From the perspective of constitutional and legal rights, we can divide nations into three sorts. First, those that promise citizens rights very clearly and deliver them. Equality, education, health, justice, food, free speech and employment, and so on.
The nations of the European Union, broadly, and to a large extent the United States are among these first sort of nations.
It is true that many of these nations violate human rights abroad, most obviously through war, the damage of which many of these nations take quite casually. But internally, so far as their own citizens go, the nations live up to the words of their Constitution and law.
The second sort are those nations that don’t make obvious claims and don’t live up to them. Pakistan is clear about not giving citizens constitutional equality. No non-Muslim may become prime minister or president of Pakistan, and by law. Their Constitution also apostatises certain citizens and denies religious freedom. There are certain warm and sweeping words about equality but the laws are categorical. Likewise China gives no real democratic rights and does not pretend to give them.
India is the third sort of nation, with a constitutional framework that makes grand promises of equality and justice, and with laws that offer many rights. However the reality is an inability of the state to fulfil most of these promises. They remain on paper. For example: The Constitution promises equality before the law but it would not be easy to find many Indians who will verify that this promise is being kept. Nothing in our experience will lead us to believe that this is the case or even that an attempt is being made for it to be the case.
Two thirds of our prison population comprises women and men who have not been convicted (and who will not, given the general rate of convictions) nor ever will be. The corresponding figure in the United States is about a fifth. Preventive detention, meaning the government locking you up without a crime having been committed, merely on suspicion, is practiced widely in India. This is not equality before the law, because it is not Business Standard readers who get locked up. It is the voiceless underclass that is brutalised.
India’s poor have rights to education and to food but these can be overwritten or qualified to the extent that their rights are absolutely meaningless. We need not go into the details. It should be pointed out, however, that we are riding roughshod over those among the poorest who are losing entitlements as basic as grain while we are engaging in a magnificent battle over digital identity and privacy.
There is not and there has never been (this not being just about the present government but our polity in general) an electoral focus on health and education. This is another thing that separates us from that first category of nations. And it reveals itself in the most obvious way possible.
Even casual readers of foreign newspapers will know what a big political issue the National Health Service is in the United Kingdom. And many will know that health care was the single most important issue of American politics for the last seven years, and indeed it remains so. Elections at the level of state and Union were fought and lost on health care. Primary education is again a subject of electoral politics in both nations, and millions of people can be mobilised around it. Billions are of course spent on it, as are trillions on health.
In India, the proposal to build a bullet train costing three times as much as the Union health budget is applauded. It is important to say that 38 per cent of our children are stunted at the age of two years, giving them no chance of a fulfilling mental and physical life. But all hail the bullet train. This astonishing and frankly bizarre and cruel proposal has certainly not, to any great extent, been opposed. Who has first right on our resources? This is settled by the numbers: First the middle class, then the armed forces. The scraps are for the rest.
The fact that the majority of our children are coming out of school half-literate, as studies repeatedly show, is not a subject of electoral politics either. In a just world this sort of criminal bumbling would bring governments down. The incompetence cuts across the states so it is not about one party or the other. It is a general and observable phenomenon. The question is why this is so. It cannot be because of differences in ideology. Whatever one may think of Hindutva and the Communists (to mark out the ends of India’s tattered political spectrum) it would be wrong to assume any party deliberately wants education and health of the Indian child to remain in the state it is.
I know why there is no media attention on the issue. It is of course because, focused on delivering relevant audiences to advertisers, it stays away from issues that deal with those with no money to spend. But what about the rest of what constitutes civil society? Why is it so easy to mobilise people on abstract things like nationalism and so seemingly difficult to do this on health and education and the future of our children? Is it because it hasn’t been tried in the right way? Are we awaiting something? That doesn’t sound right: All manner of ideologies have been tried. The answer is to be found internally. Merely starting the process of thinking about it is disturbing and troubling
via How India differs from the top nations | Business Standard Column