REDUCED TO ASHES: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab by Ram Narayan Kumar with Amrik Singh, Ashok Agrwaal and Jaskaran Kaur. South Asia Forum for Human Rights, Kathmandu, 2003.
THE insurgency in Punjab seems a matter of the past. Few today remember the days of the eighties and early nineties when gun toting militants and armed policemen, separately and together, terrified the populace. Those were the days of Bhindranwale, the Khalistani separatist movement, Operation Bluestar, Woodrose, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, the K.P.S. Gill-Julio Reberio ‘bullet for bullet’ policy.
Today the state looks like having come out of the nightmare. True, there are other problems – a fiscally bankrupt state and farmer suicides. But, in the views of most, politics has acquired an air of ‘normalcy’ – corrupt, sleazy, even episodically violent, but not threatening. Is it then time to move on? Or is it that the above represents a superficial view, unmindful of the deep scars that the decade-long insurgency (and counter-insurgency) inflicted on both civil society and the state. What of the thousands who were killed, disappeared, the many still in jails across the country, the families destroyed? Should they, their pain and trauma too be ‘safely buried’, closed off as an ugly chapter to facilitate a forward movement? What then of truth and justice? And is reconciliation possible without coming to meaningful terms with our collective past, more so one as blood-soaked as the Punjab of those years.
It is often claimed, and with some justification, that Punjab represents one of the more successful cases of counter-insurgency, not just in India but globally. A decade prior to the early eighties, few would have predicted the rise of a violent, separatist movement in India’s most prosperous state. Today, a decade hence, few remember the dark days. Except the victims, and a small, committed band of human rights researchers and activists. But for their collective labours – pain-staking, rigorous and in the face of immense odds – we would not be jolted out of our complacency, forced to revisit the past, and examine the implications of what we did and how.
Saving the state, the ‘unity and integrity’ of the country is important – no gainsaying that. But is it that, as politicians are vaunt to proclaim, ‘no cost is high enough to save the country’, appropriate? Let there be no doubt, the insurgency/‘freedom movement’ in Punjab was crushed with a heavy hand with little regard for the rule of law, human rights, democracy, even elementary decency. Reduced to Ashes is a chilling documentation of what our self-styled saviours did for close to a decade. Worse, what they continue to do to escape accountability. One end result of their efforts is that the pain of the past refuses to die out.
In September 1995, Jaswant Singh Kalra, general secretary of the Akali Dal’s human rights wing, disappeared. Correction, he was abducted in broad daylight by armed commandos of the Punjab Police. Appeals to the courts, including the Supreme Court (which entertained a habeas corpus plea) served little purpose. The CBI was drawn in. Close to a year later, in August 1996, based on the CBIs report, sanction was granted to prosecute nine officers of the Punjab Police for Kalra’s illegal confinement. Much too late. Months earlier, Kalra had been tortured and killed, his body dismembered and thrown into the Sutlej.
At the time of his abduction Kalra was pursuing the case of thousands of others who had disappeared, many like him tortured, killed and cremated. The final CBI report (never released to the public) did constrain the courts to disclose that just in Amritsar district, and in only three cremation grounds, 2098 persons were illegally cremated. Of these 582 were fully identified, 278 partially identified, and 1238 remain unidentified. Six years later, the matter remains where it was, this despite the labours of the Supreme Court and the NHRC. As gross a case of delayed and elusive justice as any. The hope is that the documentation provided by Reduced to Ashes may help speed up the process.
It is not easy to read this report, and not only because of its length, over 600 closely printed pages. It is just that the unending evidence of the horrors we can perpetrate on our own is difficult to digest. The Committee for the Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP) draws on 513 out of 839 incident reports and provides personal and political background of 672 cases. Each bit of information has been cross-checked and verified using multiple sources to minimize the possibility of error. As someone who has keenly followed human rights documentation since the days of the Emergency, and often been critical of the less than meticulous recording of facts and the throw-away political rhetoric that marks many of these ventures, it is clear that this report constitutes a qualitative break. If even now our legal justice machinery hides behind ‘lack of meaningful information’ as an excuse for inaction, we are in for worse times.
