India’s protection against Egypt style rebellions
DELHI: Questions have frequently been asked in India during the past three weeks about whether the type of uprising seen in Cairo’s Tahrir Square could happen there, with a street-level rebellion occupying a city centre and spreading across the country to such a degree that it topples (or almost topples) the national government.
Surely, it is generally said, India’s democratic systems, though flawed, make the country immune to such social and political upheavals. As a last resort, India’s non-political army could step in as a benign temper-calming longstop, as it does from time to time around the country. India, people say correctly, is not an autocracy, so surely it has enough checks and balances in its parliamentary system to stop such an event happening.
To an outsider however, India must seem ripe for an Egypt-style eruption. Its parliament is frequently closed down by political rows, its governing coalition is rudderless and steeped in corruption, and the opposition is ineffective. More than 300m people live on a dollar a day or less, and there has been frequent regional unrest over the poor losing their land to rampant speculation and industrial development. Top judges and army generals have joined politicians and other officials in building up illicit personal wealth.
The young are restless and ambitious and, though many are enjoying an upwardly mobile lifestyle that their parents could only dream about when they were young, many are underemployed or just without work, even after some form of tertiary education. Those under 35 account for about 60% of the 1.1bn population and, like Egypt’s youth, they are heavily into electronic communications and social media. Some have not just one but two cell phones – there are over 750m mobiles in use in the country. A recent survey however suggests that the youth are “highly risk averse, more politically right-wing than before, extremely socially conservative and disinclined to opt for rebellion”.
Land is most likely to trigger unrest, as has been seen in many parts of the country, notably in West Bengal’s violent eruptions that started four years ago over a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Nandigram and a Tata Motors factory at Singur. (Both projects were abandoned.)
The trouble starts with small farmers and landless labourers giving up land they have held for generations. They often waste the small amounts they are paid and then see developers making massive profits in later deals. Tribal people lose their village land in mineral-rich forests and mountains to companies like Vedanta, a controversial UK-based mining company, and to many more Indian operators that move in illegally with the support of local politicians and officials.
Until now however, democratic forces have calmed protests, negating chances of a mass rebellion. West Bengal has had all the seeds for a popular uprising after 30-plus years of rule by an increasingly corrupt and self-serving Communist-based Left Front state government. The Nandigram and Singur unrest was encouraged for political reasons by Mamata Banerjee, leader of the regional Trinamool Congress opposition party, and was inflamed by Maoist Naxalite rebels. Democracy is now re-asserting itself and Banerjee hopes to oust the Left in state elections due in April
Corruption is another potential issue, but millions of people enjoy the spoils down through the system to village level, so it arouses condemnation and protest marches, but not potential revolt. Anger about corruption is also defused by elections, which politicians frequently lose if they are perceived themselves to have benefited excessively.
Much is forgiven if there is development. Corrupt leaders of two parties, the DMK and AIADMK, have between them run Tamil Nadu state assembly coalitions continuously for 44 years. Operating in the style of Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, they have led strong economic, social and industrial development (including respectable SEZs). At the same time, their relations and friends have been awarded jobs and business contracts in the state and ministerial coalition posts in Delhi. This may not be ethical government, but it is a model of development that works.
The biggest threat to India comes from Maoist Naxalites, who are active in a third of the country’s districts and conduct armed terrorist attacks that security forces have not been able to quell. The rebels thrive in tribal and other under-privileged areas where there is a lack of development and where India’s often-brutal security forces and forest officers harass the poor.
There are other major social issues, as well as ethnic and religious clashes, that cause often-violent riots, for which India is famous. But the size and diversity of this voluble and argumentative country makes it very difficult to build a unified view on anything, Protests usually peter out once the demonstrators have been placated with promises, or the vested interests that encouraged and facilitated them have achieved their political, monetary or other targets.
Since independence, no event has united the country in protest. There have been local uprisings for years in the far north-east states such as Assam and Nagaland, but this has have no resonance or impact elsewhere. Even 21 years of unrest in Kashmir has been largely contained to that state.
It looks therefore as if there is no prospect of Tahrir Square being replayed in Delhi’s majestic Raj Path that leads past parliament to the presidential palace, nor even in the traditional Jantar protest area off Parliament Street.
But, if democratic forces continue to fail to serve the people of West Bengal better, might the Naxalites draw closer to Kolkata’s Victoria Park that houses the monumental Victoria Memorial? That would be a neat location in the former imperial capital for an uprising by the poor about how badly they have fared since the British left.
A longer version of this article appears on John Elliott’s Riding the Elephant blog – http://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/Tagged in: corruption, democracy, egypt, India, rebellion, Tahrir Square
Recent Posts on The Foreign Desk
- India's street kids fight back: with a broadsheet newspaper
- Odisha’s cyclone shows India can handle disasters but longer-term action is needed
- Rahul Gandhi lands Lalu Yadav in jail, but can he be a national leader?
- In UN report on chemical weapons attack, evidence points to the Syrian government
- For Pakistan's Ahmadis, a depressing tale of two gatherings
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter