“At a conference held at the India International Centre in New Delhi in February, both Indian and Indonesian delegates discussed cultural, religious and linguistic pluralities and inclusive identities. What emerged was a concern that both pluralism and democracy are under attack globally. The independent Observer reports on the conference and the strong link between democracy, pluralism and cultural policies and the need to create a cooperation between India and Indonesia in this field,” Tamalia Alisjahbana
For a long time India stood alone as a democracy in the region but since 1998 when people flooded the streets of Jakarta demanding democracy, Indonesia and India became Asia’s largest democracies and India no longer stood alone. However, by 2018 it can be said that both in India and Indonesia – in fact the world over democracy and pluralism are under attack. Problems have clearly arisen in nations with democratic pluralist system and this is not only in Indonesia and India but also in Europe and America.
In America the last victim saw Mrs. Clinton who represented the forces of pluralism and tolerance defeated by a notorious figure with no experience in either government or the legislature. Mr Trump’s policy strategist Steve Bannon explained that what Mrs Clinton missed was the sense of threat both economically and to cultural identity that a large segment of the voters in America have felt was neither acknowledged nor addressed by her.
In Europe we see elections where the traditionally democtratic and pluralist goverments are under pressure from right wing opposition parties that at best seek to preserve traditional cultural identities and at worst are simply fascist in character.
Many scholars and political observers believe that China will come to completely dominate not only world economics but also world politics within the next 20 years and China is a country that does not support democracy in the traditional sense of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and free elections. China’s stance has always been that true democracy is freedom from hunger, poverty, illiteracy and lack of health care and there is some truth in the assertion that democracy cannot be truly successful without there basic needs being met first. Last year China’s advice to India was that if India wanted to be economically strong like China, India should rid itself of democracy.
As elsewhere in the world, in Indonesia and India identity politics are placing pressure on democracy and pluralism. Both countries are confronting problems from intolerance to communal violence and disregard for the law to terrorism. Indonesia’s moderate from of islam is under pressure from a purist from of global islam. In India elements supporting Hindu extremism are on the rise whereas in America we see militant Christianity gaining strength in some quarters with the backing of people like President Trump’s chied campaign strategist, Steve Bannon statementing, “Let them cakk you racist, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honour.”
What is causing these issues globally and in India and Indonesia specifically and what solution maybe sought? From the 20th till the 21st of February 2018, the India International Centre in New Delhi held a seminar ad part of the India ASEAN Commemorative program to address these issues with diplomats, scholars, journalists, non-governmental institutions and religious leaders coming together to discuss some of the issues involved.
The converence was held shortly after President Joko Widodo’s state visit to India to commemorate India’s 69th Republic Day anniversary, where India hosted five ASEAN heads of state as part of its Act East Policy. The conference was held for India and Indonesia because although most states are formed by people of similar ethnicity India and Indonesia were right from the start forms as pluralist states. Indonesia’s national motto is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika or “Unity in Diversity” whereas in India it is Anekta Mein Ekta which has the same meaning. Both countries acknowledge the importance of religion in their constitution but neither cities any particular religion As former Indian ambassador to Indonesia, S. T. Deware put it, “Indian and Indonesia are vibrant, noisy democracies engaged in a gigantic experiment to bring peace, stability and prosperity to their nations. They are both concerned with issues of terrorism and religious extremism. We have had thousands of years of close cultural ties and we supported each other’s independence and yet we know very little about each other,”
Few realize that India’s Andaman Islands are closer to Sumatra than to mainland India. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world and India has the third largest, after Pakistan. Both countries face issues of identity politics, terrorism bath from both domestic and foreign sources. Such problems when not dealt with appropriately can result in civil war or lead to conflicts between nations, they can prevent economic growth and block the sort of international cooperation required to solve great global problems such as the environment, disease etc. In facing issues of democracy and pluralism the President of the India International Centre. Dr Shri Vohra commented that “It would be well to develop some commonality or harmony about what we can do together.”
Former Indian Foreign Minister Shyam Saran commented that in both India and Indonesia a historic cultural acceptance of diversity preceded political recognition of diverisity through the creation of the Indian and the Indonesian states. It is here that the importance of the role of culture (which includes the arts) and in Indonesia also of the adat (costums and traditions) becomes clear. In Indonesia therefore, the policies of the Ministry of Education and Culture are paramount. To keep this ministry- as has so often been the case with winning party- as a political support is a grave mistake that can result in winning the current battle but ultimately in losing the war.