Reduced for Ashes is impossible to summarise. All one can appeal to is for it to be read, and widely. And even if one does not agree with the authors ‘take’ on the history of Punjab, as this reviewer does not, the material collected just cannot be ignored. So to the implications.
A crucial issue running through the report relates to impunity. As legal researcher, Usha Ramanathan, elucidated in the release ceremony of the book, our legal system operates on the premise that state officials work in the best interests of the nation. Moreover, they are protected by an elaborate mechanism demanding myriad prior permissions from appropriate authority before investigation can even be launched on their actions, far less prosecution of those prima facie ‘guilty’ of inappropriate action.
In situations like Punjab, the security agencies became a law unto themselves, helped no doubt by the fact that the normal political and judicial arrangements protecting fundamental rights of citizens were in disarray, if not suspended. With no checks and balances, a massive slush fund, and full protection by political masters aided by a compliant media, the security forces could do as they pleased – pick up, detain, torture, kill and worse anyone they suspected of anti-state activities. And this was done on a massive scale.
Of course, the policemen now ‘accused’ of human rights violation, led from the front by K.P.S. Gill, then Director General of the Punjab Police, aver. Not only do they claim that they risked their lives to save the nation (this when ‘busy bodies’ were in hiding), if such unwarranted prosecution continues, the police may well be impelled not to act in similar situations in the future. Some have even demanded complete immunity from future prosecution.
How should we respond to such demands (threats?), knowing well that appeals to national security hide many illegalities. Moreover, can a healthy legal-judicial process and structure ever be instituted with such safeguards in place? Obversely, we know that insurgency and counter-insurgency are messy affairs, that unlike conventional wars the rules of engagement are less defined and fluid. Or that the implications of failure to ‘control and discipline’ can be hugely dangerous.
Even as the jury is out on this conundrum, it can be safely asserted that no liberal, democratic order can be built by permitting impunity to state forces, even when those ‘seeking to overthrow the state’ refuse to follow any ‘rules of the game’. Not accepting this self-imposed constraint is a sure route to fascism.
An equally troubling question relates to why we need to remember, to document, even memorialize the dark chapter from our past. Does this help a process of healing or only serve to the widen the chasm between contending parties? Is the legal process the best alternative or should societies go through the ‘truth and reconciliation’ route preferred by post-apartheid South Africa? Or amnesty as in Cambodia.
A conventional answer is that ‘recording’ is necessary to avoid the errors of the past. Much of what happened in Punjab had happened before in our North East, in quelling the Naxalites in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. And it is ongoing in Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat. The overhang of terrorism, more so when linked with forces ‘across the border’ has only made it easier to push through ‘repressive’ laws and shortcut safeguards. So it is in the interest of democracy to not only not forget, but to ruthlessly and rigorously investigate, document, initiate prosecutory processes and convict through the legal process.
And yet we know that when confronting situations of mass breakdown – the Partition, Rwanda, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, apartheid South Africa, Bosnia, and now Iraq – regimes have chosen only some aspects of the bouquet, often preferring a general amnesty to prosecution. True, post-war Europe memorialized Auschwitz and Japan has a Hiroshima memorial. But equally what of our history and the past we choose to remember and how is never a settled question. What, however, is unacceptable is to seek to bury the past and place it beyond scrutiny.
But can we ever successfully conduct a societal exercise of remembering, documenting, ‘naming’ crimes, investigating them, prosecuting and convicting those deemed responsible, if the political system and actors and the institutional agencies that we have mandated to protect our system – the courts and the NHRC – work (or are permitted to work) in the manner that they do. This report is also a documentation of the shameful record of our legal-justice system, both the procedures and the personnel, seemingly committed more to protecting their own than uncovering the truth and facilitate justice. Just read the time-line of this case. It brings alive the classic Saeed Mirza film, ‘Arvind Desai ki ajeeb Dastaan’.
Most of all the issues raised by Reduced to Ashes need to be followed up to help victim families bring a closure to their grief. To not permit even the naming of the victim is an indignity that no nation/people claiming to be civilized should allow. For impelling us to engage with these troubling questions, the team behind this report (in particular Ram Narayan Kumar) deserves our unqualified admiration and gratitude. As Kundera so graphically reminded us, all struggle is between memory and forgetting.
