Monday, June 1, 2020


How do we make democracy real in the face of increasing extremism and polarisation?


Rajmohan Gandhi

Historian, journalist, democracy campaigner and biographer of his grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi

In the mid 1990s the world was humming with optimism. Apartheid had ended in South Africa. The Soviet empire had collapsed. Eastern Europeans were tasting freedom. India was seeing rapid economic progress for large sections of the population. The internet was uniting the planet. The world was coming together, marching towards democracy and equality and a decent standard of life for everyone.


Today almost every country seems to faces a crisis. Hatred of targeted groups is often organised. Spreaders of hate occupy privileged positions. Killers are often protected, while associates of the killed are charged with offences against the state. Individual liberty is curbed. Equality is no longer a norm. We are told that the nation belongs to one group within the nation, and other groups should adjust to an inferior status.


Over a long lifetime I have learnt a lesson or two. I know I am not more than anyone else. I am not less than anyone else. I know that dignity is the right of every human being. So is the freedom in speech, worship, belief. I know the exceptional quality of ordinary persons, their courage, their stamina. Their willingness to say no to fear, no to hate. Their willingness often to forgive. I have seen for the sake of liberty, equality and fraternity, the willingness of people to join hands with those of other religions, other races, other tribes. I have seen the power of song, poetry, art, cartoons, a joke. I have seen the ability and courage of an official of state, even in authoritarian countries, to obey her or his conscience and protect the innocent citizen.


Do we care for the planet, for each other? Does our bond with the computer, the cell phone cut us off from each other, from nature, from God? Because the pain or burden seems to be universal, can there be an inspired common response? Each country has enormous challenges, some of them seem to be common. Can we find an inspired symbol, an inspired song, an inspired sentence or two that can help us all?


Today there are millions of Chinese and Indians all over the world. At one time Europeans were influential across the world. Then Americans were influential. But in those times, there were not so many Europeans or Americans living all across the globe. Now Chinese and Indians live across the globe in millions. What is our role in the world?  What will India share with the world? What will China?


In 1862 Lincoln fighting to free USA from slavery, made this statement: ‘In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free, honourable alike in what we give and in what we preserve… We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.’ He referred to the US as the ‘last best hope of earth’.


My grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, was killed on 30 January 1948. On 12 January 1948 he fasted against attacks on minorities in India and Pakistan.  He said that if, as a response to his fast, both Pakistan and India started to treat minorities honourably, ‘the reward will be the regaining of India’s dwindling prestige’. He went on, ‘I flatter myself with the belief that the loss of her soul by India will mean the loss of the hope of the aching, storm-tossed and hungry world.’ Many countries are struggling to save their soul today.


What do we do? Perhaps we should each ask, how well do I know the people of my country? We Indians do not know one another. We need to read, study and listen to each other.



Dhanashri Shinde, Head of Shindewadi village near Panchgani

The first woman to be elected head of her village tells of learning to enlist men and women in developing the village. They won the award for the cleanest village in the region.


I am the first woman to become head of my village. Indian law states that village heads must be female at least one year in three, and I was elected.


It was difficult to persuade the men and women to work for development, but we have made progress on the spring from which we receive our water, and on covering the water channels to keep the water clean. I persuaded the women to join the council meetings. We won the award for the cleanest village. 


Grampari introduced us to the idea of taking time in quiet, and this has also helped me with my family. When my mother-in-law criticised me, I saw where I was wrong, apologised to her and harmony was restored.


If more women take leadership, our country will go forward.


Daniel Bekele, Chief Commissioner, Human Rights Commission, Ethiopia who spent two and a half years in prison, 2005-7, as a result of his struggle for democracy and rule of law in

Ethiopia. Now under a new reformist Prime Minister, he is heading the struggle for human rights in the country.

How do we make democracy real in the face of increasing polarisation? In Ethiopia we had an authoritarian, abusive government. In the struggle for democracy and rule of law, many were imprisoned, many suffered, many died. I myself spent two and a half years in prison. And the solidarity of the international community was key in sustaining the struggle for democracy and human rights. Now under the reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia is on the path of transforming to a democratic form of government. All political prisoners are released, the government invited the exiled opposition leaders back to Ethiopia, it made peace with Eritrea, and scrapped repressive laws, paving the way for a democratic reform. Prime Minister Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions for peace in the region as well as democratic reforms in Ethiopia.

But this exciting experiment with democracy is being threatened by elites and politicians who exploit ethnic interests, inciting one group against another. At the heart of this polarisation is fear, mistrust, suspicion. This is not just in Ethiopia. Even in established democracies we see the ‘us and them’ divide manipulated by politicians and blaming the “other group.”  

One of our biggest challenge is winning the hearts and minds of people to overcome mistrust and build bridges. The work of IofC is critical to meeting this challenge. Democratic transition is possible if we keep on with our struggle for a fair world.


Kurian Thomas, Vice-President, Fetzer Institute, USA

The mission of the Fetzer Institute is to help build the spiritual foundation for a loving world.


We are in a deep spiritual crisis. People are dissatisfied with democracy because it seems unable to respond adequately to crises such as climate change. We might come to a place where democracy is in a death spiral, and there is no going back. Many understand the crisis, and think tanks are spending billions of dollars to fix democracy. How do we fix it?


It is not just a moral issue. Virtues such as empathy and caring have limits. We need a spiritual response because there is no limit to the spiritual, no boundaries. A bridging force need to be build from love not fear. Fear wants the other side to lose. Love says you only win if everyone wins. We say ‘I love America’, but we can’t say that genuinely unless we say I love all Americans, not excluding anyone. That is the response we need in order to fix our democracy.