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To what extent is European picture about India distorted? How democratic is its polity?

Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad next to the Pirana "waste mountain"
By Lucrezia Lancia*
“Asia’s giant, India holds a net advantage over China in terms of political climate. In fact, India is the world’s most populated democracy where even the groups that occupy the lowest caste have the right to vote and secure representation in the battle for social mobility and real equality."
Don’t you think this is a na├»ve representation of a much more complex situation?
Or better, doesn’t this sound as an attempt to understand India through some Western categories of thought that poorly fit into the whole picture? Before trying to answer these questions, let me briefly introduce myself. I am Lucrezia Lancia, an Italian Management student who is currently pursuing a dual degree at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. 
In this article, I attempt to explain how my “Western vision” of the Indian society and of its political structure actually changed after having studied in the country for a while and having participated to great talks with local activists based in the Gujarat area.
If you ask to most Europeans what comes to their minds when thinking of India, they will probably answer: “Gandhi, big democracy, caste system, the next unrivalled economic power, a place for diversity (and smart people!)”.
Also, if you have the same discussion with some prominent European Union (EU) scholars, they would probably end up confronting India to China, and express greater faith in the future economic success of the former, because of the idea that India has a more democratic and transparent decision-making system in place, where individual liberties are guaranteed to all.
Having all these ideas in my mind, I have been wondering for quite some time – to what extent is the European picture about India distorted? And, most importantly, how democratic is actually Indian polity?
It looks to me that India (unfortunately not alone) is failing to provide effective solutions to the common people’s problems. How can it be possible that in such a democracy more than half a million manual scavengers clean, carry and dispose of human excreta and everything else that we flush down the toilet?
It was shocking to me to learn that, even though manual scavenging was banned 25 ago with the passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, it still continues to find practitioners.
As the play “Urfe Aalo” by the Whistleblower Theatre Group (which I had the honour to watch) brings out, “Safai Karamcharis” are one of the most marginalized segments of the Indian society, and still today – in the technological era – governments are not capable to promote sanitary practices that would achieve total sanitation, without people dying.
Sad to say, scavengers are not alone in their daily struggle to enjoy basic human rights. Can you believe that 12-13 million people across the nation were labelled criminals by birth under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1931? And even today, after the Independence and the issuance of the “Habitual Offenders Act, 1952”, these 130 tribes (Pardhis, Kanjars, Ramoshis, and Vanjaris) – now called “denotified tribes” – are not fully rehabilitated and are still subject to police surveillance and arrest because of the stigma they carry.
Again, India is celebrated as the world’s largest and one of the most participatory democracies. However, how can this be completely true when freedom for Dalits, Indian Denotified Tribes, manual scavengers and many other segments of the society means something very different to that of other ordinary citizens?
How can it be possible that in such a democracy more than half a million manual scavengers clean, carry and dispose of human excreta and everything else that we flush down the toilet? 
Democratic institutions’ duty is to protect the fundamental rights to justice, equality and freedom of all the citizens. And if they are not able to do so, then it means that the state is failing.
Just consider the case of a social movement like the Gulabi Gang. I was astonished to know that a group of women – illiterate, very poor and from a rural area with the highest incident of rape and domestic violence – could come together, take their destiny in their hands and create a “gang for justice”. 
But my point is, when women are forced to become “masculine” and violent in their fight against the patriarchal society, then are we actually talking about women’s empowerment? I would say no, because that is, instead, nothing but a tangible sign of democratic institutions’ failure.
Undemocratic tendencies in the nation are also strengthened by rising communal intolerance that – as I understood – is mainly fueled by divisive politics, which greatly reminds me of the nationalistic agendas of the major European nations, Italy included.
Nonetheless, among the western society, India’s image is hard to change, and – I guess – because of the Gandhi and Nehru’s legacy, to most European India still appears one of the most tolerant, plural and non-violent societies.
The face of communal intolerance that I actually witnessed while in India, has to do with the phenomenon of “ghettoization” some communities are subject to. For a group project, I had the possibility to visit the Pirana site, a landfill located right outside of the city of Ahmedabad. Only 500 meters away from this “garbage giant”, residencies after 2002 Gujarat riots were established as a relief measure for the survivors’ families – the majority of which belonging to the Muslim community.
What I found visiting the area and talking to the local residents is a segregated community that is straggling to integrate. These people denounce the lack of public hospitals and schools – only one private primary school – and the rising deaths due to respiratory diseases, kidney failures and premature deaths.
With this complex picture in my mind, I still firmly believe India is a genuine, vibrant and unique country, endowed with two great resources – its civil society and its cultural, religious and linguistic plurality. Just think about the great tradition of activism.
Anywhere else in the world, we don’t find something like Indian civil society organizations and activists’ groups. They intervene from the grassroots level on a huge number of issues ranging from land rights fights to fights for a more secular and democratic nation. They epitomize, according to me, the greatest expression of citizens’ rights.
While of course the Indian government owes to every citizen the responsibility for social upliftment, at the current stage, in my opinion, the answer to India’s woes lies in a stronger and more cohesive civil society, that should take pride fully of its multiculturalism while keep leveraging on its long tradition of social activism.
Especially at a time like this one, in which the number of activists in jail has skyrocketed because of charges of left-wing extremism ignited by exponents of the right-wing Hindu fundamentalism, it is a moral duty of each Indian citizen to go out in the streets, raise voice and confront the state, and all those fanatical groups that are sabotaging the secular and plural nature of this nation.
Elections keep India's democracy alive, but it’s up to the people to stand together and keep fighting to translate that political representation into a better life for one another.
---
*Italian management student currently pursuing a dual degree at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad

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