PARTITION AND GENOCIDE: Manifestation of Violence in Punjab 1937-1947 by Anders Bjorn Hansen. India Research Press, New Delhi, 2002.
THERE has been a renewed interest in partition in India in the last decade, prompting it to re-emerge as a major area of inquiry especially in disciplines like anthropology and history. It has produced a vast and diverse body of work and debate. While much of this has focused on partition itself and investigated its various dimensions – socio-political, emotional and so on, during or following it, comparatively much less has been written about the conditions prevailing before partition barring a few works like Jaya Chatterjee’s Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947, Suranjan Das’ Communal Riots in Bengal 1905-47 and the like. The book under review treads fresh grounds as the author seeks to explore the nature, changes and manifestations of violence in Punjab between 1937-1947.
The author, a historian from University of Copenhagen, Denmark, chooses the period 1937-47 in Punjab, a period studied mainly for political developments leading to partition to analyse the development of communal violence, more specifically tracing the changes in the nature of violence from ‘traditional’ to ‘genocidal’. Part I – Political Power Struggle and Communalism – in three chapters examines the link between political power struggle and the rise of communalism in Punjab from the provincial elections in 1937 marking the first escalation, through the interim period which saw the failure of the Cripps Mission to the provincial elections of 1946, and finally the period from the 1946 provincial elections till early 1947, i.e, end February, when the British government announced its withdrawal. Part II, The Internecine Strife, looks at the ‘internecine strife’ between the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs from the announcement of partition plans in June till the transfer of power and independence in August with a special focus on the conditions pre and post Rawalpindi massacres in March 1947. Part III, Independence, deals with partition and the violence that followed. The concluding chapter puts into perspective the findings of the study – the case of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
The political pacts, events and their implications/fallouts, 1937 provincial election onwards, punctuate the study, largely forming the backdrop against which changes in forms and nature of violence are traced. The author, investigating the changes of violence from ‘traditional’ to ‘genocidal’, harps on issues like the nature of inter- and intra-community feuds in the initial years, the gradual crystallisation of community identity and consequent political awareness changing the community relations and enabling political/power relations to influence religious differences. The rise and growth of the community-based ‘quasi-military voluntary groups’ added to the separatist tendencies signalling a further rift between religion and politics, thus ‘effectively completing the communalisation process.’ Next the author traces the political changes which marked an end to democratic interaction and peaceful co-habitation with the nature of violence turning to genocidal. The ‘genocidal tendencies’ manifest primarily in the persecution of the women of one community by the ‘other’, followed by an outbreak of mass , unprecedented violence and ‘ethnic cleansing’ ‘by’ and ‘on’ all three communities. With violence becoming more structured and organised, there was a total disintegration of the moral/cultural order making co-habitation impossible leading to large scale uprooting and migration. Partition made this transformation complete.
Meticulously tracing the traits and transformation of violence marked by the political events, the book, nevertheless, leaves certain areas open for questioning, particularly in holding the League responsible for the deteriorating political struggle and the polarisation of the communities.
The foreword by Ian Talbot is insightful. The introduction examines terms like genocide and communalism, discusses the various debates surrounding them, contextualises the study by presenting a brief political history of Punjab and offers a review of literature. A chronological order marks the structuring of the chapters and the organisation of details as they probe the development of communal violence. There is also a brief summary at the end of each chapter which helps consolidate the points raised. Of particular interest are two graphs in the conclusion, the first showing the development of violence, from 1937-1946 and the number of casualties, the other depicting the massive transformation in the violence, from traditional to genocidal between 1937-1947. The study is based on primary sources, especially the Fortnightly Reports, about 270 of them written between January 1937 and August 1947 from the Chief Secretary for the Government of Punjab to the Viceroy and the letters from the Punjab Governor to the Viceroy. He has also drawn on two previously published sources, Constitutional Relations Between Britain and India: The Transfer of Power 1942-1947 (12 volumes) and the Selection of Documents on Partition of Punjab 1947 consisting of correspondence and reports compiled among officials in East and West Punjab. He provides an extensive list of secondary sources, books and articles including secondary published material from Pakistan. At the end the book lists important persons, private armies and political parties relevant to the study which provide easy reference for the readers.
