By Sumana Nandy: International think tanks ranking countries based on their democratic strengths or weaknesses are “not biased organizations that are out to get India”, Dr Salvatore Babones, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Sydney, said at the India Today Conclave Mumbai.
The organizations evaluate democracy in over 150 countries, he said. “Most of the people involved have no interest in India. The problem is that all these rankings are based on surveys. So, all have the same methodology. They survey intellectuals, journalists, and academics based in the country they are studying or students in the country from outside. It is these (survey) reports that are biased,” Dr Babones reasoned.
“Fundamentally, the biases don’t creep in because the organizations are anti-India. They creep in because, and forgive me, India’s intellectual class is anti-India; as a class and not as individuals.”
ANTI-INDIA or ANTI-MODI?
“There is a bit of both. They are certainly anti-BJP and anti-Modi as a class and not as individuals. But imagine that in a couple years you get a UPA government. Will they tear down the Ram Mandir? Will they reverse the very policies that are being criticized in these rankings? Will they get rid of the UAPA? So, the basis on which the criticisms are made, those bases will probably remain in place. If they do, then the same criticisms will apply to them,” Dr Babones argued.
“If you raise your hands when asked if India is a fascist country, then that is an outrageous proposition. Certainly, India has problems. Journalists and activists absolutely have a role to play in calling out those problems.
“Why is India so close to Russia? One reason is India needs that Russian veto in the Security Council. Otherwise, India will be cast in the UN as a fascist state. The activism won’t stop at India’s doors. The demonisation of India will continue in the international arena. That’s what you should be worrying about,” he said.
MOST JOURNALISTS ARRESTED IN INDIA, NEXT ONLY TO CHINA, IN LAST YEAR
“I think this one’s personal for you,” he told the host of the session, Rajdeep Sardesai. “The number of journalists killed is the largest number in a single country outside China. That sounds dramatic until you make a very elementary adjustment. What about per capita? It turns out that in India, 3.5 journalists are killed per billion people. That’s 3.5 too many. In the rest of the world, there are 6.3 killed per billion people. In fact, it is safer to be a journalist in India than in the rest of the world.”
What about press freedom in the country? “On that same note, the press freedom index now ranks India below Hong Kong. In 2022, which is post the security law, post the closing of Apple Daily, the abduction of its publisher, the demolition of its printing presses, India is ranked below Hong Kong in the press freedom index published by Reporters Sans Frontiers. Now you journalists in India tell me, are you more oppressed than journalists in Hong Kong?” the professor asked.
“Pick up your phone and ask Google: Is India a fascist country? Google will tell you ‘yes’. That’s something that should really concern you. That is a danger for India, whatever side you are on. I am not faulting journalists. I am not faulting activist NGOs for doing their job. I am not criticizing individual citizens for what they believe about their own country. I am criticizing fellow academics, who are being mendacious in their evaluation of India, because I went through every bit of evidence. At every point, there is cherry picking, misrepresentation, and failure to exercise editorial oversight,” he said.
“I know this topic is very personal for you [Rajdeep Sardesai]. I have read your Wikipedia page. But I have to go to the data. The data says ‘in the decade from 2010 to 2020’. When I saw that, I went back to the data immediately, because 2010 to 2019 is a decade or 2011 to 2020 is a decade. But when you deliberately use 2010 and 2020 as the end points, the numbers are different.
“2010 has low data for sedition. But in 2020, there was a bump. So you find a trend. And they found a trend. I think that’s the problem. The fact that you can find a trend should not be driving impartial academic studies of democracy. If a journalist does that, I will forgive you. But an academic organization, an independent think tank, should not be engaging in that type of cherry-picking.
“The scepticism is the point here because the organization doing the rankings picked that number from an activist NGO report. And they didn’t say to themselves: “Should I take the activist NGO for their word or should I go and look just a little deeper to the numbers?” They didn’t exercise that editorial oversight,” Dr Babones said.
IS INDIA ONLY PARTIALLY DEMOCRATIC?
Muslims are severely under-represented in India, Dr Babones said.
“When we talk about minorities, people are really only talking about Islam in India. Muslims are severely under-represented in the Indian politics. They are probably severely under-represented in this conference. How many Muslim speakers are at the Conclave? Probably not even 15 per cent. Now there are reasons for that. If there are lower levels of education, lower levels of income, you would expect lower levels of accomplishment at the level of parliamentary seats.
“I am not excusing that. India should be working harder to be more inclusive for its minority populations, Muslims especially,” he said.
India gets a bum rap or an unfair deal in international rankings, the professor said. “I became interested in India because when you look at India from a comparative perspective, India is by far the world’s greatest democratic success story.”
“The first thing we see is that there is no poor democracy. There is no country with a GDP per capita of less than $10,000 per year that has a consistent record of democratic elections going back more than a few decades. India stands out as the exception. It’s no surprise that the rich countries are democracies. India is the only poor country that has a well institutionalized democracy. It is the only post-colonial country to have remained a democracy throughout its entire history and it is the only well institutionalized democracy on the Eurasian continent between South Korea and Israel. That makes India a truly exceptional case that drove me to study it,” he said.
Dr Salvator Babones also spoke about the communal issues plaguing Uttar Pradesh.
“I have read a lot about communal tensions in Uttar Pradesh, I have read a lot about communal violence compared to the communal violence in Rwanda or in Burundi — countries that have similar levels of GDP per capita as UP and it is shocking. Compare Bihar to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Congo is the herd of darkness. It is the archetype of the basket cases of a failed state. Well, Bihar has problems. I have never been there but I have read about them and I would love to know more, but nothing on the scale of Congo. That is a testament to the success of India,” he said.