Democracy in South Asia, a Hollow Show?

Srilanka/ Image source: Asia Times

The Case of India, Sri Lanka and Bhutan- The Oldest and Newest Democracies of South Asia

The South Asian Context

The seven countries of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives constitute the geopolitical region of South Asia. Majoritarianism, Militarisation and Monarchy have existed prior to and even simultaneously with democracy in South Asia. The sub-continent is home to the strongest ethnic and religious identities. The borders for most countries are disputed and the influx of refugees from neighbours make conflicts a perpetual occurrence in the region. Despite the need for a platform for advancing peace and cooperation, there is a visible lack of interest and inherent suspicion amongst the parties.

India and Sri Lanka have been the oldest and consistent democracies. However, both have witnessed severe ethnic and communal violence. The countries have also witnessed events where actions of popularly elected leadership jeopardised democracy and democratic institutions due to their mishandling of regional aspirations. At the same time, non-democratic regimes such as Bhutan is making slow yet steady progress towards the democratisation of lawmaking and governance.

The countries are aspiring democracies. Post the colonial rule, democracy by most western scholars was seen as an impossible endeavour in south Asia. Today it is facing new challenges which allegedly make the region as a shallow theatre of democracy. Despite that fact, people continue to see democracy as a superior mode of organising power than any other form of government. People from across the diverse set of religions or class support the institutions of representative democracy. The sentiment grows more intense as their experiences make democracies philosophically more relevant to the south Asian context. People have continuously fought for their rights and still continue to make the region a vibrant arena of protests and civil rights movements. Therefore, labelling the challenge ridden circumstances as a hollow display will be restrictive in meaning.

Democracy: declining or dynamic?

Cultural/Ethno-nationalism and contempt of political institutions have emerged as major challenges to democracy in the region. Both these circumstances are products of the actions of popularly elected governments. Their popularity makes their actions the ultimate will of the people. Nationalist parties such as the BJP foster an image that all policy measures are directed towards national interest. They often are accused to overlook intricacies of minority interests and appeal for support for their “larger cause”. In Sri Lanka, Wickremesinghe’s prime ministership was largely supported by minorities, therefore efforts for political reform and national reconciliation were perceived as an ‘unhealthy appeasement policy’ by the nationalist Sinhalese Buddhists Conservatives.

Protest in Sri Lanka/ Image source: Global Voices

The Rule of Law is also an important focal point of democratic activities from the human rights perspective. The unconstitutional ousting of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe by President Sirisena marked the Re-Sinhalesation of the country. The return Rajapaksa, belonging to the majority Buddhist populace, brings back former patterns of authoritarianism, human rights violations, a persistent presence of armed forces in the war-torn north and lack of accountability for war crimes corruption in Sri Lankan politics. The army often disrupted Tamil memorial events and remembrance ceremony. soldiers would destroy decorations and threatened to arrest the participants. Ahmadiyya refugees from Pakistan were subjected to harassment and threats, forcing them to take shelter in crowded and unsanitary temporary refuges.

In India, the party in power has introduced several legislations which contradicts the provisions enshrined in the preamble. A case in point being the Citizenship Amendment Act and introduction of a National Register of Citizens. Nationwide protests took place. Before that Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its special status and statehood converting it into a union territory. After the abrogation, the presence of armed forces was substantially increased and local politicians were put under house arrest. An information blackout prevailed over the state as internet and media presence was severely restricted. Several activists were arbitrarily arrested under the UAPA Act which allows for indefinite detention on mere suspicion of the person being involved in malicious activities. Under the BJP’s governance, several scholars and academicians from the most eminent universities have also be arrested in cases of terrorism and “anti-national” acts. In Uttar Pradesh state, police allegedly continued to commit extrajudicial killings with impunity. At least 77 people are said to be killed and over 1,100 injured since the BJP state government took office in March 2017.

However, not all of South Asia is coloured in gloomy colours. Bhutan in contrast to India and Sri Lanka is witnessing democratisation and a blossoming civil society. Bhutan with the completion of its second parliamentary elections passed a critical test of democratic consolidation. Its Parliament will also have a 15-member strong DPT in opposition. The PDP election campaign led by Tshering Tobgay, now prime minister, had emphasized on the need to check profligate government spending, increase focus on growth and employment, raise the standards of governmental accountability, and allocate more resources for rural Bhutan. The “Happiest Country” is also making great strides with respect to human rights. It progressively includes psychological wellbeing as part of its national happiness policy. It is in process of decriminalising homosexuality. A bill regarding the same was introduced in the parliament earlier this year.  

Not all hope is lost for the oldest democracies as well. If amends to historical wrongs have to be made, they can only be imagined in a democratic arrangement. Challenges and endeavours to overcome these are part of the dynamic nature of South Asian democracies.