Mr Saran further stressed that secondly, in a democracy the party that wins the election will rule and set the course for the country nevertheless, majority rule must be according to the rule of law. In this respect the constitutions of both India and Indonesia are multi-cultural documents which provide recognition and protection of diversity, and both national and regional laws and regulations must seek to implement its contents further. This requires a clean, impartial and honest police force, prosecution and court system Indonesia is still sadly lagging behind in this whereas India also still has a way to go although it is still more advanced than Indonesian in achieving this. In this context it is essential that the Indonesian government find a solution to the thousands of regulations known as perda promulgated by provincial and local goverments in Indonesia which clearly contravene existing national laws and even the constitution. The Indonesian Constitution Court has not helped to solve this problem with its decision denying the Minister of the Interior the right to revoke such laws. This is a very urgent problem that is slowly undermining the democracy and plurality of the nation and the government must find a solution to this if that is to be avoided. “Part of the problem facing democracy and pluralism in many nations today is a failure of political leadership,” said Shyam Saran.
As a retired British diplomat once expressed a similar view slightly differently, “Too many board groups of the electorate, whether some Moslem voters in Jakarta, Hindu voters in Gujarat or certain Republicans in America, (and now the Disenchanted in Naples) do not see mainstream politicians want to tame greedy developers, policemen, businessmen and bankers, and want to use our taxes for better health and education rather than putting them into other’s pockets. One or two honest political leaders cannot do that on their own, without the leaders of commerce and finance and the security forces joining in, at local as well as national levels. In other words I suspect that some voters ness to feel more fairness in the air before they’ll vote for parties which put democracy first,”
The Indian Constitutional Court appears to be stronger in defending pluralism and democracy. Last year the Indian parliament passed a national law forbidding the eating of beef in India. Several states have refused to obey this law. It will be interesting to see if the law comes before the Indian Constitutional Court and if so what its ruling will be.
India and Indonesia diverge when it comes to language policy. Whereas Indonesia opted for one national language which became the language for government and the medium of instruction in schools, India chose Handi and English as the national languages and the official languages of the central government. However, the provincial government of the different strate and the schools in those states may use their regional languages (if they are majority) as the official state language and medium of instruction. States in India were also created based on linguistic boundaries. Time has shown that both Indonesia and India’s language policies appear to have worked.
Dr Rahmadsyah Rangkuti of the University of North Sumatra expressed his sorrow at being a Batak but being unable to read the acient Batak script and at the thought of so many Indonesia’s over 600 languages would perish. While it is impossible to save all of the languages, some of which have only two or three speakers left, after over seventy years of independence the one language policy has helped to create a sufficiently strong Indonesian identity that the government can now take steps to encourage the continues existence of local languages by their use not only as private languages at home but also by allowing them to be taught at the schools in the province and by having some lessons taught in the local language.
Indonesia and India are societies with a strong sense of tradition and culture which have transitioned through education and modernization. The danger is not that people have strong views of their historical and cultural narratives but that they believe that others may not hold any differing views. The Anthropological Survey of India conducted a study based on blood group and DNA called “The People of India Project” under the guidance of K.S Singh. The survey showed that there exist diversities but also linkages between peoples and between communities and both must be respected or the result is intolerance. It is not enough to simply look at what people have in common but what they do not have in common as well as the tensions and pressures that diversity bring must also be acknowledge and addressed. Prov V, Suryanarayan from the University of Madras explained, “Unless a state devolves power so that there can be ethnic identities, problems will occur. Democracy is probably the best guaranty of tolerance. However, Indonesians probably have far more commonality culturally as they live on islands that have been part of the major trade routes for centuries.”
The constitutions of both countries are there to protect pluralism and tolerance. Today an individual must balance various identities: their local identity, their national identity, their religious identity, their identity as a citizen of the world. The constitutions of both countries support multiple identities nevertheless they are basically constitutions that are centered on the individual and the protection of the individual’s right to multiple identities. For the government it is endless balancing between the dignity of the individual and the unity of the nation.
Does having such multiple cultural, religious and national identities lead to fragmentation? This is a concern about the future: will identity politics lead to fragmentation? Mr Saran’s view is that the assertion of local identities and laws are in fact temporary distractions and China’s view that its economic growth is due to the fact that it is not a democracy in the Indian and Indonesian sense of democracy may be so for a period of time, but that view will probably change once China’s economy flattens out. If the economy in China were to take a turn for the worse, would the people of China still be happy with the recent amendment to China’s constitution allowing Xi Jinping indefinite rule? History indicates that most nations will not tolerate a dictatorship once the economy sours or even when they have reached a certain stage of stability and prosperity. Indonesia is a case in point. The main trigger for Suharto’s fall after 30 years of dictatorship was the collapse of the economy.
