Democratic Occupiers – History and Implications

Democracy isn’t a new concept and its origins are traced back to 6th century BC, in Ancient India. The Greeks coined the word ‘democracy‘ in the 5th century BC. It evolved over the years and modern democracy is said to have taken roots sometime in the 18th century.

As of today, most citizens of democratic nations like India, US, UK, etc. consider democracy as one of their biggest assets and often equate democracy with liberation and freedom.

I too am one of the believers in democracy and have often checked if a nation is a democracy before I formed an opinion about it.

However my views on democracy have undergone some change over the last few days. So thought that I would put those down.

I more or less believed that democracies are essentially for good and not only work for the good of its own people but also would not want to harm / oppress/ exploit people from another land.

So when the UK and US entered Afghanistan and later Iraq, irrespective of whether it was right or wrong, my general feeling was that, “It’s ok, they are democracies. They wouldn’t want to occupy the land or harm / use the local people for any gains”. I was convinced that occupying foreign land was something against the very basic principles of democracy.

However recently it dawned on me as to how wrong I was. It’s ironical that I believed that democracies don’t occupy, considering that I am a citizen of India, a land occupied for the longest time by a democracy, England.

Democracy in England

If we look at the history of democracy in England we see that democracy was well established in England before the emergence of the British Raj in India.

The first parliament was elected in 1265. The power to call parliament was then at the pleasure of the monarch. However after the revolution of 1688, England became a constitutional monarchy, with regular sittings of parliament. Parliament then gradually gained more decision-making and legislative powers until the reign of Queen Victoria at which time the monarch essentially became a figurehead.

Queen Victoria’s reign began in 1837. So we can work with the idea that England has been a proper democracy since that time.

England’s occupation of India

England’s occupation of India was initially by the East India Company. In the year 1600, the company was granted a royal charter to carry out trade with the East.

However the company transformed from a trading venture to one that ruled India for several decades, until it’s dissolution in 1858. It was dissolved because of the Mutiny of 1857, which is also referred to as India’s first struggle for independence.

The Regulating Act of 1773 had given the British Parliament ultimate control over the company. However following the 1857 mutiny, the company was dissolved and India was under direct control of the British parliament.

This new rule lasted for another 90 years until India finally managed to get its independence in 1947. An independence for which leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Lokmanya Tilak as well as the ordinary Indian had to work very hard for. The World Wars also helped in a way, as many believe that it was the wars that finally crippled England enough, to now be willing to free India.

And India is just one example, the British rule extended over such a wide area that it was said that “The sun never sets on the British empire”.

Democracy and Occupation

What I find most amazing about England’s rule in India is that a democratically elected government that is supposed to reflect the will and wish of the ordinary people of England occupied and exploited India for almost 150 years. In some parts of eastern India, the rule was for almost 200 years.

Today we see stiff opposition even in the US’ and UK to their own nation’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. I could not find any information on the Net which suggests that there was opposition in England to it’s occupation of India.

It cannot be the case that people in the 19th or 20th century were different and didn’t care for the well being of other humans. So what was different back then? Why was there no protest from within England to its occupation and exploitation of foreign lands? Has it got something to do with the nature of democracy? Are 21st century democracies different from democracies in the 19th / 20th?

I can think of three possibilities:

1) Conquering foreign lands has been considered a big achievement since ages. So the sense of achievement overshadowed any other feeling.

2) Ben Franklin has said that “Information is the currency of democracy”. So maybe the British government back then gave false / no information to its people and made them believe that the subjects of the British rule were uncivilized and needed British help.

3) British occupations brought prosperity to all, so the people somehow convinced themselves that their government was doing no wrong.

Implications

These observations from history I think have implications for today’s world:

1) Being a democracy does not essentially mean that a nation will work in the best interest of its own country as well as the world. Irrespective of whether it’s the world’s biggest or smallest democracy.

2) Today the world is being split into democracies (the good guys) vs communists, dictators etc. (the bad guys). This classification is unfair and risky.

3) As a citizen of a democracy, we cannot repeat the same mistakes from the past and just assume that our government is working for our best interests and not harming others. We need to ensure this. So if there’s a struggle happening in some part of the country, and some people are calling it a freedom struggle, we need to take note. Even if it’s our government that’s doing wrong, its finally the people’s responsibility to ensure that the nation doesn’t become a occupier / exploiter.

Finally

So some gray has now crept into my understanding of democracies. I am still quite sure that democracies are better for their own people than a dictatorial or any other form of government. But are democracies good for the world at large? History seems to suggest that but the evidence is surely not conclusive.

Further Reading:

  • nice article harshad, indeed democracy can be used as a facade to impose one’s views upon others. but i think that democracy is not at fault , it’s the mentality that goes to make a mockery of the system that should be held responsible. Afterall ,
    Mind is it’s own place , it can make hell of heaven or heaven of hell…
    (sapatil@ lbsnaa.ernet.in)(www.civilservices.gov.in)

  • nice article harshad, indeed democracy can be used as a facade to impose one's views upon others. but i think that democracy is not at fault , it's the mentality that goes to make a mockery of the system that should be held responsible. Afterall ,
    Mind is it's own place , it can make hell of heaven or heaven of hell…
    (sapatil@ lbsnaa.ernet.in)(www.civilservices.gov.in)