Sudhanya Dasgupta Mukherjee
JIHAD: The Trail of Political Islam by Gilles Kepel. Translated from French by Anthony F. Roberts. I.B. Tauris and Company, London, 2003.
ON 2 April 2003, a statement ‘Answer the Call of Jihad’, attributed to Saddam Hussein and read out on Iraqi state television by Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said, ‘…Jihad is a duty in facing the infidels and whosoever dies on its fields is rewarded by heaven. Seize it (jihad), O brothers, for within it are one of two good deeds for the sake of God and great principles…’
This call was answered not by Iraqi volunteers alone, as reported in the Far Eastern Economic Review, but by 26-year-old Ubaidillah, who joined the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) in Jakarta, Indonesia. With a bright-red T-shirt, Ubaidillah is no different from a worker at the mineral-water plant in Jakarta, earning 850,000 rupiah ($95) a month. However, Ubaidillah will soon be doing something very different. After answering the FPI’s call for volunteers to fight American soldiers in Iraq, he’s now a potential holy warrior. ‘America wants to destroy Islam in Iraq,’ says Ubaidillah. ‘My conscience calls me.’
Since the attack involving two American air-liners on 11 September 2001 on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan, the belligerent term ‘jihad’ has gained currency in a number of European languages. ‘Why?’ That is the question that western policy analysts, baffled in the face of the violence propagated by radical Islamist movements have been asking since 9/11. What are the convictions and motives that drives 20-year-olds to sacrifice their lives?
Gilles Kepel, a French political scientist and a specialist on the Islamic resurgence, has attempted to answer some queries by collating five years of rigorous research on inter-Muslim relations in a single volume entitled, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Kepel argues that the 9/11 attack can only be understood when read in the context of the rise and fall of political Islam, or Islamism as he calls it, over the past quarter-century. According to Kepel, the sole purpose of 9/11 was to build universal solidarity among Muslims and attempt to reverse a process of decline.
In the last 25 years, the world order has been rocked by an explosive phenomenon: political Islam. Beginning in the early 1970s, militants across the Muslim world revolted against the regimes in power. Their jihad – or ‘holy struggle’ – aimed to establish a global Islamic state based solely on a strict interpretation of the Koran. In the 1970s, when religion was decaying in the private lives of people, the Islamic activists from newly independent Muslim nations gave a call for jihad. Though the initial reaction was of scorn and dismay by the people and the Marxist intellectuals alike, the left gradually discovered that Islamism had a popular base, preached moral order and hostility to the ‘impure’ materialists. Thereafter, the movement found wide mass appeal, especially among the youth and students, and was funded magnanimously by the Saudi royals, who placed morality above all else and, financially supported the growth of any group that preached their creed.
The Islamist movement first became a potent mobilizing force in Egypt; the key theorists were Sayyid Qutb (Egypt), Mawlana Mawdudi (Pakistan) and Ruhollah Khomeini (Iran). The trio shared a vision of Islam as a political movement and called for replacing secular nationalism of the 1960s by an Islamic state. The writings of Qutb and Mawdudi rejected the values of nationalist intellectuals, mostly educated in European-style schools, and reactivated Islam as the sole cultural and political standard for conduct among Muslims. Qutb’s early inspiration had come from the Muslim Brothers, a society which was formed in 1928 in Egypt to reclaim Islam’s political dimension in the wake of the abolishment of the Caliphate in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk. However, the authoritarian regime of President Gamel Abdel Nasser suppressed the Muslim Brothers in 1954 (and executed Qutb in 1966, as a rift had occurred between the dominant Arab nationalists, personified by Nasser and contemporary radical Islamists), and many activists went into exile in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Malaysia and Morocco. They spread their revolutionary Islamist ideas from there by means of a network that reached into myriad religious schools and universities.
The 1980s were overshadowed by a power struggle between the Saudi monarchy and Khomeini’s Iran. Khomeini became a major figure in the movement, as he was the first truly religious figure to lend his authority to the new creed. Despite all its influence on the young, before the Iranian Revolution in 1979 Islamism was a marginal heterodoxy.
