India is officially a “democracy” now

TW: islamophobic violence, ethnic and caste inequality, class warfare

If you live in one of the countries often referred to as the “West” you might have heard a quick moment on the news or seen a brief article online about the death of Bal Thackeray, an Indian political celebrity and founder of the Shiv Sena party. It’s understandable that few sources based outside of India have reported in much depth on the huge political implications of not only his death but how his life is now being celebrated by many Indians, but a quick look through several Indian sources can help clarify what we’ve all just witnessed: a huge threat to substantive democracy in India.

(Police began extensively patrolling Mumbai after Thackeray’s death on Saturday, which is understandable given his historic threat of mass violence should he be killed or die mysteriously. Thankfully, given that he was 86, no one seems to have viewed this as an assassination. Originally from here.)

Open acknowledgement of that effect is more or less non-existent from the larger papers of India (which have either joined in the whitewashed mourning or decided to criticize only by implication), but scattered reports that have noticed it do exist, including this well-written one which plainly states:

“The Indian media prides itself on its independence, its critical eye, its ability to speak truth to power. Indian celebrities fancy themselves socially responsible intellectuals. Indian politicians routinely remind the world of the glorious vibrancy and dynamism of the ‘world’s largest democracy.’ But neither the conventions of in-house obituary boilerplate nor the pithy wisdom of the tweets emanating from the finest minds in Indian media, celebrityhood, and politics have spoken today in any honest way about Thackeray’s role in one of most disgraceful episodes in the history of independent India–the pogrom against Bombay’s Muslim communities in 1992 and 1993.”

Yes, Thackeray is dead, but before he passed, he managed to gravely threaten that India in all but name. His political history reads like an unending stream of systemic violence: he rallied ethnic Marathis against new-comers to Mumbai, he rallied the vulnerable Mumbaiker middle class against unions, he rallied majoritarian Hindu mobs against Muslim civilians, and most recently he rallied the poor and the lower caste against the too “Western” presumed elites. Thackeray was the kind of man who supposedly was insulted by a fictionalized representation of him that was too moderated and too compassionate towards those he had massacred. Seriously. To be frank, he was a fascist. And his death was publicly mourned en masse yesterday.

I won’t be apocalyptic and claim that this is the decisive victory for India’s soul. In openly and largely uncritically commemorating Thackeray’s death, the Indians involved did not declare definitively that India was not a pluralistic democracy but rather an anti-Pakistan where Hinduism is not only the prevalent religion but the violently state-supported one. They did not effectively declare that India would be a place where allegations of belonging to the wrong ethnicity could threaten someone’s career. They did not establish that politics could only be tolerated provided they accepted brutal class inequality.

But if Indians let these next few days pass without serious conversations about that future which seems to be developing for their nation, then it will only grow more likely, and eventually inevitable. India can still choose a future of equality for its peoples – regardless of religion, cultural practices, ethnicity, class, caste, and every other major social line drawn through the country. It has to be a conscious rejection of the direction their country’s politics have unfortunately begun to drift in, however.

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One thought on “India is officially a “democracy” now

  1. […] India, public criticism of Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena was met with arrests in the first few days after his death. 21 year old Shaheen Dhanda, for […]

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