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  • India’s Endangered Democracy
  • Šumit Ganguly (bio)
To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism. By Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. 320 pp.

On 4 July 2021, Father Stan Swamy—a Jesuit priest and tribal-rights activist who had been incarcerated on the dubious charge of having ties with India’s Maoist guerrillas—died in a Mumbai hospital due to covid-19 complications. He had contracted the virus while imprisoned for several months awaiting trial. Despite Swamy’s frail health from Parkinson’s disease and the pleas of his legal counsel, the Indian courts repeatedly refused to grant him bail. They did so at the behest of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), India’s top antiterrorism organization. Swamy’s death set off nationwide protests about the callousness of both the NIA and the judiciary.

Yet public outcry is unlikely to lead to any reform of India’s courts or a repeal of the draconian legal pretext under which the NIA arrested Swamy. This law—known as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act—grants the government virtually complete leeway to declare an individual a terrorist, among other disturbing features. Government data show that 1,948 individuals were prosecuted under the Act in 2019, an increase of 72 percent from 2015. Worse still, the Act undermines the principle that an individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty. And the judiciary, once fiercely independent, has become subservient to the vagaries of the executive branch.

Swamy’s tragic death in custody exemplifies some of the many shortcomings [End Page 177] that are now plaguing India’s democracy. In To Kill a Democracy, Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane provide a grim catalogue of how the country’s democratic governance has steadily eroded over the past several decades. Worse still, the authors forcefully argue, unless current trends are either curbed or reversed India may well be caught in an inexorable spiral toward despotism with a democratic façade.

Their fears are not unfounded. The 2021 assessments of Indian democracy from several reputed sources raise profound questions about the country’s political trajectory. The Economist Intelligence Unit declared India to be a “flawed democracy” and ranked the country fifty-third of the 167 countries that it rated for democratic quality. Democracy watchdog Freedom House, which since 1998 had labeled India as Free in terms of political rights and civil liberties, downgraded it to Partly Free. The Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project now calls the country an electoral autocracy.

The evidence of India’s democratic slide that Roy Chowdhury and Keane amassed impresses with its sheer scope and detail, but it also demoralizes—their findings highlight the myriad flaws that now pockmark the country’s political system. The authors divide the book into three segments: The first deals with “Social Emergencies”—a range of issues from healthcare to labor rights; the second section, “Democide,” addresses matters from the decline of the judiciary to increasing constraints on press freedom; and a final part titled “Towards Despotism” underscores tightening restrictions on civil liberties and personal freedoms as well as the stark threats to the future of India’s democracy.

Before turning to these three substantive sections, the authors make an intriguing but somewhat controversial argument. Scholars have long held that the success of Indian democracy was little short of astounding given the country’s cultural and ethnic diversity as well as its many social cleavages involving caste, religion, and class. By contrast, the authors argue that India’s democracy was troubled from its inception. Despite a formal commitment to democratic values, principles, and institutions, India’s founders failed to forthrightly confront the deep-seated social inequities at the core of Indian society. During the adoption of the country’s postindependence constitution in 1950, one of its key drafters, Bhimaro R. Ambedkar—the great Dalit (“untouchable”) leader—had sounded the tocsin on this matter: He argued that India’s entrenched social divisions could undermine the constitution’s promise of equal outcomes. Unfortunately, Roy Chowdhury and Keane contend that his prescient warning went unheeded for the most part.

While there is likely no gainsaying this important criticism, it overlooks the Herculean tasks...


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pp. 177-180
Launched on MUSE
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