This article hopes to add to Ashutosh Varshney’s convincing comparison (‘The same shrinking’, IE, July 6) of the current Indian and American scenes and in particular, of African-Americans and India’s Muslims. After pointing out that though, unlike Blacks in relation to the US, Muslims sat on Indian thrones in a distant past, today, like America’s Blacks, they constitute a poor minority, Varshney offers this conclusion: “A democracy is not a proper democracy unless it safeguards minorities. And if the minorities are also poor, the protection becomes even more necessary.”
My first additional point, a pretty obvious one, is that another large country, China, looms over both the Indian and American scenes, and that for both nations their relationship with China is critical. My second point, also hardly original, is that while the democracies of India and the US may both be deficient in serious ways, they being democracies differentiates them from China in a fundamental way.
Of the three countries, only China styles itself as “the People’s Republic”. However, a short phrase with which both the American and Indian constitutions begin — “We the People” — contains an unmistakable declaration, not available in today’s China, of the mastery of a nation’s people over their rulers.
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My third point will be, for some, less palatable. Democracies in both India and the US face a similar internal challenge. If an ideology of White supremacy threatens American democracy, India’s democracy is intimidated by Hindu nationalism.
India and the US face a similar external challenge too: China’s apparent push to become the world’s number one power. As to what fuels that push, I would let experts in the politics, history and psychology of China explain. But no expertise is needed to recognise the limitations of “White nationalism” and “Hindu nationalism” in any confrontation with China’s drive.
In his frantic bid to retain the White House, President Donald Trump repeatedly reminds Americans of COVID-19’s origin in China. His fans yell with delight when, a malicious grin widening on his face, Trump calls the disease “Kung Flu”, not caring that the racist slur would offend the large number of Chinese Americans as also millions of Chinese around the world, including in China.
Unfortunately for Trump, a great many in the US and the rest of the world are aware that his racist taunts often extend (either plainly or merely with a wink) to African Americans and also to other Americans with origins in Latin America and Asia. A more fortunate reality, noticed by the whole world, is the recent decline of American smugness. Recognising the depth of their country’s racial injustices, protesters have continued, day after day, to fill America’s streets.
As Varshney observes, these demonstrations are similar to the anti-CAA protests that crowded chowks and baghs across India in the final months of 2019 and in January 2020, as India’s Muslims opposed being legally shoved into second-class status, and many of India’s non-Muslims also refused to tolerate that discrimination. Then COVID-19 imposed its restraints.
A US where Blacks are routinely denied respect from the police cannot unitedly confront China in an ideological battle. The same is true for an India where persons from religious minorities cannot be confident that the police would protect them.
On the other hand, if collective exertions can bring it about, an India working sincerely for justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all its citizens would intrigue the people of China, who must be troubled by (among other things) the condition of their supposed compatriots in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.
Fortunately, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not seek to deride the Chinese people when he flew to meet our soldiers in Ladakh and from that altitude conveyed India’s resolve to meet any challenge. He could have used the occasion also to say that India stood for the liberty, equality and fraternity of all its people, irrespective of their religion or caste, but he didn’t.
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A declaration from the Himalayan heights that India would protect everyone’s democratic rights would have offered cheer to people within and beyond India, but that was never on the cards. Instead, Modi seems to have used the Ladakh visit to underline his, and by implication his government’s, “Hinduness”.
All know “Muslimness” has not so far united any Muslim-majority country — not Iran, not Afghanistan, not Pakistan, not any other. It has not united even the Muslims of any country. Christian Americans form a majority in the US, but their “Christianness” has not turned Americans into a single people. “Hinduness” has not sufficed to keep Nepal as India’s partner, and it will not draw India’s Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists into a common struggle against a major adversary.
Pledges and reminders of liberty, equality, fraternity and dignity possess a much broader pull, and those who have marched under such banners in the US, India or elsewhere, seem to inspire millions of others. Occasionally, they also invite questions.
In the US, the questions seem to be about a sense of proportion and limits. Thus a targeting, fortunately rare, of persons like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln betrays an irrational demand for perfection from figures of history. The demand may also be unwise, for it could put off allies crucial to a Trump defeat. Should a defence of humiliated minorities extend to offending others?
But the keenest question induced in an Indian like me, who has been watching for weeks America’s remarkable re-examination of its culture, is this: When next will Indians of diverse backgrounds march for the equality and liberty of their Muslim, Dalit and Adivasi brothers and sisters? And while marching, honour the ones brutally killed by proclaiming their names?
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 14, 2020 under the title ‘India, like the US’. The writer teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign