Why democracy was not born only in the West

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Image via http://blog.onlineprasad.com

I wrote a version of this article for a special issue on Democracy released by Greece Is in September 2016. I chose to write about the flaw of treating democracy as an exclusively western concept, an approach which wipes out the thousands of years of democratic approaches which existed in the Indian subcontinent. I thought it might be relevant as we ponder 70 years since the partition, so I’m sharing it for you to read.

In the summer of 2015, I found myself, like so many of my colleagues, standing on a beach ankle-deep in orange life jackets as I watched a wave of humanity wash up on Greece’s shores. It was a shocking moment, one I was not prepared for and which took me days to recover from.

What hit me the hardest was that I was witnessing the fallout from the disintegration of more than one society, and that if Fate’s hand had moved slightly differently, it could as easily have been me clinging to that boat, a precious child shivering in my arms, as I made a break for freedom. It could even have been you.

What I came face to face with on those shores a year ago, and what I continue to encounter in my work with refugees, is what happens when people are denied their democratic rights or when a society as a whole is denied democracy altogether. In the past, these people and societies might have found some way to blunder along, unaware of what it was that had been kept from them.

But we live in a digital world, and these people now know what lies on the other side of the sea. It’s the precious commodity of democracy and everything it entails. It’s out there, it has been denied to them, and from Syria to Eritrea, people are on the move, flocking to the shelter of a democratic society.

“We want to be free.” This is what the survivors of these journeys have told me again and again. Digging a little deeper, what became obvious to me was that they were equating this freedom with democracy.

Democracy is rightly enshrined in Western thinking. However, while no one could argue against Greece’s role in the birth of democracy, it would be misguided to treat democracy as an exclusively Western trait of society. When we follow this line of thinking, we end up on the path that sees countries in the West waging wars in the Middle East under the clumsy premise of exporting democracy.

This creates the problem of an Orientalist point of view as well as a colonial one. It treats the Eastern world in general as oblivious to the beauty of democracy and in need of having their eyes opened; in this scenario, non-Westerners are no more than passive recipients of the West’s great idea, like sheep sitting dumbly in a totalitarian field, waiting for a shepherd to come and open the gates to the green pastures of democracy.

A Western-centric approach to democracy largely excludes the evidence of democracy’s existence in ancient Eastern societies. The earliest evidence of this can be found in the Rig Veda, part of the ancient Vedas which were passed down orally and are thought to date from 5,000 BC or earlier.

The most striking example is this passage: “We pray for a spirit of unity; may we discuss and resolve all issues amicably, may we reflect on all matters (of state) without rancor, may we distribute all resources (of the state) to all stakeholders equitably, may we accept our share with humility.”

Brahmanical and Buddhist literature from the 5th and 6th centuries BC describe large swathes of northern India functioning as independent republics, much larger than the equivalent Greek city states of the time. These Indian states were also described by the Greek writer Diodorus Siculus (90-30 BC), who wrote about what they were like around the time of Alexander’s invasion. His account appears to draw on the explorer Megasthenes’ records of travels through India.

About these republics that replaced monarchies, Diodorus wrote: “…most of the cities adopted the democratic form of government, though some retained the kingly until the invasion of the country by Alexander.” But whether democracy came from the East or the West is of little concern to those who don’t enjoy its freedoms, be that in how you are able to dress, to interact with the world, to make political choices, to air those political choices, to express your sexuality or to choose when and whom to marry.

No one appreciates these blessings of true democracy more than those who have been denied them, and on this point, the Eastern world needs no lecturing. I say this as someone who was made keenly aware very early in my life what it means not to be an equal in society. I knew how it felt to grow up in a patriarchal society which is structured to remind you that, as a female, you are worth less than a male.

That being said, as a woman and an ethnic minority, I also remember the sense of injustice I felt when I discovered that the West did not exercise democracy in its fullest form, either. Knowing that, as a woman in the UK, I will consistently earn less for the exact same work as my male counterparts, I don’t feel equal, even if I enjoy the right to vote on the same grounds as my higher-earning male counterparts. The discrepancy becomes even more stark when race is factored in. Western democracy was supposed to give everyone an equal say and footing. It doesn’t.

The conclusion is that democracy, like so many of humanity’s creations, is not perfect. It is a millennia-old creature that is still evolving; it is also something which cannot be applied in blanket form around the world. Like any creature, it needs to adapt and adjust to its environment in order to survive. Its flaws, always there, are perhaps simply more evident these days, in the face of the results of democratic processes like the Brexit referendum or the confusing circus that is the American presidential election [As we know, Donald Trump was since elected as president, and I don’t think I need to go into how that made me feel].

Nonetheless, democracy is precious. It’s a veil, thin as cigarette paper, which separates order from chaos and freedom from fear. Its flaws and its fragility are exactly what make it worth preserving and perfecting. Greece may have had an overdose of democracy in 2015 with two general elections and a referendum, leaving many complaining – yet another democratic process?

But to those people who collapsed gratefully onto the shores of Greece and who continue to make the journey this year, even with the odds stacked against them, too much democracy is better than no democracy at all. It’s worth remembering that when you’re trudging to the voting booth yet again; this is a right and a privilege that you are lucky enough to be able to take for granted.

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