In the early 1990s, wildly extremist groups like the Armed Islamist Group in Algeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda assumed centrestage. Violence hastened the decline of the movement. A wide gulf between the aims of the 1990s jihadi extremists and the socio-political aspirations of the Muslims during the 1980s brought the Islamist movement to a halt in the mid-1990s. Kepel contends that it is to remobilise the earlier unprecedented mass appeal of the movement that the disaster of 9/11 was planned. The ‘terrorists’ want to extricate the Muslims from western notions of liberty and democracy. Wonder how many Ubaidillahs sit in waiting.
Though the detail might appear copious, Kepel offers an incisive excursion through the rise and fall of the movement in every Muslim nation – from Palestine, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the Gulf War to the war on terrorism against Osama bin Laden. By traversing through the Muslim world, gathering interviews and archival material, he has presented an account that helps us make sense of the ominous reality of jihad today.
CONTEMPORARY INDIA: A Sociological View by Satish Deshpande. Viking, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2003.
POSITIONING sociology as a critique of common sense, Deshpande, a sociologist with the Institute of Economic Growth, undertakes the task of critically re-examining what popular common sense tells us about the concerns related to the transformation of the social and economic landscape in contemporary India. These are: ‘The strange mixture of anxiety and ambivalence that modernity provokes in India; the shaping of the nation by the ideologies of Hindutva and development; the pivotal role of the middle class in independent India; and the relative invisibility of caste inequality despite the public prominence of caste inequality.’
While ‘mapping a distinctive modernity,’ Deshpande observes that modernity (and tradition) has been among the most ubiquitous themes embedded in our common sense. We not only believe that there are many ways to be modern, but also claim that that our ‘distinct’ way involves ‘blending modernity with tradition’ to get ‘the best of both worlds.’ The author suggests that even after labelling something as modern or traditional we should not foreclose the task of undertaking detailed answers to questions like ‘why we are so eager to claim modernity in some contexts and so anxious to disown it in others.’
Next, the concept of ‘nation as an imagined economy’ comes up for rigorous scrutiny. Deshpande observes that in the beginning the foremost idiom of the model of Indian nationalism was an economic one, even when there was always a compatibility with yet another powerful idiom, that of Hindu communalism. The change came in the seventies, at least in part due to the developmental model’s failure to fulfil its seductive promises. After two decades of ‘a protracted transition’ the post-mandir and market India has witnessed ‘the resurgence of Hindu communalism in an overall context dominated by globalization.’
This Hindutva way of imagining the nation has coincided with ‘new ways of thinking about the social aspects of space.’ He refers to the three distinct kinds of spatial strategies that contemporary Hindutva has employed in our recent history. These centred on sacred sites (like the campaign for the liberation of the Babri Masjid-Ram janmabhoomi in Ayodhya); areas (the Idgah Maidan flag hoisting controversy at Hubli); routes (processions like ekatmata yajna organized by VHP in 1983, Advani’s rathyatra to Ayodhya, Joshi’s Kanyakumari to Kashmir yatra concluding with the hoisting of the national flag in Lal Chowk, Srinagar and most recently, Narendra Modi’s gaurav yatra in Gujarat); and finally processions like the Ganesh Utsav in Hyderabad and the Shiv Jayanti procession in Bhiwandi.
Reflecting on the sudden visibility of caste into a supposedly casteless homogenized middle class urban set up in the aftermath of the agitation against reservation, Deshpande examines the four elements of the popular common sense view on the theme: First, caste inequality has lessened considerably over the period as a result of the reservation policies though only a minority within the SC/ST/OBC group has cornered most of the benefits. Second, caste as a category has undergone a process of politicization with the numerically stronger backward and middle castes dominating electoral democracy. It has implied reverse discrimination for the upper castes. Third, given the great degree of variation in the economic and social status of members of every caste group, it is misleading to use caste per se as an objective criterion to decide backwardness or forwardness. Fourth, socially and culturally, the main aspect of caste discrimination, namely untouchability, has constitutionally been outlawed, and adequate legislative measures have been initiated to remove caste discrimination. As for the attitudes, it is ironically the intermediate and not the upper castes who are the main perpetrators of this pernicious system.
