and chutzpah, respectively. But
more than the rich and famous, it is the knowledgeable who are the favourites of the
fawning middle class back home in Southasia. Jagdish N. Bhagwati of Columbia Uni-
versity, Lord Meghnad Desai of England and Amartya Kumar Sen of Harvard University
may not be household names in Dharavi, but their works are hotly debated at university
campuses in Colombo, Dhaka, Islamabad and New Delhi. Now Nayan Chanda wishes
to join their rank with Bound Together, his new book about globalization.
134 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Like Sen, Chanda too went to school in Bengal. But unlike the lifelong academic Sen,
Chanda chose to focus on journalism. It is too early to say whether this decision was a loss
for academia or not, but Chanda’s career choice has definitely been a gain for journalism.
Although he had a relatively uneventful stint at the Far Eastern Economic Review, he still
manages to write with the felicity of a magazine reporter. Every chapter of Bound Together
abounds with intriguing snippets, gripping tales and delightful turns of phrases. The book
is such an engrossing read that its main theory—that there is no escaping the globaliza-
tion process; that it has been going on for 60,000 years and will continue to do so into the
infinite future—tends to disappear in the maze of anecdotes, asides and stories.
Every book has a beginning, middle and end; but a magazine can be flipped open and
read from almost everywhere. Somehow, it makes more sense to read the last chapter of
Chanda’s book, ‘The Road Ahead’, and then come back to the beginning. Indeed, the
epilogue provides a better context for Chanda’s work than what the author says in the intro-
duction. ‘The big differences that mark the globalization of the early years with the present
are in the velocity with which products and ideas are transferred, the very growing volume
of consumers and products and their variety, and the resultant increase in the visibility of
the process’, gushes Chanda in a single breath, italicizing all the v-words—the allusion to
victory unmistakable—for effect rather than emphasis. At the same time, he seems to have
intentionally ignored the arguably more important corollary: the vulnerability of the mar-
ginalized in the globalization process.

Bound Together begins with ‘The African Beginning’, which attempts to confirm the ‘Out
of Africa’ theory of human origin on the basis of results of the author’s own DNA. The very
widely dispersed M168 marker can be traced to an African man, who lived some 31,000
to 79,000 years ago, and is the common ancestor of every non-African person living today.
His descendents migrated out of Africa and became the only lineage to survive away from
humanity’s home continent.
So, does that make George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden distant cousins? But, more to
the point, how does this knowledge help to reduce the hegemony of the West over the rest?
The author tells his readers that traders opened land and sea routes that were later used
by preachers, adventurers and warriors to weave financiers, producers, transporters, dis-
tributors and consumers into a unified garland of globalization. In a way, transformation
of the wide-world web into the World Wide Web was a natural phenomenon, and one that
is now largely unstoppable. There is nothing new in this TINA (There Is No Alternative)
worldview. Ever since Margaret Thatcher propounded this viewpoint for political objectives
back in the 1980s, it has become the default position of neo-liberals and neo-conservatives
At the same time, there has to be an alternative to a system that makes this world so
unequal. India has the largest number of absolute poor in the world, but it is also home
to the largest number of (dollar) billionaires outside the US and Russia. Clearly, the val-
ues of the idea of vasudhaiva kutumbkam (the whole world is a family) are very different
from the bourgeois belief of the world as your oyster. Globalization is a fundamentally
flawed world order of winners and losers—and, hence, inherently instable. A dose of uni-
versalism—of human rights, democracy and governance—is necessary to make it slightly
less tyrannical.
Shared Destiny 135

Globalization has succeeded in establishing its primacy through a complex mix of leg-
ends, laws, language and literature. For the globalizers of the world, laws are what the rich
decide. That is how the Bretton Woods Sisters and their development associates work:
International Monetary Fund conditionalities and World Bank consultants at times su-
persede the constitutional provisions of recipient countries. The language of globalization
is also invariably English: the lingua franca of an empire established by British merchants,
micro-managed by Afro-Asian agents, institutionalized by Orientalists, protected by impe-
rial gunships, and made acceptable by the words and actions of what have been referred
to as WOGs—Westernized Oriental Gentlemen—who willingly shoulder the white man’s
burden for him.
Edward Said has said more about the role and function of literature in ensuring colonial
hegemony than was perhaps necessary. The late professor failed to fully appreciate the fact
that the new Orientalists were often escapees from the Third World, who propagated the
values of their masters with a vengeance. For all its scholarship, Bound Together is essentially
a polemical tract that seeks to promote the agenda of globalization by manufacturing leg-
ends—the final tool of hegemony.

Self-destruction Mode
Despite the ritual opposition of tattooed protestors at Davos and World Trade Organization
jamborees, the grip of globalization continues to tighten. Nonetheless, slowly, but unmistak-
ably, a parallel movement for the promotion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
the covenants on economic and social rights, and democratic governance has begun to take
shape. That is where hope lies for the destitute, the marginalized and the weak of the world.
Globalization and universalism are twins of a process that began millennia ago in Africa. The
bad guy (the choice of the masculine is intentional) has maintained his primacy, but ultimate-
ly it is the good that will prevail. The real TINA is, in fact, universalism, not globalization.
Ironically, after marshalling the flow of facts retrieved from selective amnesia to estab-
lish the inevitability of globalization, Chanda is constrained to recognize, in his concluding
As we move further into the twenty-first century, global connections forged by his-
tory’s warriors have emerged as globalization’s most problematic legacy. The world’s sole
superpower, the United States, which many view as the new Rome, has enormous, near
imperial power without an obvious empire.
This empire seems to have gone into self-destruction mode—aiding global conflicts, abet-
ting mindless exploitation of the earth’s resources and augmenting greenhouse gases.
If the world is currently under a level of stress never before seen in human history, the
credit for creating such a situation must go to the unrestrained forces of globalization.
The elite have tremendously benefited from their ability to access the Internet freely and
from the pressurized comfort of executive-class seats in long-haul aircrafts, while sipping
complementary champagne. But all of the planes in the world are not enough to give a
single joyride to the poor of Africa, the continent where our collective history began.
(This book review by C. K. Lal first appeared in the October–November 2007 issue of Himal
Southasian, available at http://www.himalmag.com/2007/october_november/bound_together_
review.html. Accessed 27 October 2007.)
136 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Commenting upon reasons that made The Age of Capital a period of conflicts
and war, Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm asks, ‘What made this period of history
relatively so bloody?’ He himself proposes a likely answer, ‘In the first place, it was
the very process of global capitalist expansion which multiplied tensions within the
overseas world, the ambitions of the industrial world, the direct and indirect conflicts
arising out of it.’2 Even within societies, unbridled capitalism pits desperate have-nots
with fearful haves against each other in different forms of conflicts that invariably
end in violence. The insecurity of isles of prosperity floating in the sea of poverty is
even more intense among the newly rich who embrace fundamentalism with fervour.
Observes Khalish Badaulvi, ‘Jis jagah aaee hai, tanha naheen aiee daulat, Buzdili aaee
hai, aish aaye hain, dar aaye hain’. (In the translation of Khushwant Singh, ‘Wherever
wealth has come, / it has never come alone / With it comes cowardice, desires to
indulge in pleasures and insecurity’.3 This insecurity drives the newly rich into
irrational aggression.
The extension of hyperpower hegemony in Southasia dates back at least to
the 1950s when power elites of the region found that USA’s convivial policies were
somehow more comfortable than the haughty demeanour of colonial masters in
Europe or the patronizing tone of the ruling class in USSR. Globalization accelerated
the process. In the wake of 9/11, Americans are now significant players in the
subcontinent. Its unilateralism has been on display in South America for a long time;
now Southasia is its new playground.
Tragically, unilateralism—the very term has ‘USA’ inherent to it—isn’t going to
go away. As Robert Kagan wrote recently in Hoover Institution’s Policy Review,
When people talk about a Bush Doctrine, they generally refer to three sets
of principles—the idea of preemptive or preventive military action; the pro-
motion of democracy and “regime change”; and a diplomacy tending toward
“unilateralism”, a willingness to act without the sanction of international bod-
ies such as the United Nations Security Council or the unanimous approval of
its allies.
It is worth asking not only whether past administrations acted differently but
also which of these any future administrations, regardless of party, would promise
to abjure in its conduct of foreign policy. As scholars from Melvyn P. Leffler to John
Lewis Gaddis have shown, the idea of preemptive or preventive action is hardly a
novel concept in American foreign policy. And as policymakers and philosophers
from Henry Kissinger to Michael Walzer have agreed, it is impossible in the present
era to renounce such actions a priori. As for “regime change,” there is not a single
administration in the past half-century that has not attempted to engineer changes of
regime in various parts of the world, from Eisenhower’s CIA-inspired coups in Iran
and Guatemala and his planned overthrow of Fidel Castro, which John F. Kennedy
attempted to carry out, to George Herbert Walker Bush’s invasion of Panama to
Bill Clinton’s actions in Haiti and Bosnia. And if by unilateralism we mean an
unwillingness to be constrained by the disapproval of the UN Security Council, by
Shared Destiny 137

