Is democracy good for everyone?
Picture a 19-year-old man in Mumbai, living in a makeshift hut in an urban slum, scraping by with money made scavenging garbage from a landfill site. Now ask yourself this: Is he happy with India’s democracy? In the past two decades India has experienced steady growth, creating a larger middle class. Nevertheless, India and its 1.1 billion citizens are still burdened by extensive poverty and illiteracy. The disparity between different classes in India (and elsewhere) allows some to argue that democracy is an elitist system for the educated middle and upper classes. India, the world’s largest democracy, has certainly experienced growth, but has it only been good for select segments of the population? Or is democracy good for everyone?
ABOUT THIS FILM
In the early decades of the twentieth century Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy of non-violent revolution or Satyagraha inspired a mass movement of millions of Indians to rise up against the British colonial state and successfully agitate for the establishment of a democratic and free India. In 2007, the country is preparing to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of its existence as an independent nation. But what kind of a democracy does India have today? What does it actually mean to live in the world’s largest democracy? In road-movie style the film crew travels down the famous trail of Gandhi’s salt march, the remarkable mass campaign that galvanized ordinary Indians to join the non-violent struggle for democracy and freedom almost a century ago. Stopping at the same villages and cities, where Gandhi and his followers had raised their call for independence, the film documents the stories of ordinary citizens in India today. Although inspired by a historical event In Search of Gandhi is not a journey back in time. Instead it is a search for the present and future of democracy in India.
LALIT VACHANI is director of the New Delhi based Wide Eye Film. He studied at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, USA. His previous documentary films have been on the star-system and the social worlds within the Bollywood film industry (The Academy, 1995; The Starmaker, 1997) and on the indoctrination, ideology and the politics of Hindutva propagated by the Hindu fundamentalist organization, the RSS (The Boy in the Branch, 1993; The Men in the Tree, 2002). His most recent work is The Play Goes On (2005), a documentary about JANAM, a socialist street theatre group in India.
In keeping with the principles of satyagraha (a combination of two Sanskrit words ‘satya’ meaning truth and ‘agrah’ meaning persuasion’), the Salt March was a mass civil disobedience movement against the salt taxes imposed by the imperial British regime. The weeks that followed Gandhi’s salt march saw massive civil disobedience across the sub-continent. Gandhi had inspired millions to go against the grain of imperial repression, but with passive resistance. Decades later, the same public is now at each others’ throats, creating bloody massacres in Gandhi’s own state, Gujarat.
Contrary to popular belief, Islam came to South Asia long before the Muslim invasions of india. Islamic influence first came to be felt in the early 7th century with the advent of Arab traders. More recently, India was under British colonial rule from the early 1800s until 1947. Post-colonial India was partitioned into the modern nation-states of India and Pakistan. Since 1947, there have been three wars between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Politicians from as early as 1940 have forced the division between Hindus and Muslims upon the public. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who led the struggle for an independent Pakistan, made it clear in his public statements, which drew a stronger line between the two religions. Jinnah said that to yoke together such strong religions into one nation state would create discontent.
The Political Scene
In 2002, India faced communal riots in Godhra, a small town in Gujarat, that devolved into calculated murder of Indian Muslims. Islamic fundamentalists were blamed for the burning of a train car occupied mostly by Hindus. The chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi insinuated that Pakistani Intelligence was involved. The burning of the train became an excuse; Hindus initiated acts of violence and murder on the Muslim population of Gujarat, starting in Ahemadabad.
India has the world’s second-largest population and a booming economy. It is an ally of the US; the two countries signed a nuclear cooperation agreement this year that will see the US share more of its nuclear technology and will boost economic ties.
India’s relations with Pakistan have improved significantly in recent years, though they are still far from friendly neighbours. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India remain high at times, and new tensions are forming between the new middle class and the massive population still mired in poverty. Are Gandhi’s ideals still alive along with his image? Does the democracy India has adopted adhere to his principles? If not, what would result were they restored?