A Portrait and a Mirror: On “To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism”

By Liesl SchwabeDecember 12, 2021

A Portrait and a Mirror: On “To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism”

To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism by Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane

AS A CHILD in Western India near the turn of the 20th century, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was forced to sit outside his classroom and prohibited from drinking water from the school well because he was Dalit, the social caste formerly known as “untouchable.”

He was able to attend school at all only because his father worked for the British Indian Army. Though he went on to study at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, becoming the first Indian to earn a PhD in economics abroad, when he returned to India, he found that no landlord would rent his family an apartment because of their caste. Even though he became the primary author of the Constitution of India, and the first minister of law and justice, Ambedkar would be at once galvanized and haunted by caste discrimination for the rest of his life.

In 1949, as India prepared to formally adopt its constitution, Ambedkar spoke to the assembly of lawmakers who had been drafting the document with him for three years. “Will she maintain her independence,” he asked of his homeland and its representatives, “or will she lose it again?” He called for a “social democracy,” even as he also emphasized that India lacked both equality and fraternity. “It is quite possible,” Ambedkar warned, “for this new-born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact.”

More than seven decades later, these words appear prescient. The new book To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism chronicles the specific maladies that obstruct social well-being and have enabled the rise of marigold-fisted prime minister Narendra Modi. The book also underscores how the circumstances in India parallel those around the world. “Fear of violence, rotten healthcare, widespread feelings of social unhappiness, and daily shortages of food and housing destroy people’s dignity,” journalist Debasish Roy Chowdhury and political theorist John Keane establish early on. “Indignity,” they continue, “is a form of generalized social violence.”

The book challenges the notion that democracies die suddenly, such as in a military coup. But the authors also contest the slow-motion theory, in which the protracted demise of a democratic system is primarily blamed on demagogues inciting mistrust. Both perspectives, Roy Chowdhury and Keane claim, are misguided in their fixation on the “breakdowns” or “miscalculations” within national institutions. What’s happening at the top, in other words, is not the only story.

Modi previously served as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. His presumed complicity in the 2002 pogrom, in which over 1,000 people, primarily Muslims, were murdered, with thousands more raped, injured, and displaced, has arguably only bolstered his political ascent. Since he was a child, Modi has been active within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary organization, at once secretive and vast, which serves as the muscle and might of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the Hindutva movement. Nathuram Godse, who killed Mahatma Gandhi, was a member of the RSS, which, as writer Arundhati Roy has explained, “openly praised Hitler” and has “compared Indian Muslims to the ‘Jews of Germany.’”

Though the ideology of Hindu supremacy has intensified in both letter and spirit under Modi, it also didn’t begin with him. Demagogues are exploiting social inequality the world over, but they ought to be regarded as symptoms of already existent disenfranchisement and despair rather than the sole cause. “Democracy is much more than high-level dynamics centred on political parties, elections, legislatures, governments, [and] prime ministers,” Roy Chowdhury and Keane explain. “These institutions of government always rest upon, and draw their strength from, interactions among millions of people living their daily lives.”

To Kill a Democracy examines the gamut of issues in India: health care, hunger, environmental hazards, lethal traffic, dismal public education, the torpor of the justice system, election coercion, the media’s collusion in amplifying “nationalist” narratives, the harassment and imprisonment of journalists and academics accused of “anti-nationalist” activities, sexual and gender-based violence, and recent changes to the constitution itself, which, under the current Hindu nationalist government, have systematically targeted the sizable Muslim minority. The data is dense, the research is staggering, and the outlook is bleak. Overwhelming as the obstacles may appear, however, the power of Roy Chowdhury and Keane’s analysis builds as they accumulate such undeniably damning evidence.

We learn that every year in India, 2.3 million people die of pollution-driven health problems, and yet, at a 2019 parliamentary meeting to address the horrific air quality, 25 out of the 29 committee members didn’t bother to attend. We learn that, based on a metric of undernourishment and child mortality, the 2020 Global Hunger Index ranked India 94th of 107 countries, worse than Congo and Iraq. India, however, also “produces far more than the 225 million tonnes of food it needs to feed its population a year, yet wastes 40 per cent of it,” often because there is no capacity for storage or transportation. The Global Slavery Index estimates that eight million Indians are, at this moment, living in “modern slavery,” and that, according to data collected just before the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, there was just one doctor per every 11,600 people. During the pandemic, the BJP silenced doctors and pushed Ayurvedic treatments in lieu of vaccines and other treatments.

This dangerous interplay of religious fanaticism, defunded public institutions, and politicians’ impunity in the face of tremendous human casualty may well define the 21st century, in India and beyond. As scholar and writer Anand Teltumbde has explained, the failure of the Indian state “makes people turn inward, seeking shelter and security in the occult, which results in the resurgence of fundamentalism and religiosity.” For this perspective and other critiques of the Indian government, Dr. Teltumbde has been imprisoned on contrived charges of sedition and has since April 2020 been languishing in jail without a trial.

Underpinning all this dysfunction is, of course, greed. Though Roy Chowdhury and Keane’s book does touch on policies that “give despots at the federal level added leverage over corporate players, forcing them to fall in line,” it would have been even more effective to see those profiting off of widespread injustice further exposed. The book provides such a human face of suffering; to see an equally human face of multibillion dollar earnings would be valuable — not least of all because, as in the United States, those tycoons seem to garner unshakable, if bewildering, public admiration.

To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism portrays the frightful consequences that the abuse and neglect of power have had in contemporary India. Far more than that, though, the book holds up a global mirror. Especially for those of us in the United States, the crystallized insights within these pages resonate intimately. “A psychological sense of a lack of personal control, typically fuelled by social degradation, increases the demand for messiah leaders who are seen to be able to serve the interest of group members, at the expense of non-group members, to restore ‘order,’” Roy Chowdhury and Keane reflect, which throws the last five years in the United States into sharp relief.

This is a fiercely urgent book, expansively researched and reported. “Despotism isn’t old-fashioned tyranny or military dictatorship,” Roy Chowdhury and Keane caution:

Despotism is rather a new type of strong state led by a demagogue and run by state and corporate poligarchs with the help of pliant journalists and docile judges, a top-down form of government that has the backing of not just law-enforcement agencies but also the backing of millions of loyal subjects who are willing to lend their support to leaders who offer them tangible benefits and daringly rule in the name of “democracy” and “the sovereign people.”


Liesl Schwabe directs the writing program at Yeshiva College.

LARB Contributor

Liesl Schwabe is a writer and educator. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Words Without Borders, the American Literary Review, Off Assignment, and LitHub, among other publications. She previously served as a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar and as the writing program director at Yeshiva College. She is currently a scholar associate at the Institute of Language Studies and Research, Kolkata, and the director of the Writing Center at Berkshire Community College.


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