Democracy appears to be gradually, and worryingly, receding in South Asia with strong authoritarian winds blowing within and around India’s neighbourhood.
In the last three months, nearly 1,000 civilians have been killed in firing by the Myanmar military on the streets. They have died protesting against the military coup since February 1 that sent to jail leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, most of whom had been elected to lead the next government.
Nepal, which after a decade of revolt, replaced the monarchy in 2006 is struggling to safeguard the gains of the fledgling republican democracy. The 2015 Constitution, for all practical purposes, is in limbo amidst a senseless power struggle in Parliament that threatens to fritter away the hard-fought gains of democratic forces in that country.
As for Bangladesh, the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina is tightening laws that prevent the effective functioning of the opposition and the media. According to reports, the government in Dhaka is increasingly using repression to curb dissent and prosecute scores under the draconian Digital Security Act.
A Human Rights Watch report says nearly 1,000 people were prosecuted under the Act in 2020. Nearly 250 journalists were subject to attacks, harassment, and intimidation by officials and lackeys of the Bangladesh government in 2020, it said. The latest was the arrest earlier this week of Rozina Islam, a journalist who was held under the Official Secrets Act and charged with espionage when she was doing her job of covering the defence ministry.
A chill has descended over Bangladesh. The Citizen news website, quoting a rights report, said, “With widespread repression of the media and the harassment of editors who publish reports critical of the government, journalists have taken to self-censoring at unprecedented levels given the risks of imprisonment or closure of media outlets.”
In Sri Lanka, the coming to power of the Rajapaksa brothers has immediately resulted in the 20th Constitutional amendment that dilutes parliament’s powers and instead concentrates all power in the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa – in effect, a direct affront to the principle of collective democracy.
In Maldives, after a bout of near-authoritarian rule under former president Mohammed Yameen, and the return of democracy following elections there are fears of a rise in anti-democratic forces and religious extremism in the country. Recently, the incumbent speaker of parliament and former president Mohammed Nasheed, viewed as a committed democrat, was the target of an assassination attempt. He escaped with injuries.
Pakistan’s difficult relationship with democracy is well known. Though currently ruled by an elected government, it was widely reported that Prime Minister Imran Khan had the backing of the nation’s military that helped him win the elections in 2018. Since its independence, Pakistan has suffered a chequered democratic track record following several military coups and the division of state power into three verticals – controlled by an elected government, the military and the intelligence organisation, the ISI.
As for India, which for long was considered the bulwark of democracy in the region despite a slip-up during the Emergency in 1975-77, the signs in the last seven years have not been encouraging. Increasingly, dissent is being frowned upon with activists, journalists and, earlier this week, even an elected member of parliament K.R. Krishnam Raju being charged with sedition.
According to reports, of the 405 sedition cases filed in the last decade, 96 per cent have been during the seven years since Modi came to power in 2014. More than half of these were for merely criticising the central government or the Yogi Adityanath dispensation in Uttar Pradesh.
A comment against the use of cow urine and cow dung by Manipuri journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem and activist Erendro Leichombam has resulted in their imprisonment under the National Security Act. Another reporter, Siddique Kappan, who was on his way to cover a rape case in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras last October finds himself in prison on sedition charges. The country has reached a point where one doesn’t know what can get them into jail. Surely, not something that a democratic country should have to go through.
The one silver lining for India is that for the last seven decades the Constitution has held firm, governments at all levels have been elected to power and replaced peacefully in free and fair elections. A culture of democracy and free speech has permeated society–people are aware of what it means to be free and it may not be that easy to disturb it even if sporadic but concerted attempts are made in that direction by any government.
But that, for example, is not the case with other nations in the neighbourhood. For a country like Nepal that went through a turbulent uprising during 1996-2006, the replacement of a long-entrenched monarchy with a republican democracy was no mean feat. Unfortunately for Nepal, there is no leader of the vision and stature of a Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela or Sardar Patel who is able to guide the nation through the birth pangs of democracy.
Nepal’s Constitution, after much haggling over eight years, was framed in 2015. But that has not resulted in a stable government. Leaders like K.P. Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda, have been unable to put aside their petty personal rivalries and work towards stabilising the fledgeling democracy. On either side of Nepal are two big powers–China and India—which are today competing intensely for influence in that country.
Sandwiched between the two giants, Nepal should have ideally concentrated on consolidating the gains of its democratic revolution. Instead, the leaders of the uprising are squabbling without a care for the consequences. Reports say a latent conservative section within Nepal is using the opportunity to build a movement for a return to monarchy.
Though a democracy and the largest nation in the region after China, India has historically never actively promoted a similar politics among its neighbours. New Delhi, in its foreign policy, did have good relations while at times attempting to dominate smaller neighbours like Sri Lanka. But whether democracy flourished or not has not been one of South Block’s concerns.
For example, in the current round of violence in Myanmar, the Indian government has not said anything to indicate support for anti-coup protests there. In fact, in the name of pragmatism, India has consistently overlooked the six-decade-old military rule in Myanmar.
It did demur over the amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution but that was because of shared Tamil interests in that country. But that has not amounted to much, with Colombo going ahead with the amendment. Similarly, in Nepal too, India has kept off from overtly supporting democratic forces there.
For a country that some decades ago was considered the undisputed leader in the South Asian region, India has slipped considerably, ceding space to China.
The government in New Delhi has been unable to leverage its traditional influence in the neighbourhood using its credentials as a large, peaceful democracy.
Ironically, in the last few years, India itself has slipped on the global democracy scale with independent organisations terming the country now as more of an “electoral autocracy”, “partially free democracy” or even a “flawed democracy”. Unsurprisingly, it has slipped two places to the 53rd position out of 167 countries in the London-based Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Not a good sign for the South Asian region.