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HomeOPEDYes, India is a democracy but it’s not really a republic

Yes, India is a democracy but it’s not really a republic

Ravindra Ojha

Today we all Indians are celebrating our 75th Republic day with festive fervour and nationalist zeal, but questions arise whether till date we became a true republican. Our constitution opens with the words that India is both a republic and a democracy. We are making an important claim: is it true?

Republic is a Roman word. A republican state is one in which power rests with the citizens. Democracy is a Greek word. It means a state in which leaders are chosen from among the general population, and not the aristocracy. Republic and democracy don’t mean the same thing, and even democracy has many interpretations. Athenian ‘democracy’ was actually a psephocracy. For instance, in Athens all (adult male) citizens were equal and therefore leaders and jurors were chosen by lot, meaning by turn. Socrates had total contempt for this democracy and throughout Plato’s works his refrain is: ‘In a storm, would you choose a ship’s captain by lot?’

After the Middle Ages, Europe was inspired by Greece in art, philosophy and science, and culture, but by Rome in government. In the US Constitution, the word ‘democracy’ in fact does not appear, though ‘republic’ does. Many of America’s founding fathers were classicists who favored Rome. The Federalist Papers, which is America’s version of our Constituent Assembly debates, were written by figures like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison under the pseudonym ‘Publius’, referencing a Roman who helped set up the republic. A story, probably apocryphal, tells of Benjamin Franklin exiting the Constitutional Convention of 1787. A man in the crowd asks him what sort of government America has been given. Franklin replies: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Republics are not easy to keep because we are naturally attracted to the heroic saviour who will sort out our problems with his genius.
The historian Livy tells us that Rome was a republic for some four centuries. It was, like democracy, different from the republic we know. Suffrage was even more restricted than in Athens, and Rome had an aristocracy (the Senate is a Roman institution) and slavery and colonialism, but it did not bow to one man. The heroic saviour Julius Caesar ended the republic.

The UK is a democracy but not a republic, because executive power flows from a monarch. The resistance to this structure is referred to as ‘republicanism’. What about India?

It is obvious that we are a democracy, because our leaders are chosen by voters. But are we a republic? Does real power rest with the citizens of India? The outside observer will notice that this is not the case. The interest of the state and its organs is put above the interest of India’s people. There is a background to this: Nehru inherited an aggressively expansionist imperial state with tentative borders. Its relationship with the citizen focused on taxation and law and order. This continued after 1947. Even today, where the state feels threatened by citizens demanding rights, it will not hesitate to put them down with lethal force.

This story was reported on October 1, 2016: “Four people were left dead and as many as 40 were injured after police opened fire on a protest this morning, according to sources in the Chirudih village near Hazaribagh in Jharkhand. Residents have been protesting the acquisition of land by the National Thermal Power Corporation for their coal mines.”

This, the murder of citizens by the state, is actually a regular occurrence in India, in the adivasi belt, the northeast and Kashmir. It is not a ‘national’ issue because the killed are not like us. Also, their resistance hinders our development and our version of nationalism. We refer to their questioning of our consensus as anti-national behavior.

We reduce Indian citizens to categories which can be despised: Terrorist, Maoist, Islamist, Separatist, Jihadist and so on. This makes it easier for our armies and paramilitaries to kill them, though as Hazaribagh and thousands of such incidents show, we also have zero regard for the poor. I used the example of the murder of helpless individuals faced with loss of their land, because in India today it is not possible to elicit sympathy for most categories of protestors.

In such a place, a media organ that puts the army’s interest above the citizen’s can align itself to the name republic. This is done without irony and perhaps without even understanding of what the word republic means. The army’s interests can be supreme in a martial law state like Pakistan, not in constitutionally republican India.

When can we, wholly and in full measure, claim to be a republic? Only when the rights and liberties of Indian citizens are respected by the state, without exception. Not steamrolled over regularly, to applause from the media. And when the violation happens, as it can happen anywhere, it is addressed meaningfully and ended. Till that happens, it would be fair to say that India is a democracy. But it is not really a republic.

Our Idea of the Republic is at Risk

When Indians were fighting for independence from the British colonial rule, the idea of attaining political freedom meant ushering into an era of hope and a better future, where people would reign supreme. A famous poet Ramdhari Singh, “Dinkar” wrote a poem when India adopted the Constitution in 1950, which captured this sentiment precisely. The aforesaid poem was titled “Sinhasan khali karo, ke janata awati hai” (Abdicate the throne, for people are coming). That was a time when freedom was equivalent to a hope for justice and self-determination.
On paper, we have free and fair elections that allow us to democratically choose our representatives, but in reality, there is no guarantee that they would genuinely represent our interests on assuming office, as money and muscle power are increasingly determining electoral outcomes. Having seen the country’s transitions over the years, Jagdamba Prasad Mishra, a security guard and a poet, lamenting over the state of the common man says, “Republic means Ganatantra, laws by the people, for the people, of the people. While our leaders eulogize our heritage in speeches, nothing is being done to preserve it. Our freedom fighters fought for independence together. It was a fight by all- men, women of all caste, creed, and religion joined the struggle without any discrimination, but today, we see our country being divided on those lines.“



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