An indictment of India’s descent towards despotism

Chowdhury and Keane’s book draws a dismal conclusion. Suchitra Vijayan’s paints a complex picture

To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism by Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane, Oxford University Press, pp312, £20

Midnight’s Border: A People’s History of Modern India by Suchitra Vijayan, Melville House, pp315, £20

India has never been more in the world’s headlines, but for all for the wrong reasons. Not only does its failure to protect its citizens from the coronavirus amount to criminal neglect, but the Indian variant has proved so devastating that a country that before the pandemic was seen as the next superpower is now one to be avoided at all costs.

Yet, as Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane argue, the coronavirus disaster was waiting to happen. India spends only 1 per cent of its GDP on health care. The 2016 Global Burden of Disease Report ranked India 145 out of 197 countries in terms of healthcare access and quality, behind war-torn Yemen, Sudan and North Korea.

The prosperity has led to the emergence of a well-off middle class of nearly 400 million people and seen such skewed development that hospitals with five star-style hotel lobbies and air-conditioned suites, which attract western health tourists, account for two-thirds of hospital beds in the country. Yet the vast majority of India’s 1.3 billion remain desperately poor and only have ramshackle public hospitals. During the pandemic, patients have shared wards with unclaimed corpses.

While the literacy rate has jumped to 74 per cent, India has 313 million illiterates, 40 per cent of the world's unlettered population

In prime minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, whose economic success propelled him to power in Delhi, there are just 0.33 hospital beds per 1,000 people. A judge in the state described the Civic Hospital in the capital, Ahmedabad, “as good as a dungeon, maybe even worse”.

Indian hospitals had been running out of oxygen long before anyone had heard of Wuhan. In 2017 a young paediatrician trying to get oxygen cylinders to save children’s lives found himself in jail for trying to publicise the problem. What the epidemic has shown, say the authors, is that the world’s largest democracy has “subjected its people to murderous inequity by not provisioning for basic health care. It has celebrated the equality of its people and their votes, even while treating their bodies as unequal. Now the show was over. It was payback time.”

This is part of their larger thesis: India may have proved its former British imperial masters, including  Churchill, wrong by becoming a nation and remaining a democracy, but it has failed its people. Elections are now so much a part of the country’s DNA that they are staged with all the razmataz of a real-life Bollywood movie. And, in contrast to mature western democracies, it is the poor who vote in greater numbers than the rich.

That journey to the booth may make the poor feel like kings for a day, but for the rest of the time they have to struggle with a system that fails to provide in education, labour rights and work anything like the opportunities which countries who could not claim to be democracies do.

The borders were drawn up by British to suit their imperial needs

So, while the literacy rate, an abysmal 12 per cent after 200 years of British rule, has jumped to 74 per cent, India still has 313 million illiterates, 40 per cent of the world’s unlettered population, with nearly 60 per cent of them women. These figures are worse than Bangladesh’s, a country India helped create and which has nothing like India’s democratic credentials.

Chowdhury and Keane’s well-researched book draws the dismal conclusion that India is now an elective despotism whose parliament rarely sits and whose MPs do not remotely function as lawmakers in a democracy should. In 2008, eight Bills were passed in 17 minutes. In 2018, parliament took 30 minutes to pass funding demands from 99 ministries and government departments, along with two Bills containing 218 amendments. On neither occasion was there any debate.

As the authors point out, Indian democracy was failing long before Modi got power. He has used economic power ruthlessly to make the media subservient but, decades before Modi, the Indian government did not hesitate to ban books – as I know to my cost, having had a book banned in 1985 under colonial laws which still remain on the statute books.

Still, having spent 281 pages convincing us that Indian democracy is on its last legs, the authors, as if frightened by the evidence they have accumulated, use the last seven pages to hold out the hope that the Indian people can save it through mass action and warn that “India does not lend itself to simple, reductive conclusions”.

How complex India can be is wonderfully brought out in Suchitra Vijayan’s Midnight’s Border: A People’s History of Modern India. This reads like a tale from a bygone age, a 9,000-mile journey over seven years along the borders of India and Afghanistan.

The borders were drawn up by British to suit their imperial needs. The Durand line, meant as a buffer between British and Russian empires, is the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It does not reflect realities on the ground, divides the Pashtun tribe and is accepted by Pakistan but not by Afghanistan. The Radcliffe line serves as India’s border with Pakistan in the west and Bangladesh in the east, while the McMahon line is the border between India and China and India and Myanmar.

The original Durand, Radcliffe and McMahon were British civil servants who knew little about the region. The borders are so fiercely contested that India and China have gone to war over the McMahon line, while the Nagas, Mizos and others caught between India and Myanmar struggle to come to terms with the borders imposed on them.

Vijayan paints riveting pictures of the people living in these border areas, their agony and bewilderment to find that they only have to cross a few hundred yards to find themselves stateless. In the midst of all this children can play cricket using a border pillar as a cricket stump.

Vijayan is an award-winning photographer, and his book has many black and white pictures. But for some unaccountable reason they are not captioned, a strange omission in an book that can rightly claim to be an original people’s history of modern India.

Mihir Bose is the author of Narendra Modi: The Yogi of Populism