Democracy in a state of emergency

Mizanur Rahman Khan | Update:

Prothom Alo illustrationA recent visit to Nepal once again revealed the fragility of democracy in the region. Militarisation is strengthening its grip in South Asia as a whole. The previous value attached to elections is fast diminishing. Once elected, the rulers concentrate on remaining at the helm and wielding absolute power. As a result, the interests of the people, particularly the minorities, women and those of the backward communities, are being dashed to the ground.

Speakers at the three-day (15-17 November) conference of South Asians for Human Rights spoke about various problems, sufferings and human rights violations. Over two dozen experts of the South Asian countries (except Bhutan) took part in the conference. They spoke of similar misgovernance and human rights violations. Extreme nationalism is rearing its head in the region, along with authoritarianism.

Mahfuz Anam, editor of Bangladesh’s leading English newspaper, The Daily Star, spoke forcefully on how the three pillars of state had crumbled in this region. Without specifying any particular country, he said that in the region, it was the executive powers that gained the upper hand, swallowing up the legislative and the judiciary. When asked about the existence of the fourth estate, he said that was just an illusion, a mirage. The judiciary, which was the safeguard of free speech, itself was under pressure, so the question fourth estate could hardly arise.

No one disagreed with his words. I had imagined that speakers from India, which has been enjoying 72 years of democracy, may insist that the executive could not interfere in the appointment of the Supreme Court judges in their country. But they did not say so. They were unhappy with the stand of the judiciary about Kashmir, Ayodha and other issues and they openly expressed this dissatisfaction. A women’s rights leader said that the Ayodha verdict was passed though the sex scandal faced by the chief justice hadn’t been cleared.

Sultana Kamal is the chair of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), founded by IK Gujral, Asma Jahangir, Kamal Hossain and others. Over the past 19 years, the indicators of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in South Asia have steadily weakened. India’s Gujral doctrine which upheld good relation with neighbours, has failed to take root in India.

In the first declaration of SAHR in the year 2000 in Neemrana, Rajasthan, it was said that the violation of human rights in one country had an impact on other countries, creating a threat to peace. At this recent conference, it was felt that the inter-boundary effect of election pollution and the shrinking of free speech in the digital age had simply been exacerbated.

The speakers said that tools like WhatsApp, Signal and imo were bonding the rulers together, sharing their experiences before passing laws to suppress divergent views. They will exchange models and gradually the regional digital security laws will become one and the same. This will also constrain the overall democratic process.

I had the privilege of presiding over the last session on the last day of the conference where India’s Uma Chakraborty spoke about gender. She has seen Nehru up close in her childhood. She had made a good film on Kashmir, highlighting the courageous struggle of Kashmiri women against the repression of the central government.

Speaking at the conference Pakistani Urdu poet Harris Khalique, who is secretary general of the country’s human rights commission, spoke on peace, security and human rights. The meaning of elected democracy in Pakistan is understood when all the speakers unanimously say that Imran Khan is a puppet of the cantonment. That’s the way things always are in Pakistan.

Kanak Mani Dixit is a veteran journalist of Nepal, well-known for the South Asian periodical Himal. He spoke of the new dimension of democracy in South Asia. Referring to Rajapakse’s victory in Sri Lanka, the cancellation of Kashmir’s special status and the Ayodha verdict, he said that in recent times he finds his friends in Delhi to be disheartened. But he sees people protesting in Chennai. His friends there say that it is not Hindutva that has gripped India, but Gujarat-ism.

Kanak believes that civil society can hold on to an incorrect perception for long and make that popular. For 15 years Kathmandu’s academics maintained that the Maoists had gained hold of the valley due to Nepal’s extreme poverty. His words made me think of Dhaka. When democracy was ushered into Nepal in 1990, democracy was restored in Bangladesh too. Kanak said that there was also certain conflict in the Nepalese society, but when democracy broke down in 1996, then people were physically tortured, unlike before. It made me wonder, was this similar to our experience?

We had hailed Nepal’s new constitution, drawn up mainly by politicians, not so much by experts. Kanak saw two types of foreign intervention in Nepal, by the foreign donors and by the Indians. Foreign donors keep the professors busy with consultancies. This was harmful to the society. He also said that Indian intelligence had infiltrated the Nepalese society extensively.

We agree with Kanak that South Asia is awash with extreme nationalism, with inherent militarisation. This is evident in Rajapakse’s victory in India. He is a firm believer in expanding military power. Kanak said South Asia was an example of how dangerous it was for a link to be forged between extreme nationalism and fake news. He said that we always use Pakistan as an example of militarisation, but militarisation had gained a grip in India’s Kashmir and the northeast. He even mentioned Bangladesh. He said the impact of militarisation was visible in civil life here too.

He spoke of the corruption in Nepal’s armed forces. He emphasised the need to halve the number of its troops which was still over 100,000. He said it was a matter of concern that the politicians still looked to the armed forces to carry out civilian tasks.

Rounding up the session, I said the extreme nationalism was the biggest enemy of democracy. The best form of nationalism has brought independence for Bangladesh. A follower of Gandhi had said that the nationalist spirit could easily pitch people into danger. They then can be made to commit sins they normally would never do. Those sins have spread all over the region. I thoroughly agreed with Kanak Mani Dixit that good governance in South Asia depended on effective autonomy of the local government system. It was the lack of this that had led to what this SAHR declaration referred to as democracy emergency.

* Mizanur Rahman Khan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and can be contacted at mrkhanbd@gmail.com. This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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