Trials of Indian Democracy : Andre Beteille (1999)

Indian democracy has been sailing through troubled waters in the last couple of decades. It  is not that there were no problems in the first quarter century after independence. But these problems began to show an increasingly acute form with Emergency and its aftermath. Within a short span of five years, the people of India experienced the two most fundamental threats to the democratic form of governance: authoritarianism and its twin, anarchy.

The success of democracy depends upon a number of different factors among which good laws of great significance. The Constitution of India provides a very comprehensive  framework for such laws. No Constitution, no matter how carefully designed, can be perfect or can anticipate every exigency that is likely to arise in the life of a nation. Our  Constitution has had to accommodate some eighty amendments in the course of less than  fifty years. In addition, there has been a plethora of legislation to facilitate the smooth and efficient working of democracy.


How suitable each of these laws might be in its own context, the increasing volume of  legislation has not led to any marked improvement in the working of democracy. Some  have begun to feel that creating new laws piecemeal to meet each passing exigency can only deepen the crisis of governance. What is required, they believe, is a comprehensive  review of the Constitution which alone can show a way out of the crisis. It is said in  particular that the parliamentary system of government, well suited though it might be to  a small and homogeneous country like Britain, cannot work smoothly in a large, complex  and highly differentiated society such as ours. Hence for democracy to work well in India,  news laws will have to created that will change the very structure of governance.

The success of democracy or, indeed, of any social institution, depends not only on good  laws but also on favorable customs. It is these customs that give expression to the habits of  the heart, so to say, and if only the laws change, leaving the customs as they were, no new form of governance can be expected to achieve its objective. At the time of  Independence all the effort was concentrated on the creation of a good Constitution and  good laws, as it was hoped that these would set the pace for the required changes in  established attitudes and sentiments. Not enough thought was given to the inertia and  obduracy of customs. Legislators, judges, and lawyers all spoke boldly and clearly in favor  of new and progressive laws. The sociologist who knew something of the obduracy of  customs had but a small voice in the affairs of nation; and they held their peace for being  labeled as conservative and backward-looking.

Today, the gap between law and custom remains as wide as it was fifty years ago, and its  implications are still not taken seriously by the intelligentsia. Nowhere is the gap between  the two is more glaring than in the context of the equality. This is of some significance here  since equality is inseparably linked to the very idea of democracy. While all democratic  system make some concessions to various forms of inequality, no democracy can function  effectively without a certain basic equality in human relations. In India, the laws are all on  the side of equality, but the custom put almost its entire weight on the opposite side.

It has been said that the guarantees of equality in the Constitution of India adds up to  more than the guarantees in the British and the US Constitutions taken together. Yet  everyday social life is still governed substantially by hierarchical attitudes and sentiments  carried over from the past. The awe for those who are superior by birth or social custom  and the contempt towards the social inferiors are equally widespread in the rural and the  urban areas, and among the educated and uneducated. In politics in particular, the  relations between leader and the follower are marked by deference and submissiveness to  an unusual degree, and this makes the free and open exchange of ideas and opinions  impossible. Here, as in may other matters, the Congress party is the best exemplar of our  political culture. For this the blame can not lie alone with a single individual or family; it lies  with leaders and followers alike.

The habits of deference and submissiveness must not be confused with civility which is a  very different thing and an invaluable asset for democracy. Deference and submissiveness  towards the leaders of one’s party, faction or group are usually accompanied by rude,  intemperate and abusive conduct towards political adversaries. Both type of conduct are  now on regular display on our various television channels.

The success of democracy requires a certain commitment to impersonal rules and a certain willingness to be governed by them, irrespective of immediate consequences. Our customs  give greater weight to persons than to rules : personal attachments, loyalties, grievances  and animosities often become decisive. Explaining her vote in the no-confidence notion on  17 April, the leader of [BSP] said that, although she did not reveal her mind during the  debate, she had decided well in advance to vote against Vajpayee in order to give a fitting  reply to the BJP for what it has done to her and her party in Uttar Pradesh. Her conduct  was in line with the age-old customs of village politics; it is doubtful that those customs are  conducive to the working of a modern democracy.

More than hundred and fifty years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville had pointed out in his great work, Democracy in America, that good customs contribute more to the success of  democracy than good laws. He had compared the Americans favorably with his own  countrymen, the French. He said the French were adept at making laws but their customs  were not as beneficial as those of the Americans, which was why democracy was more  vigorous in America than in France. We are, if anything, are more adept than the French at  making laws, but our customs hold us back more strongly. Good laws are indeed  indispensable, but the mere multiplication of laws without any thought for the inertia and  obduracy of custom is not likely to lead us out of the troubled waters in which we found  ourselves today.

April 29, 1999; The Times of India

Born to a French father and a Bengali mother, Andre Beteille grew up in West Bengal. He was an Indian who has no caste. He studied Physics during his under-graduation and then Paleontology for post-graduation in Kolkata. After a brief stint at Indian Statistical Institute, he moved to newly created Dept. of Sociology where he was appointed a lecturer in Delhi School of Economics by a sympathetic M. N. Srinivas.

He is a National Research Professor and one of the most respected figure in the world of social anthropology. His work mainly deals with institutes and social stratification. Collection of his newspaper articles are available in two books, ‘Chronicles of our time’, and ‘Ideology and social science’. He occasionally writes for Chennai based The Hindu, Kolkata based Telegraph and Delhi based Times of India.


About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
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2 Responses to Trials of Indian Democracy : Andre Beteille (1999)

  1. Pingback: Revitalising Indian Democracy: Book Review : South Asian Idea

  2. Pingback: Pragmatism in Politics : Andre Beteille | Fragments of time

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