some of the NATO allies, by the OAS, or by any other international body, which
presidents of the past allowed themselves to be so constrained?
Kagan further rubs it in,
So long as Americans elect leaders who believe it is the role of the United States
to improve the world and bring about the “ultimate good,” and so long as American
power in all its forms is sufficient to shape the behavior of others, the broad direction
of American foreign policy is unlikely to change, absent some dramatic—indeed,
genuinely revolutionary—effort by a future administration.4
Due to the influence of mercantilist globalization and military unilateralism,
the western media has begun to add fuel to the fire of destruct between states in
Southasia. With one billion possible consumers, India is the current favourite. It
helps that India can be projected as a democratic counter-poise to authoritarian
China.5 So, unabashed glorification of India in the western media is matched
only by the relentless vilification of Pakistan.6 An anguished op-ed writer notes
The reality of our own multi-dimensional causes of internal security dovetails
into both genuine fears and strong prejudices of the Americans. Aided by the
mainstream media, the dominant western wisdom identifies Muslim behav-
ioural patterns and religiosity largely as root causes of terrorism.7
The treatment meted out to other Southasian states is no better. Henry Kissinger’s
infamous dismissal of Bangladesh as ‘a basket case’ has been revised as a lost cause
while Sri Lanka is derided as strife torn. The Maoists of Nepal are presented larger
than life to create a spectre of extremist takeover while Bhutan is patted on the back
for benevolent dictatorship creating ‘gross happiness’ through ethnic cleansing of its
minority Lhotsampa community.
In short, Southasia is a region under siege and only through united action can it
extricate itself out of its present predicament. Unfortunately, the third dimension of
current crisis—identity and nationalism—makes its challenges much more complex.
Nationalism, whether cultural or political, is essentially an artefact, a construct; and
when the two come together in the form of linguistic nationalism based on territory,
state nationalism in other words, it tends to become exclusionary.8
For state nationalism, real or (as in the case of monarchs) invented for con-
venience, was a double-edged strategy. As it mobilized some inhabitants, it
alienated others—those who did not belong, or wish to belong, to the nation
identified with the state. In short, it helped to define the nationalities excluded
from the official nationality by separating out those communities which, for
whatever reason, resisted the official public language and ideology,
wrote E. J. Hobsbawm about ‘Waving Flags: Nations and Nationalism’ in The Age of
Empire 1875–1914.9
Due to these intricacies of various nationalisms, two kinds of forces—centrifugal
cultural-linguistic nationalism and centripetal political-economic nationalism
138 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

working against each other—are tearing the region apart. The blame game Bangladesh,
Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka play against each other of harbouring
terrorists springs from fear of the ‘other’ that each one of them have created.10
Conventional wisdom tells us that politics divide while cultures unite, but apparently
culture and politics implicate each other. Solutions will probably have to be sought
in a way that Rabindranath Tagore put: ‘Where there is genuine difference, it is only
by expressing and restraining the difference in its proper place that it is possible to
fashion unity. Unity cannot be achieved by issuing legal fiats that everybody is one.’11
The Southasian vision of plural unity is thus a necessity but not an immediate
possibility. However, a balance between what is desirable—one Southasia under
one flag, one currency, one defence force and one people of an ancient civilization
dedicated to the values of universalism; and what is possible in the short-term—a
confederation of sovereign states staying together to face the triangular challenges of
globalization, unilateralism and eruption of long-suppressed identities all over the
region; need to be maintained and sequenced carefully.

Agenda for Change

A normative agenda for change in Southasia has to aim for the enhancement in
the quality of life of the last Southasian living at the margins of society wherever
he is resident. Such a plan will have cultural components that encompass dialogue
between religions, assembly of languages, inter-faith forums and a congregation of
ethnicities. Some work in that direction has been done.12
Issues of politics, famously framed by Harold Lasswell as ‘who gets what, when
and how’, are being explored at various levels. From the role of women in decision-
making13 to reconstructing Southasia, attempts have been made to conceptualize
Southasian integration from various angles. Perhaps due to lessons learnt from the
erstwhile EEC and present ASEAN, ‘South Asian Economic Integration and Unity’14
has already been imagined with civil society’s concerns on ‘Poverty in South Asia’15
and ‘South Asian People’s Development Agenda’16 complementing the picture.
The Delhi Policy Group has compiled seminar proceedings that deal with issues of
security.17 Each of these volumes, as indeed several others that keep appearing all
the time, is a useful building block of the Southasian confederation. But governance
architecture has to be kept in mind to visualize the unified picture.
The institutional structure for governance architecture will have to think of
civil society initiatives, alliance between political parties, intergovernmental forums,
bureaucratic and security exchanges, interaction between economic society enterprises
and actors, engagement of judicial institutions and intellectual input to make all such
efforts productive.
Civil society initiatives are perhaps the most evolved forums of Southasian
interactions. From accountants, business persons, civil aviation professionals, doctors,
engineers and journalists to human rights activists, trade unionists and writers,
Shared Destiny 139

all kinds of pan-Southasian alliances have come up with the promise of a better a
more accommodative region. A generalized measure of civil society functioning that
sets standards of decency, participation, fairness,18 efficiency and accountability is
necessary to bring greater compatibility between such initiatives across Southasia.
Alliances across borders between political parties are the weakest. This may be so
because of rampant ideological confusion. With the exception of Maoists who have
formed a grandiose but barely functional Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties
and Organization of South Asia (CCOMPOSA),19 moderate parties seldom go beyond
inviting their fraternal organizations at some formal conventions. Fundamentalists of
the Hindu20 or Muslim21 variety maintain close links. But despite the legend of the
Muslim ummah, perhaps there are more Islamic parties in South Asia than anywhere
else in the world; Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) of Pakistan alone is an alliance
of six opposition Islamic parties. Moderate political parties will have to formulate
standards of accessibility, openness, competitiveness, representation, effectiveness,
influence and accountability and build alliances across borders.
Intergovernmental forums too have evolved since the establishment of SAARC,
but proactive measures are conspicuous by their absence. There is an urgent need
to have a forum of National Planning Commissions where common issues can be
debated in an environment of understanding. Bureaucratic and military exchanges are
yet to begin in right earnest. Southasian countries are some of the largest contributors
to UN Peacekeeping Forces, and yet they seldom train together in the region.
Works on several fronts have to be simultaneously initiated, but some pan-
Southasian institutions need to be created—mandated by the SAARC Summit and
ratified by legislatures of member countries to make them really effective—where
people think and work like Southasians rather than representatives of their home

The Southasian Institute of Governance: To train Southasian administrators

to think above narrow nationalistic boundaries and improve their effectiveness, per-
haps there is a place for such an institution to be based, say, in Hyderabad, Andhra
Pradesh. The colonial administrative practices inherited from the British have proved
to be unsuitable for the changed context. But what will really work needs to be inves-
tigated and practiced in an informed manner.

