How to Subvert a Democracy: Inside India’s Deep State
By Josy Joseph
ISBN 9781787387997

While we grapple with probably one of the most acute democratic crises in our country — a crisis both existential and confabulatory in nature — we have a tendency of putting our problems on a highly elevated pedestal and never taking our gazes off it. Sometimes it seems as if we, as a country, love to romanticise national crises just the way we glamorise our heroes.

If we are a resilient people, there are (read: should be) none more resilient than us. If we are corrupt people, there are (read: should be) none more corrupt than us. If we are a politically confused nation, then there is none more politically confused than us.

The thirst for exclusivity and clique-ism, makes us blind to other nations’ or countries’ struggles and achievements with respect to many problems which are, if not the same, quite similar to ours.

Just within our region, with countries that we have a shared history and ancestry with, lie many answers to our national, especially political, woes. From India to Bangladesh, to Sri Lanka to Myanmar, we share, with the peoples and leaderships of these countries, many commonalities, including parts of our history, culture, values and ideals. If only we were truly to look for answers to our problems, we may very well find them.

An investigative journalist’s account of the ways in which elitism and oligarchic power structures have eroded the fabric and essence of democracy in India has many lessons for Pakistan’s own crises of governance

In this regard, award-winning investigative journalist’s Josy Joseph’s recent book, How To Subvert A Democracy: Inside India’s Deep State, is an excellent account of all the ways in which elitism and oligarchic power structures have eroded the fabric and essence of democracies worldwide.

By showing minutely each and every event relevant to historical integrity and the present-day bureaucratic workings of the Indian state, Joseph’s account is a picture-perfect account of the trivial machinations of larger-than-life politics. In his own words, “Through this book I attempt to show — through real-life examples, characters and data — how a small set of such elites use the legitimate arms of the state to destabilise a large democracy of hundreds of millions of people.”

Joseph uses his vast range of insights and experiences, as one of the world’s finest investigative journalists, to explain in meticulous detail the sub-events that preceded and followed some of the tectonic shifts in the Indian government’s policies. The incidents in this unparalleled reportage, unravelled intricately and delicately by Joseph yet explained with clinical objectivity, include the undercurrents and the aftermath of many well known events.

They include the Mumbai train bombings in the context of the global war on terror. They include the Delhi riots and Gujarat’s own ‘war on terror’ in the context of rising communalism and the Kashmir insurgency, and how it was cemented by the Indian government’s strong-handed tactics. They also include the 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines aircraft IC-814, and the cases spanning and connecting all these threads together show us how institutions responsible for security, law-enforcement and intelligence gathering were hand in glove with each other and other controlling elements in order to scuttle accountability and the rule of law.

Most interesting is the tale of Wahid Deen Mohammad, a primary school teacher in one of Mumbai’s many slums, and how he was repeatedly arrested and tortured at the whims of many police and intelligence officials tasked with hunting down the Mumbai bombers. We often tend to associate the global ‘war on terror’ with Muslim countries, but the truth is that Muslims across the world have borne the brunt of the short-sighted policies of Western countries.

The book also sheds light on the relationship between rising communalism and the rise of Islamist militancy in both Kashmir and India.

The other most interesting case is of the deceased Kashmiri freedom fighter Abdul Majeed Dar and his reasons, as explained to Joseph in an in-person interview, for eschewing a violent struggle later in his life. A politician by profession from Sopore, by the 1990s, Dar was actively leading the armed struggle for Kashmiri independence as head of the Tehreek-i-Jihad-i-Islami. However, in 2000 he had what is described by friends and family as a ‘revelation’. He is said to have realised that the people of Kashmir were suffering due to persisting armed conflicts. The Chittisinghpura massacre of March 2000 reportedly played a big role in this change of heart.

This story makes for an extremely educational account of Pakistan’s own glaring errors and omissions in supporting the fight for the rights of the Kashmiri people.

Joseph’s ability to intricately go through details and facts is uncanny, especially when talking about the events in Kashmir. For example, when analysing the insurgency in Kashmir he writes: “As much as the insurgency is a story of violence, it is also a story of how those who benefit from the business of militancy have subverted peaceful efforts. This would be seen over and over in Kashmir, but also elsewhere across the country.”

This was also true in the case of schoolteacher Wahid, who became a tool for several security officials looking to find a shortcut for their professional ambitions. Indeed, the larger ‘war on terror’, large parts of which were also waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, was also driven by hawkish factions in America looking to achieve short-term political objectives. It paved the way for a parallel war economy that reaped immense profits from the decades-long wars in both countries.

Joseph’s accounts of the background working of the Indian police, security and spy agencies also highlights a structural issue that also mars our criminal justice system. These institutions were able to take undue advantage because of the existence of colonial-era laws and the colonial legacy of many of the criminal procedure systems.

This is a malaise deeply entrenched in the Pakistani criminal justice system as well and, just like India, institutions responsible for maintaining security and law and order have, on several occasions, taken undue advantage of these laws for political or other reasons.

The legacy of colonial policing and security traditions and laws is also something that has made counterterrorism efforts relatively ineffective in both Pakistan and India, albeit within their own national contexts.

Indeed, if read with an open mind, the book has countless lessons for Pakistani institutions who have, on many occasions, found themselves in similar circumstances. The wheels of democratic subversion in Pakistan, though of a slightly different make, have the same roots as those in India.

The deep imprint of the Subcontinent’s colonial past still continues to shape many contemporary political realities in both countries. It would, of course, be better for security institutions on either side to learn from each other and shed their prejudiced outlooks. The people on either side of the border would surely be better off without constantly having to watch their backs.

The reviewer is a former member of staff.
She can be reached at

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 10th, 2023



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