Wednesday, August 18, 2010


The post-colonial world, since achieving independence, has struggled with problems such as shaky or puppet democracies, corruption, poverty and civil war, all of which contribute to massive and frequent violence in many post-colonial nation states today. While the existing world order tends to favor Franklin D. Roosevelt's idea that "all good things go together", or the concept that decolonization, rising literacy and economic progress will automatically bring liberal democracy, the truth is that these very developments have often created illiberal and often violent states.

Popular nationalism is a two-edged sword; while it has its obvious benefits, in many cases it can be used to rally the energies of a majority group at the expense of a minority. This has proven true in the case of both India and Pakistan. In India, Hindu nationalism rose and led to the election of the extreme right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in 1998, while in Pakistan, democratically elected governments have both allowed and incited violence against the Ahmaddiya, Shia and Christian communities, to name a few. Part of this is due to the challenges of maintaining a "national" identity that a vast, multilingual, multicultural body of citizens can identify with. Civic nationalism in societies which for centuries before independence were ruled largely by structures of class, caste, language and ethnicity is a difficult idea to generate and maintain. In a newly democratizing society, debate about who fits into the "true" national identity-and who does not-is both likely and common. Promoting unconditional freedom of debate, while an important ideal, often proves divisive.

The institutions of democracy, already weakened by a colonial legacy, class disparity and communal animosity leftover from Partition days prevent the theoretically great qualities of provincial autonomy and popular elections from being successful in practice. In an environment where democracy is not backed up by strong law and order, an efficient judiciary and other luxuries that post colonial states are generally unaccustomed to, debates about the status of Pakistan’s religious minorities, the rights of India’s Dalits and Adivasis and secessionist movements in both states can easily go wrong. The pogrom against Indian Muslims in Gujarat is only one example of the horrors that can be perpetrated in a democracy. In 2002, millions of Muslims were murdered, raped and looted under the watch of BJP member Narendra Modi, who is still serving as Chief Minister of the state. A free media fueled rumors about Muslims setting fire to a train carrying Hindu passengers, public debates allowed political parties to rally support for their cause of "Hindustan for the Hindus", and a democratic system allowed the government officials who had orchestrated the massacre to be elected back into power. This kind of “murderous cleansing” is not an atypical circumstance in a multicultural, post-colonial democracy. Arguably, it is a very modern phenomenon; it is a common aspect of the only acceptable form of government in today’s world. As Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy said, “is it reasonable to worry about whether a country that is poised on the threshold of "progress" is also poised on the threshold of genocide?”

While democracy, decolonization and political autonomy are the most sacred of today’s political ideals, they are rarely questioned for the violence that they tolerate, support, and sometimes engender. The dark side of democracy in pluralistic, post-colonial states should force us to question Roosevelt’s outdated assumption, challenge the unrestricted power of majority communities in newly-democratic societies and create more effective protections for the status of minorities against whom violence is most often directed.

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