Asia's Democracies: Enjoying a free ride?

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Sumit Ganguly
16 May 2020

Do democracies, established or otherwise, get a free ride on human rights issues? And do large, powerful, authoritarian states also enjoy such a privilege? The questions are far from trivial as the fates of substantial numbers of human beings are at issue. A comparison of how India and China, two states with markedly different political systems have fared, may enable us to illuminate the subject.

There is little question that India has now joined the ranks of consolidated democracies. Democracy, today, is the only game in town. Regardless of political and ideological persuasion, all political parties accept some of the essential rules of the game; namely, an orderly and non-violent alternation of power and the concept of a loyal opposition. India can also boast that it has a genuinely free press, that the upper echelons of its judicial system is not only fiercely independent but has also contributed important ideas to modern jurisprudence and that civil liberties, under normal circumstances, are largely respected.

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That said, Indian democracy is hardly flawless. Perhaps its most serious shortcoming lies in its inability, and even unwillingness, to forthrightly protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. Minorities have, on occasion, faced persecution and some groups, mostly lower-class Muslims, encounter routine discrimination in public life. Worse still, under conditions of political turmoil, minorities have been attacked with impunity and their perpetrators have evaded the reach of the law. At best, only lowly officials have faced punishment while those who were most complicit in orchestrating the violence have paid little price for their misdeeds.

This failure to guarantee the rights ethnic and religious minorities is deeply corrosive of the democratic ethos of the Indian state. It is also detrimental to the long-term cohesiveness of the polity. Yet in the quest for electoral advantage, in their unwillingness to bolster existing institutions of law enforcement and thanks their own deep-seated prejudices, lawmakers from the majority community have proven unwilling, for the most part, to take an unequivocal position on this subject. Instead they have sought refuge in a range of rationalisations and recriminations to explain away this fundamental failure of public policy.

During much of the Cold War, the advanced industrial democracies ignored these shortcomings of the Indian polity. India neither threatened their interests and nor was it a major destination for their goods and services. Consequently, they rarely found reason to upbraid India's record on these matters. Ironically, these great champions of liberal democracy often argued that such social breakdowns merely indicated that democracy was unsuitable for India and it was only a matter of time before this futile experiment would face its final curtain call. Now that India has started to dispense with what the noted Indian political scientist, Ramesh Thakur, aptly called, its "bunker mentality", opened its doors to foreign investment and ended its neuralgic anti-Americanism, its human rights record has come under greater scrutiny and criticism.

Despite its uneven record, all is far from lost in India. Democracy matters. When faced with unrelenting criticism from Western governments and civil society organisations, over its human rights record in suppressing the insurgency in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, India created the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in 1993. Many observers, including the present writer, at the time dismissed this entity as a toothless body and as a sop to sustained international criticism. Fortunately, these dismissive assessments have been proven false. The NHRC has acquired its share of organisational autonomy, expanded its ambit and has embarrassed more than one regime in office. Its record, of course, is far from perfect. Nevertheless, it has managed to bring relief to many who would otherwise have little recourse but to suffer their fates in silence.

What about China? During much of the Cold War so little was known about this country that it hardly faced any serious scrutiny of its human rights record. More to the point, the liberal democracies of the West expected little from this totalitarian Communist state. However, there were some important Western apologists for the Communist state. They contended that China was engaged in a massive enterprise designed to bring about the economic uplift of its toiling masses. Consequently, there was little or no discussion, let along criticism, of the nightmarish horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent cruel, idiocies of the Cultural Revolution.

In the 1980s, when China embraced the market, a new argument emerged in the West; namely, that once China reached a certain level of prosperity thanks to its market based reforms, it would inevitably face pressures for democratisation. Consequently, its human rights record, these apologists, most notably members of various business communities and their intellectual acolytes, argued that one should refrain from any public criticism of human rights in China. Instead they contended that every effort be made to bolster ChinaÕs long march to the market as this would be the most potent force for ushering in democracy and a concomitant respect for human rights.

Despite the vicious repression of the democracy activists during and after the events of at Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989, this argument did not lose steam. Western governments, most notably, the United States, imposed some sanctions on weapons sales and the like but otherwise matters proceeded as usual. The lure of the Chinese market that had animated the West since the nineteenth century, during the heyday of British commercial imperialism, had lost little ground. Apart from a few diehard academics and human rights activists who maintained a steady drumbeat of criticism most Western governments were willing to set aside their grand moral scruples in their pursuit of Mammon.

Democracies may not face the sustained criticism that they deserve when they fail to guarantee the rights of their citizens regardless of ethnic background or religious persuasion. However, they do seem to have some corrective mechanisms, which while hardly flawless, nevertheless offer a modicum of hope. Powerful, authoritarian states, however, are largely impervious to moral suasion and opprobrium. They only seem to care when threatened with significant material costs. Unfortunately, imposing such costs on prosperous authoritarian states, which wield significant economic clout, requires a willingness to pay a price at home. Alas, the exigencies of domestic politics often preclude a willingness on the part of most Western elites to absorb such costs to uphold apparently cherished principles.


Sumit Ganguly is a Professor of Political Science and Director of Research of the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington. 

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