Democracy in a state of emergency

Mizanur Rahman Khan | Dec 02, 2019

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

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

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 This column appeared in
the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

Source: South Asia Journal
Click to read article at Source Democracy in a state of emergency

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