The Southasian Centre for Democracy: There is no ‘ideal’ form of democracy.

That’s the reason constant innovation is necessary. It would require research, dissemi-
nation of findings and constant monitoring. It is exceedingly difficult to build up
democratic traditions in an authoritarian manner.
The essence of democracy is constant probing and responsible criticism on
the part of social groups enjoying genuine independence from the state. How
can social independence develop when a state asserts the right to undisputed
primacy? Yet how can society be modernized except through state leadership?
As in the case of most great issues of political philosophy, there is no specific
140 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

solution. All depends upon choices made and the traditions which evolve in a
given historical situation,22
wrote a perceptive observer for the Indian situation in early sixties. The perplexity
is still the same. Scholars from all over Southasia will have to work together to find
out what really works in this region. Due to its vibrant political society, Calcutta will
perhaps be best suited for such an institution.

The Southasian Council of Cultures: Perhaps this would be the least con-
troversial common forum, but also one of the most influential in the long run to
rediscover cultures of Southasian civilization. Bhopal—the self-proclaimed heart of
Hindustan will perhaps be the proper location for this ambitious venture.

The Southasian Academy of Performing Arts: Where else but in Poona can
the centre of excellence in Southasian performing arts function at its best?

Institute of Southasian Futures: Let thinkers and literatures of the subconti-

nent gather somewhere in Kashmir or Mizoram to contemplate over our common
futures and consult with specialists in genetic engineering, biotechnology, oceanic
and polar studies or practitioners of occult exchange notes with explorers of outer
space. A society can make progress by traversing the path beaten by others, but it
needs the courage to explore to break new grounds.

The Southasian Commission of Human Rights: The dream of such an institu-

tion appears tantalizingly near, but if its commissioners were to act as nationals of
member states working together, there is no way it will be possible to keep interna-
tional agencies out of the picture.23 Every member of the Southasian organization
will have to be groomed to think and act like a Southasian, at least when on regional
call of duty.

The Southasian University: This is yet another programme agreed in principle

but not going anywhere due to state-centric formulation of the concept. With the
government of India taking its responsibility, the university is proposed to be located
in New Delhi, a place bristling with chauvinists like in Islamabad, and will frighten
away most regional scholars. A more suitable location for the Southasian University
would undoubtedly be Dhaka.

The Southasian Monetary Commission: As a precursor to the central bank of

Southasia, a monetary commission is needed to do the groundwork for common cur-
rency, compatible trade policies, complementary fiscal regime and other such matters
that advisors of IMF currently set for Southasian countries. The most appropriate
place for such an institution will naturally be either Mumbai or Karachi.

Regional Development Fund: Rather than the least developed countries, the
least development areas of Southasia have to be the focus of the Southasian Fund for
Shared Destiny 141

Sustainable Development and Livelihood. Such an organization will have to be based

in Kabul or Colombo to be able to consider entire Southasia as one undivided unit.
Institutions create instruments, beget organizations and acquire a momentum of
their own in due course. That’s the reason integrative institutions have to be designed
despite the current animosity and climate of distrust between Southasian countries.

1. Thomas Friedman admitted almost as much in his conversation with Nayan Chanda,
‘I would argue that there have been three great eras of globalization. One I would call,
for shorthand, Globalization 1.0. That was from about 1492 till 1800 when we saw the
beginning of global arbitrage … The second great era was 1800 till the year 2000 … that
era was really spearheaded by companies globalizing, for markets and for labour …
and when “we’d entered Globalization 3” it requires “four things: quality infrastruc-
ture, quality education, quality environment, and quality investment laws.”’ http://
yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=5581. Accessed 27 October 2007.
2. E. J. Hobsbawm (1992), The Age of Capita 1848–1875l, Rupa and Company. p. 98
3. http://www.tribuneindia.com/2005/20050604/saturday/above.htm. Accessed 27 October
4. http://www hoover.org/publications/policyreview/8552512.html. Accessed 25 July
5. Juxtaposition of economies of China and India is most recently done in David Smith
(2007), The Dragon and the Elephant, Profile Books, London.
6. The tone and tenor of Newsweek’s cover-story, ‘Where the Jihad Lives Now: Islamic
militants have spread beyond their tribal bases, and have the run of an unstable,
nuclear-armed nation.’ It isn’t just offensive, it’s almost propagandist warmongering.
Among other things, it insinuates that ‘Militancy is woven into the fabric of Pakistani
society’. http://www. newsweek.com/id/57485 Accessed October 27, 2007.
7. http://www.thenews.com.pk/daily_details.asp?id=76833. Accessed 27 October 2007.

8. ‘The articulation of cultural nationalism revolves around first, the beliefs concerning
the distinctness, integrity, uniqueness and superiority of one’s culture and second,
the claim that such a culture is the proper and legitimate repository of collective and
determinative power. The culture is named and identified, its contours delineated
and lineage traced, its rise and fall in history noted and potential threat to it identi-
fied. Then this sanctified culture, with its internal power-configuration, is projected
as the normative model for the present and future nation. Finally, the demand is
raised that collective power congrue with this national culture. Cultural-nationalist
articulation is thus a process that sets forth the nation as an ideological-cultural con-
struct,’ theorises a scholar for Southasian context. G. Aloysius (2006), Nationalism
without a Nation in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Seventh Impression,
pp. 131–132.
142 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

9. E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875–1914. Rupa & Co, Calcutta, 1992. p. 150.
10. Afsan Chowdhury (2004). ‘Borders and Boundaries and Media: The Diaspora of
Imagination’ in Rita Manchanda (ed.), Media Crossing Borders, South Asia, Forum
for Human Rights, Kathmandu. ‘On 27 August 2003, PTV World had a speaker who
said that when India and Pakistan speak of “brotherhood”, they are actually calling
for the end of 1947. So brotherhood should not be at the cost of nationhood. In India,
hostility in general and borders in particular have become big business and hate itself,
a test of patriotism. So the border keeps the enemy out and the good people in. Border
is the imagination of the “Other”. Without the border, nationalism as is imagined,
would have to be adjusted.’ p. 27.
11. Quoted by Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal (2005), Modern South Asia: History, Cul-
ture, Political Economy, Oxford University Press, New Delhi. p. 203.
12. A useful compendium is introduced by Karan Singh and N. N Vohra (2001) (eds),
Culture, Democracy and Development in South Asia, Shipra Publications, New Delhi.
Writing about National Consolidation in South Asian Societies, J. N. Dixit argues in
it: ‘The only way in which the ethno-centric identities can be linked to larger national
identities is to work towards confederal political and economic arrangements which
would respect strong ethnicities and which would be responsive to their political and
economic aspirations. Thus, such a response, if it is sufficiently meaningful, would
persuade ethno-linguistic groups to come around the view that being part of larger
ethno-cultural arrangements would be beneficial to each individual group.’ p. 69.
13. A comprehensive report titled ‘Reviving Democracy: The Emerging Role of Women
in Decision Making’ was published in 2003 by South Asia Partnership International
based in Sri Lanka. The report, however, treats each country as a discreet unit rather
than an inalienable part of Southasian whole.
14. Saifuddin Soz et al. (eds) (2004), Towards South Asian Economic Integration and
Unity, Foundation for Peace and Sustainable Development, New Delhi.
15. Poverty in South Asia: Civil Society Concerns, published by South Asia Alliance for
Poverty Eradication (SAAPE), Kathmandu, 2006.
16. Thematic Report of South Asian Peoples Summit titled South Asian Peoples Develop-
ment Agenda, South Asia Partnership, Kathmandu & South Asian Network for Social
and Agricultural Development, New Delhi, 2005.
17. Comprehensive Security in South Asia, Seminar Proceedings, Delhi Policy Group,
New Delhi, 2001.
18. These parameters of governance are based largely on the template used by Goran
Hyden, Julius Court and Kenneth Mease, Making Sense of Governance: Empirical
Evidence from 16 Developing Countries, Viva Books, First Indian Edition, 2005.
19. CCOMPOSA has five constituent members from Bangladesh, one each from Bhutan,
Nepal and Sri Lanka, three from India, and none from Afghanistan, Burma, Maldives,
Pakistan or Tibet. Its declaration is available at http://cpnm.org/new/ccomposa/cco/
cco_dclr htm. Accessed 27 October 2007.
Shared Destiny 143

20. Vishva Hindu Parishad claims to be ‘dedicated to serving the interests of Hinduism
world wide’. Its regularly updated website http://www.vhp.org/ (accessed 27 October
2007), appears to be provocative by design.
21. Even though from an Indian viewpoint, Islamic Extremism and Subversion in South
Asia by Ajai Sahni is a good introductory analysis that gives Islamic extremism a
Southasian perspective. http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/ajaisahni/NATIV2002 htm.
Accessed 27 October 2007.
22. Bernard E. Brown, New Directions in Comparative Politics, Asia Publishing House,
23. Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty,
December 2001, has claimed ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ in crisis situations. While
the international community may hesitate to intervene in powerful countries, smaller
countries have no option other than forming regional groupings to withstand outside
pressures. The Responsibility to Protect, International Development Research Centre,
Ottawa, 2001.
9 Common Future

Every country in Southasia has gone through the excruciating process of invention,
imagination, organization, mobilization and independence. Each one of them is
engaged in the challenging exercise of national integration. Differences between states
are being exaggerated; similarities between people understated. Emotional stakes in
nation-states are high. Patriotism has been elevated to the status of religion. In these
charged times, the very mention of Southasian unity raises suspicion. Questions that
any aspiring Southasian is faced with are confounding: why Southasia, why now
and how can it happen when such deep animosity exists between states? However,
the sequencing of questions often suggests that even doubters have a hope hidden in
some corner of their heart that the plural unity of Southasia is a desirable objective.
The instrumental purpose of imagining a Southasian unity is perhaps the clearest.
Any unit of governance is created to face challenges that are similar in nature. Some
of the challenges that the entire Southasia faces may vary in degree, but are almost the
same everywhere in the region.

Crises in the Region

A quiet moment of reflection by any Southasian anywhere will show that his or her
destiny will be affected to a large degree by some of the crises faced by everyone in
the region.

1. Food Security
The population of Southasia is still young and rising. Twenty per cent of the
population in South Asia is between 15 and 24. Consumption of food is on the
increase. Production of cereals, especially coarse grain, the staple of the poor, is
declining. Prices have been climbing for years. At least three Southasian countries—
Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka—are net importers of food. India, the largest
country of Southasia, is barely self-sufficient, and has been sporadically importing
foodstuff including wheat to fight scarcity. Even an institution not really known for
its love of the poor reports,
The International Monetary Fund has taken a microscope to rising global
food prices, and found that food price inflation is significantly higher in poor
Common Future 145

countries than in rich ones. And since food makes up more of a typical house-
hold’s budget in a developing country, the impact on the poor is magnified.
The IMF found that food inflation was an annualized 4.5 per cent worldwide
in the first quarter of 2007, up from a 3 per cent pace a year earlier. For devel-
oping countries, however, food inflation was 9 per cent.1
Food security has four dimensions: food availability, supply stability, access
for all and nutrition for healthy living. According to an assessment, ‘Judged by the
criteria of food insecurity and poverty, South Asia has the distinction of being the
worst affected region.’2 Food crises and pathologies associated with hunger create
conditions for human trafficking, child labour, flesh trade and violence in society. No
Southasian country can contain such challenges alone. However, a concerted effort
can substantially reduce risks for all.

2. Water Scarcity
The looming water scarcity in Southasia is prompting individual governments to
adopt reckless measures. Uncontrolled mining has plummeted groundwater levels in
much of the Ganga plains. Dams are being built in ecologically fragile regions of the
Himalayas. And yet, there is a perennial shortage of safe drinking water in cities and
insufficient water for irrigation in rural areas. These problems are likely to get worse
as Himalayan glaciers melt due to the effects of global warming.3 Like the food crisis,
water crisis too hits the poor first.
The prospect of ‘water wars’—incessant bickering over division of water in
Haryana and Punjab in the north and Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the south,
for example—perhaps prompted the Indian government into a proposed linking
of rivers with scant regard for the ecological catastrophe that such an enterprise is
likely to bring in its wake. But even if such a grandiose scheme were possible, close
cooperation between Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and India will be necessary.
On the western front, sharing of the Indus water or other possible schemes of such
nature will require greater understanding between India and Pakistan.
Water needs will grow: for a rising population, higher standard of living, more
intensive irrigation and industrialization, Southasians will consume more water.
Water scarcity in Southasia is too complex an issue to be handled by even India alone.
But together, Southasia can develop strategies for survival.

3. Energy Security
The world stock of fossil fuel is not going to last forever. As prices increase due to
fluctuations in supply, the poor of Southasia will be badly hit. Even though per capita
energy need of the Southasian poor is not substantial, it is significant for survival.
Energy security in Southasia has necessitated different collaborative measures such
as a pipeline between Iran and India through Pakistan, hydroelectric cooperation
between Bhutan and India, talks of joint efforts for natural gas in the Bay of Bengal.
146 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

These solutions suffer due to a nationalist thinking that dominates the mindset of
negotiators. A regionalist approach—thinking like a Southasian—will accelerate
the process of finding amicable solutions to the trickiest of problems.4 Searching for
alternative energy sources, economical energy use strategies and sharing of surplus
will require the ability to think and act Southasian.

4. Ecological Stress

Human–environment interactions have exacerbated the stress on land, water and

air in Southasia. Soil erosion and rise in salinity affects land productivity adversely.
Water pollution has reached alarming levels in the holy Ganga, and rivers along
densely populated cities resemble open sewers. But it is the air pollution that joins
the poor of Southasia in their misery during winters when dense haze5 robs them of
the only source of heat they can easily access—rays of the sun—for drying grains
or keeping warm. Climate change has been a matter of concern, but the enormity
of a looming crisis necessitates immediate cooperation at least between countries of
Southasia which can then raise their collective voice at global forums.6

5. Natural Calamities
Nature does not recognize any political or administrative boundary. This reality is even
more pronounced in Southasia. Tsunamis, earthquakes and floods that periodically
devastate Southasia require collective disaster preparedness, sharing of data,
cooperation during relief and rehabilitation and collective effort in reconstruction.

