In 1940 M. A. Jinnah delivered the presidential speech at the Lahore session of the AIML which in hindsight is perhaps one of the most important speeches ever delivered by anyone in the 20th century India. Gandhi; he said, had invited the AIML to join the congress in the future presumably democratic constituent assembly of India. But, despite its egalitarian appearance it was an unequal relationship, said Jinnah, for in it, “brother Gandhi has three votes whereas he had only one”. Jinnah thus in that one instance neatly summed up not only his own, but the fear of every minority minded politician before and after him who had ever to face a majority opposition in a democratic set up because on the face of it, a democracy seems all about numbers; the majority wins, and the winner takes all.
Jinnah was not alone then or since. Even more people may agree with him today because the first decade of the 21st century has not only witnessed raucous scenes of crowds in the Muslim Arab world screaming democracy-hypocrisy, we have also witnessed the recent bloodbath and balkanization in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the failure of a brief democratic experiment in Egypt. For many of us it has only reinforced the idea that democracy is indeed ill suited for most ethnically mixed countries for it only leads to strife and disintegration by fostering majority rule and marginalization of the minorities.
However many people critical of Jinnah may be surprised to find out that he was not the only liberal minded statesman who had expressed a fear of democracy. More than a century before him, American founding father and its second president John Adams had expressed his own reservations. Democracy, he said “while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy and democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself”. And he pessimistically concluded that there was never a democracy that did not commit suicide. Thomas Jefferson, another founding father and a fierce supporter of democratic values, sounded equally glum when he noted that a democracy was nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine. Many other american founding fathers and revolutionaries including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison privately and publicly shared John Adams’ fear that a democracy may well end up as nothing more than a ‘tyranny of the majority’ as Adams put it.
It is therefore illustrative to understand the apparent paradox of how and why these legendary figures, who had as great reservations about democratic rule as their modern day counterparts, went on to found a nation that not only swears by its democratic values but also prides itself as a bastion of democracy.
The secret of the success of the American founding fathers lay precisely in their cynicism and their brilliant grasp of human nature. James Madison, easily the most cerebral of the founding fathers laid out the challenge in the following often quoted words:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. – (James Madison Federalist Paper No. 51 (1788-02-06)
So having understood the inherent risks of a pure and unbridled democracy the American founding fathers set about to establish a system that would not only check and govern the country but do so while checking and governing itself.
Many discussions and deliberations went into the debate which took place, publicly and privately over many months. In private letters and essays, pamphlets and articles that these men wrote under their own names and pseudonyms they published articles in the press in order to create a public opinion in favor of a system which was democratic in nature but complemented by a series of checks and balances in such a way so as to be representative of and protector of all, and not just the majority.
The first idea that emerged from these public deliberations was the nature of the government. Madison was able to persuade others that while a (democratic) government was necessary the government itself needed checks. He then elaborated why these were essential; to protect the average citizen, but especially the minorities. In a letter to Jefferson, he wrote the following.
“Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our Governments, the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from the acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents. The idea that even an elected government needed checks was a revolutionary idea for that time and must be heeded all the more so today.
The second revolutionary idea to emerge was on the nature of sovereignty and the attendant rights that went along with it. Previously the concepts of sovereignty and of rights were paid a scant attention or else it was assumed that both these lay with the ruler; by a divine right. Even when some of these rights were wrested from a sovereign ruler as in the Magna Carta, the Rights had been ceded back reluctantly and under duress.
By placing the sovereignty firmly in the hands of the ruled the American revolutionaries, inspired by ideas of liberalism and enlightenment brought the citizens, specifically the individual citizen at par with the till then, mighty State. Thomas Jefferson famously asserted in his Declaration of Independence, that ‘Rights lay with the people, because all men being created equal they all came into this World with certain unalienable Rights, which came to them from their ‘creator’ and the purpose of the Government was first and foremost to secure those Rights’ for them.
Furthermore the constituent assembly was urged to specifically enumerate which of those rights would not be ceded to the elected government. This was an important concept and considerable debate took place around it. The Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton argued that any such enumeration would actually be restrictive, since over time the State could encroach on any new undiscovered rights not listed as retained. By ceding only those rights that were discussed specifically it was argued that it was understood that the government had no authority to legislate on anything not discussed. The Anti Federalists like Patrick Henry on the other hand insisted on specifying the rights retained by the citizens in order to make it clear as to where the government had no authority to interfere.
In the end a compromise was reached. The constitution was ratified as it was (without the list of Rights) but a specific list of rights were enumerated and added to the constitution as amendments; now known as The Bill of Rights. No future government may legislate on these Rights because it was voted by the constituent assembly that these Rights belonged to the people outside the purview of the State and the government.
Third and even more important concept of the American Republic was the idea of what constituted a minority. The founding fathers were well aware of the fact that while there were apparent minorities, racial, ethnic and religious; the concept of minority was ever changing and may change again in the future, depending on the issues involved. For example, many religiously inspired people of different ethnicities could (and did) collude around faith based ideas such as an opposition to abortion, or a support for school prayer, and oppress a ‘minority’ of those who disagreed. The founding fathers were thus far sighted enough to not specify any one particular minority but to lay the basis for the protection of even the smallest of the possible minorities, all the way down to a minority of one.
Here again James Madison in his eloquent style argued that “It is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers; but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure..”
The solution, then Madison proposed, (in addition to the Bill of Rights as discussed above) was to exploit the existence of many fault lines within the society so as to diffuse and disperse power (and with it extreme mob passions) in such a way that colluding against a minority became difficult. Thus he advocated not only to fashion seperate (State and Federal) governments, but also to distribute power within the governments among its different arms so that each one with their pet passions checked the others in a way that no one body was by itself powerful enough to overwhelm the others. He wrote that ‘whilst all authority in it (the State) will be derived from, and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority’. (The Federalist (No. 51, by Madison)
Thus came about the constitutional Republic of the United States of America, a system of an elected government but with a limited mandate, with multiple powers but divided between its different arms, fortified by checks and balances, both internal and external, and a citizenry protected from itself and from the elected government by a Bill of Rights. A governance structure that Lincoln was to famously call the government of the people, by the people and of the people.
Though in principle the lofty constitutional documents were signed in 1787 it would be another century and a half before it’s full significance was finally grasped by many of its still illiberal constituents. Once that occurred however a whole series of illiberal laws and cultural practices were overturned and reversed. Most significantly the African American minority emerged from slavery to freedom and then from segregation to full integration and equal civil rights. Later on other minorities, the traditional ones like ethnic minorities and the non traditional ones like the atheists (unwilling to pray in schools) and the homosexuals (wanting to marry), followed in their wake and gained parity. The struggle for justice was not easy and almost always political battles occurred in the face of hostile majorities, some even in the face of violent opposition yet at the end of the day they all prevailed, legally and quite peacefully; backed by nothing more than the power of the constitution, -rules laid down by a handful of learned men two centuries ago.
By doing the above the American people have demonstrated that a properly organized democratic republic carries within its own rule book enough tools to right any wrong and to protect any minority no matter how weak and vulnerable, provided the citizens take the time to understand their constitution and then insist that the State and the society stands by it.
There are lessons here for both India and Pakistan. And we need not wait so long either.