The Decline of Democracy

February 7, 2020

This winter break, I was amidst family and festivities in Mumbai, India. Despite the smoldering heat, unusual for this time of year, I was happy to be back; it had been two years since we had last visited and I was excited to catch up with all my relatives. 


There was one thing on my mind while I was enjoying the comforts of being back home: just days earlier, there had been murmurs of civil unrest in Delhi over an act Parliament was trying to pass: the Citizenship Amendment Act. Essentially, the act’s aim is to provide a path for citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities who had fled persecution from neighboring countries before December 2014. Notably, Muslims are not mentioned within this bill, even though they are around 14.2% of the population, making Islam the second-largest religion in India. So by not including them in this act, it seems as if the Parliament of India – led by majority party BJP –  is sending a strong message: Muslims are not welcome within this country. 


This message is not particularly new. Within the tenure of the BJP party, religiously motivated attacks against Muslims have increased within the country with limited response from the government. What is new, however, is the blatancy of this particular attack. India has always been a secular country that prides itself on the fact that, constitutionally, all men and women are equal regardless of religion or race. The Citizenship Amendment Act directly defies this principle and seeks to undermine a religious group’s right to citizenship. It clearly shows the BJP party’s underlying motivation to make India a Hindu nationalist country. 


India is not the only country that has taken this nationalist turn. 2019 has been labeled as the Global Protest Wave, due to the abnormally large amount of protests that have occurred throughout the year, most of which ultimately stem from the desire for more political freedom from governmental political repression. 


If anything is to be learned from this wave of protests, it is that people are demanding change and perhaps it’s time we listen. Because so far, these protests have largely been met with the force of the police and suppression of speech. Increasingly, governments around the world are taking a stance of xenophobia and suppression over tolerance and acceptance. 


Within China, any attempt at uncovering the repressive government policy against Uighur Muslims has resulted in intimidation and threats. Even Uighur Chinese communities outside China are reluctant to speak up for fear of harm to their families or themselves. Sudanese protesters were met with internet blackouts and jail time. 


These examples are extreme, but their undertones are very similar to other events that have occurred throughout the past year. In July, the Trump Administration tried to include a question regarding a person’s citizenship status in the U.S. Census. The move, which was eventually blocked by the Supreme Court, caused controversy because critics argued that this question would deter non-citizens from answering the census. In other words, this was either a cold political calculation or blatantly xenophobic. In fact, this move has quite a few parallels with the Citizenship Amendment Act in India – two governments seeking to redefine the population they preside over in order to benefit themselves, while at the same time outright rejecting the principles on which their country was founded. 


Within an increasingly polarized world, it can be easy to write these protests off as part of the ‘other side’s’ agenda. In fact, politicians will seize any opportunity to criticize those who oppose them, if it means that some of the heat gets taken off of them. But this is not productive for society, and it does not address the ultimate root of the problem- there has been an abuse of power and it must be addressed. 


We can all agree that power is the number one motivator behind most human actions, and this applies to politicians as well. Power is necessary to facilitate change, but power must be kept in check. If not, that leaves room for abuse imposed by a position of power. Democracies are founded on the idea that the people of the society should have the power to determine who they give power to. Fulfilling the people’s desires is the ultimate purpose of democracy, and the moment it does not meet this basic requirement, democracy has failed. 


A rejection of democratic ideals is dangerous for many reasons, but it is not fair nor accurate to characterize this rejection as solely the result of abuses of power. It stems, first and foremost, from an ignorant public. Dictators do not just come to power; they are given it. We choose who and what we believe in, and who we decide to give power to. When we allow our prejudices to rule our judgment instead of doing what is just, when we do not question the decisions of those in power, we open the door to the possibility of being preyed upon and manipulated because of our prejudices. 


Hatred is blinding: it conceals the gross miscarriages of justice that occur right under our noses. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we need to learn from the mistakes of our past to avoid making them in the future. The worst atrocities of the past stemmed from a similar premise present today – a breakdown of democracy perpetuated by the presence of hatred, blind belief, and an abuse of power. In fact, history recently repeated itself when the Senate voted to acquit Trump of his impeachment charges. Blinded by political tensions and strained dynamics within the Senate, Trump was not subjected to a fair and thorough trial. The protests mentioned above are important and deserve to be heard and acted upon, and it is essential that we hold powerful people accountable because if we don’t, we stand at risk of losing our freedom and control over our lives and the world we live in.

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