The Development Dilemma

It’s neither aid nor trade that has helped the poor of Southasia break free from the
shackles of un-freedom. Remittances from Southasians working abroad has begun to
benefit certain sections of Southasian society, but its impact is uneven; for example,
it has been estimated that Kerala and Tamil Nadu together account for almost half
of all Indian migrant workers. Apart from that, what has been called the ‘money
order economy’ is volatile and is an undependable source of livelihood. Development
efforts have to be directed towards capacity building. However, that’s an area where
most of Southasia lags behind even many developing nations of the world.
Education for all is still a dream in Southasia. With nearly a third of its
population below 15 years, enormous public investment in basic education in the
region is necessary. However, expensive private schooling and poor public education
is widening the gulf between the privileged and the marginalized. Primary schooling
in India is more expensive than university education;7 the situation is somewhat
similar elsewhere in the region too. Gender justice suffers due to Southasian parents’
inclination of prioritizing schooling of the boy-child over the girl-child.
Common Future 147

Health services are an even bigger scandal. Government hospitals are poorly
funded, ill-maintained and suffer from a severe shortage of trained personnel.
Concerns over HIV/AIDS, though slightly exaggerated, are probably justified. But
simple communicable or non-communicable ailments and easily treatable diseases
claim more innocent lives than high-profile maladies. The tragic paradox seen in
Southasian cities is poignant; fearful of lifestyle diseases that afflict the sedentary
section of population, the upper crust sweats it out at expensive health clubs while the
scraggy poor scramble for thrown leftovers in the waste bins of swanky restaurants.
Landlessness remains an unaddressed issue in most of Southasia—the concept of
Special Economic Zone (SEZs) is making the plight of the displaced and dispossessed
worse. Housing for the poor in most parts of Southasia is abysmal and sanitation
facilities despicable. India has more TV sets than toilets.8 But where do Southasian
states spend their money? Apparently, on ‘defence’—a catch-all term for unbridled
militarism. It has been reported that India’s estimated annual expenditure on defence
is roughly the same as the remittances it receives, which is about five times the
estimated expenditure on education in 2007–08.9
The overall impact of unequal distribution and lopsided priorities has been the
exacerbation of latent tensions in society visible most clearly in the rise of religious
fanaticism and left-wing extremism. It has been estimated that the fanaticism in the
name of Khalistan in Punjab claimed the lives of 21,043 people—11,594 civilians,
8,003 ‘terrorists’ and 1,746 security personnel—between 1981 and 1983.10 But its
impact has been wholly negative for the Sikhs till now—the community has lost
its earlier prestige in Indian society. The left-wing extremism by various groups of
Maoists affects at least nine states of the Indian union, but they are no closer to
political success than they were thirty years ago.
Amidst the enveloping darkness, there have been notable successes. Amartya
Sen has pointed out that democracies are less prone to famine-induced catastrophes.
‘Banker to the Poor’ Muhammad Yunus has transformed the way credit can be
forwarded and managed in the developing world. Sri Lankan peace activist A. T.
Ariyaratne persists with his Sarvodaya, a community-based movement inspired by
Buddhist–Gandhian values of truth, non-violence and self-sacrifice. But all these
are candles in the storm. Ranged against them is nothing less than the looming
catastrophe of nuclear confrontation and slow strangulation of the poor by the
beneficiaries of free-market fundamentalism.
With China in the north, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and India and
Pakistan in between—not to mention the Soviets and Israelis—Southasia has turned
into a possible nuclear flashpoint. Unlike conventional weapons, the mere being of
nuclear arms is a security risk for people living in the vicinity. This was the fear
that made Einstein advocate abolition of all nuclear weapons from the planet and
replacement of competitive nation-states with one integrative world government.
Abolition of nuclear weapons from Southasia and replacement of squabbling
Southasian states by a Southasian confederation will perhaps be a positive step
towards Einstein’s utopian goal.
148 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

Free-market fundamentalism has charmed influential Indians into drawing

prejudiced conclusions. S. Narayan is a former Finance Secretary and Economic
Adviser to the Prime Minister of India. He participated in an international conference
on South Asia where conflicting perceptions about India’s rise and its role in Asia were
presented by Professor Yang Dali, Director of the East Asian Institute, the National
University of Singapore. Narayan heard, for example, that
Chinese public perceptions of India seem to be generally benign, bordering on
neglect. In terms of global influence, the Chinese ranked China second behind
the US now, but catching up in 10 years. But they ranked India at the bot-
tom of the top nine countries (US, China, Russia, EU, UK, Germany, France,
Japan and India). And Indians ranked India as the second most influential after
the US. Further, 56 per cent of the Chinese respondents didn’t consider India
as a rival—a far greater proportion in India did. In terms of ability to resolve
conflicts in Asia, 69 per cent of Indians feel positive, but only 30 per cent of the
Chinese feel that Indian intervention would have any major impact.11
He also found that the Chinese model, with its unmistakable emphasis on state
initiative and collectivism, ‘… has been better at providing employment as well as
eradicating poverty’. And yet, what does he suggest, but ‘continued growth and
trade’—the favourite mantra of free-market fundamentalists in Southasia.
A rediscovery of economic collectivism, an ideology that perhaps influenced the
philosophy of Gandhi, is necessary to lift Southasia from the present morass. The
sequence of exigencies—the Second World War, the consequent long Cold War, the
hegemony of the triumphant West for a short while, and then the rise of the all-
consuming religious extremism since the disastrous USSR–USA confrontations in
Afghanistan—have distracted the attention of the world away from the fundamental
reality of human existence: human being is a social animal and it can survive and
progress only through moderated competition and mediated cooperation.
It needs to be reminded that the patron, promoter and protector of free-market
fundamentalism got its original strength by practicing collectivism.
Perhaps no observer could have predicted the rapid advances in collectiv-
ism actually achieved by the United States in 1933, in execution of the “new
deal” for the common man advocated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Submitting to the President’s vigorous leadership as well as to pressure from
numerous private groups, Congress enacted a series of measures bringing the
government at Washington into a direct and extensive control of labour, wages,
working conditions, prices, the rationing of production, the safeguarding of
bank deposits, and the making of securities. The control was to be exercised
in cooperation with private industry; and associations in the several indus-
tries were invited to propose their own regulatory order; but the government
had the final decision both as to the “truly representative” characters of the
“voluntary” associations and as to the acceptability of their codes; and it could
in any instance impose a code of its own,
Common Future 149

wrote an imminent professor of governance at the prestigious Yale University.12

The spectre of a nuclear holocaust and the necessity of evolving Southasian
consensus for collective survival make democratic governance and plural unity of
Southasia a moral imperative.

Democratic Choice
There is no guarantee that adoption of a democratic system, assurance of human
rights and institutionalization of responsive governance will create conditions for
plural unity of Southasia or lift the poor of the region from their misery overnight.
However, the democratic choice can ensure at least five things for the creation of a
better Southasia.
It is said that elections in democracy are the substitutes of funerals of rulers in
authoritarian regimes. Smooth and orderly transfer of power can raise the legitimacy
of the state. Confident states will be more open to the ideas of a Southasian
confederation than usurpers perennially worrying about their perilous position and
power. This proposition is not without an important caveat though—demagogic
politics of leaders addicted to populism can fan jingoism and hatred. However,
popular mandate is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for the ultimate
unity of Southasia.
Tyranny of the majority is not uncommon, but in principle, democratic regimes
are more amenable to the aspirations of the minority. If difference and diversity begin
getting the recognition they deserve within the boundaries of individual states, it
will be much easier to advocate the cause of regional unity. The day Ahmadiyyas
in Bangladesh and Pakistan, Christians in Nepal, Muslims in India, Hindus in
Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and atheists everywhere aren’t made to feel
inferior, Southasian solidarity will begin to emerge.
The development agenda of a democratic state is more likely to be pro-poor
than those of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Even in absolute terms, contrary
examples from East Asia notwithstanding, democracies are no worse, if not better,
than fostering development.13 Participatory politics can be a precursor of participatory
It is possible to argue for and against democracy’s ability to ensure social
justice, but no debate is required to conclude that rule of the social, cultural,
economic, administrative, military or political elite is the fundamental principle
of all authoritarian regimes. In totalitarian regimes, it is whim rather than rational
decisions that sway public policies.
Perhaps the most important gain of democratic transformation would be for the
people at the margins. Prakash Karat, General Secretary of the Communist Party of
India (Marxist), one of the most influential left-of-the-centre political forces in the
world, suggests that,
The struggle to make the political system more meaningful in the lives of
Indian people requires that the struggle to restructure Centre–State relations
150 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

to move towards a more federal system is carried forward. Decentralization of

power and decision making needs to be pushed forward at all levels.14
Decentralization and the resulting devolution will not automatically ensure
gram gwaraj of Gandhi’s imagination, but it will certainly shift the emphasis away
from unbridled consumerism to the sustainability of ‘small is beautiful’.

