Basic Business #1: Independence and Democracy

Original in Hindi here.

We Indians fought the colonial rulers and obtained our independence, our history books have taught us. After that, we became a democratic country. However, it is necessary to take a closer look at some historical events and facts.

All of us celebrate Independence Day today. Supposedly independence from the British (or some other foreign powers in places like Goa and Pondicherry). But that is not true for all of India. At the time of independence, there were many princely states in India, some of which were significantly large. People in these states were governed by Indian kings.

We earned another fantastic gift in 1947. A democratic government. Most of us tend to equate independence with democracy. We assume that democracy was a natural consequence of independence. However, the departure of the foreigners as the rulers does not guarantee that a democratic government will follow. In Cambodia, the governance of the country was handed over to its king after the French decided to leave the country. Myanmar got a democratic government after its independence, but in just a decade and a half, it was taken over by a military dictatorship. Vietnam’s lot was a single-party Communist dictatorship. Even in the case of Pakistan, the twin of the post-independence India, democracy has been, at best, an intermittent privilege. And as pointed out earlier, in what we today identify as India, not everyone was ruled by the foreigners. They had to earn democracy by removing their very own kings from power! If we look at countries like Canada and Australia, even to this day, their sovereign is the King or Queen of England. But they do have a democratic government. Before quitting Sri Lanka, the British made arrangements for a democratic transition. However, internal fights in Sri Lanka has on several occasions left democracy in the doldrums.

Hence, a few things are important to remember. First, independence from a foreign power is not a guarantee for establishing democracy. Second, having a native government is not equivalent to having a democratic government. We may have an autocracy under a very native king. An even more dangerous possibility is that of a dictatorship under a leader of our own choosing!

This is why we must remain cautious and alert and not take our democracy for granted. We have democracy today not just because the British left. We have it because we also have been able to successfully keep native kings and despots away from power.

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