What is perhaps of more relevance is that the advances in biology, technology are bringing tremendous transformations making globalization inevitable and the societies that are more likely to able to successfully deal with the new worlds arising which are making borders less and less relevant and which have the best potential to deal with global problems are the countries that have multicultural identities both within their structures and their laws.
One important aspect of the attack on democracy and pluralism in both India and Indonesia is that the biggest attack comes from religious rather than ethnic, cultural or linguistic identities, in a sense India and Indonesia are each other in reverse. India has dominantly Hindu population with a large Muslim minority whereas Indonesia has a dominantly Muslim population with a small Hindu minority. Both countries feel effects of global Islam which is pushing for a purer form of Islam to be practices. In Indonesia the result has been conflicts between different Muslim groups with minority groups such as the Achmadiyahs experiencing harassment and having their mosques and schools brunt and their followers attacked by other groups and in its worst form terrorist bombings such as occurred in Bali in 2022. In India there have also been terrorist attacks such as those in Mumbai in 2008. Some Hindu groups are also moving in the directionsof a purer form of Hindu practice resulting in more clashes between Hindus and Muslims in India as for example in Kashmir. In a recent case Uttar Pradesh a Muslim man was beaten to death by Hindus who thought that he had eaten beef.
It is this extremist tendency in religion which can be found in many religion which can be found in many religions now- not only in Islam and Hinduism- that pose a direct threat to democracy and pluralism. The India International Centre had therefore invited representatives of both the Muhammadiyah as well as Nahdistul Ulama or NU movements from Indonesia to the conference.
Prof Amin Abdullah who is heads Humanity Studies at the Indonesian Academy of Sciences of Indonesia commented that as an archipelagic state Indonesia never thinks of building a wall when there is a conflict. As a Maritime nation on the world’s major trade routes Indonesia has an ethos of welcoming the alien and building peace and harmony. This is no doubt what Dr Suryanarayan meant by Indonesia’s commonality culturally. According to the Setara Institute the number of acts of religious violence in Indonesia have actually decreased in recent years. The Indonesian government has also taken regulatory steps to give more protection to indigenous faiths. Unlike India which has not articulated such a policy, In Indonesia there is a government policy for harmonization of religions.
“Indonesian cultural and historical Impulses are for a more moderate Islam nevertheless there have been inroads of extremism, as well as inroads of Arab culture bringing grassroots social and cultural changes,” declared Prod Baladas Ghoshal of the Society for Indian Ocean Studies who was formerly the Chair at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Globalization which has given rise to political and religious tensions is one of the causes for this. Direct elections have produced populism which has further fuelled religious problems and when violence does occur and the security apparatus ignores it and no action is taken to uphold the law it further encourages extremism. In Indonesia there is also the question of paramilitary groups like the Islamic Defenders Front and previously the most notoriously militant Laskar Ji had who wants to implement Syari’at law, was disbanded in 2002. It is perhaps important to bear in mind that such paramilitary groups were also common in Germany in the period between the two world wars and were a part of the reason democracy finally did not survive, Hitler’s totalirian take over.
So, what can be done to protect democracy and pluralism? Part of the problem may be that we do not push back. Prof Baladas Ghoshal remained optimistic however, “if anyone can challenge the slow encroachment of extremism it will be the women of Indonesia. *So, what happens to women- their education, their legal rights are of paramount importance.
Arif Zamhari, a member of NU suggested increasing inter-religious forums and inter- religious dialogues and in this civil society must be actively involved and perhaps Dr Abdul Mu’ti, Secretary General of the Central Board of Muhammadiyah summed it up best when he said, “Creating the right laws to protect democracy and pluralism and then law enforcement is hard pluralism and providing the right religious education where a person is taught to be a good and tolerant person rather than merely to know all the religious rules is soft pluralism. It is also very important to address economic disparity as this provides a strong breeding ground for extremism and terrorism. Finally, thought it comes down to: how can India and Indonesia after centuries of joint history now control the narrative to maintain a gentler Islam? How do you motivate the silent majority to say, “So far and no further?”.
According to Indonesian Ambassador to India Sidharto Reza Suryodipuro India and Indonesia will be working together not only on de-radicalizing terrorist but also on tying to produce a counter narrative to the terrorist’ narrative. In the final session the delegates to the conference recommended that India and Indonesia should create a permanent cooperation in identifying threats and problems related to pluralism and democracy and perhaps even create a democracy foundation. This could be a further development of the Bali Democracy Forum.