Southasian Futures
The obsession most Southasians have with the future is a telling sign of their
dissatisfaction with the way things are. Millions of Southasians read astrological
predictions, consult tarot card interpreters, go to fortune tellers, resort to vaastu,
feng shui or numerology and listen to soothsayers and saints. But uncertainty is the
only certainty of the future. It is not apprehension but aspiration that will create a
desirable future for all Southasians.
The midnight’s children of 1947 are now disillusioned sexagenarians. The
offspring of the rebellion of 1971 have entered adulthood. It is true that the nation-
states of Southasia have had to endure a lot of hardships because of each other. But
the challenge lies in going beyond those nightmares and dream of collective peace
and prosperity with social justice for all. A new and united Southasia free from
hunger, disease, ignorance and resulting conflicts is not just desirable but imminently
possible. The time for a United States of Southasian Region (USSR) composed of
independent and confident states, cultures and peoples under a resurgent civilization
has arrived. The alternative is a continuation of fractious region destabilising each
other and hurting themselves and all of Southasia in the process. Everything—
environment, insurgency and human deprivation—has ‘cross-border’ dimensions in
However, obsession with an unpredictable future isn’t a uniquely Southasian
trait. According to a report,
Probably the most ambitious and serious attempt to hunch the future was the
Carnegie Corporation-financed Commission on the Year 2000, a gathering of
distinguished scholars directed by Harvard Sociologist Daniel Bell. It met in
the ‘60s but petered out by 1972. “It makes no sense to predict the future,”
says Bell. “There are too many contingencies. What you can do is identify
relevant frameworks, and identify problems—but you don’t know what will be
done about them, which is the function of political will.”15
Indeed, it would have taken a leap of faith in the sixties to predict the collapse
of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany or the unbridled capitalism of
the ‘communist’ regime in China. But these eventualities, as Daniel Bell would
have assessed, were outcomes of identifying ‘relevant frameworks’ and problems,
and political will to pursue the desired policies, without being too worried about
immediate results.
Common Future 151

Historian Bipan Chandra notes that the Indian nationalist movement was based
on ‘a brilliant and detailed investigation and an all-sided analysis of the economic
roots and motive forces of colonialism’16 before the end of the nineteenth century.
Analyses and preparation of even wider magnitude and more depth are necessary
to lay the foundation of a plural and united Southasia free from the yoke of neo-
imperialism in the guise of free-market fundamentalism.
Is it too early or too late to propose a United States of Southasian Region (USSR)?
No one knows for sure. Philosopher Will Durant says that when William James, one
of the founding fathers of the philosophy of pragmatism and pluralism died, a paper
was found on his desk on which he had written his most characteristic sentence:
‘There is no conclusion. What has concluded that we might conclude in regard to it?
There are no fortunes to be told and there is no advice to be given. Farewell.’ Constant
seeking and ceaseless striving—for truth—are inescapable imperatives of meaningful
life. The more Southasians dedicate themselves to the plural unity of Southasia, the
sooner it will materialize; and better would be the prospect of democracy, human
rights and governance under the new supranational structure. However, as Victor
Hugo is often quoted: ‘There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world,
and that is an idea whose time has come.’ The time for the idea of the plural unity of
Southasia has come. Fewer and fewer people would wish to be left behind and miss
the promised future of a United States of Southasian Region that is sure to evolve.

1. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20071020.MKSTATS20/
TPStory/Business. Accessed 21 October 2007.
2. http://www.fao.org/docrep/004/ab981e/ab981e0a.htm. Accessed 29 October 2007.
3. Sugita Katyal (2004). ‘South Asia Stares at Looming Water Crisis’, Reuters. 1 Decem-
ber. http://www.enn.com/top_stories/article/491/print. Accessed 29 October 2007.
4. SARI has been doing some important work on energy security in Southasia. http://
plete.pdf. Accessed 29 October 2007.
5. Ritesh Gautam et al. Abstract of a technical paper that gives an overview of the haze
that affects Ganga plains the most. ‘Influences of winter haze on fog/low cloud over
the Indo-Gangetic plains’. http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2007/2005JD007036.
shtml. Accessed 29 October 2007.
6. ‘Climate change will devastate India’, wrote Daphne Wysham and Smitu Kothari.
http://www hinduonnet.com/thehindu/thscrip/print.p1?file=2007040902691100htm&
date.=2007/04/09/&prd=th&. Accessed 29 October 2007.
7. ‘ “Households pay almost 28 per cent, of the costs to send their children to primary
and secondary school. These fees pose a very real barrier for the children of poor
152 Human Rights, Democracy and Governance

families”, the report of Global Education Digest 2007, released by UNESCO Institute
for Statistics (UIS), said. “Yet at the same time, households assume just 14 per cent
of the costs for university education, which typically benefits better off students,” it
added’ reported the media in India without provoking public debate that it should
have sparked. The poor don’t make it to state-subsidized universities so easily. http://
Accessed 29 October 2007.
8. ‘… we have 70-80 million TV sets, while there are only 40 million toilets in India.
It clearly tells what kind of priority we have’, says noted civil society activist. http://
www.developednation.org/interviews/drashokkhosla.htm. Accessed 30 October
9. Subodh Varma (2007). ‘NRIs send most money back home’ TNN, 21 October. http://
back_home/articleshow/2477713.cms. Accessed 21 October 2007.
10. Praveen Swami (2007). ‘The road home from Khalistan’, in The Hindu, p. 10. Thurs-
day, 27 September.
11. Posted: Monday, 29 October 2007. 1:30 AM IST. http://www.livemint.
com/2007/10/29013046/How-does-China-see-India.html. Accessed 30 October 2007.
12. Francis W. Coker (1957, Reprinted 1993). Recent Political Thought, The World Press
Private Ltd., Calcutta. The book lists five important characteristics of collectivism: (1)
public ownership, (2) labour legislation, (3) regulation of prices, (4) taxation, and (5)
land policies. pp. 547–559
13. By focusing on seven causal mechanisms consisting of (1) transparency, (2) civil soci-
ety, (3) accountability, (4) learning, (5) equality, (6) consensus, and (7) institutional-
ization, some researchers argue that ‘minimalist democracy’ (multi-party competition)
is good for development, but the deepening of democracy (including, e.g., civil liber-
ties and multiple avenues of participation) is even better. http://www.bu.edu/polisci/
people/faculty/gerring/documents/1Intro.doc. Accessed 11 October 2007.
14. Prakash Karat (2007). ‘Democracy and socio-economic justice, in Independent India
at 60’, Special supplement, The Hindu, Wednesday. 15 August.
15. Thomas Griffith (1980). ‘Guessing Disguised as News’ in Time, Monday, 8 December.
http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,922180,00 html. Accessed 27 October
16. Bipan Chandra (1999). Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India, Orient Long-
man, Reprint. p. 212.

