There’s genuine social mixing only at the polling booth: Mukulika Banerjee

The anthropologist on why more such spaces are necessary to protect democracy

March 10, 2023 09:04 am | Updated 10:51 am IST

‘The danger to democratic institutions is catastrophic,’ says Mukulika Banerjee.

‘The danger to democratic institutions is catastrophic,’ says Mukulika Banerjee. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

In her recent book, Cultivating Democracy: Politics and Citizenship in Agrarian India, anthropologist Mukulika Banerjee covers the period 1998 to 2013, when she studied two villages of Birbhum district in West Bengal. Using cultivation as metaphor and practice, she contends that farmers who cultivate have the required qualities — nurture, patience, vigilance and hope — which are also essential values for the “cultivation” of democracy. After sessions at the Kolkata Literary Meet, Banerjee talked about her book, pointing out that to protect India’s democratic institutions and culture, India’s republic had to be protected for without the republic there is no democracy. Edited excerpts:

There appears to be a global democratic backslide, and in that context, where does India stand?

At every point in its history, India’s democratic credentials have seemed precarious. At its inception, B.R. Ambedkar announced India’s destiny as a democracy with an equal measure of commitment and pessimism. He had warned that India’s democratic project would be incomplete if it only achieved ‘political’ democracy of institutions and elections but failed to achieve ‘economic and social’ democracy. A democracy is not created by merely setting up institutions; one has to create democracy in social life and this requires constant nurturing; there is no room for complacency. You have to be vigilant. I use the metaphor of cultivation to draw attention to the fact that the activity of cultivation requires practices of nurture, patience, vigilance, and hope and these are also values that are essential for the cultivation of democracy anywhere.

In a diverse country like India how difficult was the project of building a republic?

Ambedkar insisted that India should be called both a republic and a democracy i.e. India is a ‘sovereign, democratic, republic’. Republic Day is actually a national holiday, and the project of building the republic was considered to be significant and radical, because it aimed to create horizontal bonds of solidarity between citizens. Given the deep social inequalities based on caste that exist in India, it was radical to imagine a social democracy where you were genuinely striving, if not for equality but at least for fraternity, and by that we mean that whatever social class or caste background we belong to we are able to create civility of interaction between people who are strangers. India’s democracy has always simultaneously taken on the responsibility of also trying to build a republic, taking on Ambedkar’s foundational idea.

If an ecosystem is divisive, how can the social fabric be protected? Is it possible to continuously create a shared common space?

I think the problem in projects of creating solidarity cannot only be a rational set of arguments, correct as they are. Unless people feel an emotional attachment to it I doubt it’s going to happen… yes, we need to protect our institutions, we need to create fraternity spaces and we have to think continually about how we can do it, but there is no prior blueprint. Anyone who tries to create this project has to create something in which people feel a commitment and attachment.

Farmers across the country protesting against the anti-farmers policies of the Central Government, at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi.

Farmers across the country protesting against the anti-farmers policies of the Central Government, at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Take the farmers’ protest. Their job was to oppose the farm laws. But the way they did it, the mode of protest in these huge encampments outside Delhi were republics of protest. They recreated and recommitted themselves to republican ideals. Farmers of diverse backgrounds and means and different regions lived cheek by jowl.

If you are going to push back against the corruption of democratic institutions, it is not just about working hard to win the next election but to reclaim, recreate and re-imagine spaces where we can create an attachment to why this is important. That’s why I find the Indian polling booth such a fascinating space. We take it for granted, nothing like that existed before 1950, but there is no other space where you get a genuine social mixing — it’s where you can’t say I won’t stand next to this person, all the things we are so good at saying the rest of the time.

Are the ideals of democracy and the republic threatened?

The danger to democratic institutions is catastrophic. The reason why there is concern and we cannot move past 1984 or the 2002 [riots] is that these were a violation of the ideals of justice and equality of the republic using the institutions of government. When you have an organised riot, the government machinery, the police, the administration are all directly or indirectly able to threaten the basic principles of democracy, of protecting minority communities against majoritarianism. It’s as if the ideal of fraternity is chopped down from the root.

Rahul Gandhi and his supporters during the Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March), in Panipat.

Rahul Gandhi and his supporters during the Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March), in Panipat. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Has the Bharat Jodo Yatra been able to create such a space?

Its real success is that it has been able to create this kind of place of solidarity. If despite our deep social injustices and inequalities of caste and class, a different kind of sociality is created, like in a polling booth, the farmers’ protests and the Bharat Jodo Yatra, that togetherness is creating a certain kind of politics. After all, as Hannah Arendt said, politics is this — more than power or influence, politics is fundamentally about the ability of people to come together.

To reduce politics to competitive games like elections impoverishes us about the idea of politics; it is a misreading of the ability of politics. Politics is not just about division and competition; it is also about bringing people together.

Tell us about the two villages you have studied and what you observed.

During the 15-year span of my study, values came under strain as the circumstances in which people lived were challenged in multiple ways and in turn so did their responses. I record three big changes in the book — their practice of Islam, paddy cultivation and the electoral story. The book charts how from a place of complete terror of the Left Front in its heyday in the late 1990s, the villagers were able to create a situation where they could mention a rival political party and how that brought people together. It was a slow and painstaking process at the end of which the Trinamool Congress came to power.

Women at a paddy field in Birbhum district of West Bengal.

Women at a paddy field in Birbhum district of West Bengal. | Photo Credit: PTI

The second big change was paddy itself — in Birbhum over the years, I have seen more and more land lying fallow and barren. It’s no longer possible to grow anything. The water table has dropped too low, diesel is expensive and it is simply no longer possible to cultivate. The Green Revolution has turned Brown.

As for Islam — the story of Indian Islam has always been different and distinct from Islam of West Asia; South Asian Islam has always had a different flavour, it is syncretic. Islam in India co-exists with other religions and pirs and holy men and their graves are all over South Asia and they are worshipped. Islam therefore is embedded and attached in the very landscape of the subcontinent. With the introduction of more austere reformist forms of Islam which are focused on individual piety and practice, this is changing. Conversations on what is modest, on women’s mobility, on why men are not growing beards began to come up much more.

Set against this backdrop, the book shows how the economy, religion and kinship — all contribute to the story of democracy. Democracy needs to be studied during elections, but also in between elections to see how the political and non-political shape each other.

Cultivating Democracy: Politics and Citizenship in Agrarian India; Mukulika Banerjee, Oxford University Press, ₹1,299.

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