The Sri Lankan government saw the citizens reasserting their agency as alert and active citizens with capacity for critical political debate and sustained political communication in defence of freedom. When Wickremesinghe continued to occupy the official residence as a protest against the ousting order, his supporters stood by surrounding the residential complex in support. It was not just the supporters of Wickremesinghe on the streets. The crisis demanded that people from across the spectrum of ideologies came together to protect the very principles of democracy that came under purge. the wrote articles and petition. They questioned the conduct of parliamentarians that crossed floors, forced the Speaker to take a stand and questioned the sudden entry of Rajapaksa. The protests continued peacefully through the entire duration of the constitutional coup until the Supreme Court decisions restored the status quo. The Supreme Court is a fairly independent institution. It stayed execution in four cases after President Sirisena reintroduced the death penalty.

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against India’s new citizenship law/ Image source: SANJAY KANOJIA / AFP

During the anti-CAA NRC protests in India, Shaheen Bagh captured the imagination of all those who believed in democracy. The protest site in the national capital was the longest standing women-led sit in. it was also where everyone from across the spectrum of various religions, caste and vocations united for a single cause to uphold the tenets of democracy that were threatened. The protests within the country had the power to ignite several others outside the borders in countries such as The USA, UK and Canada.

Impact on the South Asian representation

The change in leadership of Sri Lanka, Columbo is on route to “restore relations” with China. Given Sri Lanka’s strategic location near the world’s busiest sea-lanes, the implications of this pledge extend well beyond the island. Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port is a particularly valuable pearl in Chinese President Xi Jinping’ “string of pearls” strategy to encircle India. The return is, therefore, a welcome news for China, which hopes to turn the country into a military outpost. But is of no benefit for the solidarity of the South Asian region.

Unlike the anti-west Sri Lanka policy, New Delhi has spearheaded closeness to the USA especially with respect to defence trade and force interoperability. At the same time, the divergence from Russia is expected to continue. In 2015, then Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar had suggested India now “aspire[s] to be a leading power, rather than just a balancing power.” At the Fullerton lecture on India, delivered at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

On foreign policy, the PDP expressed caution on widening diplomatic contacts and called for closer relations with India. It has negligible relations with china. India, on the other hand, has been extremely generous esp. with the security perspective. European Union extended has over the years extended significant help to Bhutan to develop a civil society culture. EU’S Ambassador to Bhutan and the Royal Government of Bhutan launched the EU’s Programme in support of civil society in Bhutan. EU spent approximately 42 million Euro between 2014-2020.

Just like their diverse experiences with democracy, all countries have a unique foreign policy of their own. This shows the missing collectiveness in the region for asserting power in the international arena. As a regional organisation, SAARC’s mission as a platform to foster peace and cooperation failed miserably due to persistent political differences. In terms of democracy, the experiences of each country have been very different from others in the subcontinent. Unfortunately, SAARC failed to effectively even serve as envisaged at the time of its formulation. Lack of unity has replaced cooperation with bilateralism in the region.

Shift to bilateralism as an alternative platform to a common platform have been of little help for perpetual suspicion and mistrust between the players. Lack of trust is a major impediment for collecting fund and resources for regional cooperation. India recently announced the COVID 19 relief fund and made an early contribution of US$ 10 million. Even these funds were supposed to disperse bilaterally. There was no central authority such as the SAARC Secretariat, directing the flow of aid. This shows that cooperative endeavours exist only in the namesake.

It is impossible for South Asia to become an alternative power centre if the bilateralism continues to prevail. The reasons behind the renewed energy around BIMSTEC become clearer in the context of the desperate need of an alternative common platform for regional cooperation that excludes Pakistan and the “look east” and “act east” policies. However, BIMSTEC again does not offer a means of fostering peaceful conflict resolution, an essential prerequisite for democracy to prosper. The meetings continuously get postponed and it is also running low on funds. therefore, Sri Lanka called for a revival of SAARC for greater South Asian unity.

Bhutanese women standing in queue to cast their votes at a polling station in Samdrupjongkhar district of Bhutan/ Image source: Ritu Raj Konwar/ The Hindu


The lessons learned by experiences of older democracies should and will be guiding light for a new regime in Bhutan. In south Asia when democracy was introduced post decolonisation, people accepted it as a legacy of their freedom struggle. While the western conception of liberal democracy is limited to individualistic rights and electoral participation. In south Asia, popular resistance and social democratic visions and desires.

However, the freedom of speech and expressing dissent is also under attack. A free and able civil society is an essential prerequisite for any democracy to function. Citizens and non-governmental bodies must come together to protect their civil liberties. Common grounds like gender equality, sexual liberty, minority rights and accountability of armed forces and other human rights issues can help knit south Asia into the social fabric of democracies based on active citizenship driven towards protections of democratic principles. Solidarity amongst citizens to perpetually scrutinise those in power is what makes democracy in South Asia that continues to constitute its magic of social attraction as well as political hope amid illiberal and authoritarian influences.

Nonetheless, judging the democracy in South Asia as an entity sans foundation, based on its western conception would be a gross error of ignoring the context.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Nishtha Gupta

Nishtha Gupta is a Former Research Intern at The Kootneeti. Her areas of interest include Human Rights

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