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About the Author

C. K. LAL, a distinguished political columnist in Nepal, has championed the causes

of human rights and democracy for over two decades through his newspaper columns,
magazine articles, scholarly papers, radio and television interviews, and presenta-
tions in various international seminars. Well-known for his irreverent but thoughtful
Southasiasphere column in Himal Southasian, Lal writes against the excesses of mon-
archy, military, merchants and Maoists with equal vigour. He was, recently, voted
by readers as the most popular columnist committed to democracy in his coun-
try. Currently associated with the Himal Group of Publications in Kathmandu, he
writes the well-regarded ‘State of the State’ weekly column in Nepali Times and does
fortnightly political analyses in Himal Khabarpatrika. He writes in Hindi, English,
Maithili and Nepali. His columns have also been published by The Daily Star of
Dhaka, Jansatta of New Delhi and The Telegraph of Calcutta.
This page is intentionally left blank

A Bismarck, 16
Adam, John, 94, 95 blasphemy, 49
Afghanistan, 1, 123–130 Bose, Subhash Chandra, 102
Afghans, 74 Bound Together, 134
The Age of Capital, 136 bourgeoisie, 92
The Age of Empire, 137 The Break-up of Sri Lanka: The Sinhalese-
ahimsa, 116 Tamil Conflict, 35
Ahmadiyya, 18 British colonialism, 32
Ahmed, Justice Shahbuddin, 96 Buddha, 9
Akbar, M. J., 128 bureaucracy, 89
Ali, Meer Mobashwer, 27 Burma, 40
Ambedkar, B. R., 42 political uprising in, 40
Anderson, Benedict, 16 Bush, George W., 113
anti-Ahmadiyya religious bigots, 18
aprigraha, 119 C
April Uprising (2006), 48 caste-based discrimination, 43
Ariyaratne, A. T., 147 centralization, 88
Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 40 chakka-jam, 70
asahayog, 119 Champaran, 118
ASEAN. See Association for South Chand, Lokendra Bahadur, 66
East Asian Nations Chandra, Bipin, 151
Asian Human Rights Charter, 60 Chhetri families, 67
Association for South East Asian Nations China, 148
(ASEAN), 124 China Card, 104
authoritarianism, 57 Chopra, Pran, 125
Awami League, 20 civil society, 52, 101, 138–139
awareness of rights, 34 civilization, 7, 55
Clash of Civilisation, 55
B Clinton, Bill, 136
Bangladesh, 17–28, 93, 123 coalition building, 32
anti-politics hysteria, 31 Cold War, 50, 67
de-secularization of, 17–28 Collingwood, R. G., 33
media regime in, 90 Colombo, 49
Bangladesh Awami League, 19 Constitution of India, 35
Bangladesh Legal Decisions, 24 Constitution of Pakistan, 36
Banker to the Poor, 147 Constitutional Convention of the Unites
Basic Democracy, 64 States of America, 57
Bhutan, 1, 28 conventional parliamentary
Bhutta, Zulfikar Ali, 19 politics, 70
Bhutto, Benazir, 65 counter-terrorism, 110
160 Index

D food security, 41, 144–145

Dalits, 56–59 dimensions, 145
data power, 104–106 Fourth Estate, 52
decentralization, 32, 88 free flow of public information, 76–77
defence forces, 102–103 freedom of speech and expression, 75
Delhi Policy Group, 138 French Revolution, 16
democracy, 32, 41–48, 54–59, 64–85, 106 Friedman, Thomas L., 132
characteristics of, 54 fundamentalism, 111
concept and context, 54–59
conflicts and, 80 G
free flow of public information, 76 Gandhi, Indira, 69, 123
good governance, 80 Gandhi, Mahatma, 59
question of, 64–79 Gandhian politics, 115
democratic disquiet, 79–87 Garibi Hatao, slogan, 31
de-secularization, 17–28 Gayoom, Maumoon Abdul, 48
despots, 82 GBV. See gender-based violence
Deutscher, Isaac, 56 Gellner, Ernst, 16
Dhaka, 8, 18, 140 gender disparities, 45
Discovery of India, 34 gender justice, 146
discrimination, positive, 106 gender-based violence, 45
Doctrine of Necessity, 36 German nationalism, 16
Doggerel, 56 Gill, K. P. S., 51
dynasties, 82 globalization, 132–135
good governance, 46, 80, 89
E components of, 89–90
East India Company, 9, 101–102 governance, 86–109
East Pakistan, 33 defined, 86
ecological stress, 146 governance of, 87
economic power, 55 politics of, 87
education, 42, 146 role of media, 90
Eight Millennium Development governments, in action, 89–101
Goals, 48 Great Rebellion, 16
Einstein, albert, 56 group identities, 110
electoral reforms, 84 assertion of, 110
energy security, 145–146 guardianship, 32
England, 16
English Republic, 16 H
environmental rights, 53 Habib, Irfan, 106
Ershad regime, 24 Habibullah, Wajahat, 105
Ershad, H. M., 24, 91 Haque, aminul, 75
extremism, 112–113 Haque, Muhammad Zia-ul, 123
Harrapan civilization, 7
F extinction of, 7
fanaticism, 111 Hasina, Sheikh, 24, 69, 93, 95
federalism, 70–71, 106 Hobsbawm, E. J., 136, 137
first generation rights, 53 Human Rights Commission, 50
Index 161

Human rights Defender, 49 Jatiya Party of Jamat, 20, 24, 26

human rights jihad, 15
ensuring of, 50 JMB. See Jamaatul Mujahideen
in India–historical perspective, 42 Bangladesh
role of media, 52 John, T. A., 41
suggestions, 46–47 judicial activism, 52
Hunger and Public Action, 80
Kabir, Nurul, 71, 90
Kader, Golam Mohammad, 26
ICG. See International Crisis Group
Kagan, Robert, 136
The Idea of History, 33
Karzai, Hamid, 65
Income Tax Ordinance, The (1984) 100
Kashiram–Mayawati, 33
Independent Human Rights
Kathmandu, 34, 65, 68
Commission, 50
Khan, Ayub, 94, 95
Khan, Bade Gulam Ali, 71
concerns for, 42
Khan, General Yahya, 65
Constitution making, 35
Khan, Nawabzada
democratic evolution in, 69
Liaquat Ali, 36
India National Congress, 56
Khuda Commission, 22
Indian Army, 102
Khusrau, Amir, 29
Indian Constitution, 42
Kissinger, Henry, 136
Indian democracy, 69–72
knowledge power, 55
individual liberty, 72–72
Koirala, B. P., 68
classical democratic idea, 72
Kudrat-e-Khuda, 22
fake grounds for encroaching upon
spaces of, 73–75
Indus Valley, 7
left-wing extremism, 113
Institute of Southasian Arts, 140
Legal Framework Order, 36
institutional power, 55
Lhotshampas, 28
international community, 53
Liberation Tamils of Tigers Eelam, 49, 71
International Crisis Group, 49
liberty, individual, 72
International Monetary Fund, 144
licensing system, 94
International Security Assistance Force, 103
Lincoln, Abraham, 54
inter-personal communications, 71–79
livelihood, 41
ISAF. See International Security
agriculture and, 41
Assistance Force
continue to decline, 41
Islam, 23
Lohia, Ram Manohar, 30, 70
Islamabad, 65
LTTE. See Liberation Tamils of Tigers Eelam
Islamization, 21–26
J Macaulay, Lord, 96
Jalal, Ayesha, 66 Madison, James, 57–58
Jamaat-e-Islami, 74 Mahabharata, 8, 15
Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, 74 Maharashtra Control of Organized
Jambu Dwip, 5 Crimes Act, 40
Jameli, Mir Zafarullah Khan, 65 Mahavir, 9
162 Index

