I received two oddly similar documents this week. Both digital publications, both adopting a literary style that favours large fonts and larger pictures, and both with ‘Bharat’ in their names. The one titled Magnificent Bharat, by an anonymous group called ‘Coronation’, intends to bring “awareness about our great land to the younger generations”; the other, called Bharat the Mother of Democracy, published by the Government of India, seems to have a similar mandate vis-à-vis G20 delegates.
This shared desire to educate is not, however, the similarity that catches the eye. What really marks both publications as products of the same ideology or ecosystem – the more favoured term in these climate-conscious times – is their barely concealed competitiveness.
“This is not your past”, proclaims Magnificent Bharat, above a drawing of men in animal skin hunting swamp deer. “This is your past”: a grand city, stone steps leading to a carved gateway, a pillared, multi-storeyed palace to the side. Bharat the Mother of Democracy is not to be outdone. “Slavery in the world was abolished formally only around 150 years ago” It announces. “No democracy can be complete where slavery was in existence. In India, it never took root.”
Why should advocates of Bharat’s glory claim that the subcontinent won some kind of civilisational double-promotion, skipping the hunting-gathering and farming stages of human development and jumping straight to urban settlements? Why should the Indian government make the equally inspired claim that a society that practised (and practises) untouchability – a country where compulsory and free ‘begar’ labour was comprehensively abolished as recently as 1950 – never had slavery?
Magnificent Bharat, being an anthology of WhatsApp forwards and thus a little more crude than the G20 booklet, reveals its hand quite clearly. Delhi’s iron pillar is 2,300 years old and yet to rust, it says, while the Eiffel Tower, just 83, requires “Lots of Maintenance” to prevent rusting. Pascal only made his triangle in 1600 AD, Acharya Pingala had worked it out in 300 BC. Temple carvings, meanwhile, boast fashions “Much Advanced than today”. Everything is competition: no philosophy, no science, no art may be enjoyed or celebrated except in comparison with other countries or current times, and then only to be judged superior.
The G20 booklet offers a similarly rigged competition, though its field is limited to politics. Not that its focus narrows its sweep. “In Bharat that is India,” it begins, “the view or the will of the people in governance has been the central part of life since earliest recorded history”. The text is set upon a view of the Milky Way, evoking the Big Bang, space odysseys, and the eternity of Bharat’s tryst with democracy.
From the Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro (“Independent. Liberated.”) to “Public Participation in the Vedic Era”, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; from Ashoka putting “People’s Welfare, Front and Centre” and Krishnadeva Raya hailing “The Power of Participation” all the way to the writing of the constitution and elections that “keep happening like clockwork”, the history of India has been nothing less than a ceaseless, benevolent unspooling of democratic principles.
Reading one triumphant page after the other, you may wonder how the authors kept themselves from claiming that Rajasaurus fossils revealed it was an enthusiastic advocate of collective decision-making. Leaving aside dinosaurs, caught in its own enthusiasm, the booklet even allows Akbar – of the otherwise benighted Mughal dynasty – his own practice of democracy, with a council helping him implement “pro-people schemes”.
It does seem odd, at first glance, for a political dispensation and philosophy that so despises the Mughals to include a Mughal in its celebration of Indian democracy. “These are invaders” as Magnificent Bharat notes, over portraits of Bahadur Shah, Aurangzeb, Jahangir and, indeed, Akbar. There are some who have noted the hypocrisy in the G20 booklet’s embrace of Akbar before an international audience versus the government and its supporters’ disdain for the Mughals in domestic discourse. Kapil Sibal tweeted, “One face: For the world | Another: For India that is Bharat!”
But Akbar, as the exception that proves the rule ‘of the anti-democratic leanings of Muslim rulers’ is not uncommon in Indian historiography. The ‘good Muslim’ who serves as a foil on which to project the alleged atrocities of his co-religionists. R. C. Majumdar put it clearly decades ago, when he wrote, “With the sole exception of Akbar, who sought to conciliate the Hindus by removing some of the glaring evils to which they were subjected, almost all the other Mughul Emperors were notorious for their religious bigotry.” Another historian of the time, A. L. Srivastava, describes Akbar as a “good, though tolerant, Muslim” – as if the two qualities contradict each other naturally.
Indeed, nestling not too deep between its lines, the G20 booklet evokes this very idea. While Ashoka or Krishnadeva Raya were clearly democratic by virtue of Indic instinct, “Akbar’s democratic thinking was unusual and way ahead of its time”.
It may be that Akbar was “unusual” – not because he was a Muslim “democrat” but because he was a 16th century empire builder with decidedly megalomaniacal tendencies who nevertheless made the welfare of his diverse people a principle tenet of his rule. The current ruler of Hindustan, on the other hand, is tediously familiar, and his brand of authoritarian politics is very much par for the course: playing upon insecurities and hatred while evoking noble virtues like equality and justice to subvert our freedoms, enrich his cronies and maintain a stranglehold on power.
To give examples is almost meaningless; our country has been so thoroughly disfigured this past decade that you cannot tell the scars apart. Reading the surreal chirrups of prose that comprise Bharat the Mother of Democracy, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. “Constantly involving people in governance and decision making was the hallmark of the systems of governance practiced in India”, it says.
Really? In 2019, a survey by Reuters found that 55% of English-speaking Indians – no doubt, a generally unheroic elite – were afraid to express their political views online. Earlier this year, the ‘Status of Policing in India Report 2023’ found that 33% of Gujaratis were “very scared” of legal punishment for sharing opinions on the internet – only 8% were entirely unafraid.
Never before can the citizens of free India have felt as much at the mercy of an arbitrary and biassed state as they do now – in the wake of demonetisation and the COVID-19 lockdown, in the fear of bulldozers or Bajrang Dal mobs – but “Democracy at its heart”, the booklet tells us, “is about putting citizens first.”
Protestors, Sikh farmers, Muslim students, civil society activists are deemed anti-national, at best, or terrorists at worst. Kashmir is pummelled into submission, Kerala is denounced as a rogue state. India’s ranking on the press freedom index keeps falling, journalists are regularly intimidated and arrested, sometimes they are killed, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet to hold a press conference – but the G20 booklet doesn’t pause for breath. “In a democracy, the people have the right to elect and hold accountable those who administer them.”
The dissonance does not end. “Respect for the other is a core value in India”, proclaims the virtuous booklet, though you would not know it if you heard the violent chants calling for a Hindu Rashtra. “Our diversity is the hallmark of our strong democracy”, says the prime minister, striking a visionary pose on the booklet’s first page – the man under whose governance terms like “love jihad” and “gau rakshak” have stained everyday conversation, and marrying outside your religion or being found with meat can get you killed.
If India is, in fact, the mother of democracy, she is an anxious and grieving parent today, her child unattended in an abandoned hospital whose doctors are busy composing WhatsApp messages about ancient Indian medical treatises and proclaiming Indian healthcare the best in the world (“Test Tube Babies in Mahabharata”, as Magnificent Bharat puts it). Meanwhile, the hospital’s director hops from one international conference to another, letting his malingering patients fight each other for supplies and telling them to thrive on the glories of an airbrushed past.
Parvati Sharma is the author of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal and, most recently, a biography of Akbar called Akbar of Hindustan.