Perspectives on Democracy

India: Collective Assembly as a Critical Practice

Ramnarayan Rawat, September 2016

In July 2016, 12,000 Dalits marched on the streets of Ahmedabad to protest atrocities against members of their community. @AMusketeer/Twitter Growing up in a democracy is an intimate experience that grows with you, and along the way you learn about its practice. My first personal encounter with the workings of Indian democracy took place when I participated in a demonstration that filled the wide lanes of Delhi in 1991. As members of a civil society group organized against religious intolerance, several hundred protesters walked for half a mile toward the office of the Hindu nationalist political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was actively campaigning to consolidate a Hindu community. Its tactics included attacking Muslims, sometimes with violence, and describing them as outsiders and enemies of the nation, though they had lived in India for generations. As our peaceful demonstration approached the party office, the police prevented us from walking further and dispersed us. My American friends have frequently encountered demonstrations during their visits to India, and have remarked to me how much more common political demonstrations and processions are in India than in the United States. Indeed, most Indians first experience democracy through their participation in various forms of collective assemblies, demonstrations, rallies, agitations, and public meetings. One might even characterize India’s democracy as something that takes place in the street, outdoors in the open air.

Collective assembly plays a crucial role in Indian democracy. Addresses by Indian leaders from various parties at mass meetings and protest rallies are at the heart of Indian democracy today. These meetings provide a context for addressing people directly, for spelling out agendas on issues that concern their audiences. Oratorical skills play a critical role in the popularity of political leaders. They are attentive to the use of language, drawing from the classical to the colloquial to emphasize specific aspects of their message. Orators are also skilled in coining slogans and improvising two-line poems, effectively circulating their messages beyond the meetings. The agendas of various political actors are debated in the media and vigorously discussed by people in tea shops, on public transport, in offices, at home over dinner, and during family gatherings. More recently, social media has come to play an active role as well.

Almost all public meetings, especially prior to elections, are held in open public spaces, usually parks (maidans), and they tend to spill over into surrounding neighborhoods. The size of public gatherings can vary, depending on the occasion, from 10,000 to over 200,000. You will rarely find a public election meeting indoors, in a hotel, enclosed stadium, or town hall, spaces that are hallmarks of American democratic practice. In the Indian context, the media and the public would view an indoor meeting as a mark of weakness, signifying an inability to fill an open outdoor space. The capacity of political parties to attract large crowds is seen as predictive of their showing in the polls. Collective assemblies play an active role in the production and consumption of political agendas during election time.

Popular movements, through demonstrations, rallies, and protests, have helped define the history and practice of Indian democracy. These practices emerged during the anticolonial struggle in India led by the Indian National Congress party under the leadership of M. K. Gandhi and ­Jawaharlal Nehru. The Congress organized a number of all-India mass movements, typically in the form of noncooperation and civil disobedience protests, which became a singular feature of protest against oppressive British policies and in support of Indian independence. These included the Rowlatt struggle in 1919, the first noncooperation movement in 1921–22, the Salt Marches of 1930, and the Quit India movement of 1942.

The Congress leaders’ strategy underscored the place of collective assembly in the success of their movement. Gandhi frequently used the Hindu notion of dharma, or moral duty, a key term in Hindu religious epics, to characterize the protests launched by the Congress. Imbuing Congress’s politics with social and religious obligations, its leaders added a compelling moral imperative to its demonstrations. The active participation of Gandhi and other leaders in demonstrations and marches enthused the Congress’s members and local leaders to mobilize people. In the case of the Congress, the noncooperation struggles created emotional and personal connections among a large population of Indians. This later enabled the establishment of a political party with mass appeal. It promised voting rights to all Indians, a constitutionally mandated affirmative action program for “untouchables” and tribal communities, a land redistribution program to benefit poor peasants, and the creation of a middle class through investment in infrastructure and large-scale industrial projects. The Congress implemented this agenda following the British transfer of power in 1948.

One might characterize India’s democracy as something that takes place in the street, outdoors in the open air.

The practice of collective assemblies didn’t dissipate with the emergence of formal democracy in India in 1951, when the first general elections were held. Given its anti­colonial legacy, the Congress became a powerful political force, winning eight out of nine general elections between 1951 and 1991. A large number of parties articulating left/secular positions, Hindu nationalist aspirations, and regional linguistic and ethnic identities began to compete with the Congress. The organizations of political parties and the rituals of collective assemblies have given Indian democracy a solid foundation.

Indeed, the technique of collective assemblies plays a constructive role in empowering people to bring new agendas to the fore. Within a decade of independence, ­Telugu-language activists organized a series of massive agitations to demand that a separate linguistic state be carved from the state of Madras. This successful movement contributed to the linguistic reorganization of India in 1956, when Indian states were reorganized on the basis of languages. Environmental movements, such as the 1973 Chipko movement in northern India and the “Save the Narmada” movement in the 1980s, relied on massive popular participation to attract the attention of the media and the state. Each movement forced the state to change its narrow focus on development and take environmental costs into account.

Collective assemblies have proven effective methods for minorities—including Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, women, and tribals—to make their voices heard. Dalits (formerly “untouchables”), who constitute nearly 17 percent of India’s total population, have employed their unique forms of collective assembly to challenge caste Hindu domination. During the colonial period, Dalit groups organized public marches to challenge caste Hindu control of civic space in urban centers and to demand access to religious and educational institutions, rather than to challenge the colonial state. In February 1921, for example, Dalit organizations in northern India organized a march that drew 25,000 participants who paraded from south to north Delhi in a challenge to the caste Hindu nationalist agenda. In direct opposition to the Congress boycott of the Prince of Wales, these marginalized groups publicly welcomed the prince. On October 14, 1956, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a Dalit and prominent leader of modern India who drafted India’s constitution, publicly converted from Hinduism to Buddhism in the context of a massive public ceremony that drew more than 600,000 Dalits. Dalit political activism has relied on the organization of massive public rallies in support of their concerns, becoming increasingly more organized and visible in the last 30 years.

Public meetings, rallies, and agitations are foundational to the workings of Indian democracy because they are vital to effect political change and to articulate new agendas. Most recently, in 2016, the Aam Adami Party (Common Man’s party, or AAP) made a spectacular entry onto the national stage by winning 67 out of 70 legislative seats in the Delhi state elections. The two well-established parties, the Congress and the BJP, suffered stunning losses. The AAP owed its phenomenal electoral victory four years after its founding to its sustained struggles against the culture of systemic corruption in Indian institutions, especially the government.

AAP leaders first gained prominence in the all-India civil society organizations protests between December 2011 and November 2012. Similarly, in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress (Popular Congress), formed in 1998, captured political power in the general elections in 2011, after leading two major popular movements in 2007 and 2008 against the ruling political party’s illegal acquisition of farm lands for industrial corporations. Campaigning on behalf of farmers, the Trinamool Congress organized a large number of well-attended rallies to protest the state government’s policies favoring private corporations. This enabled it to defeat the powerful Communist Party of India–Marxist, which had remained in power undefeated for 35 years.

Today, the critical practice of collective assemblies continues to shape the democratic experience of Indian citizens, encouraging their active participation. Assemblies create emotional bonds that transcend spatial boundaries to create a wider sense of collective participation. Citizens in India continue to expand the promise of democracy through their efficacious use of the techniques of collective assembly, which successfully persuades the state to listen to their concerns.

Ramnarayan Rawat is associate professor of history at the University of Delaware. He is currently completing his second book, Parallel Publics: A Dalit History of Indian Democracy. Most recently, he coedited Dalit Studies (Duke Univ. Press, 2016).


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