Maldives, 1 nation, concept of, 16

management National Human Rights Commission, 48
defined, 86 nationalism, 16–30
primary concern of, 86 defined, 16
Maoists, 48 discussion upon, 17–18
market economy, 57 efforts for, 16–17
Marx, Karl, 30 factors affecting issue of, 29
Marxism, 115 features, 30
Marxists, 115 nationalist, 102
Maurayan Empire, 9 natural calamities, 146
Max Weber Governance Systems, 30 Nehru, Jawaharlal, 30, 34, 69
MDG. See Eight Millennium Nehru, Motilal, 30
Development Goals Nepal police, 89
media, 90 Nepal, 28, 48–49, 51, 54, 65, 68, 123
media concentration, 57 Nepali depolitization, 68
media freedom, 92–100 Nepali military, 67
Miah Commission, 25 NHRC. See National Human Rights
Miah, Maniruzzaman, 25 Commission
middle path, relevance of, 116–121 Non-party Caretaker Government, 96
militarized polities, 101–104 non-secular elite
minority oppression, 19 gradual Islamization of state, politics
minority, 53–54 and education, 21–26
concept of, 53 North Korea, 31
defined, 53
powerlessness of, 56 O
minority rights, 53, 54–59 Official Secrets Act, 98, 105
challenges to, 57 oligarchs, 64, 65–68
concept and context, 54–59 One Hundred Authors Against Einstein, 56
protection of, 58 Orwell, George, 75
safeguards to, 57
Mirat-ul-Akhbar, 95 P
MOCOCA. See Maharashtra Pakistan, 49, 103, 116
Control of Organized Constitution of, 36
Crimes Act Pakistani mob, 67–68
modern economy, 33–34 panchayati raj, 43
modernity, 30, 86 Patel, Sardar Vallabh Bhai, 69, 118
Muhammad, Chand, 17 Patil, Pratibha, 70
Mujahid, Ali Ahsan Muhammad, 26 Peace of Exhaustion, 10
Munir, Muhammad, 36 Penal Code, 96–97
Musharraf, General Parvez, 31, 49 petrified polity, 34–36
Muslims, 53, 139 PIL. See Public Interest Litigation
Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, 139 PMM. See Public Management Morality
political authority, 14
N political exigencies, 110–122
Namboodiripad, E. M. S., 52 political party reforms, 82
Napoleonic code, 35 political space, 14
Narayan, Jayaprakash, 69 politicization, 112
Index 163

politics, 30 resistance, 77–78

authoritarian trends in, 30–31 Resistance of 1857, 9–10
criminalization of, 112 Right to Information Act (2005), 105
poodle judiciary, 51 right to self-determination, 53
populism, 32 Robbins, Leonard H., 56
post-modern economy, 34 Romli, Mohamad Guntur, 111
POTA. See Prevention of Terrorism Act Rousseau, Jean Jacques, 72–73
Powell, Colin, 126 Roy, Aruna, 105
power, 55–56 Roy, Arundhati, 114
cultural, 55 Roy, Raja Rammohan, 94–95
economic, 55 rule of law, 60–61
institutional, 55
knowledge, 55 S
oppositional, 56 SAARC. See South Asian Association for
social, 55 Regional Cooperation
traditional, 55 SAARCPOL. See South Asian Association
Prevention of Terrorism Act, 40 for Regional Cooperation Police
priests, 15 SAFTA. See South Asian Free Trade Agree-
primary education, 24 ment
Printing Press and Publications (Declaration Saheb, Hazi, 17
and Registration) Act (1973), satyagraha, 119
94–95 Sayem, Abu Sadat Mohammad, 23
prison reforms, 52 second generation rights, 53
Pronthom Alo, 26 secularism, 22, 71
protective rights, 52–53, 59 Sedition Act, 96
public apathy, 50 semi-presidential system, 82
Public Interest Litigation (PIL), 52 separated economy, 32–34
Public Management Morality (PMM), 50 Shah, Muhammad Zahir, 116, 123
Punjab, 51 Shah, Wajid Ali, 1, 119–120
Shamsuddin, Abu Zafar, 71
Q Sharif, Mian Nawaz, 67
Qaid-e-Azam, 33 Shaw, George Bernard, 55
Quit India Movement, 17 Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, 24–25
Singh, Maharaja Hari, 69
R Singh, Maharaja Ranjit, 29
Rahman, Sheikh Mujibur, 21–23, 94 Singh, Manmohan, 70
Ramayana, 8 Sirajuddaula, Nawab Mirza Muhammad, 1
Rana, Jung Bahadur Kunwar, 35, 133 Sobhan, Rehman, 68
Regional Development Fund, 140 social dynamics, 86
regionalism, 32, 123–130 social power, 55
rise of, 123–130 social restructuring, 106
Rehman, General Ziaur, 23 sociology of control, 30–32
Rehman, Maulana Fazlur, 66 South Asia, 3–13, 43–45, 100–104
religion, 29–30 agenda for change in, 138
religious ideologies, 19–20 civil society, 52
Republic, 76 common strategies across, 103
resentment against affirmative action, 57 democracy and human rights, 43–44
164 Index

democratic choice, 149–150 Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal, 49

development dilemma, 146–149 Tapas Majumdar Committee, 42
ecological stress, 146 Telegraph Act, The (1885), 99
energy security, 145–146 Terrorism and Disruptive Activities, 40
food security, 144–145 terrorism, 110
gender disparities, 45 alternative definition, 113
good governance, 46 in official discourses, 113
judicial process in, 51 oppositional conceptualization, 114
making democracy work, 46 Thakur, Kapoori, 69
natural calamities, 146 third generation rights, 53
salience in, 114 TMVP. See Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal
social restructuring process, 107 totalitarianism, 57
Southasian futures, 150–151 traditional power, 55
state of corruption in, 44 traditionalism, 31
water security, 145 two-nation theory, 10
women’s perspectives, 44
South Asian Association for Regional U
Cooperation, 3–5, 125–128 UN global counter-terrorism strategy, 113
South Asian Association for Regional Coop- UN Peacekeeping Forces, 139
eration Police, 89 United States of Southasian
South Asian Free Trade Agreement, 34, Region, 150–151
126–128 Unites States of America, 16
South Asian People’s Development constitutional convention, 57–58
Agenda, 138 Universal Declaration of Human
Southasian academy of Performing arts, 140 Rights (1948), 42
Southasian Centre for Democracy, 139–140 universalism, 4
Southasian Commission on Human USSR. See United States of Southasian
Rights, 140 Region
Southasian Council of Cultures, 140
Southasian Institute of Governance, 139 V
Southasian Monetary Fund, 140–141 Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam, 4, 134
Southasian nationalism, 31 violence, 15–16
social structure, 31
Southasian University, 140 W
Soviet nationalism, 17 Walker, George Herbert, 136
Special Economic Zones, 147 Walzer, Michael, 136
Sri Lanka, 49–50, 81 water security, 145
characteristics of stable economy, 81 water wars, 145
sting operation, 48 Waving Flags: Nations and
Sufi movements, 8 Nationalism, 137
supernatural forces, 14–15 Weber, Max, 30
Westernized Oriental Gentlemen, 120, 132
T Westpalian, 9
TADA. See Terrorism and Disruptive Wilson, A. jeyaratnam, 35
Activities WOG. See Westernized Oriental Gentlemen
Tagore, Rabindranath, 138 women
talukdars, 32 approach to mobilization
Index 165

women’s status, 41 Z
The World is Flat: A Brief History of the zamindars, 32
Twenty-First Century, 132 Zarkaria, Fareed, 87
Zia, Khaleda, 24–25, 69, 93, 96
Y Zia-ul-Haq, General Muhammad, 65
Yale University, 149