Deshpande does agree that the condition of the marginal caste groups has improved but then suggests that the real question remains: how much has it improved? And further, how the lowest castes/tribes have fared in comparison to the rest of the population. Drawing upon the broad-based data collected by the National Sample Survey Organization the author holds that ‘caste continues to be a major fault line of economic inequality in contemporary India.’ Contrary to common sense, even after more than half century of independence, ‘caste inequality has been and is being reproduced in independent India.’
Deshpande interrogates the commonsense idea of the ‘centrality of the middle class’ in post-colonial India. Holding the middle classes as the ‘product of the developmental regime,’ Deshpande sarcastically remarks that with the gradual eclipse of the Nehruvian development idea ‘one could no longer be confident that the middle class, the developmental state, and the nation were marching in step.’ The middle classes have since then gradually distanced themselves from the idea of nation state and its development. The processes of globalization and localization have seen the emergence of sub-national loyalties as well as the lure of transnational identities among the ‘new’ middle classes seeking ‘adjustment’. Thus having consolidated its social, economic and political standing on the basis of developmental state, this new class, especially its upper segment, is all set to corner the benefits of globalization.
All the above themes like modernity, the nation, Hindutva, or the middle class seem to hover around the overarching theme of ‘globalization and the geography of cultural regions.’ Deshpande suggests that the processes of globalization that produce ‘a sort of identity anxiety’ are accompanied by the growth of ‘particularistic cultural identities of all kinds.’
The book is extremely readable and reflects a refreshing approach. It succeeds in its endeavour to persuade the readers to go ‘beyond common sense’ to understand the critical issues relating to contemporary India. Drawing liberally from recent literature on the concerned themes, it is an original work that can easily be hailed as among the best in its genre.
THE FUTURE OF FREEDOM: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria. Viking, Penguin Press, Delhi, 2003.
IN the very success of a political project may lie the seeds of its future failure. How often have we seen innovations in political arrangements, radical at the time of their initiation, turning into orthodoxy over time, dysfunctional but unchallengeable. Is the project of democracy, currently the favoured mantra for all ills, now subject to the law of diminishing returns? Are we plagued by too much democracy rather than too little? And have we, in mistakenly equating adult franchise elections with democracy, in elevating the choice of the masses to an unassailable height, and in fore-grounding the right of politicians to decide on all manner of issues, created societies which often are not only unworkable but have sacrificed liberty, in particular of minorities on which freedom rests?
That extant democracy creates deep discomfort for both the rich and the poor, the elite and the masses, appears a self-evident truth. Few in our country believe that ‘free and fair’ elections, in and of themselves, solve problems and deliver workable solutions. True, all of us were (and are) equally uneasy with the rule of elites, a self-appointed and anointed aristocracy which believed and claimed that it had the best interests of the citizenry at heart. And so we demanded and won not only greater participation of all but also sought to extend principles of transparency and accountability to all institutions. Was this necessarily good and beneficial? Or is it that the ensuing populism turned politicians from leaders who could think and strategise for the long term into followers of every passing whim of the mobilised masses.
Fareed Zakaria, the latest icon in the American-Indian firmament, is a sophisticated and persuasive conservative. Trained in history and political science at Yale and Harvard, he shot into prominence as the youngest Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs and since 2002 is the editor of Newsweek International. Both his Indian connection and the undoubted success abroad has made both him and his writing an object of intense focus. His latest offering, The Future of Freedom, does not disappoint though his analysis and conclusions are likely to cause dismay in the ranks of the politically correct.
The book covers too large a canvas, discusses too many important and controversial issues to permit any simple summary, most of all in a brief review response. But, as he says, ‘This is not a work of historical scholarship. Its contribution to the debate, if any, is in its ideas and arguments.’ And this he manages, both provocatively and elegantly.
His basic thesis, baldly presented, is that the protean qualities of democracy can be misleading. As Tony Judd writes in the New York Review of Books, ‘In much of the world, democracy is often the heir to authoritarian dictatorship and a substitute for good government. We are all familiar with the late, unlamented "peoples’ democracies", but even in more genuine democracies the spurious legitimacy of public elections frequently obscures infirm and corrupt institutions’ (NYRB, 10 April 2003).
Zakaria’s ideal is the western, liberal, constitutional democracy with free markets, representative government, protected civil freedoms and public law. The last, as he frequently remind us, is the product of a long tradition developed well before any of the western democracies could actually be classified as such. More than mass plebiscite, it is the impartial judge that symbolizes the western model of government. And the pinnacle of the judiciary, as for instance epitomised in the US Supreme Court, is a deeply undemocratic institution with judges, once appointed, secure for life and not answerable to anyone but themselves, their traditions and good judgement.
A second strain running through the book is the role of the elites, be they self-appointed by heredity or selected through a meritocratic process. It is only when the aristocracy serves as a public-spirited elite, secure in its privilege but sensitive to the need to contribute to the public good, that institutions are created, autonomous both of the state and their founders, which direct and serve modern societies. But once they, and society, treats them as ‘one of us’, there is a distinctive weakening of the code of noblesse oblige. Zakaria’s discussion of the American aristocracy, the code of honour evolved in many professions – law, media, medicine, business, and politics – makes for fascinating reading. As does the story of their decline under the twin pressures of commercialisation and massification.
Clearly, while defending democracy as the best of all available systems, Zakaria can barely hide his fear of the masses. Greater enfranchisement and participation has in its wake often generated irrational pressures, both on institutions and policies, in turn creating dislocations which can have long-term deleterious consequences. More than once he reminds us that Hitler rose to power through a majority, political mandate.
Poor countries, he argues, are not ideal candidates for democracy. But more than restate the old debate of bread vs freedom, he stresses the importance of getting the economics right. And there is little doubt what he favours – firm property rights, free markets and trade, policies facilitating wealth creation, instituting a level playing field, and the state not getting overly involved in the economy. He also feels that countries with ‘unearned incomes’ (oil revenues, remittance incomes) face less pressure to evolve workable and stable policies and institutions. The masses can be satisfied by a distribution of largesse and thus are not forced to learn the difficult business of self-governance. The Arab states provide a useful example.
So far so good. Where the book enters into conflictual territory is in recommending caution, if not delay, in introducing full democracy. To argue that modern societies need many institutions, that there should be a separation of powers – legislative, judicial, executive – and that unnecessary political interference in institutions can create dysfunctionality is more easily accepted. So also his account of the new pressures that mass democracy generates. But what of the oligarchic control by entrenched elites? What of the desire of those, so far kept bereft of any meaningful voice, to participate in decisions that affect their lives? After all, they too constitute the citizenry, and open elections are often the only way by which they can force their way into a closed club. The fact that many new (and old) democracies are experiencing serious problems is in itself no argument that what we need ‘is not more democracy but less.’
Equally troubling is Zakaria’s case for intervention in illiberal states, whether formally ‘democratic’ or otherwise. True, unlike the enthusiastic ‘neo-conservatives’ who seek to remake the world in their favoured image, if necessary by military intervention, Zakaria is more cautious. He does not believe that either democracy or a liberal order can be imposed from the outside. But external pressure to reform does help to nudge illiberal regimes to open up, recognize civil and human rights, create functioning markets and help institutionalize freedoms. Clearly, the word imperialism does not enter his lexicon. And so, even if we are persuaded that a premature institutionalization of elections may not contribute to a solution, more so in situations marked by ethnic and religious divides, the imposition of a benign, guiding order, as is the suggestion, too can generate a backlash. This is what seems to be in store for Iraq.
In a book of this sweep, there are many elements that a reviewer can quarrel with, in particular with the author’s reading of history, the frequent lapse into cultist arguments, his over-reliance on World Bank-IMF liberal economy solutions. Nevertheless, the central thesis that complex, modern democracies require a multiplicity of autonomous institutions and that a blind expansion of public participation and scrutiny can lead to dysfunctionality needs to be taken seriously. Modern governance is too serious a business to blindly entrust to mass, public opinion. Working through the paradoxes of modern society requires both leadership and expertise. This case Fareed Zakaria makes with brilliance. Though discomfiting, The Future of Freedom deserves wide and engaged reading and discussion.